Topics, Tools and Techniques in Paleoclimatic Research
last updated April 28, 2004 (check back frequently for updates; reload cached pages)
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Paleoclimatology is ultimately the study of processes which control geological as well as historical, present-day, and future climate change.  To give just a few examples: What are the circulation and moisture-mediated feedbacks which drive the transition between glacial and interglacial climates, and just how quickly can large-scale deglaciation occur in response?  What drove the change in Pacific Basin state (sea surface temperature, winds, sea level pressure, thermocline depth) in the late 1970s, and have similar events occurred previously?  The answers to  these questions may illustrate processes which operate on human timescales, and they can have an important role in the debate over climate change mitigation (McCarthy et al., 2001; Alley et al., 2002).

Major advances in paleoclimatology in response to such "Grand Challenges" have relied on a variety of complementary strategies and techniques.  For example, Fairbanks et al. (1989,1990) used pairs of radiocarbon and Thorium/Uranium-derived dates for surface-growing corals to not only derive a deglacial eustatic sea level curve and estimate the timing of glacial meltwater pulses, but also to extend the radiocarbon calibration to the Last Glacial Maximum.   The application of semi-redundant gas and water stable isotope, noble gas, trace greenhouse gas, particulate concentration, conductivity, and borehole temperature inversion techniques were crucial to the dating, timing and interpretation of important events in the Greenland ice core records developed in the 1990s, in particular the abrupt nature of Arctic climate change during the last deglaciation (Blunier et al., 1999; Severinghaus et al., 1999).  Similarly, multiple proxies for surface and deep-sea temperature developed for application in marine sediment cores have contributed important insights into the debate over tropical sea surface temperature change since the Last Glacial Maximum (Mix et al., 1999).  The product of that study was used to force a model of the general circulation of the atmosphere to predict the response of inter-ocean moisture transport (Hostetler et al., 1999).   Use of a wide variety of seasonal-to-annual resolution proxy observations from a global network, in conjunction with robust multivariate statistical techniques, has contributed directly to the controversy over whether human influence on the mean global climate has unambigously appeared in the historical surface temperature record (Mann et al., 1998).  

Use of multiple, complementary tools in paleoclimatology will only increase as the complexity and sublety of the questions we ask increases.  But:

There are about three dozen faculty and research scientists in ten departments at the University of Arizona who work in paleoenvironmental research and in related fields.  This diversity of talent, interests, skills and tools presents a unique resource for students wishing to develop and/or apply multidisciplinary tools to the resolution of important and challenging questions in paleo research.   By surveying a broad range of tools used to solve paleo questions, we will focus less on a particular or familiar tool or two, and more on the big questions.  I am also hoping our UA paleoclimate research community will use this seminar to find new ideas for potential collaborations, and find the students to turn those ideas into reality.  This course is brand new, and is supported in spirit by an NSF Major Research Instrumentation grant to J.W. Beck, J.E. Cole,  M.N. Evans, M.K. Hughes, and J.T. Overpeck, an NSF CAREER grant to M.N. Evans, and the UA Institute for the Study of Planet Earth (ISPE).


By the conclusion of this seminar series, students should be able to:

  1. Identify important gaps in the existing state-of-the-art in a wide variety of fields within the global paleoclimate research effort;
  2. Assess the characteristic strengths and weaknesses of a set of paleoclimate-relevant research tools available at the University of Arizona;
  3. Explicitly develop, and possibly initiate, a multidisciplinary research effort designed to resolve an outstanding paleoclimate question.
What's in it for you, whether you're an advanced undergraduate, early-career graduate student, or advanced graduate student, doing paleoclimate research already, or not:



Instructor: Michael Evans , Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research, 214 W. Stadium.  ph 626-2897;  email:  Office hours: Monday, 4-5pm, W. Stadium 214, or by appointment.  Please email for more information.  I will try to answer emails within 24 hours.

Location and Time:
Introductory meeting: Wednesday, January 14th, 2004, Tree-Ring Lab-West Seminar Room (Rm. 20), 1pm.  
Regular Meeting Time: Wednesdays, 1:30-3:30pm.

Registration info:   There are multiple "modules" of GEOS 595E taught each semester; you may register for 2 units which comprises the module described here, and/or for other modules.  See the 2004 Dendrochronology Colloquium Overview webpage for this semester's offerings, and more details.


Prerequisite:  An interest in the application of paleoclimatological methods, broadly defined, to current problems in climate change research.   You may wish to fill in your background as we go by having at hand a favorite text on paleoclimate research methods.  A good recent one is by R.S. Bradley, Paleoclimatology: Reconstructing Climates of the Quaternary.

Additional reading and course materials: I will  provide them electronically as password protected PDF files, served from this webpage.


