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Post-doc Opportunity in Watershed Modeling at Kent State University

This position has been filled. Thanks for your interest.

Post-doctoral Associate in Watershed Modeling

A post-doctoral position focusing on hydrologic modeling of urban watersheds is available in the Department of Geology, Kent State University, in the lab of Anne Jefferson ( The successful candidate will have experience using RHESSys or another distributed watershed model and interest in applying their skills to questions about the effects of green infrastructure and climate change in urban areas. The post-doc will be expected to contribute to research design and undertaking, publication, and pursuit of external funding. There will also be the potential to develop additional projects building on the strengths, interests, and expertise of the successful candidate. The post-doc will have access to a wealth of data sets, field sites and instrumentation; an interdisciplinary, collaborative group of researchers and external partners focused on urban ecosystems; and a campus mentoring program for postdocs.

Kent State University (, the second largest university in Ohio, is a state-supported, doctoral degree granting institution ranked as ‘high research’ by the Carnegie Foundation. The Department of Geology ( has a strong graduate program (both MS and Ph.D. degrees) in both applied and basic areas of geologic research. The city of Kent combines the eclectic atmosphere of a small midwest college town with easy access to major metropolitan centers, including Cleveland, Akron, Columbus, and Pittsburgh.

Salary will be commensurate with experience and includes a competitive benefits package. Funding is initially available to support 1.5 years of work and opportunities will be sought to extend the support. If you are interested in learning more about the position, e mail Anne Jefferson (ajeffer9 at kent edu) with your CV, a description of your interests and experiences, and contact information for three people willing to serve as references. Review of applications will begin March 1st and continue until the position is filled. Kent State University is an Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity Employer and encourages interest from candidates who would enhance the diversity of the University’s faculty.

New paper: Seasonal versus transient snow and the elevation dependence of climate sensitivity in maritime mountainous regions

Snowline near Skykomish, Washington (photo on Flickr by RoguePoet, used under Creative Commons)

Snowline near Skykomish, Washington (photo on Flickr by RoguePoet, used under Creative Commons)

Jefferson, A. 2011. Seasonal versus transient snow and the elevation dependence of climate sensitivity in maritime mountainous regions, Geophysical Research Letters, 38, L16402, doi:10.1029/2011GL048346.


In maritime mountainous regions, the phase of winter precipitation is elevation dependent, and in watersheds receiving both rain and snow, hydrologic impacts of climate change are less straightforward than in snowmelt-dominated systems. Here, 29 Pacific Northwest watersheds illustrate how distribution of seasonal snow, transient snow, and winter rain mediates sensitivity to 20th century warming. Watersheds with >50% of their area in the seasonal snow zone had significant (? ? 0.1) trends towards greater winter and lower summer discharge, while lower elevations had no consistent trends. In seasonal snow-dominated watersheds, runoff occurs 22–27 days earlier and minimum flows are 5–9% lower than in 1962, based on Sen’s slope over the period. Trends in peak streamflow depend on whether watershed area susceptible to rain-on-snow events is increasing or decreasing. Delineation of elevation-dependent snow zones identifies climate sensitivity of maritime mountainous watersheds and enables planning for water and ecosystem impacts of climate change.

Pakistan floods: Predicted or Predictable, but a disaster nonetheless

Cross-posted at Highly Allochthonous

Unusually heavy monsoon rains in July and August 2010 left large swaths of Pakistan underwater. At least 18 million people were affected by the flood, and it is estimated that, more than six months later, several hundred thousand remain without even temporary shelter. As a result of lost crops and livelihoods from the flood and inadequate relief supplies, malnutrition continues to kill people. Like most floods, the Pakistani poor have suffered far more than those with resources to avoid the flood, or at least its aftermath.

Remains of a school destroyed by flooding, near Jacobabad by DFID - UK Department for International Development, on Flickr

Remains of a school destroyed by flooding, near Jacobabad by UK Department for International Development, on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons license.

A paper in press in Geophysical Research Letters shows that the 2010 floods were extraordinary. Monsoonal rains tend to occur in pulses, with multi-day wet periods followed by multi-day dry periods, and while the total rainfall over Pakistan during the 2010 monsoon season was not unprecedented, the number and intensity of extremely heavy rains over northern Pakistan was very unusual. The authors are working with very limited historical and satellite data, but they estimate that the number of intense rain bursts that occurred in 2010 had a probability of less than 3% in any given year.

