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Climate change project gets cash boost

20 July 2007

A project that investigates how our ancestors responded to rapid environmental change, which could help us tackle current and future climate change issues, has been awarded three million pounds.

The five-year project called RESET (Response of Humans to Abrupt Environmental Transitions), brings together experts in human palaeontology, archaeology, oceanography, volcanic geology and historical climate change.

Clues from the past

Scientists will study clues left from the past, such as the climatic information recorded in Arctic ice cores and the geological evidence left from explosive volcanic eruptions.

They will try to find out how our ancestors coped with these changes and this could be crucial in understanding how we should tackle the climate-change issues we face today.

The project hopes to better match up the archaeological evidence of human habitation and evolution, with the geological evidence.

'Research like this is fundamental in understanding the role of climate change to the development and adaptation of our species,' says Dr Simon Blockley, from Oxford University's Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art.

'This project could take us into a new phase in the interdisciplinary study of prehistoric human development,' says Chris Stringer, human evolution expert at the Natural History Museum and member of the RESET team.

'Establishing the precise order of events is the key to resolving some of the long-standing debates about climate history and its impacts on the human dimension, and long-standing research questions such as the fate of the Neanderthals.'

Ice cores

Ice cores from Greenland reveal how climate and temperature has varied over thousands of years. Our ancestors experienced these rapid climatic changes. The ice cores have demonstrated that we could suffer pronounced climatic shifts with severe environmental consequences, possibly in as little as 20 years.

Volcanic ash layers

The main idea the project will test is that major shifts in human development coincided with, or immediately followed, abrupt environmental changes.

Evidence of explosive volcanic eruptions is found in the volcanic ash layers, or tephras, they leave behind. These tephras are carried in the jet stream thousands of kilometres from the erupting volcano. Tephras from central Italy have been traced as far as Russia, and Icelandic tephras regularly reach Western Europe.

A long history of explosions from Italian, Icelandic and other volcanic centres has led to a complex series of tephra layers being laid down in places such as the sea floor, in lakes, on peat-bogs, in archaeological sites such as shallow caves, and even onto the Greenland ice cap.

RESET will use laser-based technology to analyse and tie together information to get a clearer understanding of the sequence of climatic and human events in Europe and North Africa during the last 80,000 years.

RESET is funded by the Natural Environment Research Council and brings together scientists from Royal Holloway, University of London, the University of Oxford, the Natural History Museum, London, and the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton (NOCS), University of Southampton.

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