UCD Earth Institute

    Better understand today's world.
    Inform solutions for tomorrow.


Human activities, such as fossil fuel burning and deforestation have now been linked unequivocally to the warming of our planet. Temperature increases in certain regions of the globe will likely result in ice sheet reduction, increased flooding and more frequent extreme weather events.

As a result, plants and animals will have to adapt, migrate or face extinction. Understanding past climates can better inform the future, helping us to identify priority actions with regard to adaptation and mitigation. In particular, improving the ability of cities and regions to mitigate and adapt to climate change has become a pressing global priority.

Climate scientists at UCD Earth Institute are combining data and models to help understand how our climate is changing, and how the planet’s feedback systems will react to those changes in the future.

Biologists are devising mitigation strategies that will reduce atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations such as planting trees and preserving peatlands, while social scientists inform international climate and energy policy developments on emissions mitigation and carbon trading.

Our overall goal is to improve our ability to predict climate change and its implications, including the development of quantitative risk assessments.

Key-words: Climate Reconstruction and Modelling, Climate Mitigation, Forests Croplands and Grasslands, Ruminants, Peatlands, Policy, Climate Adaptation, Marine organisms, Microorganisms, Rivers, Society

Earth Institute academics working in this area:



Research impacts

We know that the Earth’s climate is changing. So what kind of future can we expect for posterity?

The best way to answer this question is by using climate and Earth system models. These models simulate our planet by integrating the interactions of the atmosphere, ocean, land, ice, and biosphere climate components. Running and analysing climate models enables us to obtain the best estimates of potential future climates. Some climate models include the entire Earth, while others are run at a very high resolution focussed on more regional areas, Ireland for example. Information acquired via these methods is used to inform policy makers regarding our future world.

In recent years, the focus of climate research has moved from assessing general trends - warmer and drier in summer - to looking at extremes, like heat waves, droughts and floods, assessing their frequency in the future.

To address these issues Dr Conor Sweeney and Dr. Andrew Parnell, researchers at the UCD Earth Institute (and UCD Meteorology and Climate Centre), have been studying the probability of different events: warm summer temperatures that happen once every ten days now, for example, may occur twice every ten days by 2050.

Director of the UCD Meteorology and Climate Centre, Dr Xuefeng Cui, is a climate modeller and his current research looks at future land use change and food security. He has been working on Asian and African regions, and is keen to develop research regarding Ireland’s future climate, in addition to leading the recently revised and upgraded MSc program on climate change and impacts.

Dr. Conor Purcell, a member of the UCD Plant Palaeoecology and Palaeobiology research group is actively engaged in the utilisation of climate models, particularly the state-of-the-art Community Earth System Model (CESM) and the Community Land Model (CLM). The main focus of his work aims to assess the impact of future changes in plant physiology on the hydrological cycle – particularly flood and drought risk.

These research topics have important implications for all of society: from health and agriculture, to energy and economics. The information we generate can help us prepare for the future, whatever it holds.

The UCD Plant Palaeoecology and Palaeobiology research group is primarily interested in the role of past changes in atmospheric composition (CO2, O2, SO2) and climate in large scale patterns of plant ecology and evolution, and how the acquisition of new morphological and/or anatomical traits influenced subsequent plant-atmosphere interactions and plant macroevolution.

This research group is led by Prof. Jennifer McElwain with current research projects including the development and testing of new palaeoatmospheric, palaeoclimate and palaeoecological proxies (Wuu-Kuang Soh), tracking the vegetation dynamics associated with first and second order mass extinction events in Earth history (Dr. Charilaos Yiotis, Dr. Caroline Elliot-Kingston), testing geochemical models of the long-term and short-term carbon cycle (particularly those associated with oceanic anoxic events), investigating the role of atmospheric oxygen in plant macroevolution (Dr. Caroline Elliot-Kingston, Dr. Charilaos Yiotis), and using inferences from past plant-climate interactions to improve future flood and drought risk prediction (Dr. Conor Purcell, Dr. Sven Batke, Dr. Wuu-Kuang Soh).

The group make use of state-of-the-art plant growth chambers at the UCD Program for Experimental Atmospheres and Climate (Péac). The Péac facility enables researchers within the UCD Plant Palaeoecology and Paleobiology group to undertake both long-term and short-term investigation of the ecophysiological, morphological and anatomical responses to any simulated past or future climatic and/or atmospheric scenario under rigorously controlled experimental conditions.

Professor Frank McDermott’s Palaeoclimate Research Group in the School of Earth Sciences reconstructs climate change using terrestrial archives such as cave carbonates, with a focus on the relatively recent Quaternary period of Earth history. One goal is to provide better constraints on the rates of pre-anthropogenic climate change for periods with boundary conditions broadly similar to the present-day. A secondary goal is to reconstruct spatio-temporal patterns of climate variability that can help elucidate the nature of teleconnection patterns in the climate system. The group uses stable isotopes and trace element ratios in U-series dated secondary cave carbonates as palaeoclimate proxies.

The retreat of the British-Irish Ice Sheet

The British-Irish Ice Sheet (BIIS) was part of the European Ice Sheet that covered Britain and Ireland during the last ice age. However, the actual extent, dynamics and deglacial history are not yet fully understood.

Drumlins, iceberg scours and moraines on the seafloor off western Ireland reveal that glacial and glaciomarine processes strongly influenced the western Irish continental margin. However, there is no detailed information on the nature of these processes or on their timing and magnitude, as there has been no systematic study of the offshore sedimentary record.

University of Ulster in Coleraine and members of UCD Earth Institute worked together to collect a large number of marine sediment cores that were used to reconstruct the glacial/deglacial history of the BIIS. This was achieved through the identification in the sediment record of ice-marginal processes, style of sediment delivery, pulses of iceberg and melt water release and alternation of glacial and non-glacial processes.

The study of past ice sheets and the way they collapsed and retreated can help us forecast how the present-day polar ice sheets will behave in the near future.