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Center for Quaternary Paleoclimate Research

The newly established Center for Quaternary Paleoclimate Research (CQPR) at the University of Tennessee is a strategic investment to increase external funding by building a community of scholars pursuing research focused on the climates and environments of the Quaternary period. The Quaternary began ca. 2.5 million years ago and includes the “Ice Ages” of the Pleistocene as well as the current warm geological epoch of the Holocene. Understanding paleoclimates of the Quaternary is of key importance to humanity, as this is the period of the emergence and expansion of our species over the planet. The climate changes of the Quaternary and their impacts on the biosphere and on humans offer the best analogs for understanding how future climate change will influence environments, organisms, and humankind.

Our long-range vision to establish a Center that will support and expand Quaternary paleoclimate research starts by building a community of scholars. The nucleus of this community is the eight faculty proposing this new Center, joined by over 25 students that we now advise in paleoclimate research. This core combined with the already significant infrastructure and track record of funding for paleoclimate research at UT will allow us to build collaborations that involve other UT faculty, recruit more graduate students and ultimately support additional faculty hires in this area, potentially including a Governor’s Chair.

The Center has seven objectives modeled after the highly regarded Quaternary Research Center at the University of Washington, which fosters interdisciplinary research by making strategic investments in seed grants, expeditions, and seminars and workshops in order to achieve the long-range CQPR vision:

  • Build a community of scholars pursuing Quaternary paleoclimate research
  • Increase external grant funding for Quaternary paleoclimate research
  • Broaden the participation of UT faculty and graduate students in paleoclimate research
  • Increase involvement of undergraduate students in paleoclimate research
  • Raise the profile of paleoclimate work at UT through increased research output and publicity
  • Share paleoclimate research with K-12 teachers and students
  • Encourage, through the success of the CQPR, new faculty hires in paleoclimate research

Facilities and Research Specialization

Research on Quaternary paleoclimates at UT is centered in the Departments of Geography and Earth and Planetary Science, where faculty and graduate students are engaged in the study of a variety of natural archives of Quaternary climate and environmental change, including tree rings, sediments and soils, speleothems and glacial features indicating past ice extents. Grants from NSF, other government agencies, and private foundations have funded field work throughout the U.S. and world to collect samples for analysis in specialized facilities in the Science and Engineering Research Facility, including the Laboratory of Paleoenvironmental Research, the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Science, and the Stable Isotope Laboratory.

Detailed study of the ages and growth rates of these archives, their isotopic and geochemical signatures, and the pollen grains and other fossils they contain provide records of Quaternary climates, environments, and biota that are unavailable elsewhere, and are of unique importance in forecasting and modeling future climates and environments. Often these records reveal evidence of human activity, for example prehistoric forest clearance and agriculture, and are of interest to archaeologists for this reason as well as for their importance in deciphering the shifts in climate that affected past human societies. Biologists increasingly look to records of Quaternary climate, environments, and biota for evidence of evolutionary and biogeographic history, in some cases derived from ancient DNA in sediments.

CQPR members not only have the expertise and lab facilities to develop these key records of climate in the recent geological past, but also an incredible collection of samples in hand for seed projects using new analytical techniques, including novel approaches with isotopes, biomarkers, and DNA. These include >30 lake-sediment cores and >200 tree-ring samples for which large investments in dating and initial analyses have already been made.

There are significant collaborative links already in existence between the faculty participants from the Departments of Geography, Earth and Planetary Sciences (EPS), and Anthropology and Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EEB), who serve together on graduate student committees; as co-PIs on grants and proposals; and as co-authors on paleoclimate publications. Specific areas of research point to worthwhile collaborations with others in Anthropology and in UT’s Archaeological Research Lab, and to faculty in the biological sciences.


Sally P. Horn, Professor, Department of Geography, Proposed Center Director

Larry McKay, Professor and Department Head, Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences

Zheng-Hua Li, Research Associate Professor, Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences

David Finkelstein, Assistant Professor, Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences

Henri Grissino-Mayer, Associate Professor, Department of Geography

Yingkui Li, Assistant Professor, Department of Geography

David Anderson, Professor and Associate Head, Department of Anthropology

Darrin Hulsey, Assistant Professor, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology


Sally P. Horn, Director
Department of Geography
The University of Tennessee
416 Burchfiel Geography Bldg.
Knoxville, TN 37996-0925
Phone: (865) 974-2418

The flagship campus of the University of Tennessee System and partner in the Tennessee Transfer Pathway.