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Stephen Burns

Professor Stephen J. Burns
Professor & Geosciences Department Head
paleoclimatology, speleothems, stable isotopes, sediment diagenesis
Geosciences Dept.
234 Morrill Science Center
627 North Pleasant St
Amherst, MA 01003-9354

I joined the Geosciences Department at UMass in January, 2001 after 11 years at the University of Bern in Switzerland. I was an undergrad at Rice University, and went on to do an M.S. at the University of North Carolina studying carbonate sedimentology and a Ph.D. at Duke University on dolomite geochemistry.

My recent research is focused on developing records of climate change on the continents. While the broad outline of climate variation over the past several million years is fairly well known, the causes of climate change on various time scales are not. Also, climate on the continents is much more spatially variable than in the oceans. Thus, my research is aimed at producing quantitative estimates of climate change from continental areas at high enough resolution to be able to determine the driving forces behind climate variability at various timescales.

The main archives of climate information that I am interested in is speleothems, the family name for cave deposits such as stalagmites and stalactites. Speleothems faithfully record changes in the climate signal contained in oxygen isotope ratios of rainfall. Carbon isotope ratios of speleothem calcite and trace element compositions can provide additional paleoenvironmental information. I like to think of them as underground ice cores. The great majority of my speleothem-based research has been in the tropics.  In previous projects in Oman and Yemen we have produced records of changes in precipitation that extend back over several hundred thousand years. For the most recent climate period, the Holocene, these records are up to annual in resolution. Similar work in Brazil and the Peruvian Andes demonstrates strong asymmetry between the Northern and Southern hemisphere tropical rainfall on timescale ranging from orbital to millennial.

I have three current research projects that use speleothems to investigate climate variability.  First, in the Yucatan region of Mexico, Martin Medina (Amherst Collge) and I are speleothems to study the patterns and causes of claimte variability at the edge of the NH tropics.  One focus of this work is the relationship between climate and Mayan cultural evolution.  Second, Laurie Godfrey (Dept. of Anthropology, UMAss) and I are studying the climate and environmental history of Madagascar and the relationship between climate and the disappearance of Madagascar's megafauna.  Finally, David McGee IMIT) and I are in the early stages of investigating climate change in Southeast Asia using speleothems from caves in Vietnam.