Tarje Nissen-Meyer: Global shifts

Geophysics Professor Tarje Nissen-Meyer studies seismology – the science of vibrations and waves like those from earthquakes. He takes a climate-centric approach to much of his recent work, questioning how natural and anthropogenic vibrations can help us better understand the dynamics of complex systems of climate and biodiversity. 

Find out what Tarje is doing in his field to support the global effort against climate change. 

Explain the area of your research that relates to climate change (be location specific): 

My most recent research interests are: 

  1. Monitoring wildlife dynamics in the African savanna  

We’re studying megafauna in Kenya in the context of drought, biodiversity loss, and human-wildlife conflict. Just as one example: As water scarcity and soil fertility become even worse, crop yields are poor and humans as well as other species compete for these degrading resources.  

We are gearing up for a major field campaign from Jan-May 2023 in Kenya, where we'll deploy 1500 seismic stations to record the entire vibroscape, along with 70 microphones, 30 camera traps, weather data, drones, lidar and satellite images. This will be an unprecedented dataset for recording the ecosystem-wide dynamics of the African savanna.  

  1. Monitoring Antarctic ice dynamics 

To constrain large-scale movements and subsurface melting across the vast Antarctic icecap, understanding crack propagation at depth over great distances is helpful. Seismology provides a non-invasive, remote and cheap technique to localise and characterise those cracks. 

We had 20 seismic stations in a proto-deployment near British Antarctic Survey's Halley research station, which sits on the fracturing Brunt Ice Shelf, and are currently analysing those data. 

  1. Soil (not oil!) seismology 

This one was born out of George Monbiot's Wolfson lecture and subsequent discussions with him over his latest book “Regenesis”, on soil. 99% of our global nutrients depend on soil, as does biodiversity and the climate, whereby soil stores huge amounts of carbon. It’s probably the most crucial component of the earth system to maintain sustainable life for all of us, yet we know very little about it. 

One of the major problems is that we can’t look into it without breaking its biologically active structure, and its health indicators such as soil moisture, carbon and porosity that are crucial for fertile and stable soil vary quickly in space and time.  

Seismology can possibly help by constraining some soil properties without any invasive means. This is very much in the beginning phase, but watch this space. If our hypothesis works out, the plan is to use these measurements to both understand soil, and use this insight to improve soil health and sustainability for farming, climate and biodiversity.


What are the major research developments you're noticing in your field? 

I think it's clear that disciplinary boundaries need to be broken down completely to improve our understanding on the interconnected environmental crises. Whenever I see exciting new research on almost anything, it comes from working across traditional disciplines. 

What is most striking regarding climate research, and reading the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports in particular, is that most modelling and observational efforts largely underpredicted the effects of climate change as compared to the extreme events we're seeing now (e.g. extreme temperatures in Antarctica and Canada, flooding and drought elsewhere), and that is still in the largely linear regime, i.e. not related to the much more devastating tipping points. Given that IPCC offers a common-ground, conservative account of the situation, yet already warns of the destruction of our life-support systems, it should be clear to each one of us just how dire the situation really might be. 

Especially as an Earth scientist studying a system that has evolved over billions of years, I value the privilege we've been given to be living in the holocene of relative climatic stability over the past 10,000 years - an insignificant blip in geologic history. Yet, we dare to ignore the clear signs that our planet is departing this stability period at (geologically speaking) lightning speed - a stability, which brought us everything we associate with modern life and human civilisation, and we're continuing our wasteful behaviour although we have all the tools and opportunities to rectify it. This all begs for a global effort to monitor, report and action upon all possible signals, especially those leading towards tipping-point behaviour. In this sense, I find research exciting that addresses this data acquisition globally, across scales and processes, combined with modern inference, for it enables us to map our state and fate in the first place.  

Speaking of behaviour, the societal problem is mostly a communication, psychology and policy problem at this stage, not a climate science one. We have it black on white that our current trajectory is unsustainable, hence we need to question the foundations of how we got to this stage despite knowing better, including all of the comforting excesses of consumerist, predatory lifestyles and the concept of infinite growth when hitting irreversible boundaries - for the first time humanity is faced with such boundaries, in many cases such as natural resources. In that sense, research that is able to transcend disciplines between hard sciences to psychology, anthropology and even linguistics is absolutely crucial. 


How do you view the balance between personal and institutional responsibility when it comes to reducing carbon footprints? 

There's a danger that individuals are led to complacency in the atomisation and blame of the individual, suggesting a gentle move towards recycling, organic beef and electric cars will “fix it”. Individual adaptation (and limitation) is absolutely necessary, but it mustn’t lead to the fallacy of false gratification for contributing a mere drop in the warming ocean. The problem is so all-encompassing that we ought to assess all aspects of life, and that includes the very fabric of the systems we’ve built. For instance, I find it impossible to reconcile eternal growth with finite resources, and we now, maybe for the first time in human history, face such hard boundaries of resources. I think there’s a lot of psychology involved in the belief that we’ve built a system for eternity, when history should teach us that this has never been the case. 

Looking at the data (whereby western rich societies and their richest members carry the bulk responsibility for the crises, especially over time), we should quickly move away from many common indicators after which we define success, individually and systemically.

Much of the malaise we're in is a communication crisis. We, including the oil industry, have known the physics and the data for decades. It just hasn't been reported adequately, partly due to industrial lobbying towards media and policy-making, and partly due to the decisive ignorance by large parts of the media landscape for decades – the “stories” around climate seemed to have little appeal for reporting. So I think we can only solve this from a systemic perspective, starting with our goal to build a fully balanced, lasting equilibrium for all species and resources, and then defining how we get there. The issue, of course, is that we’re running out of time. 


How do you think climate change efforts in one part of the world impact efforts in another? 

We will not solve this unless we approach it globally, from a climate justice perspective. Those of us that bear the brunt of the crises live in places least responsible for them, and are pulled into the lure of consumerist lifestyles of the global North. The clear responsibility for solving this must be focussed on where it came from. Do I have hope? I think the effects of climate change will continue to escalate so drastically first,  but maybe extreme events will hit us so hard that we might see a social tipping point towards true action and change, even in the comfort of the global North. If that works towards a climate justice approach, we can hope. 

I am also very passionate and concerned that local identities and cultures must be respected in this endeavour. Inuit fishing and hunting is not responsible for climate change, nor are Amazonian tribes. Responsibility lies with the large-scale destruction of living spaces by large-scale industries facilitated anywhere, but largely by the rich North. It can only be solved as a global task for our species, with extremely strong policy mandates. In this regard, I think ecological sustainability, thriving biodiversity and zero emissions must be elevated to the same core principle for humanity as human rights. The two are fundamentally indistinguishable, and any further destruction of the only sliver of life-supporting layer we have in the solar system should be criminalised, similarly to human rights violations.