Ancient Climates Research

Discoveries about ancient climates and their implications for global processes have formed a signature scholarly strength of the Department of Earth Sciences and of the College for many decades. Syracuse has been known for its studies of natural systems in the ocean, in large lakes, and on land, and has made first-order scholarly advances in understanding Earth’s climate history. Fundamental discoveries came from past projects such as these – work for which Syracuse is well known. Many were published in Science, Nature, or other premier journals such as Geology and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Some have won distinction through AAAS as Science Classics. Last year’s SEPM’s Twenhofel Award was given to a previous faculty member of this group. Given the historical magnitude of its contributions, this Ancient Climate research group has historically attracted many students and most PI’s have had significant funding. Some illustrative historical discoveries include:

  • History of large-scale Pleistocene glacial advances and retreats in the Northeast; this work paved the way for correlations between the terrestrial and marine realms during the Ice Ages (Ernest Muller and many Ph.D. students)
  • First-ever sedimentary record of El Niño in the high Andes and exploration of its unusual pacing and temporal correlations with other Southern and Northern Hemisphere climate changes (Geoffrey Seltzer with colleagues and an array of SU graduate students)
  • Evolution of the world’s largest lakes, and records of habitat changes correlated with early modern human migrations in and out of Africa (Christopher Scholz and numerous graduate students)
  • Studies of the exceptional Green Lakes system as a monitoring station for climate change; this in turn has spurred interest in this site by others around the world (Walter Dean, Bryce Hand, Hank Mullins, Cathryn Newton, many graduate students)
  • Circulation changes in the Atlantic triggered by closure of the Isthmus of Panama, and development of the modern, intensified Gulf Stream and Caribbean systems; this also led to studies of correlation between tropical western Atlantic systems and the deglacial history of the Northeast (Henry Mullins and many students)
  • Biological and climatic history of Eocene systems (Earth’s warmest interval that is geologically close in time), as a possible analogue to future climatic warming (Linda Ivany, colleagues, and an array of students)
  • Climatic and biological changes in two of the most severe mass extinctions in Earth history; this also led to discoveries of meteoritic impacts linked to one of these mass extinctions (Cathryn Newton, James Brower, other colleagues, and Newton’s doctoral students)

The international paleoclimate community is also keenly aware of the scholarship of other ES faculty whose previous research has significance for paleoclimatology—for instance, the Tibetan Plateau research of K. Douglas Nelson or the Hudson Bay research of Donald I. Siegel.


Paleoclimatology has hired exceedingly well in recent years, especially with new hire Chris Junium in 2012, as well as Zunli Lu as part of the Water Program, in 2010. Whereas the focus of the group was previously in terrestrial paleoclimatology of the Quaternary, the balance of effort is now concentrated in deep-time paleoclimatology. The restrengthening in this field is directly due to support from the administration, stemming from the self-study and external review completed in 2008 and 2009, respectively. With new world-class facilities and instruments in the newly renovated ICP-MS and organic geochemistry laboratories, Syracuse has a considerable array of cutting-edge tools available for the reconstruction of past climates.