Faculty Profile: Jane Willenbring Joins Scripps Oceanography

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Jane Willenbring, a geologist who uses isotopes formed by cosmic radiation to study the dynamic interactions of life, landscape, and atmosphere, has recently joined the faculty at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego.

Willenbring is an associate professor in the Scripps Geosciences Research Division and director of the Scripps Cosmogenic Isotope Laboratory, where she uses geochemical tools, such as cosmogenic nuclides, to study the evolution of the earth’s surface–especially how landscapes are affected by tectonics, climate change, and life.

“Being a part of the Scripps community offers a wonderful opportunity to collaborate with researchers studying oceans, atmosphere, ecology, and solid earth,” said Willenbring. “My research connects the flow of soil, water, carbon, and nutrients from the inner earth to the ocean, so for me there are so many new and exciting research connections to be made at Scripps.”

A focus of Willenbring’s research is how landscapes change over time–from the aging of the tropical island of Puerto Rico to dating the pulses of meltwater in Antarctica during past warming periods. Another area of particular interest to Willenbring is to understand why some regions are biodiversity hotspots while others are not.

Using cosmogenic nuclides, including beryllium-10, Willenbring and colleagues recently uncovered how Puerto Rico’s mountainous landscape controls tree biomass despite having thick nutrient-poor clay soil. The team found that the nutrient-rich dust traveling across the Atlantic Ocean from the Sahara Desert provides the necessary nutrients for the tropical island’s trees, which indirectly hold up the mountains.

Her other recent research includes a National Science Foundation career grant-study of beryllium mobility in soil, a study to understand why plateaus, such as the Anatolian plateau in Turkey, sometimes arise instead of mountain ranges when tectonic plates collide.

Willenbring also plans to expand her citizen science program, called “Soil Kitchen,” to the San Diego community. The program, which recently expanded nationally from its start in Philadelphia, offers community members an opportunity to bring in garden soil to be tested for contamination from metals such as lead and cadmium, during a free event each year.

“Our goal is to broaden our science program into the community, to educate the community, and ultimately clean up urban areas and environments impacted by agriculture,” said Willenbring.

Prior to joining Scripps, Willenbring was a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. She received her PhD in earth science from Dalhousie University in Canada. In 2016, she received a National Science Foundation Career Award.

-- Annie Reisewitz

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