See Inside March 2011

A Shifting Band of Rain

By mapping equatorial rainfall since A.D. 800, scientists have figured out how tropical weather may change through 2100

Courtesy of NOAA-NASA GOES Project

The first indication that our expedition was not going as planned was the abrupt sputter and stop of the boat’s inboard engine at 2 a.m. The sound of silence had never been less peaceful. Suddenly, crossing the open ocean in a small fishing vessel from the Marshall Islands in the North Pacific Ocean seemed an unwise choice. A journey to a scientific frontier had led us to a different frontier altogether, a vast darkness punctuated by the occasional lapping wave.

We are climate scientists, and our voyage (which ended safely) was one of many intended to help us do what at first glance seems impossible: reconstruct rainfall history back in time, across an ocean. By tracing that history, we can gain a better understanding of how the ongoing buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, rising air temperatures and changes in tropical precipitation are likely to alter future climate patterns. We have traveled far and wide to numerous islands across the Pacific Ocean.

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