Climate Research Theme

The Global Climate Change and Surficial Processes group is world renowned for paleoclimate and Quaternary research involving all aspects of the surficial Earth as a system. This specialty has been significantly enhanced in recent years to include biogeochemistry and stable isotope and sediment geochemistry, as well as climate modeling on all times scales. 

According to the IPCC report in 2007, "most of the observed increase in globally averaged temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations." Human activity is accelerating the pace of global climate change, altering the patterns of natural climate variability including extremes of drought and flooding, and causing the loss of alpine glaciers and retreat of continental ice sheets that result in rising sea level. Our goal is to study how climate has changed in the past so that we better understand the rate and possible consequences of future global climate change. We need to better understand the impacts of climate variability, including extremes of weather, on societies and the environment. The connections between climate change science and the human dimensions of global environmental change are clear.

The Climate/Paleoclimate group within Department of Earth, Geographic, and Climate Sciences has a strong and growing international reputation for excellence and innovation in research. This is clearly demonstrated by more than a dozen papers in Science, Nature, Nature Geoscience and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences over the past 24 months, and new research grants totaling more than $9M in the last year. 

The Climate System Research Center is a research facility of the University of Massachusetts. Our research is focused on the climate system, climatic variability and global change issues, from contemporary climate variations, their causes and consequences, to paleoclimatic and paleoenvironmental changes.

Visit:  Climate System Research Center website

Faculty in the Global Climate Change and Surficial Processes Research Theme

Climatology, Paleoclimatology and Paleoceanography

One of the department’s strengths is its research in the area of climate change. Faculty study climate problems over widely varying timescales, ranging from studies of the modern meteorology and oceanography of the polar regions, to the initiation of Antarctic glaciation in the Oligocene, to Cretaceous and Cenozoic paleoceanography. Climate change research done by our faculty is truly global in nature, with current research projects in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, South America, the Arctic and Antarctic.

University Distinguished Professor Ray Bradley does research on climate variability across a wide range of time scales, with a focus on climate change and climate dynamics in the Holocene. He has written or edited twelve books on climatic change and paleoclimatology, including Paleoclimatology: Reconstructing Climates of the Quaternary (now being revised for a 3rd edition) and most recently, Global Warming and Political Intimidation.  In addition to heading the Climate System Research Center, Bradley is a Co-PI on the Northeast Climate Science Center (Department of Interior funding: $7.5M over 5 years), which will coordinate research on present and future climate change, and its impacts across the northeastern quadrant of the U.S.  He is also Co-PI on a NOAA RISA project, Consortium for Climate Risk in the Urban Northeast (CCRUN).  Bradley’s research group (4 post-docs, 2 PhD students and 2 MS students) is currently supported by additional funding from NSF, NOAA and DoE.

Julie Brigham-Grette’s research interests are focused on the stratigraphy, sedimentology, and chronology of geologic systems that record the climate evolution and sea level history of the Arctic since the mid-Pliocene.  Her research program is largely aimed at documenting the global context of paleoenvironmental change across “Beringia”, i.e., the Bering Land Bridge, stretching across the western Arctic from Alaska and the Yukon into NE Russia and adjacent marginal seas.  Starting 3 decades ago with the sea level history and glacial stratigraphy of vast Arctic coastal plains and coastal environments in comparison with regional alpine glaciation, her research is now focused on the integration of records from marine and lacustrine systems. Since 1991, she has participated in nine field expeditions to remote arctic regions of Arctic Russia, and was co-chief scientist in 2002 of an expedition on the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Healy, taking sediment cores from the Bering and Chukchi Seas. She is the US Chief Scientist of the El’gygytgyn Lake Scientific Drilling project, a $10M multinational field program leading to the unprecedented recovery of a 3.6 Myr record of paleoclimate from the terrestrial Arctic in 2009. In collaboration with S. Petsch, Brigham-Grette is also PI on a grant to develop sea ice proxies and records of paleoceanography across the Arctic-Pacific gateway.  Since 2005, she has collaborated with colleagues at Bates, Mt Holyoke, and Hampshire colleges along side Northern Illinois University with the effective implementation of an REU program on Svalbard tidewater glaciers and lake systems.  At home, Julie maintains an interest in the late Pleistocene paleoclimatic history and drainage record of Glacial Lake Hitchcock and the Holocene evolution of the Connecticut River.  Exploring ahead, Julie is PI on 1 proposal and 1 pre-proposal for IODP/ICDP drilling in the Bering Strait and at the margins of the Chukchi and Beaufort seas.

