Meet the scientists who contribute to the SPECIAL research group.
We are based in the Department of Geography and Environmental Science at the University of Reading.
Prof. Sandy P. Harrison
Professor in Global Palaeoclimates and Biogeochemical Cycles
Sandy is a palaeoclimate diagnostician, using large-scale palaeoenvironmental data syntheses and various types of process-based models to study the interaction of climate and the terrestrial biosphere in the geologic past and the present day. The goal of her work is to use the mechanistic understanding of interactions developed under radically different climate of the past to improve our ability to predict the likely trajectory of future climate and environmental changes.
In addition to managing an dynamic research program, she is also active in numerous international organisations. As Co-Chair of the Palaeoclimate Modelling Intercomparison Project (PMIP) and as joint leader of the PMIP Data Working Group, she is committed to promoting the analysis and evaluation of the climate and earth-system models used for future projections. As Chair of the World Data System (WDS) of the International Science Council (ISC), she is working to ensure long-term sustainability of data stewardship worldwide.
Dr Laia Comas Bru
Postdoctoral Research Assistant
Laia uses the geochemical characteristics of speleothems (cave formations) to infer past climate variability. These high-resolution records are used to examine the role of regional drivers in shaping local and regional climate conditions, as well as for climate model output evaluation.
She is the lead co-ordinator of the PAGES-sponsored SISAL (Speleothem Isotopes Synthesis and Analysis) working group, aimed at developing a global data synthesis of stable isotope records. Preliminary climate model evaluations using the SISAL database have been done as a Charlemont 2018 Scholar of the Royal Irish Academy. Laia is also in the PAGES Iso2k project aimed at investigating decadal to centennial-scale variability, as well as possible secular trends, in hydroclimate over the past 2,000 years.
Dr Mengna Liao
Postdoctoral Research Assistant
Mengna reconstructs past climate and environmental changes at a range of spatial scales by synthesising ecological, chemical, and physical data. She is also interested in the role of topography, geomorphology, and hydrology in controlling sedimentary processes in lake basins.
Her current work is based around the creation of the Global Lake Status Database v2 in conjunction with international colleagues. This resource facilitates data-model comparisons and the analysis of mechanisms of past climate and environmental changes. Her work uses lake basin characteristics to infer sedimentary processes and hydroclimate change in the Tibetan Plateau region, as well as examination of long-term patterns of landscape and ecosystem change in southeastern China.
Mengna also holds an on-going position at College of Chemistry and Life Sciences, Zhejiang Normal University, China.
Dr Pablo Paiewonsky
Postdoctoral Research Assistant
Pablo has done research in climate-vegetation biogeophysical feedbacks at high latitudes, by developing and using a large-scale simple eco-hydrological model, coupled to an intermediate-complexity general circulation model, and running simulations to determine the strengths and mechanisms behind those feedbacks. Although his emphasis so far has been on the Earth system’s behavior over the last few million years, he is also interested in past “hot-house” climates, in understanding the weaker pole-equator temperature difference in past warm global climates low-latitude climate-vegetation feedbacks, climate-fire-vegetation feedbacks, in the state- and forcing-dependency of climate sensitivity, and in using stable carbon isotope records to infer environmental conditions in Earth’s past. He is also interested in simplifying theories (optimality, evolutionarily stables strategies, coordination hypothesis, maximum entropy production (MEP) principle) and in using them to predict small-to-large scale characteristics of the Earth system and its components. His current research includes development of the “P model”, an optimization-based model of stomatal conductance and photosynthesis.
Dr Richard Vachula
Postdoctoral Research Assistant
Richard is interested in understanding the variability, controls, and impacts of fire in Earth system. An organic geochemist and palaeoecologist by training, his PhD research focused on the calibration of palaeofire proxies (charcoal and organic biomarkers) as well as their application in tundra ecosystems of Alaska and montane forests of California.
As part of the Leverhulme Centre, his work will focus on understanding global and regional fire histories and their drivers, comparing model and palaeofire data, calibrating palaeofire proxies to their carbon cycle impacts, and providing palaeoenvironmental context and perspective for other researchers and projects in the Centre.
