Brittany Ward

Geochemistry and Paleoclimatology

University of Waikato

I’m a 1st year PhD student and a geologist passionate about ancient climates. I was drawn to this area of study because of my interest in changing water resources and availability.

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We're studying collapsed civilizations so that ours can endure climate change

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Paleoclimatologists are digging into the connections between the collapse of Maya Civilization and extreme droughts

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Ancient plankton have climate data hidden in their shells

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Scientists have discovered a new way to use single-celled plankton to estimate large-scale changes in ocean chemistry

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The thrill of fieldwork

My favorite part of the science I do is field work. I fell in love with the study of geology because of all the field trips my classes took to mountains, road-side outcrops, and sand dunes on Lake Michigan, and the time spent wading in rivers and lakes. I never imagined, though, that I would spend my graduate studies crawling around underground in caves! I had been in so-called "show caves", like Mammoth Caves in Kentucky. But, they didn't prepare me for the thrill (and scariness) of crawling and climbing through the remote and unmodified caves central to my fieldwork.

My fieldwork in caves consists of cave monitoring, where we frequently visit the caves and measure their CO2 levels and temperature, and collect water from inside the cave to analyze back in our lab. We monitor the caves in the modern climate system, so we can better understand what they might be able tell us about past climate. The cave pictured here is Waipuna Cave in New Zealand's North Island, where we have cave deposits that serve as climate archives for the past 30,000 years. I've learned to love caves for both the awesome science they allow me to do, and their beauty. How can I not be inspired?

🌋 What's in a name? Mount Taranaki

Volcanoes of New Zealand are important figures in Māori (New Zealand's indigenous people) culture. When European exploration of New Zealand began in the early 1700's many places and landmarks were renamed, replacing their original Māori names. One such name change was Mount Taranaki, a volcano central in Māori legends with other mountains in the Tongariro National Park. Taranaki was renamed Mount Egmont by a Dutch explorer in 1770, and was taken by the British Crown in 1865. In 1986, Mount Taranaki (then Mount Egmont) was officially renamed "Mount Egmont or Mount Taranki" by the Lands Minister at the time, although the New Zealand Geographic Board had unanimously voted to return its name to Mount Taranaki months prior. In December 2017, eight iwi (people or nations of New Zealand) Taranaki officially signed an agreement with the Crown to begin the process of giving Mount Taranaki legal personality, meaning Mount Taranaki would have legal ownership over itself. Upon legalization, Taranaki will join Te Urewera and the Whanganui River, both of which have had legal identity since 2014.

🌋 Mount Ngauruhoe, aka Mount Doom 🌋

One of the most famous volcanoes of New Zealand is Mount Ngauruhoe, which some may recognize as Mount Doom from Lord of the Rings. The largely accepted translation of its Māori (New Zealand's indigenous people) name is "throwing hot stones," characterizing its active volcanism. Ngauruhoe isn't actually a volcano on its own, but rather a cone of the larger Tongariro Volcanic Complex, which resides in the Tongariro National Park.

Ngauruhoe is a stratovolcano, which means its built of alternating layers of lava and ash. The type of lava that erupts from Ngauruhoe cools and hardens relatively quickly after eruption and piles closely around the volcano, a behavior that gives Nagauruhoe and other stratovolcanoes their iconic cone shape.

Recent studies suggest Ngauruhoe began forming 7,000 years ago. There is a long Māori verbal record of eruption activity and 60 events since written records began in 1839. Ngauruhoe was erupting roughly every 9 years until its last eruption in 1975. Today New Zealand-based research teams actively monitor the seismic and chemical activity of Ngauruhoe.