Using data from the European Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasts collection of meteorological models, the authors of the new paper show that the timing and intensity of northern Pakistan’s monsoon rain bursts are predictable up to 6 to 8 days in advance – including the rains that caused the flooding in 2010.

Lead author, Peter Webster, and his coauthors from the Georgia Institute of Technology, draw the following conclusion from their analysis:

We conclude that if these extended quantitative precipitation forecasts had been available in Pakistan, the high risk of flooding could have been foreseen. If these rainfall forecasts had been coupled to a hydrological model then the high risk of extensive and prolonged flooding could have anticipated and actions taken to mitigate their impact.

The floods really kicked off with a burst of rain on 28-29 July 2010, and according to Webster’s reanalysis, that rainfall was predictable with good skill 7 days in advance (21 July). Webster and colleagues argue that if that forecast was available in Pakistan, lives would have been saved and the immensity of the disaster reduced. But, C. Christine Fair, writing on the Foreign Policy magazine website suggests that the flood was forecast in Pakistan.

In the middle of July, the PMD began tracking a storm brewing in the Bay of Bengal. This eastern weather system developed interactively with a western weather system to produce the massive rains and the subsequent super flood of 2010. On July 24, the PMD issued a flood warning to the provincial government of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KPK). Despite these increasingly severe warnings, KPK’s citizenry did not believe them. … The PMD kept issuing warnings to KPK as the rains began to fall. However, as fate would have it, on July 28, … a passenger jet coming to Islamabad from Karachi crashed …With the media beset upon this tragic spectacle, the PMD’s warnings went unheeded as the rain began to fall.

So the Pakistani government did forecast the flood – at least four days out – in plenty of time to get people in northern Pakistan’s valleys out of the way. The problem was not with the meteorological and hydrologic science either internationally or in Pakistan. Instead, disaster was ensured when flood warnings were not taken sufficiently seriously by regional authorities, media, and residents.

Why wouldn’t flood warnings be heeded? Perhaps more could have been done to communicate to Pakistanis through channels whose authority they respected. Webster cites an example of flood warnings in Bangladesh being disseminated by imams at local mosques. The Foreign Policy article quoted above places some blame on media distractedness.

But there was also a more insidious reason the forecasted flood was ignored. It was a rare event, but it was also part of a new climatic pattern for Pakistan. As the Foreign Policy article describes it:

in recent years there has been a slow but steady change in the location where Pakistan’s major rainfalls concentrate. In the past, monsoon rains fell most intensely over the Punjab. Slowly and steadily, the concentration of rainfall has moved north and west to KPK. This redistribution of concentrated rainfall away from the Punjab and towards KPK explains why no one in KPK had any reason to believe the predicted weather.

Flooding frequency and intensity have increased in Pakistan in the last 30-40 years compared to earlier in the 20th century. Webster and coauthors state, “This recent increase is consistent with the increase in intensity of the global monsoon accompanying the last three decades of general global warming.” The flood warnings were ignored, in part, because the statistics of monsoon rain patterns are changing. Human memory and historical records are not good guidance if the weather system is changing. In situations like this one, the past is not the key to the present.

There are lots of things that should have been improved to lessen the magnitude of the Pakistani flood disaster – reservoir management should have been altered; emergency relief supplies should have been distributed more equitably, broadly, and consistently; international assistance should have been much more generous – but the two big lessons for hazard mitigation coming out of the Pakistan floods seem to be: “find a system for making sure that warnings are issued and that they actually make it to people in harm’s way” and “don’t assume the climate of living memory is a very good indicator of the weather of the present and future.”

Webster, P. J., Toma, V.E., & Kim, H.-M. (2011). Were the 2010 Pakistan floods predictable? Geophysical Research Letters : 10.1029/2010GL046346

Heat in the Southeast

Cross-posted at Highly Allochthonous
Here in Charlotte we had a hot summer. We barely escaped the dubious distinction of hottest summer on record, with an average temperature of 81.1° F (27.3 ° C) between 1 June and 31 August. The record had been set in 1993, when Charlotte recorded an average temperature of 81.5° F (27.5 ° C). In terms of record breaking heat, we actually fared better than many parts of the east coast, where temperature records from New York City to Greenville-Spartanburg, South Carolina were broken. Below there’s a nice map from NOAA of how far average temperatures deviated from the 30-year climate normal period (here, 1966-1996).

