University of Rochester

Climate Scientist Joins the Faculty at University of Rochester

July 29, 2011

The University of Rochester has its first-ever climate scientist, though Vasilii Petrenko says it's more accurate to describe him as a paleoclimatologist.

Petrenko, who recently completed his postdoctoral work at the University of Colorado, researches the climate and environment of the past. By working with ice core samples from Greenland and Antarctica, Petrenko can uncover information such as temperature, wind speed, and atmospheric composition for specific time periods.

"We know that people are changing the environment and warming the planet," said Petrenko, "but there are still many uncertainties about how exactly the whole earth system is going to respond to continued increases in greenhouse gases. One way to improve our understanding is to look at information from the past."

Petrenko originally studied chemistry, earning his undergraduate degree at the University of New Hampshire. While working on his master's in education at Harvard University, Petrenko took two courses in earth science and found his calling. He also found that it meshed very well with his interest in outdoor activities. He later received his Ph.D. in earth sciences at the University of California, San Diego.

Petrenko says he chose to come to the University of Rochester because it is a strong research university that values teaching more than most research institutions.

And the University is getting more than a climate scientist; it's getting a great deal of ice. Petrenko will bring his collection of ice core samples to Rochester over the next year. A freezer for his ice lab has already been constructed on campus, and he expects his samplesóweighing more than a tonóto arrive by next summer.

Petrenko is currently working to better understand the atmospheric history of methane. He says that ice cores in Greenland show that when the Earth warmed in the past, the rising temperatures caused methane to go up in the atmosphere. Petrenko is working to answer questions such as where the extra methane was coming from and whether the global warming that is happening today can also cause large releases of natural methane into the atmosphere. Methane is a strong greenhouse gas, and increasing methane in the atmosphere by a large amount would lead to more warming.