Quaternary Revolutions

The Quaternary Research Association (QRA) “Quaternary Revolutions” meeting was held during the first week of January in the august surroundings of the Royal Geographical Society (well worth a visit in itself!). I was presenting a poster based on a paper we published last year in Current Biology entitled  Plants and Soil Microbes Respond to Recent Warming on the Antarctic Peninsula in which we developed a time series of past moss growth and soil microbial activity from a 150-year-old moss bank at the southern limit of significant plant growth based on accumulation rates, cellulose δ13C, and fossil testate amoebae.

2000 year old moss bank on Signy Island, South Orkney Islands (60 S)

2000 year old moss bank on Signy Island, South Orkney Islands (60 S)

We showed that growth rates and microbial productivity have risen rapidly since the 1960s, at a rate unprecedented in the past 150 years, consistent with temperature changes, although recently they may have stalled.

The conference had a great line up of speakers to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the QRA including  Maureen Raymo (The Oceans, CO2, Sea Level and Ice: Four million years of natural climate variability), Phil Jones talking about the causes of climate change,  Valerie Masson-Delmotte and Danny McCarroll on measuring climate change and the palaeo-ecologists Kathy Willis and Mary Edwards.

As the conference took a somewhat retrospective approach, there were multiple mentions of scientists who, whilst working in the Cambridge University Sub-department of Quaternary Research (part of the Botany School 1948-1994), made huge contributions to the field of Quaternary Science and to the QRA.  I will very briefly mention three of them…but do go and find out more as none can be adequately summarised in a sentence or so and there are more to add to the list!

–          Professor Sir Harry Godwin (1901-1985) was a plant ecologist and Professor of Botany who was an expert in palynology, ecological successions and the Fens, and after establishing the isotope laboratory provided much of the underpinnings to the interpretation of radiocarbon dates that is crucial to my own work on Antarctic moss banks.

–          Professor Richard West (1926-)was a student of Harry Godwin and a previous head of the department of Botany, which he integrated with a deep interest in Geology to become the foremost expert on interglacial and cold-stage palaeo-botany and stratigraphy. Broadly interested in Quaternary Science, Richard West was one of the founders of the QRA, which held its first meeting in Birmingham in 1964.

2010 stamp commemorating 350th anniversary of the Royal Society. Earth Sciences were represented by Nick Shackleton.

2010 stamp commemorating 350th anniversary of the Royal Society. Earth Sciences were represented by Nick Shackleton.

– Professor Sir Nick Shackleton (1937-2006), a physicist who became a leading palaeo-oceanographer and made huge advances in mass spectrometry and the application of stable isotope analysis to understanding climate change and the extent of orbital forcing.  By developing high resolution isotope stratigraphy, ‘astronomically tuned’ timescales were developed for geological sequences. Such was the importance of Shackleton’s contribution that in 2010 that he was selected to represent “Earth Sciences” on a stamp in a series to honour the 350th anniversary of the Royal Society.      

As I battle with my own stable isotope data, and continue to make regular use of the analytical facilities in the Godwin Laboratory for Palaeoclimate Research, the QRA conference happily reminded me of these great scientists who have previously worked in and around this gingko covered building, and whose work is fundamental to our own.


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