U.S. surface temperature departure from average (°C), June 1 to August 31, 2010, from NOAA/ESRL Physical Sciences Division, Boulder Colorado

U.S. surface temperature departure from average (°C), June 1 to August 31, 2010, from NOAA/ESRL Physical Sciences Division, Boulder Colorado

Of course those average temperature records belie the minima and maxima experienced by each place over the course of those three summer months, so there’s another statistic that I’m finding even more interesting: the number of days where maximum temperatures exceeded 90° F (32.2 ° C). I think of it as Anne’s index of intolerable heat, especially when combined with the Southeast’s oppressive humidity. In Charlotte, between 1 June and 31 August, we had 67 days that exceeded 90° F. That means that 73% of days this summer were intolerably hot (at least for me). Also, that’s only counting the days in the climatological summer. We had 90+° F degree heat in early April, some in May, and we’ve already had some in September, with more in the forecast this week. I suspect that by the time the year is out, our total days above 90° F will be something around 80, if not more.

The long-term predictions for the index of intolerable heat look grim for Charlotte and the rest of the southeast. The image below shows historical and modeled days with peak temperatures exceeding 90° F. By the end of the century, at least under a high emissions scenario, 80+ days of intolerable heat will be considered a cool summer in North Carolina. We’re heading towards 120 days or more of hot, hot weather, a doubling of our historical average. In parts of Florida and Texas, more than half the year will be hotter than 90° F. Yuck. Glad I won’t be around here then.

Historical and predicted days with peak temperatures above 90 degrees Fahrenheit

These temperature trends are not just bad news for people who like to play (or do field work) outside in the summer, but are too wimpy to drop bucketloads of sweat. Hotter average temperatures and more days with ridiculous heat have real health consequences. On hot days, the chances go up that people playing outside end up with heat exhaustion or life-threatening heat stroke. People without air conditioned homes or workplaces, people too poor to pay tremendous energy bills for air conditioning, or people who just happen to have their AC break do not even need to play outside to be at risk of heat related illness or death. About 700 people already die each year from heat-related causes, and the elderly are a disproportionate share of the victims. Those with cardiovascular disease are also at substantially increased risk of heat-related mortality.

And it’s not the heat alone that spells bad news for the Southeast. With hotter temperatures come increasing rates of photochemical reactions…such as the production of ground-level ozone from nitrous oxides and volatile organic compounds released by car exhaust, power plants, and natural sources. The chemistryof photochemical ozone production is pretty complex and we don’t have a fantastic handle on how coming climate changes will impact the percent of hot days with sun versus clouds, but if the number of hot sunny days increases, it is likely that ozone production will increase too. Ozone brings its own host of adverse health effects, particularly respiratory problems, so even if you don’t mind the heat, running around outside on hot, sunny days can be a bad idea. Once again, children, the elderly, and those with asthma and other respiratory problems are most at risk on high ozone days. Such days, labeled as orange alerts, occur sporadically thoughout the summer already. In Charlotte, we’ve had 13 days with air quality in the orange category since May 1 this year. On those days, people at risk are encouraged to avoid outdoor exercise, and daycare centers limit the time kids spent playing outside. Some days, the air quality is bad enough (red alert) that even healthy adults are encouraged to avoid to outdoor exercise. That’s happened once this year in Charlotte.

As Charlotte and other parts of the southeast move towards one-third of their days in the intolerably hot range, with the probable added bonus of worse air pollution, it will be interesting to watch the societal shifts in attitudes toward the climate. Will Southerners get serious about reducing emissions from cars? Will Charlotteans end their love affair with sprawl in order to improve air quality? Will the Southeast be depopulated of Yankee transplants like me, who finally decide that they can’t take the heat? Or will we just stay inside and crank up the air conditioning units and complain about the weather?

Anne's picks of the June literature: Humans as Agents of Hydrologic Change

ResearchBlogging.orgHow the world’s biggest river basins are going to respond to mid-century climate change…and how large reservoirs affect our measurements of global sea level rise.

