Jane Francis – Interview
Interview: Jane Francis, paleoclimatologist
Stephen Armstrong• Saturday 31 December 2005 00.16 GMT
The sun almost always shines on Jane Francis. Even when she potters around her second spiritual home on the Isle of Portland. As a nation of schoolchildren who spent geography field trips there, we know to our cost that the Portland weather is wet, misty and stormy. But when she walks there, she is always in the Jurassic era when it was warm and tropical. When she looks at rocks, she travels back in time.
Francis is a paleoclimatologist, an expert in ancient climates. She deals in storm warnings from millions of years ago. Her particular area of expertise is Antarctica and, for reasons more chilling than its polar wastes, her research over the last 20 years is suddenly terribly important in understanding what is about to happen as the effects of global warming take hold. Scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are trying to predict the effects on the world’s climate as we continue to pump carbon into the atmosphere. To be sure they are predicting the future accurately, they ask their supercomputers to describe the past and ask Francis for data to corroborate their findings.
“A few years ago people were saying, ‘OK, well, we’ll look back a million years or so, something like that, to see the effects of climate change’,” she explains. “They thought that we’d still be in the kind of world that we currently know. But now we think that for a vision of what the Earth’s going to be like in a couple of hundred years, we may have to go back to a time before the ice, to when it was a greenhouse world. Because if you look at the figures on carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, it’s rising very, very fast. It’s beyond the levels of CO2 that we classically know from before the last ice age. If it keeps accelerating at this rate then in a matter of just a couple of hundred years we’ll have levels of CO2 that we last saw at the time of the dinosaurs.”
Already ice shelves are breaking up; there are plants spreading further south into previously barren areas; and the glaciers are shrinking. She allows herself a wry smile. “That’s an awful lot of water about to be let loose once it all melts. So I hope you don’t live near the Thames. We’re OK in the north. It’s a bit more hilly. But I wouldn’t want to live in large parts of the south of England.”
We have this cheerful meeting as she is preparing to head back to Antarctica as part of a project funded by the Natural Environment Research Council and the British Antarctic Survey to try to obtain more data on what exactly is going on at the bottom of the world. For years, Antarctica has been the preserve of geologists and explorers. Recently, however, it has become clear that the continent is fundamentally responsible for the way our world is today. It may even have played a part in our route to the top of the ecosystem.
If we look back beyond 40 million years – which, for a geologist, is a very small amount of time – we reach a greenhouse world: it is warm with high atmospheric CO2. As a result, there is no evidence of ice at either of the poles. Indeed, Francis has fossils from Antarctica which show that, even after the continent drifted to its current polar position, it used to boast a lush, green sub-tropical forest.
About 40 million years ago, for reasons that are unclear, ice began to build up in Antarctica. It started slowly, at the tops of mountains, but once there it reflected light and cooled the air and made more ice form. The caps became sheets and the ice sheets changed the planet. The structure of the oceans changed due to currents of cold, dense water. Antarctica was now white so the albedo, or the reflectivity of the earth, changed and things became colder. Finally, massive amounts of water were locked up at both the poles so sea levels dropped dramatically.
We walk through Leeds to her lab and she takes us through Millennium Square. The Earth from the Air photographic exhibition fills the civic space – sharp, contrasting shots of the planet taken from a plane soaring high in the atmosphere. To Francis it demonstrates the new co-operation between science and art that she has long been pushing for.
She has been working with musicians who are composing pieces using rocks that sing. “My arty friends on Portland wanted to know why some stones made a note of such a perfect pitch when you hit them.” She laughs: “I can slightly take the romance out of that by explaining the properties of the rock…” Francis can always see the romance in rock. Before we leave the square, she presses a geologist’s glass against the Portland stone of Leeds civic centre to show balls of lime left there when the sea off Dorset was as shallow and warm as the waters around the Bahamas.
She has felt this fascination for as long as she can remember. Her father was a farmer near Canterbury, and he used to pick up waste rock from the Kent coalfields for the farm’s tracks. As a child she used to pick through the rocks to find fossil plants, revealing something for the first time in millions of years. She studied geology in Southampton but when she graduated in the 70s work was hard to find. Adverts recruiting for oil exploration said women need not apply. She opted for postgraduate studies. Her PhD was completed in the fossil forest near Lulworth Cove, home to dinosaur footprints and 150 million-year-old trees.
A friend doing similar work with the British Antarctic Survey was killed in South America, so they asked her to take over his project. She made her first visit to the pole and that was it – she caught Antarctic Fever. “Some people who go down there, they just get absolutely hooked,” she explains. “That’s me. It’s become my expertise and my addiction.”
In her office she shows me her Polar Medal. She was the fourth woman to be awarded one – and she has earned it. There she sleeps in a Scott tent – a double-walled canvas pyramid with a small tunnel. Two people live, cook and sleep together. They don’t change their clothes or shower. She’s with the same people 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Sometimes the weather is so bad you can’t go outsidebecause, if you hurt yourself, a plane could not land to rescue you. She spends her time working, sleeping and thinking about food. “You eat huge amounts to keep warm,” she tells me over fish and chips. “You’re ravenously hungry all the time. The main staple is chocolate, vast quantities. And dinner is a major, major event. In Antarctica your senses tend to get a bit dulled. You can’t smell anything. It’s 24-hour daylight so the colours are fairly standard. All you hear is wind. So through a field season you put so much flavour in the food until, by the end, you’re throwing in a whole pot of chilli just to give it some bite.”
But on certain perfect Antarctic days she gets her reward: the sky is crystal clear and she just stops to watch the sun twinkling off the icebergs. The power of nature awes her. If she fell over and died there, nothing would interact with her; she would shrivel up and mummify.
Walking back to the station through Victoria Quarter, she can tell me the origin of every surface. “Look, those are ripples in a piece of sandstone, probably local, formed in a river about 300 million years old …” But walking across roads does slightly depress her.”I hate it when people grind rocks up and put them on a road,” she sighs. “I don’t mind if you make buildings out of them, slabs, tiles anything that enhances beauty. But grinding them up to make tarmac or cement – that’s an abuse.”
She does sometimes despair of our stupidity, thinks we live in ridiculous places and has a movie on her computer that shows the areas that are going to be inundated as the ice caps melt and the seas rise. Something like 65 metres of potential sea level rise is trapped in the ice so London is gone and Cambridge will follow. Leeds is OK, but Florida goes as do Bangladesh, the Pacific islands and Holland. She has just been to Shanghai and saw it had been built on the Yangtze delta. She thought: “Well, how long is that going to be there?”
“We fiddle too much with natural systems,’ she says. “The point is that the Earth takes care of itself. The Earth’s cycles are so much bigger than human beings, that we’re just an irritation on its skin. The planet has been hotter than now and it’s survived – but will we? If you went a few million years into the future it’d be really interesting to see how mankind is preserved. Probably as a little black line of carbon. If that. We won’t leave much record in the rock sequence.”