Climate Change and Earth System Science

We have research expertise in past, present and future climates. Our projects cover field-based, laboratory-based and computer model-based research – this allows us to improve understanding of the climate system and climate change from a number of different perspectives.

We also examine the impacts of climate events. Our work covers a wide range of disciplines including: plant and animal distributions, sedimentary analyses, severe storms and flooding, air quality, pollution, atmospheric physics and energy generation. Our research is led by:

Prof. Suzanne Leroy – palynology, sea level changes, environmental reconstruction, palaeoecology.

Dr. Stephen Kershaw – evidence from rocks to interpret climate change, ancient and recent.

Dr. Andrew Russell – climate dynamics, climate change, convective storms, extreme weather.

Dr. Ariana Zeka – climate change and health.

See also: MSc in Climate Change Impacts and Sustainability


Late Pliocene, Pleistocene and Holocene

Our research is on the Milankovitch, the Oeschger-Dansgaard, the Heinrich and the Bond cycles, and the more subtle Holocene changes such as the Roman and the Medieval warm periods, the Little Ice Ages, as well as recent impact on the environment. The techniques we use are based on a multidisciplinary study of sediment cores(marine and lacustrine) surface sedimentary deposits, and geomorphology of landscapes and coastlines. The institute is specialised in sedimentology and palynology, and has expertise in other microfossils, macrofossils and dendrochronology. The regions of focus cover western and eastern Mediterranean, central Asia, and northern Europe.

Some recent investigations concerned:

- the reconstruction of the climate in Europe at the times of Hominin dispersal.

- the Late Pliocene history from core ODP 658 by palynology which allowed reconstructing the first steps of the Sahara developing.

- Dendrochronology and dendroclimatology used to reconstruct evidence for a lower water table on peatland around 3200-3000 BC from sub-fossil pine in northern Scotland.

- Modelling of the climate during the Last Glacial Maximum to locate potential tree refugia in Europe.

- In the Middle East (Turkey and Dead Sea), it was attempted to untangle the impact of climate, human activities and natural hazards on the environment.

- Holocene sea-level change in eastern Mediterranean, with evidence of relationship with collapse of northern hemisphere ice sheets.

- Environmental controls on Pleistocene cyanobacterial reefs in eastern Mediterranean.


Palaeozoic Era

Our work covers several time periods in the Palaeozoic era, a period covering hundreds of millions of years of deep time, in order to understand past processes that may inform the current climate debate. One member is co-leader of an International Geoscience Programme project IGCP572, on "recovery from mass extinction: lessons for the present" after the largest extinction in Earth History at the end of the Permian Period. By studying rocks over long time periods we are able to develop understanding of climatic change that happened slowly, and changes that happened as a result of catastrophic readjustments in Earth systems.

Some recent investigations include:

- High-resolution shifts in the carbon cycle across the end-Permian mass extinction, using isotopes.

- Rapid climate change and ecosystem readjustment in relation to the end-Permian mass extinction.

- Changes in fossil reef ecosystems in response to sea-level change in the Ordovician (in China), Silurian (in Sweden and North America) and Devonian (in Europe) Periods.


Global climate models (GCM) are used to simulate future climatic change. For example the future water level of the Caspian Sea has been simulated. This has a direct bearing for example on the implantation of the oil and gas exploitation infrastructure in the Caspian Sea. Another example is the impact on future hurricane frequency and intensity.


The present climatic change

The impact of climatic change on large inland lakes and seas is being studied as part of an exchange programme of scientists (UK, Spain, Russia, and USA) on the Black, Aral and Caspian seas (EU MC IRSES CLIMSEAS project, 2010-2014). IGCP572 on recovery from mass extinction, using sedimentary rock sequence, is being used to develop understanding of how rapid changes in climate might influence the debate on modern climate change.


Water quality

Our water quality research covers a range of topics, from sewage treatment and remediation of contaminated land to problems of salination of coastal aquifers. Many of those problems are made more acute with climatic change.

Some recent investigations include:

- Hazards and risk associated with potable water reuse.

- Salination of coastal aquifers in central Crete, in response to excessive water extraction for increasing tourism.

- Salinity changes of water bodies over time, as reconstructed form sediment cores: Aral Sea for example.


Climate and health

Public health is a crucial area of modern research and the Institute is involved in research into asthma, as well as international health issues. An important recent investigation is into problems of air quality and asthma in London primary schools.


Members of the Institute are examining ways to save energy in order to decrease the carbon footprint. Some collaborations with the School of Engineering and Design have been launched.

Plant and Animal

Plant and animal distributions

In modern environments, the impact of global warming on the distribution of insects, fishes, and plants is analysed with the help of biomonitoring data. In older environments we track changes in distributions through time using vertical sediment and rock sequences, and interpret the changes in relation to local and global climate change. Vertical sequences of past change provide a critical component lacking in the modern: a long enough history of change that can be used to identify trends.

Page last updated: Tuesday 24 September 2013