Student Research Spotlight: James Hooper

Going back in time to understand the South American climate

The Andean Puna-Altiplano plateau is the nexus between two extreme regions. On one side resides the arid Atacama Desert, and on the other sits the humid Amazon Basin. The plateau acts as a climatic barrier, where cool mid-latitude winds from the Pacific Ocean meet warm, moist air masses from the Amazon Basin.

To understand more about how the South American climate has changed over time, and the effect on regional dust emissions, James Hooper and an international team of researchers, including scientists from the University of Wollongong and the University of Melbourne, dove back in time to reconstruct past climate and environmental conditions in the Puna-Altiplano region of South America. James and his collaborators drilled a core sample from a site in the Central Andes of Northern Argentina, which was transported back to Australia to be analysed using the ITRAX X-ray fluorescence core scanning instrument at ANSTO.

Schematic representing possible prevailing and climatic and environmental conditions for each zone of the core: a) Zone 1 (Present – 400 years ago), b) Zone 2 (400-1,700 years ago), c) Zone 3 (1,700-2,600 years ago) and d) Zone 4 (2,600-4,200 years ago)

Multiple teams from ANSTO worked on the project to provide analysis of the core. The further down the core they analysed, the further back in time they went. Deposits at certain depths within the core, such as dust, pollen, and specific isotopes were able to tell researchers what the climate was like during certain periods of time in the past, and how the regional environment responded.

The research found that the balance between the two regions of climate was quite delicate, and that changes in their extent and influence could lead to big shifts in events such as the South American Summer Monsoon, which plays an important role in providing rainfall to the landscape and is reflected in extensive changes to the physical environment over time.

To read more about the technical details of James’ research, please see page 13 of the 2019 AINSE Annual Report.

Next Student Research Spotlight: Calina Betlazar (How do low doses of radiation affect the brain?)
Previous Student Research Spotlight: Katherine Davies (New insights into a useful killer protein)