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January 23, 2008

Professor David Sunderlin Investigates Potential Outcomes of Global Warming

Alaskan fossil record sheds light on ancient arctic ecosystems in the globally warmer Cretaceous Period

David Sunderlin, assistant professor of geology and environmental geosciences, is investigating what may be a glimpse of some potential results of global warming.

He will present a brown bag lecture on the current state of the research project on Friday, Feb. 1, at 12 p.m. in Van Wickle Hall, room 108. Lunch will be provided.

Sunderlin spent the beginning of December at the University of California’s Museum of Paleontology (UCMP) in Berkeley, Calif. There, he studied a rare collection of Cretaceous plant fossils from the Polychrome Mountain area of Alaska, which is now part of Denali National Park. These fossils, he says, are a window to what the most northern places in the world were like during the globally warmer days of the dinosaurs.

“Geologists use the word ‘Hothouse’ to describe this climate phase. We are now in a so-called ‘Icehouse’ phase,” explains Sunderlin. “This is important because what we learn about high latitude ecosystems in the Cretaceous may turn out to be analogous to future ecosystem structure with projected global warming. In other words, we will be able to place variability and trends of more recent climate change into greater context by investigating the deep past through the study of fossil plants.”

Sunderlin’s work is part of a collaborative research effort with scientists at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, the Dallas Museum of Natural History, the University of Kansas, and the National Park Service. The study is an attempt to develop a complete picture of the environment of Northern Alaska in this dinosaur-inhabited hothouse period. The researchers are combining studies of plant, vertebrate, insect and other invertebrate fossil records to uncover how ecosystems at the time were structured and operating and, furthermore, what this might mean for humans in the future.

Sunderlin’s museum research is a follow up of the fieldwork he conducted with geology major Eric Ricci ’08 (Staten Island, N.Y.) this summer in Denali National Park. Their work was supported by a Discover Denali Research Fellowship from the National Park Service and the Denali Education Center.

Ricci and Sunderlin studied the same rocks from which the fossils at UMCP were extracted. According to Sunderlin, besides the more than 250 specimens of rocks he and Ricci collected, the collection at Berkeley is the only known scientific collection of fossil plants from the Cretaceous Cantwell Formation.

“It turns out that there is much we can learn about the evolution of high latitude ecosystems by examining their remains fossilized in sedimentary rocks, particularly those in the Cantwell Formation,” explains Sunderlin. “[My colleagues and I] are studying these strata to understand more about the ‘paleogeographic’ history of Alaska, the climate in the Late Cretaceous Period before the major mass extinction we have all learned about as kids, and just what types of forests and landscapes dinosaurs at high latitudes might have been running around in prior to their demise.”

The UCMP research involved caliper measuring of morphological characters on fossils, cataloging the specimens, and photographing samples in order to compare them with those that he and Ricci collected. Sunderlin is pleased to be able to add the data from this collection to their findings.

“Polychrome Mountain, where the UCMP collection was excavated back in the mid 1930’s, is one place that we never got to visit this past summer in Denali,” says Sunderlin. “It is interesting to see the differences in the plant fossils you find as you go up through the layers at a particular location, but you also see different plant fossils as you move from place to place. Since we didn’t get a chance to make it to Polychrome Mountain in 2007, the UCMP collection represents a nice addition to our dataset by providing more geographic coverage.”

“In geology,” Sunderlin adds, “it is important to analyze all the field data you can get your hands on.”

  • David Sunderlin’s Research in Denali National Park
  • Eric Ricci ’08 writes about his field research in Denali National Park
  • Geology and Environmental Geosciences
  • Exceptional Faculty

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