Dr Anne Quillet
Postdoctoral Research Assistant
Anne’s primary research area is the behaviour and resilience of peatlands. Her approach relies on interdisciplinarity and combines ecology, hydrology, biogeochemistry, the water and carbon cycles, as well as land-use changes and management strategies. Her research involves a wide range of latitudes and systems and considers local to global scales. Focusing mainly on modelling experiments, she actively works at developing new methods to integrate field and lab data into process-based modelling.
Her current work includes the development of a new model for low-latitude peatlands integrating vegetation, carbon and hydrological dynamics and the modelling of the impacts of peat fire on peatlands carbon balance.
Dr Łukasz Pawlik
Łukasz is a geographer and geomorphologist currently working as an Assistant Professor at the Institute of Earth Sciences of the University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland. His research focuses on trees and forest ecosystems and their functions as a geomorphic agent. This is primarily linked with the process of tree uprooting and the biomechanical effects of tree roots on bedrock and how tree roots are able to enhance biological weathering and speed up initial soil formation. His research visit, which is supported by the Polish National Science Centre under the Uwertura 2 fellowship will last until the end of April 2020. During this visit, I will develop a project proposal, under the supervision of Prof. Sandy Harrison, to be submitted under the ERC Starting Grants Programme scheme. The main aim of the project proposal is to quantitatively evaluate the wind impact on European forest ecosystems and windthrows (toppled trees) and its consequences on soils and hillslope microrelief . In this project I will use existing large datasets of wind damage to forests to find what components (variables) allow us to predict the future impact on geomorphic processes and soil development under wind disturbances in Western and Central Europe. This will be achieved after setting up tight collaborations with some of the SPECIAL group members.
Sean works in developing mathematical tools to find new ways to use, generate, and interpret climate data. His research interests include data assimilation in novel situations, linear algebra and numerics. His work also focuses on how data assimilation and vegetation modelling can be used to improve palaeoclimate reconstructions.
His current work involves improving upon pollen reconstructions of the Last Glacial Maximum and Mid-Holocene. Pollen reconstructions and outputs of climate models from the 3rd round of the Palaeoclimate Modelling Intercomparison Project are both fused together using a variational data assimilation technique. This creates complete, gridded and accurate maps of palaeoclimates. In the same process he uses vegetation models to correct for the impact of changing atmospheric CO2 concentration on pollen-derived reconstructions. Sean is currently studying for a NERC sponsored PhD in Mathematics at the University of Surrey as part of the SCENARIO DTP.
Esmeralda Cruz Silva
Esmeralda works with late Quaternary databases of pollen records at mid-latitudes. She uses this data to produce vegetation maps as a source of information about spatial dynamics of plant communities and climate through time.
Currently her PhD work is centred at reconstructing spatio-temporal changes of vegetation and climate in the Mediterranean region using Holocene pollen data from the EMBSeCBIO database, the European Pollen Database (EPD), the African Pollen Database (APD) and the Modern Pollen Data for Climate Reconstructions (SMPDS). As part of her research, she both developed from the literature and by SPECIAL group members to assess their robustness.
David aims to reconstruct paleo fire regimes in the northern extratropics over glacial and interglacial climate changes. During his PhD, he will address this by using charcoal data from the global charcoal database and further unpublished paleocharcoal records.
Furthermore, he is interested in understanding how fire regime shifts over these timescales may relate to vegetation change, and will use various pollen databases to understand feedbacks between fire and vegetation in the context of large scale changes in climate.
Alexander’s primary research interest is to investigate wildfire models and to improve their capacity to represent the ecological impacts of future wildfire changes. He is also interested in investigating whether controls on wildfire vary regionally, and how this is represented by different fire models.
Currently, he is working on analysing the relationship between burnt area and different biophysical variables and other variables, such as above ground biomass. He is using the INFERNO3 global fire model in perturbed-parameter experiments in order to help address the above questions.
Alexander is currently studying for a QMEE PhD at Imperial University.
