WyCEHG Scientist uses geophysics to construct climate history

Wyoming EPSCoR

From a young age, Dr. Bryan Shuman was drawn to understanding the way the natural world works. That fascination took him from his native northeast to Colorado College for undergrad, Brown University for grad school, the University of Oregon for a postdoc, the University of Minnesota for his first faculty position, and finally to UW.

Now, as an associate professor in Geology and Geophysics and director of the Roy Shlemon Center for Quaternary Studies, his desire to understand the natural world is as strong as ever.

“I’m really interested in how climate changes and effects water resources and ecosystems,” says Shuman, “and I use geologic evidence to look at how that’s occurred in the past.”

He works within the timeframe of the past 15,000 years—since the last ice age—and has research sites in Wyoming, Colorado, and New England. In addition to using geologic evidence to understand climate processes, he also looks at climate’s impact on other systems. “I do a lot of work with fossil material to look at how forests in particular have responded. And I use lakes as giant precipitation gauges to reconstruct drought patterns in the past across many different parts of the continent.”

In addition to his research, Shuman also teaches classes on climate.

In addition to his research, Shuman also teaches classes on climate.

In order to conduct his research, Shuman employs less than tradition methods. “For me, the Wyoming Center for Environmental Hydrology and Geophysics (WyCEHG) is a really exciting development because I am basically the only person in this field of paleoecology who uses geophysics,” he says. Geophysical tools, such as ground penetrating radar (GPR), help him to evaluate evidence of past climate change, and to look at the effects those changes have had on water supply and forests.

Bryan Shuman at Lewis Lake. Work focuses on documenting and mapping changes in the levels of lakes throughout North America over the past 15,000 years.

Bryan Shuman at Lewis Lake. Work focuses on documenting and mapping changes in the levels of lakes throughout North America over the past 15,000 years.

Shuman hopes to use his research not only for the academic purposes of reconstructing a climate history, but also to inform the public on the ways a shifting climate could effect the water resources and ecosystems of the future.

“One reason this research is important is that it’s providing water managers with examples of how systems have changed before. These are not climate model speculations about what might change, but actual examples of ways in which our water resources have been impacted.”

“People are often surprised to realize that there were times when the Platte River—which we are totally dependent on for water and also energy—was dry for thousands of years,” Shuman says, and it wasn’t so long ago that the river was in that state. “The fact that we could change the climate and move into a situation that’s much drier than we are currently used to is not just an idea, it’s happened before.”

While his research can’t necessarily predict the future of the climate, it can show that there are meaningful impacts that climate change can produce. And it’s that deeper understanding of Earth’s history that really drives Shuman’s scientific interests.

“My favorite thing about [this research] is recognizing that the earth has been different in the past but that out there hidden in the landscape are all these clues as to how things have been before. I find it really amazing that I can go to a lake here in Wyoming, dig some material out of the ground and put together part of the story. Then I could go to somewhere in New England and see another piece of that story.”

“When we pull samples out of the ground, they have information that tells us about the way the world works. That’s very cool.”

By Manasseh Franklin