UW Researchers Look To Past To Learn About Climate's Future

Jun 10, 2019

Collected from an area around Dubois, WY, the fossil Canavalia is from the bean family.
Credit Ellen Currano

University of Wyoming researchers are "going back to the future." By studying the climate that existed 50 million years ago, they hope to better understand what the climate might be like in the next century.

Ellen Currano, an associate professor of botany, geology and geophysics, has teamed up with fellow researchers Laura Vietti, an assistant research scientist in geology and geophysics, and Mark Clementz, a professor of geology and geophysics.

The three will look at leaf fossils, microbial decay on turtle shells, and sediment samples to build upon what we already know about the climate during the Eocene epoch, about 50 million years ago.

"This was a totally different Wyoming. We had palm trees, we had big broad-leaved forests," Currano said. "We had alligators, turtles."

As the earth experiences unprecedented warming because of climate change, we're on a trajectory to experience temperatures similar to those experienced during the Eocene within the next century. Currano said that would mean a very different Wyoming.

"Instead of having our alpine forests, our sagebrush steppes, we're potentially going back to the land of subtropical forests," Currano explained.

Using leaf fossils, Currano can learn more about the types and amount of plants and the average temperature and humidity of the area. This will build upon fossil records already collected.

Macginitiea is an extinct genus in the sycamore family. This fossil was collected around Dubois, WY.
Credit Ellen Currano

Vietti will be looking at one of the most common vertebrate fossils found – turtle shells. Microbial decay patterns on the turtle shells are clues about the makeup of microbial communities during this extra warm time period. And the sediment samples will be collected and analyzed by Clementz. The chemistry of these samples can give us ideas about the humidity, and the types and density of plants, among other information.

By combining these different areas of research to get an idea of what kind of climate is ahead, the three scientists hope to help people understand how to prepare for it.