Mengmeng focuses on Earth system feedback. Her previous master’s work was developing a more rigorous theory for palaeoclimate reconstruction, which showed that WA-PLS is a special case of the theory when taxa tolerances are all equal and this new theory has greatly reduced the compression bias in WA-PLS. This would help with the current PhD project by providing a clearer past.
Her current work is to explore the potential relationships between SST (sea surface temperature), CO2 and dust. When you look back into the data of SST, CO2 concentration and dust between glacial and interglacial periods gained from the ice core, you would find a very similar trend in the changes of SST and CO2 concentration, and some key changes were often related to the abrupt increase of dust, so there might be some potential relationships between them. This would hopefully reveal the potential hidden rules of Earth system feedback and provide some very useful information for the feedback today.
Giulia works at developing mathematical models to predict vegetation response to climate change. With a background in ecology and eco-physiological processes, she has a strong interest in how plant interact with their environment – and vice versa – and how these interactions can be translated into mathematical models and have an impact on the atmospheric composition.
She is currently involved in a PhD project at the Imperial College London, that is carried out in collaboration with the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasting (ECMWF) and the University of Reading. Her PhD work involves the deployment of a new ecosystem model that combines satellite observations with eco-evolutionary optimality theory to predict canopy-level conductance and improve medium-range weather forecasting.
Sarah investigates monsoon dynamics over the Holocene period (the last 12,000 years) using palaeoclimate records of hydrological change, including speleothem and lake-level data. Her research involves the analysis and comparison of these records to reconstruct changes in the extent and magnitude of northern and southern hemisphere monsoons, and comparison of these reconstructions with climate models.
Currently, her work is focused on reconstructing the spatio-temporal evolution of regional monsoons using oxygen isotope data from speleothems, utilising the SISAL (speleothem isotope synthesis and analysis) database. By comparing speleothem-based palaeoclimate observations with climate model simulations, the forcing mechanisms and internal interactions controlling monsoon evolution can be investigated.
Mark examines rapid climate change and its effect on vegetation using pollen accumulations in lake sediments. He examines modern pollen assemblages and uses the relationships between pollen and climate to infer changes in climate variables through time.
His current work focuses on the last glacial (~20,000 years ago to ~120,000 years ago). During this time, there are at least 20 periods of rapid temperature increases (Dansgaard-Oeschger cycles) with similar rates of change to what the world is currently experiencing. Pollen assemblages in lake sediments reflect these changes, and the modern pollen-climate relationships may be used to quantitatively reconstruct climate changes during these events. This work helps in answering questions about the fate of vegetation under current and future climate change.
Kamolphat Atsawawaranunt (A)
Scientific Programmer & Data Manager
A constructs and manages databases within the group. These include the SISAL (Speleothem Isotopes Synthesis and Analysis) and GLSDBv2 (Global Lake Status Database version 2) database. The SISAL database is a global compilation of stable isotope records from speleothems and the GLSDBv2 database contains semi-quantitative information of lake level statuses through time. The first version of the SISAL database is currently available (check the Resources section) and GLSDBv2 is currently being constructed. He also manages other on-going databases that are used within the group such as EMBSecBIO and other pollen databases. He also writes scripts to check the data integrity before the data is stored in the database. He also manages the scripts and data used within the group and help with analyses and processing of data when required.
Previous Team Members
Bronwyn focused on the reconstruction of Australian rainfall during the Last Glacial Maximum (approx. 22,000 years ago) and through the Holocene (the last 10,000 years), as a part of the Global Lake Status Database v2.
Dr Guangqi Li
Li studied present and past tree ring behaviour using innovative and creative theory-based approaches. During his time at the SPECIAL group his work included modelling tree ring growth mechanisms and using tree rings in climate data-model comparisons.
Nick reconstructed high resolution environmental change from varved lakes in Mexico and Turkey through the Holocene and explored the potential relationship between environmental and societal change. He was also part of the team developing the Global Lake Status Database v2, focusing in Central America and the Caribbean.
Dongyang focused on reconstructing climate and vegetation changes in semi-arid Spain from the Last Interglacial (~130,000 yr BP) to the recent times and improving the paleoclimate reconstruction method.