Stephen Burns’ research concentrates on using stable isotopes to study the terrestrial record of climate during the Late Pleistocene and Holocene. He is heavily involved in using and developing speleothems as climate archives. Current research projects include studies of Late Pleistocene and Holocene climate variation in Brazil and Peru. He is also using speleothems from Bermuda to investigate Holocene climate variability in the North Atlantic region. Together with Dr. Julie Brigahm-Grette he is using stable isotopes of organic matter, both bulk and compound specific analyses, from Lake El’gygytgyn in Siberia to study Pleistocene and Late Pliocene climate change in the high Arctic. Burns directs the department’s Stable Isotope Laboratory.   

Mark Leckie conducts research in the fields of micropaleontology and paleoceanography. He studies planktic and benthic foraminifera of Cretaceous and Cenozoic age, with a particular emphasis on biosphere response to changes in the ocean-climate system. His current research projects include mid-Cretaceous Oceanic Anoxic Events, Late Cretaceous paleoceanography and sequence stratigraphy of the Western Interior Sea, late Campanian-Maastrichtian paleoceanography of the tropical Pacific, and Miocene sequence stratigraphy and sea level change off northeast Australia. Some of these projects are in collaboration with UMass faculty (Burns, Castañeda, DeConto, Finkelstein). He has participated in six DSDP/ODP scientific expeditions, and served as Co-Chief Scientist of ODP Leg 165. Leckie has co-authored an introductory oceanography textbook with Richard Yuretich that features student active learning materials for use in the classroom: Investigating the Oceans, an Interactive Guide to the Science of Oceanography (4th ed. 2011, McGraw-Hill), as well as a new book of inquiry-based exercises for the lab and classroom: Reconstructing Earth’s Climate History (2012, Wiley-Blackwell). He has been an instructor at the Urbino Summer School on Paleoclimatology since 2008. Leckie currently has 4 PhD students and 2 MS students. Two of his students will defend spring 2012 and have accepted permanent positions with BP in Houston.

Climate and ice sheet modeling

Rob DeConto’s background spans geology, oceanography, atmospheric science, and glaciology. His early work at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) used numerical climate and ocean models to better understand the dynamical mechanisms responsible for past periods of extreme global warmth. Since joining the faculty at UMass, his research has shifted toward the polar regions- including fieldwork in Antarctica, the development of coupled climate-ice sheet models, and the application of those models to a wide range of past and future climate change and sea level scenarios. Rob is a U.S. PI of the $30M international ANDRILL (ANtarctic DRILL) program and has coordinated the numerical modeling aspects of ANDRILL since 2005. Other major research projects include numerical ice sheet-ice shelf model-development with Dave Pollard (Penn State), and a newly awarded $4M NSF-FESD award (PLIOMAX) with Maureen Raymo (Columbia University), aimed at constraining maximum Pliocene sea level through a combination of data acquisition and numerical modeling. A growing research focus emerging from Rob’s paleoclimate research is the application of new, coupled high-resolution climate-ice-ocean-glacio-isostatic adjustment models to future climate and sea-level scenarios, with an eye toward contributing toward the next IPCC AR5 and AR6 reports. Rob’s research group currently consists of one post-doc, two Ph.D. students, and one M.S. student, but his group will have to expand considerably next year in response to research pressure from newly funded projects, and four additional major NSF proposals currently pending. Rob serves on a number of national and international science boards and research advisory panels. He is co-founder and co-chair of the international Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) program ACE (Antarctic Climate Evolution) and he we was an elected member of the writing team that recently developed the future (2013-2023) science plan of the $2B IODP (International Ocean Discovery Program). Closer to home, Rob is a member of the University’s Research Council and he serves as Chief Undergraduate Advisor for the Earth Systems program. He continues to be an active teacher, covering courses ranging from introductory climate change (GEO-SCI 100 with more than 200 students) to graduate courses in physical oceanography and numerical climate modeling.

Michael Rawlins investigates climate variability and change using numerical climate models. His research focuses on understanding how water and carbon cycles across the terrestrial Arctic may be changing as a result of warming. He recently led a large multi-year, interdisciplinary synthesis study that used observations to document manifest changes to the Arctic's freshwater cycle. He is the PI on a NASA synthesis project focused on analysis of carbon fluxes from a suite of models to better understand the magnitude of the land carbon sink across boreal Eurasia and whether the sink is weakening. As one of the Department's Extension faculty he is working in collaboration with researchers affiliated with the new Northeast Climate Science Center to use high-resolution regional climate models to investigate climate variability and potential impacts of climate change on phenology and ecosystem processes. UMass Extension goals are advanced through his interactions with stakeholders seeking to understand impacts to the region's water resources, agriculture, fish and wildlife.


