Magazine article Geographical

Looking into the Future Via the Past

Magazine article Geographical

Looking into the Future Via the Past

Article excerpt

At the Society's AGM in June, Professor Sir Nicholas Shackleton of the University of Cambridge was awarded the Founder's Medal in recognition of his longstanding contribution to geography and Earth science, specifically in the field of palaeoclimatology.

While many people won't be entirely familiar with this branch of physical geography, it's difficult to overstate its importance in contemporary science. Palaeoclimatology has contributed considerably to our understanding of global climatic and environmental change over the past two million years--through complex reconstructions using records held in marine and ice cores. These records act as an archive of change, having trapped climatic information in situ over the millennia. As techniques become increasingly precise, more and more trends and cycles are identified. These trends can be used to predict the way in which the climate is likely to behave in the future--under differing scenarios for atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, for example.

Shackleton was part of the team that validated the 'Milankovitch theory' of ice ages. Put simply, this shows that the world's ice ages are controlled by variations in the Earth's orbit around the Sun, which alters the amount of solar radiation striking the Earth.

It was for this research, and its global importance, that Shackleton was knighted. He has since built upon it as director of the Godwin Institute of Quaternary Research at Cambridge. "Today, unimaginably sophisticated numerical models are used to reconstruct future and past climates, but only reconstructions of past climate and environments can actually test the models," he says. …

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