Immerzeel, W., van Beek, L., & Bierkens, M. (2010). Climate Change Will Affect the Asian Water Towers Science, 328 (5984), 1382-1385 DOI: 10.1126/science.1183188

Where do 1 in 4 people live? Where do those people get their water? 1.4 billion people live in five river basins (Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Yangtze, and Yellow) and those mighty rivers source some of their water in the Himalayas, where on-going climate change will have a big impact on glacier melt and seasonal precipitation. In this paper, Immerzeel and colleagues used the SRM hydrologic model and GCM outputs to simulate the years 2046-2065 under two different glacier extent scenarios, a “best-guess” and an extreme case where all glacier cover had disappeared. The five basins all behaved quite differently from each other, because each basin has a different topographic distribution. The Brahmaputra and Indus have the highest percent of glacier-covered area, and these two rivers will be the most severely impacted by projected climate change via decreases in late spring and summer streamflow, as reduced glacier melt is only partially offset by increased spring rains. Between these two basins, the authors estimate that the hydrologic changes will reduce the number of people who can be fed by 60 million people! On the other hand, basins with less reliance on meltwater will not be as bad off – in fact, the Yellow River is likely to experience an increase in spring streamflow and may be able to feed 3 million more people. To me this paper emphasizes the fact that the consequences of climate change are not going to be evenly dispensed across the world’s population and that we’ve really got an urgent task of figuring out how regional climate changes will cascade through hydrology, ecology, food security, disease, and almost every other aspect of the world on which we depend.

Fiedler, J., & Conrad, C. (2010). Spatial variability of sea level rise due to water impoundment behind dams Geophysical Research Letters, 37 (12) DOI: 10.1029/2010GL043462

Global reservoirs trap ~10,800 cubic kilometers of water – enough volume to reduce sea level by ~30 mm. But when large reservoirs are filled, the water weight locally depresses the Earth’s surface and increases local relative sea level. Thus, tide gages that are close to large reservoirs don’t record the true sea level effects of water impoundment – instead recording only about 60% of the true drop. This creates an added wrinkle in the estimation of global sea level rise over the last century, and Fiedler and Conrad compute that these reservoir effects on the geoid have caused an ~10% over-estimation in rates of sea level rise. The largest effects on sea level rise records are places where tide gages are near big reservoirs – like the east coast of North America. *

* Please note that I can’t read the full article of AGU publications (including WRR, JGR, and GRL) until July 2010 or the print issue arrives in my institution’s library. Summaries of those articles are based on the abstract only.

Is Anne a hydrologist? geomorphologist? hydrophillic geologist? or whathaveyou?

Cross-posted at Highly Allochthonous

The theme for the next edition of the geoblogosphere’s Accretionary Wedge carnival is along the lines of “what are you doing now?” Recently as I was whining to my Highly Allochthonous co-blogger about how busy my teaching was keeping me, and how I wouldn’t have time to write anything for the Wedge, Chris suggested that I exhume some navel-gazing writing I’d done a while ago and simply post that. And in slightly modified form, now I have.

So, what do I do? The major theme of my research is analyzing how geologic, topographic, and land use variability controls hydrologic response, climate sensitivity, and geomorphic evolution of watersheds, by partitioning water between surface and ground water. The goal of my research is to improve reach- to landscape-scale prediction of hydrologic and geomorphic response to human activities and climate change. My work includes contributions from field studies, stable isotope analyses, time series analyses, geographic information systems, and hydrological modeling. My process-based research projects allow me to investigate complex interactions between hydrology, geomorphology, geology, and biology that occur on real landscapes, to test conceptual models about catchment functioning, and to show whether predictive models are getting the right answers for the right reasons. My current and past research has allowed me to investigate landscapes as diverse as the Cascades Range volcanic arc, the Appalachian Mountains and Piedmont of the southeastern United States, the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, and the Upper Mississippi River watershed.

