The oceanographer: Making a splash studying snow and wolverines


A tagged wolverine is captured in Washington state's North Cascades. Oceanographer Synte Peacock found that, under current emissions, the alpine animal could disappear entirely from its range in the Lower 48 as spring snowpack decreases and summertime highs increase across the mountainous Northwest. Photo courtesy Seattle City Light.

Oct. 12, 2011

A desire to connect the dots led oceanographer Synte Peacock to the isolated, alpine wolverine. In a pioneering study, she found changes to the spring snowpack endangered their survival in the western U.S. 

She talks about the inter-connectedness of earth systems, the current state of climate models and getting outside in Boulder, Colo.

Interview conducted and condensed by Rae Tyson

The Daily Climate

Editor's note: Climate Query is a semi-weekly feature offered by Daily Climate, presenting short Q&A's with players large and small in the climate arena. Read others in the series.

We are on a path where we will increase CO2 to around 1,000 parts per million by the end of the 21st century.... That is mind-boggling, will certainly be life-altering, and we should do everything we can to not let anything even close to that happen.
- Synte Peacock

Earlier this year, a breakthrough study by - oddly - an oceanographer concluded climate change could imperil the survival of wolverines in alpine areas of the Pacific Northwest. By focusing on projected changes to the mountainous Northwest, Synte Peacock found spring snows virtually disappeared and that August temperatures were likely to soar well beyond what the species could tolerate should greenhouse gas emissions continue unchecked. 

Peacock's work has implications for humans, too: It hints at a dramatic transformation of the West, particularly as a diminished snowpack curtails water supplies across Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.

Peacock, 38, was born in South Africa, grew up in northern England and did field work in Antarctica. She moved to the National Center for Atmospheric Research in 2008 and today lives in Boulder with her family, eight chickens, a dog and cat.

Synte-280What's the link connecting impact to an isolated alpine animal - the wolverine - and the oceans?

You can't really understand what is going on in one part of the system without looking at other parts of the system. So, it was a natural step, nothing really radical. 

But why wolverines?

I read The Wolverine Way by  Douglas Chadwick that described how wolverines absolutely needed late spring snow cover. It was an obvious step to look at how that might change. 

What's next?

Projected climate changes over the whole of North America in the 21st century. One of the things I'm looking at is projected future changes in snow cover. I'm also looking at projected changes in rain, temperature, and in extreme events.

Doesn't your new work also look at the regional implications of climate change? What insight can you offer?

While  it is possible to look at changes averaged over a few hundred to a few thousand kilometers - something like statewide averages - it's not possible to say what's happening on a more regional level than that. 

So no sneak peaks at all?

Some general trends: The Southeast becomes significantly wetter in coming decades, while the Southwest becomes significantly drier; temperatures rise much more quickly in Alaska than in Florida, and spring snow cover rapidly declines over the Rocky Mountains.

Any hobbies that take advantage of that wonderful Colorado environment?

Plenty - hiking, rock climbing, mountain biking, cross-country skiing. Sitting in an office with the Rockies beckoning outside is difficult sometimes.

What's your mountain bike?

A Cannondale Jekyll.

How does Boulder compare to England?

It's like heaven compared to where I grew up. 

Do you pay much attention to the political debates surrounding climate change? 

Yes I do. We are on a path where we will increase CO2 (in the atmosphere) to around 1,000 parts per million by the end of the 21st century - a level which hasn't been seen on Earth for at least 30 million years, long before humans evolved - and global mean temperatures are projected to be about eight degrees Fahrenheit higher than today. That is mind-boggling, will certainly be life-altering, and we should do everything we can to not let anything even close to that happen.

Rae Tyson pioneered the environmental beat at USA Today in the 1980s and today restores and races vintage motorcycles in central Pennsylvania. Climate Query is a semi-weekly feature offered by, a nonprofit news service that covers climate change.

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