Stanford University

Jenny Suckale receives distinguished award from US government

Geophysics professor Jenny Suckale has received the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE), for her research to understand the mechanical stability of thawing permafrost.

BY Danielle Torrent Tucker
ClockJuly 17, 2019

Jenny Suckale, an assistant professor of geophysics in the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences (Stanford Earth), has received the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE).

Profile image for Jenny Suckale
Jenny Suckale

The PECASE is the highest honor bestowed by the United States government to outstanding scientists and engineers who are beginning their independent research careers and who show exceptional promise for leadership in science and technology. Suckale was funded by the U.S. Department of Defense for her work in understanding the mechanical stability of thawing permafrost.

“It was encouraging to me, both because it’s a high-level award, but also because it validates the research beyond the confines of a specific discipline,” Suckale said. “It’s particularly exciting if your work is recognized beyond your discipline.”

Suckale’s research aims to advance our basic and predictive capabilities of complex processes that are fundamental to Earth science. She explores extreme events in a wide variety of natural systems – from volcanoes and glaciers to coastal risk.

Her heavily theoretical approach is distinguished by combining different techniques in both computational and analytical modeling. For this project, she will be working on understanding when and how thawing leads to soil destabilization in the Arctic.

Some of climate change is more future-oriented, but this is something we need to deal with right now.

Immediate consequences

While the word “disaster” may incite images of tornados, floods and earthquakes, Suckale’s project will focus on a different type of risk – and in an area that has gotten much less media attention than coastal or tectonically active regions. People living in vulnerable regions of the Arctic will need to be relocated in the next decades, she said.

“The Arctic is where the rubber hits the road – it’s where we see the connection between humans and the consequences of climate change,” Suckale said. “This is an ongoing challenge and the consequences may be more dramatic than most single big disasters.”

Soil stability is a huge issue in the Arctic, where winter temperatures have increased dramatically and impacted the melting rate of permafrost, the thick subsurface layer of soil that remained frozen throughout the year in recent human history.

“You can walk out of the bar after having a drink and your car will be stuck in the ground,” Suckale said. “Some of climate change is more future-oriented, but this is something we need to deal with right now.”

Actionable science

Arctic communities are dealing with giant sinkholes opening up, high erosion rates and entire houses sinking into the ground. The government will have to relocate a lot of indigenous communities, but we would like to understand where and how we can build, as well as the area’s long-term stability, according to Suckale.

“If you’re interested in actionable science, I feel like the Arctic is where it’s at right now,” Suckale said. “We haven’t seen the Arctic in a state that it’s in right now – we need to think about it in a fundamental way.”

Suckale is among twelve Stanford researchers that received PECASE awards in 2019. The full list of this year’s recipients can be found in a press release from the U.S. Government.

Exploring Earth's equations

“I think the Earth sciences just have way cooler problems than anything I've personally encountered in classical physics,"  said Jenny Suckale. "It's tangible, it's real, it's important, it's fascinating, it's dramatic, and it’s colorful."

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Media Contacts

Danielle T. Tucker

School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences, 650-497-9541

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