My on-going and developing research program focuses on three areas:

  1. Watershed influences on hydrologic response to climate variability and change;
  2. Controls on and effects of partitioning flowpaths between surface water and groundwater; and
  3. Influence of hydrologic regimes on landscape evolution and fluvial geomorphology

If you really want the long version of my research interests, venture onward. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Watershed influences on hydrologic response to climate variability and change

On-going climate change is predicted to have dramatic effects on the spatial distribution and timing of water resource availability. I use historical datasets, hydrologic modeling, and GIS analysis to examine how watershed characteristics can mediate hydrologic sensitivity to climate variability and change. Currently, I focus on climate sensitivity in watersheds with seasonal and transient snow and on down-scaling hydrologic impacts of climate change to smaller watersheds.

Watersheds with seasonal and transient snow: A long-held mantra is that watersheds with extensive groundwater are buffered from climate change effects, but in a pair of papers set in the Oregon Cascades, my collaborators and I showed the opposite to be true. Minimum streamflows in watersheds with abundant groundwater are more sensitive to loss of winter snowpack than in watersheds with little groundwater (Jefferson et al., 2008, Tague et al., 2008). Glaciers are another water reservoir often thought to buffer climate change impacts, and in a paper in review, we show that projected glacier loss from Mt. Hood will have significant impacts on water resources in the agricultural region downstream.

I have also been examining hydroclimate trends relative to hypsometry (elevation distribution) of watersheds in the maritime Pacific Northwest. Almost all work investigating hydrologic effects of climate change in the mountainous western United States focuses on areas with seasonal snowpacks, but in the maritime Northwest, most watersheds receive a mixture of winter rain and snow. My research investigates how much high-elevation watershed area is necessary for historical climate warming to be statistically detectable in streamflow records. Preliminary results were presented at the American Geophysical Union meeting in 2008, and I’m working on a paper with more complete results. Extending this work into the modeling domain, I am currently advising a graduate student using SnowModel to investigate the sensitivity of snowmelt production to projected warming in the Oregon Cascades, Colorado’s Fraser Experimental Forest, and Alaska’s North Slope, in collaboration with Glen Liston (Colorado State University).

Down-scaling climate impacts to watersheds and headwater streams: Most studies of hydrologic impacts of climate change have focused on regional scale projections or large watersheds. Relatively little work has been done to understand how hydrologic and geomorphic impacts will be felt in mesoscale catchments or headwater stream systems, yet most of the channel network (and aquatic habitat) exists in these small streams. In August 2009, I submitted a proposal to a Department of Energy early career program to investigate the effect of climate change on hydrology of the eastern seaboard of the US. This work proposed to contrast North Carolina’s South Fork Catawba River and New Hampshire’s Pemigewassett River and their headwater tributaries through a combination of modeling and field observations of the sensitivity of headwater stream networks to hydroclimatic variability. While the project was not funded, I am using the reviews to strengthen the proposal, and I plan to submit a revised proposal to NSF’s CAREER program in July. I have a graduate student already working on calibrating the RHESSys hydroecological model for the South Fork of the Catawba River.

Controls on flowpath partitioning between surface water and groundwater and the effects on stream hydrology, geomorphology and water quality

Many watershed models used in research and management applications make simplifying assumptions that partition water based on soil type and homogeneous porous bedrock. These assumptions are not reflective of reality in many parts of the world, including the fractured rocks of North Carolina’s Piedmont and Blue Ridge provinces. I am interested in understanding how water is partitioned between groundwater and surface water in heterogeneous environments, and what effect this partitioning has on stream hydrology, geomorphology, and water quality. My interest in the controls on flowpath partitioning began during my work in the Oregon Cascades Range, where I showed that lava flow geometry controlled groundwater flowpaths and the expression of springs (Jefferson et al., 2006). Currently, I am using fractured rock environments and urbanizing areas as places to explore the effects of heterogeneous permeability.

Fractured rock: The Piedmont and Blue Ridge provinces of the eastern United States are underlain by crystalline rocks, where groundwater is largely limited to discrete fractures. Groundwater-surface water interactions on fractured bedrock are largely unexplored, particularly at the scale of small headwater streams. I am interested in how groundwater upwelling from bedrock fractures and hyporheic flow influence the hydrology and water quality of headwater streams. A small grant facilitated data collection in three headwater streams which is forming the thesis for one of my graduate students, has precipitated a collaborative project with hydrogeologists from the North Carolina Division of Water Quality, and will serve as preliminary data for a proposal to NSF Hydrologic Sciences in June 2010.