  1. Weekly: 
  2. End-of-semester:
More details on the proposal assignment are here.


Syllabus (subject to revision)
Discussion Leader
January 14th Introduction; Logistics Mike Evans (LTRR) Course questionnaire
January 21st
Motivating questions in Paleoclimatology
Jonathan Overpeck (ISPE/GEOS)
summary by Leslie McCluskey
  1. NRC (1999), Ch. 6 (Paleoclimate), pp. 268-277 [1208Kb]
  2. Rind (2002) [324Kb]
  3. Alley et al. (2003) [368Kb]
January 28th
Stable isotope geochemistry: Carbonates Jay Quade (USGS/GEOS)
summary by Kevin Anchukaitis
  1. Winograd and Szabo (1986) [1.5Mb]
  2. Winograd (1986) [2Mb]
  3. Quade and Cerling (1990) [1Mb]
February 4th
(Note Mike's office hours are 1:30-2:30pm, Mon., Feb. 2nd)
Paleoecology: Packrat Midden Analysis Julio Betancourt (USGS/GEOS)
summary by Heidi Barnett
Julio's powerpoint lecture is here
  1. Betancourt (2003) [471Kb]
  2. Lyford et al., (2003) [2.8Mb]
  3. Thompson (1993) [to be posted Friday]
February  11th
Minor element geochemistry: Carbonates Julie Cole (GEOS)
summary by Jim Morrison
Julie's powerpoint lecture is here
  1. Lea (2004), pp. 17-36  [2.1Mb] (preprint of Ch. 14 of Volume 9 of the Treatise on Geochemistry)
February 18th Stable isotope geochemistry: Organics Steve Leavitt (LTRR)
summary by Peggy Barker
  1. Huang et al. (2001) [310Kb]
  2. Baker et al. (2000) [400Kb]
  3. Van de Water (2000) [144Kb]
February 25th
Passive Tracers: Isotope hydrology Brenda Ekwurzel (HWR/GEOS)
summary by Scott St. George
  1. Farrera et al. (1999) [664Kb]
  2. Greene et al. (2002) [473Kb]
  3. Optional background reasing: Stute and Schlosser, Chapter 11 from Cook and Herczeg (2000) [4.5Mb]
Reading focus questions are here.
March 3rd Radiocarbon geochronology Tim Jull (PHYS/AMS)
summary by Mike Evans
  1. Jull et al. (2004) [360Kb]
March 10th
Th/U geochronology
Warren Beck (PHYS/AMS)
summary by Jessica Rowland
  1. Edwards et al. (2003) [1.7Mb]
  2. Beck et al. (2001) [414Kb]
  1. Richards and Dorale (2003)  [1.4Mb]
  2. Ivanovich and Harmon (1982) [6.3Mb]

March 17th
Spring Break - no class

March 24th
Dendrochronology Jeff Dean (LTRR/ANTH)
summary by Jessica Rowland
  1. Dean (1988) [5.2Mb]
  2. Dean et al. (1999) [3.4Mb]
A link to a nice 2002 Atlantic Monthly piece by J. Rauch, which discusses the idea of 'agent-based' modeling, is here.
March 31st
Malcolm Hughes (LTRR)
summary by Leslie McCluskey

html slides are here.
powerpoint is here
  1. Hughes (2002) [3.9Mb]
  2. Hughes et al. (1984) [3.2Mb]
  3. Hughes et al. (1994) [622Kb]
  4. Briffa et al. (1998) [424Kb]
  5. Vaganov et al. (1999) [366Kb]
Readung focus questions are here.
April 7th
Paleolimnology Andy Cohen (GEOS)
summary by Peggy Barker
html slides are here.
powerpoint is here
  1. Cohen (2003), Ch. 1 [4.3Mb]
  2. Cohen et al. (2000) [354Kb]
  3. Dean et al. (2002) [1.4Mb]
  4. Johnson et al., (2002) [223Kb]
April 14th
Statistical Reconstruction of Paleoclimates
Mike Evans (LTRR)
summary by Heidi Barnett
html slides are here.
powerpoint is here
slides drawn in class are here. [309Kb]
  1. Evans et al. (2001a) [170Kb]
  2. Evans et al. (2001b) [2.4Mb]
Reading/discussion focus questions are here.
April 21st Climate System/Paleoclimate Modeling Andrea Hahmann (ATMO)
summary by Kevin Anchukaitis
powerpoint is here
  1. McGuffie and Henderson-Sellers (2001) [3.2Mb]
  2. Bush and Philander (1998) [479Kb]
April 28th
Student Projects: peer evaluation of drafts; discussions and meetings with discussion leaders
Office Hours Monday, April 26th, 3:30 -5pm, W. Stadium 214
Class participants
Draft proposals due Wednesday, April 28th in class.  Bring 3 copies: one for yourself, one for peer evaluation, and one for Mike.
May 5th Student Projects: Presentation Class participants
Final proposals due Friday, May 7th, 4pm, to Mike