From this September, Dr Siwan Davies, Senior Lecturer in Geography at the University’s College of Science will lead a new research team in an ambitious five-year project, entitled Tephra constraints on RApid Climate Events (TRACE).
The project has been funded through one of the European Research Council’s prestigious Starting Grants, which are designed to support promising researchers in Europe who have the proven potential of becoming research leaders.
Dr Davies said: “Little has challenged our understanding of climate change more than the abruptness with which large-scale jumps in temperature occurred in the past. The causes of these rapid climate changes that saw temperature swings of up to 16°C occurring within a few decades are poorly understood.
“These climatic events could be related to ocean circulation behaviour, or be triggered by changes in the atmosphere possibly in the tropics. This project will test these opposing possibilities through the analysis of microscopic layers of volcanic ash that have been deposited in ancient ice and marine sediments.
“As seen with the recent Icelandic eruption, volcanic ash can be transported over large geographical regions and represents a new and exciting way to tie together different records of past climate change and assess the cause and effect of these jumps in climate.”
Dr Davies will build a new team, comprising post-doctoral researchers, PhD students and a research technician. The team will employ a pioneering approach, using the microscopic traces of ash left from volcanic eruptions to precisely match Greenland ice-cores, which provide a record of atmospheric variability, with North Atlantic marine records, depicting changes in the ocean circulation system.
Volcanic layers – or tephra isochrones – have distinct geochemical ‘fingerprints’ and because they are deposited immediately following an eruption, they have the unique advantage of providing fixed time-lines.
These time-lines will be used to link and compare different records to assess the lead/lag responses between the atmospheric and oceanic systems during the last glacial period – the essential first-step in understanding why the climate has changed so abruptly in the past.
The research ultimately aims to answer the key question of whether the ocean drives or merely amplifies atmospheric temperature jumps.
Image captions: (Top) Dr Siwan Davies sampling an ice-core for volcanic ash layers during fieldwork in Greenland in 2009. (Bottom) Dr Siwan Davies helping with camp chores during fieldwork in Greenland in 2009.