Urban watersheds: Urbanization alters the partitioning of flowpaths between surface water and groundwater, by creating impervious surfaces that block recharge and installing leaky water and sewer lines that import water from beyond watershed boundaries. Also, the nature of the drainage network is transformed by the addition of stormwater sewers and detention basins. In September 2009, my collaborators and I submitted a proposal to NSF Environmental Engineering to look at how stormwater best management practices (BMPs) mitigate the effects of urbanization on headwater stream ecosystem services. While we weren’t funded, we were strongly encouraged to resubmit and did so in March 2010. We are also submitting a proposal to the National Center for Earth Surface Dynamics (NCED) visitor program to use the Outdoor Stream Lab at the University of Minnesota to investigate the interplay between stormwater releases and in-stream structures.

Influence of hydrologic regimes on landscape evolution and fluvial geomorphology

The movement of water on and through the landscape results in weathering, erosion, transport, and deposition of sediment. In turn, that sediment constrains the future routing of water. I am interested in how the hydrologic regime of a watershed affects the evolution of topography and fluvial geomorphology. My work in this area has examined million-year scales of landscape evolution in high permeability terrains, century-scale evolution of regulated rivers, and the form and function of headwater channels.

Evolution of high permeability terrains: The youngest portions of Oregon’s High Cascades have almost no surface water, because all water infiltrates into high permeability lava flows. Yet on older parts of the landscape, streams are abundant and have effectively eroded through the volcanic topography. In a paper in Earth Surface Processes and Landforms (Jefferson et al., 2010), I showed that this landscape evolution was accompanied and facilitated by a hydrologic evolution from geomorphically-ineffective stable, groundwater-fed hydrographs to flashy, runoff-dominated hydrographs. This coevolutionary sequence suggests that permeability may be an important control on the geomorphic character of a watershed.

Human and hydrologic influences on large river channels: Almost all large rivers in the developed world are profoundly affected by dams, which can alter the hydrologic regime by suppressing floods, supplementing low flows, and raising water levels in reservoirs. On the Upper Mississippi River, in the 70 years since dam construction, some parts of the river have lost islands, and with them habitat diversity, while in other areas new islands are emerging. In 2008-2009, I had a small grant that facilitated the examination of some islands with a unique, unpublished long-term topography dataset and its correlation with hydrologic patterns and human activities. This project became the thesis research of one of my graduate students, who will be defending his M.S. in May 2010.

Headwater channel form and function: Although headwater streams constitute 50-70% of stream length, the geomorphic processes that control their form and function are poorly understood. Most recent research on geomorphology of headwater streams has focused on streams in very steep landscapes, where debris flows and other mass wasting processes can have significant effects on channel geometry. In the Carolina Piedmont, gentle relief allows me to investigate the formation and function headwater channel networks, isolated from mass wasting processes. One of my graduate students has collected an extensive sediment size distribution dataset which shows that, at watershed areas <3 km2, downstream coarsening of sediment is more prevalent than the downstream fining widely observed in larger channels. Another graduate student is collecting data on channel head locations and flow recurrence and sediment transport in ephemeral channels in order to sort out the relative influences of topography, geology, and legacy land use effects on the uppermost reaches of headwater streams. Both of these projects have already resulted in presentations at GSA meetings.

Whew. So that’s what I do, between teaching some field-intensive courses and raising a preschooler. But, what am I? Hydrologist? Geomorphologist? Hydrophillic geologist? Or something else entirely?

Coal, the High Arctic, and the fossil record of climate change

Coals exposed along Stenkul Fiord, southern Ellesmere Island, Canadian Arctic

For more than 55 million years, Ellesmere Island remained in one place while the world around it changed. Fifty-five million years ago, verdant forests grew at 75° North latitude. These wetland forests, [comprised] of species now primarily found in China, grew on an alluvial plain where channels meandered back and forth and periodic floods buried stumps, logs, and leaves intact. Today the forests are preserved as coal seams that outcrop on the edges …[of] modern Ellesmere Island, [where] there are no forests, and the tallest vegetation grows less than 15 cm high. Large parts of the area are polar desert, subject to intensely cold and dark winters and minimal precipitation.

