Each quarter we will feature a story about our Parchment alumni here.
By Dave Person
What were hurricanes like hundreds of years ago, before records were kept and the climate started to change, and what can this reveal about the potential of future hurricanes?
Are they worse now than they were 500 or 1,000 years ago? We don't really know the answer to that, or what the implications of that may be for us now or into the future, says Emily Timmons Elliott.But what she does know is that unless people learn from the past and plan for future storms through building design and location, education and with consideration for coastal ecosystems, the destruction from natural disasters will likely get worse.
As a research scientist at the University of Alabama, Elliott is looking for answers, and as an adjunct faculty member, she teaches her students about how our understanding of the natural world and its history can help us better prepare for the future.
The rest of the time the 34-year-old mother of five, a 7-year-old daughter, 4-year-old son and 1-year-old triplets, contends with the whirlwind of responsibilities, in conjunction with her husband, Mark Elliott, that come from having a houseful of active youngsters.
Residing in Tuscaloosa, Ala., with the Gulf Coast hours away, Elliott has firsthand knowledge of the encroaching sea and the dangers of constructing buildings that interfere with the flow of sediment produced by storms.
In the Gulf Coast region, we're in an area unfortunately where we're starting to see the impact of rising seas and storms, with some of the first victims and refugees from climate change in the United States, says Elliott, a 2003 graduate of Parchment High School.
So how does one go from hurricane-free southwestern Michigan to studying the raging, wind-driven storms that ravage the often-battered eastern and southern coastal regions of the country?
In Elliott's case it all started with a couple of inspiring PHS teachers, Bobby Glasser, who taught an earth-science class that she was in, and Kevin Huff, her English teacher.
He was definitely the inspiration for me to want to study geology, Elliott says of Glasser. His sense of wonder for the natural world and excitement for the history of our planet to this day inspires me both in my research and in the classroom.
And then Mr. Huff, I truly believe that my competence in writing now is largely a result of what I learned from him while at Parchment. The critical thinking, critical writing, passion for learning and educating others; his teaching gave me a solid foundation for everything I do now.
All of the teachers at Parchment were kind and very willing to work with me, Elliott says. Not every student learns the same way, I certainly didn't, but the teachers and community in Parchment allowed me to feel very protected and gave me the opportunity to grow in my own time.
Even after students graduate from Parchment, some teachers continue to follow their progress. Mr. Huff still checks in and says hello, Elliott says. You can tell that they really care about their students.
After graduating from Parchment, I went to Hope College and loved it, and that is where I had the opportunity to start my coastal research on the Michigan sand dunes, Elliott says.
Elliott, whose parents, Tony and Nancy Timmons, and younger siblings, Sarah Lohman and Nate Timmons, still live in the Kalamazoo area, got her bachelor's degree in geology with a minor in environmental science at Hope and moved on to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she studied coastal geology in the marine sciences department.
There, she studied how the barrier islands off the North Carolina coast have changed over time. Hundreds of years ago, she says, the gulf stream was slightly closer to the coastline, creating warmer waters nearer to the shore, a period of time known as the Medieval Climate Anomaly.
Warmer waters are a catalyst for bigger hurricanes, she says, which explains why holes were punctured in the Outer Banks during that period of time, well before records of hurricanes ferocity were kept.
When people claim that 2016-17 was the worst year on record for hurricanes, Elliott says, the statement covers only the last 50 to, at most, a few hundred years, when records have been kept. Elliott says longer records are needed to put recent storms in context to truly understand if and how the hurricanes we see today are changing, and what they may look like in the future.
It was at UNC, more precisely at a basketball game there, that Elliott met her future husband, Mark Elliott, who was working on a Ph.D. in civil and environmental engineering.
We lost the game, but he invited me to go to church with him and overall I consider that day a BIG win, she says.
They married in January 2010.
By the time he was finishing his Ph.D., I was finishing my master's degree, she says.
Soon after, she received a National Science Foundation fellowship to study, at UNC, how coastal zones change as a result of different kinds of coastal storms.
In 2012, their daughter Grace was born. On the day she was born, Mark got the offer for a faculty position at the University of Alabama, she says.
Fortunately, Elliott was able to continue working on her Ph.D. remotely.
Son Jacob came along in 2015, and two years later she earned her Ph.D. Soon after, Elliott learned she was pregnant with triplets. The new additions to the family, Micah, Jack and Caroline, were born last May.
Mark, a civil and environmental engineer who is currently an associate professor at Alabama, has helped people in impoverished areas of several countries, including Ghana, Vietnam and Cambodia, by developing clean water solutions and wastewater systems.
A native of State College, Pa., where his father is a professor of chemical engineering at Penn State, Mark is currently helping rural Alabama communities develop new solutions for wastewater in areas where septic systems routinely fail, creating expensive and potentially dangerous conditions.
Meanwhile, Emily is working with colleagues to research paleo, or very old, hurricanes, and their impact on coastal systems.
By studying long-term patterns and occurrences of hurricanes, scientists such as Elliott are able to better understand the impact they have over time on the coastal environments, and more accurately prepare for future storms, building resiliency along the coast.
It's a good time to be doing research because there are still a lot of opportunities to make changes and avoid some of the most catastrophic impacts of our changing climate, she says. Helping to protect and preserve communities we care about, these are things that our research is helping to do, which is pretty exciting.
In addition to her research, Elliott teaches one class per semester.
For extra credit, her most recent class read the 2019 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, then took what they gleaned from it and her class to make short informational videos for the general public to explain the report and what its findings might mean to them.
My goal in this class is for my students to take what they learn and directly apply it to their lives and be able to use the information they learn to make more informed decisions for themselves and others, she says.
In June, Elliott will be teaching a marine geology class at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, in coastal Alabama. I'm taking the whole family and we're going to live down there for the month, she says.
It's similar to Mark's long-distance research and teaching, during which Emily accompanied him.
We want to stay together as a family no matter where we are, Elliott says. We are a team, in life and work, and I think our research is so much better when we're together.
She says she and Mark are at a stable point in their lives right now, although when their children are older she hopes to get a tenure-track faculty position.
"My plan (for now) is to continue doing research and pulling in grants and teaching classes," she says. "At this point, the flexibility in our schedule works really well, and I love what I do, as a mom, wife, educator and researcher. It is such a blessing to be able to do what I love with the people I love, that is definitely enough for me."