Isaac Larsen uses field, geochemical, remote sensing, and modeling tools to quantify rates of Earth surface change and understand how landscapes evolve. He runs a cosmogenic nuclide geochemistry lab for extracting 10-Be and 26-Al for exposure dating and denudation rate measurements. Current projects involve understanding landscape response to a broad range of factors, including: mega-floods, active tectonics, agriculture, and climate change. 

Organic and Stable Isotope Biogeochemistry

Isla Castañeda’s research mainly focuses on using multiple organic geochemical and isotopic proxies to address questions in paleoceanography, paleolimnology and paleoclimate. Her main research interests include tropical paleoclimate, reconstructing past sea and land surface temperatures, and examining relationships between climate change and human history. She is one of three organic geochemists involved with the international Hominin Sites and Paleolakes Drilling Project, which will obtain continuous sedimentary sequences from regions near key hominin fossil sites in the East African Rift Valley to examine the role of environmental change in shaping human evolution. She is currently collaborating with Julie Brigham-Grette and others in the department to investigate the potential of using recently developed proxies based on glycerol dialkyl glycerol tetraethers to produce a temperature record from Lake El'gygytyn. She is also exploring some deep time biomarkers in Upper Cretaceous oil and gas-prone shales from the U.S. Western Interior in collaboration with Mark Leckie. Another main research focus includes proxy development, and in particular, further testing and validation of temperature proxies.

David Finkelstein’s primary research uses an integrated analytical approach to characterize sediments in order to better understand physical and biochemical compositions of depositional and diagenetic environments. His interests are broad, ranging from examining linkages among aqueous chemistry, (paleo)climate, tectonics, and terrestrial (paleo)productivity in recent and ancient sediments to the geochemical evolution and response of microbial systems to climate change. He is a PI on an NSF funded project to document organic geochemical and isotopic changes of petroleum over time following the April 20, 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Compositional and isotopic data from a variety of repeatedly visited sampling sites representing ecologically different environments has allowed for evaluation of possible acceleration or retardation of oil degradation resulting from environmental variables associated with these unique environments.  Current research involves exploring and characterizing microbial life on the edge of hydration in eastern Oregon, specifically seasonally evaporative perennial and ephemeral lakes using aqueous (major anions and cations), stable isotope (O, D, and S), organic (molecular and compound specific) geochemistry combined with microbiological methodologies.  This modern view of evaporative environments allows for better constraint in the interpretation of compounds denoting ancient environments in deep time.  Locally, he and an undergraduate student are exploring a tree-ring chronology and its possible stable isotope signal preserved in Red Oaks here in New England to characterize and document pre-instrumental wet/dry climate events.

Steven Petsch’s research addresses fundamental questions of carbon cycling over large scales of time and space. On the broadest level, these questions include: controls the carbon dioxide and oxygen content of our atmosphere; the composition of the atmosphere varied over geologic time; the relations exist between evolution of the atmosphere and biosphere. He also investigates the rates and mechanisms of organic matter remineralization and the microorganisms involved. Current research includes studies of the isotopic and molecular biological signatures of gas (CH4, CO2) generation in ancient sedimentary rocks from active subsurface microbial communities, and isotopic and molecular diagnostics of ancient sedimentary rocks as sources of aged organic matter in modern river systems.

Process Sedimentology

Jonathan Woodruff’s research interests are on coastal, estuarine and fluvial processes, with an emphasis on the dominant mechanisms of sediment transport within these systems. His studies include applying quantitative methods and theory to sedimentary records to improve our understanding of paleoclimate, coastal morphology, sea-level rise, as well as their interconnections. Specifically, his work is focused on the sedimentary signatures of hurricane-induced flooding preserved within coastal ponds and salt marshes, as well as the mechanisms of sediment and contaminant transport within fluvial and estuarine environments. Current research projects include: the impacts of flooding on the Connecticut River from extreme precipitation by Hurricane Irene (NSF-EAR); sediment transport and storage in off-river floodplain tidal ponds and coves (NSF-EAR); reconstructing past typhoon and tsunami occurrences for the southern coast of Japan using coastal sediments (with funding from the National Geographic Society and Risk Prediction Initiative); and studying patterns in hurricane activity over the last several millennia using sedimentary records from coastal sinkholes in the Gulf of Mexico (NSF-OCE).