These are the opening lines to my M.S. thesis, in which I contrasted the Paleocene-Eocene and modern hydrological environments of Stenkul Fiord, on southern Ellesmere Island in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. My thesis goes on to describe a world that no longer exists, except in the fossil record preserved at sites in the High Arctic.  This former world may provide clues as to how polar flora and fauna and their physical environment responded to global mean surface temperatures that were 2-4 degrees warmer than they are today, yet are right in line with the predictions for the end of this century. These clues, recorded in the fossil and stratigraphic record in coal and sediment layers on remote Ellesmere Island, well north of the northernmost civilian settlement in North America, are under attack. The same human demand for energy for that is driving up global temperatures is threatening to erase the very fossils that record polar life under a warmer temperature regime. The government of Canada’s Nunavut territory is currently considering claims by Westar Resources, Inc. to mine the coal beds in one of the most spectacular of all the fossil localities in the High Arctic.

During the Paleocene and Eocene, tropical vegetation extended to 50° N, and broad-leaved evergreens reached 70° N. There was no permanent polar ice, and large parts of the polar regions were covered by forests dominated by cypresses and angiosperms. Fossilized remnants of these forests are found in locations such as Spitsbergen, Greenland, the Yukon, northeastern Asia, and the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. This widespread Arcto-Tertiary forest nearly disappeared as the climate cooled over the past 30 million years and modern temperate forests. Today the last remnants of this flora are preserved in the mountains of China’s Sichuan province.

modern Metasequoia glyptostroboides trunk

Modern Metasequoia glyptostroboides trunk (Image: Wikimedia)

Among the signature trees of the Arcto-Tertiary fossil record is the Metasequoia, a genus which was thought to have gone extinct in the Miocene until an isolated grove of  Metasequoia glyptostroboides, or dawn redwood, was discovered in Sichuan in 1944.  Metasequoia grows to 60 m tall and unlike sequoias, it is deciduous and loses its leaves in the winter.  This would have been quite handy for life in the High Arctic, where in the Paleocene-Eocene winter temperatures might have hovered just above freezing, but would still have been dark for six months of the year.

Metasequoia log, Stenkul Fiord, Ellesmere Island (photo by Anne Jefferson)

Metasequoia log, Stenkul Fiord, Ellesmere Island (photo by Anne Jefferson)

Metasequoia stump, Stenkul Fiord, Ellesmere Island (photo by Anne Jefferson)

Metasequoia stump in its growth position, Stenkul Fiord, Ellesmere Island (photo by Anne Jefferson)

At the site where I worked on Ellesmere Island, there were large Metasequoia logs and tree stumps still rooted in situ in the coal layers. Picking apart the coal layers, I could pull out Metasequoia leaves, twigs, and male and female cones. The siltstones between the coals preserved beautiful fossil impressions of a variety of tree leaves and stems.

An early Eocene tapir fossil from Ellesmere Island (Image courtesy of Jaelyn Eberle)

An early Eocene tapir fossil from Ellesmere Island (Image courtesy of Jaelyn Eberle)

My field site on Stenkul Fiord yielded only plant fossils, and for now, is safe from the development plans of Westar Resources and the Nunavut government. But a bit north at Strathcona Fiord, plants are second fiddle to the best vertebrate fossil locality of the Canadian High Arctic. At Strathcona Fiord,  the fossil record shows that those Eocene forests were inhabited by alligators, giant tortoises, primates, tapirs, and the hippo-like Coryphodon. There have been over 40 papers published on the Eocene fossils of Strathcona Fiord alone. It’s not just the Eocene that makes Strathcona Fiord an amazing fossil locality either. Pliocene layers at Strathcona Fiord have yielded plants, insects, mollusks, fish, frog and mammals such as  black bear, 3-toed horse, beaver,  and badger. It is the only known Pliocene Arctic site with vertebrate remains.

Strathcona Fiord is one of three sites where Westar Resources, Inc. plans to mine the coal. Mining the coal will permanently destroy the embedded fossils and the possibilities for any additional discoveries at this site. The other two Ellesmere Island areas in which Westar has applied for mining permits are the Fosheim and Bache Pennisulas. We don’t know as much about the paleontology of these areas, but the little work that has been done on the Fosheim Peninsula has already discovered Eocene leaf beds and Pliocene fossils.

