Quaternary hindsight

Quaternary – the last 2.6 million years of Earth history (click here for more detailed definition)
Hindsight – knowing what to do after the event

The 2012 Annual Discussion Meeting of the Quaternary Research Association, entitled Quaternary Science & Society, focused upon:

  1. The way in which observations of past environmental change can serve as “hindsight” with regard to the consequences of ongoing and predicted environmental and climatic change, and
  2. How scientists might best communicate scientific method and research findings effectively beyond academia, e.g. for policy makers, geoscience professionals and the general public.

Given the nature of this meeting it seems like an ideal subject for the first report on this blog. I will not cover details of all the talks here; however I hope to capture the key themes and highlight a range of interesting examples from this wide ranging and high quality scientific meeting. I will also try and provide links to external sites with further information on projects/researchers where appropriate.

John Gordon (Scottish Natural Heritage) concluded his talk on Geodiversity and geoconservation in a changing environment by stating that: “hindsight is a wonderful thing” and that Quaternary Science has the potential to provide hindsight for many of today’s environmental problems. In his presentation he had called for Quaternary Scientists to engage with planners and policy makers at an early stage of proposal development to ensure that relevant general information (such as past rates of change and biodiversity) was combined with local knowledge to efficiently deliver research output relevant to wider society.

The  conference was opened with three super talks which neatly demonstrated how Quaternary Science can be socially relevant. The talks all related to the RESponse of humans to abrupt Environmental Transitions (RESET) research project and were presented by Eelco Rohling, Simon Blockley and Christine Lane: 1) Rohling presented evidence for latitudinal variation in the response of sea surface temperatures to change between global glacial and interglacial climate states, 2) Blockley demonstrated how the correlation of volcanic ashes can be used to assess the timing of environmental change at a continental scale (Europe) and, 3) Lane examined linkages between global climate events (Heinrich event 4) and human activity (archaeological record in the Mediterranean). The wide range of research technique and geographic scope of the RESET project elegantly demonstrated how a cross-disciplinary research project can address issues critical to understanding how the Earth functions, i.e. how is an environmental change likely to impact in different areas of the globe, are changes likely to be synchronous, and what are the likely consequences for humans?

The relevance of Quaternary research to decision making processes right down to the local level was highlighted in a number of talks. Essential to integrating research data in this most immediate of policy contexts is obtaining data at the correct spatial and temporal scale. The case for year-on-year relevance was powerfully made by John Dearing (speaking on behalf of Rong Wang) who presented a methodology for assessing the environmental cost of increased  economic output (for a region in China) by linking economic records from the last 50 years with past environmental change data (indicators in lake sediments). Following this Helen Shaw suggested that past human-environment-economy linkages could be traced further back in time using historical and sediment archives (North Yorkshire). Key to making the society-environment links in both these studies was the use of conceptual models for change. The models allowed patterns of change seen in the fossil record to be tested to improve understanding of how systems responded to stresses in the past. The conceptual framework used by Dearing thought about critical transitions across multiple lines of evidence, while Shaw examined evidence for adaptive cycles within fossil pollen records.

Other talks included the 3D mapping of Quaternary geology of Scotland (Andrew Finlayson), extraction of oxygen isotopes from sheep teeth in Libya (Hazel Reade) and the potential for identifying past occurrences of plants and animals using fragments of ancient DNA (Mary Edwards). There were of course many other exciting talks I hope that the above has given a flavor of the meeting and provide some evidence for the societal relevance of Quaternary Science and the efforts of scientists to communicate it.

For further information click the text to visit the Quaternary Research Association web site; membership is mainly academic but the society is open to all those interested in the science.

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