Paleontologists and geologists around the world are raising their voices in opposition to the proposed coal mining at Strathcona Fiord and the other sites on Ellesmere Island. The Society for Vertebrate Paleontology has issued a press release expressing concern and urging the preservation of the fossils resources. There is also a coordinated letter-writing campaign to the Nunavut Impact Review Board. I’ve just sent a letter to the review board, which I’ve appended below. If you a paleontologist, paleoclimatologist, geologist, Arctic lover, fossil lover, or otherwise moved by the incredible story of alligators and towering trees at 75° N, I urge you join me in writing to the government of Nunavut and encourage them to at least require more study of the localities before mining is approved. Letters can be sent electronically to

To the members of the Nunavut Impact Review Board,

I appreciate the opportunity to write to you concerning the proposed Westar coal project on Ellesmere Island. I am a geologist at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and my research focuses on the intersection of hydrology, landscapes, and climate. My graduate M.S. thesis research focused on the paleo-environments of the Eureka Sound Group exposed at Stenkul Fiord on southern Ellesmere Island. I used the coal and sediment layers, and the fossils they contain, to understand variability of hydrological environments that existed in the Arctic 55 million years ago. Today, I work on issues of water and modern climate change, but my perspective was profoundly influenced by the time I spent on Ellesmere Island walking amidst the coal layers and fossilized tree trunks.

The proposed activities by Westar Resources, Inc. could damage or destroy fossil sites that form an important part of Nunavut’s history and environmental legacy. These fossils tell us about the history of Arctic plants and animals, and they are recognized internationally for their scientific importance. They also provide important evidence from a time when Earth, especially the Arctic, was warmer. The fossils of the Ellesmere Island sites proposed for mining by Ellesmere Island provide clues as to how polar flora and fauna and their physical environment responded to global mean surface temperatures that were 2-4 degrees warmer than they are today, yet are right in line with the predictions for the end of this century. Ultimately, I hope that evidence from Nunavut’s fossil record can help us better estimate and prepare for future climate change.

If the fossil sites in the Westar coal project areas are destroyed the evidence is lost forever, therefore I recommend that the Nunavut Impact Review Board advise the Minister, pursuant to article 12.4.4(a) of the Nunavut Land Claim Agreement, that the project proposal requires review under Part 5 or 6. I believe that much more paleontological and paleoclimatic research can be conducted at these sites before any coal is extracted from them and we lose the opportunity to learn all that we can.

I thank you for your consideration, and request that you keep me informed of the results of this screening process.

Post-doctoral Scholar – Oregon State University Hydrogeomorphic response to changing climates in the Pacific Northwest

Described below is a great post-doc opportunity to work with fantastic people. (I should know, I did my PhD and post-doc in this research group.)

We are looking for someone to co-lead a multi-year, inter-institutional research effort to characterize and forecast the effects of changing climate on streamflows and geomorphic processes in the Pacific Northwest. Focus will be on developing and extending theoretical and empirical models of hydrologic response to climate drivers, emphasizing the role of geologic and ecologic controls and filters. The individual hired will have primary responsibility for exploring fruitful lines of attack on the problem, data acquisition and analysis, developing and applying relevant hydrologic and statistical models, and reporting results as journal publications and presentations. This post-doctoral position is with the Watershed Processes Group of Oregon State University (, and the person hired will work closely with federal scientists from the USDA Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station.
1) Ph.D. in hydrology, geomorphology, watershed sciences, or a closely related field, with a demonstrated record of publication or other successful dissemination of work.
2) Strong fundamental understanding of hydrologic processes at the scale of small watersheds to larger catchments, with expertise in one or more of the following: snowpack dynamics, groundwater processes, ecohydrologic interactions, drainage network response to precipitation/runoff relationships.
3) Experience and facility with distributed parameter hydrologic models; familiarity with climate models and climate change scenarios desirable
4) Strong statistics, data analysis and visualization skills, particularly with respect to long time-series data sets.
5) High level working knowledge of GIS and other spatial analysis tools. Expertise with interpreting remote sensing a plus.
Please send a letter of application describing your research experience and qualifications relevant to this position, a complete resume with links to publications, and the names, email addresses and telephone numbers of three references to Sarah Lewis, or 3200 SW Jefferson Way, Corvallis, Oregon 97330. Review of applications will begin February 15, 2010, and continue until a suitable candidate is found.