Robert DeConto Joins UMass Amherst Faculty in Geosciences Department

AMHERST, Mass. - Robert DeConto has joined the department of geosciences at the University of Massachusetts. The announcement was made by Raymond Bradley, head of the department. "Understanding ocean circulation and its relationship to global climate changes is a critical area of research, and Rob DeConto is an expert in this area," said Bradley.

DeConto did his undergraduate work at the University of Colorado, and also earned his master’s and doctoral degrees there. His research has been widely published, including in the prestigious journal, Geophysical Research Letters.

His work combines numerous disciplines within earth science, including atmospheric science, oceanography, terrestrial and marine ecology, and paleoclimateology ? that is, the ancient history of the Earth’s climate and oceans. DeConto’s research interests include computer modeling of climate systems; marine geology; and the formation and melting of polar ice sheets. He is particularly interested in how the Earth’s atmosphere, oceans, and ecosystems affect one another. "I’m a geologist who concentrates on the fluid Earth, as opposed to the solid earth," said DeConto. "I’m particularly interested in biology’s role in climate, climate change, and the geologic past."

A current project in paleoclimatology focuses on the Cretaceous Era, some 100 million years ago. (Dinosaurs became extinct at the end of the Cretaceous Era.) "Scientists believe that the world was very warm at that time, and there weren’t ice caps on the poles," said DeConto. "We also believe that the tropics were similar, in terms of climate, to the way they are today." The catch, according to DeConto, is that climate models can’t seem to come up with a simulation that reflects scientists’ suppositions. "The question becomes, are the models deficient? Or are we interpreting geologic data incorrectly?" These are important questions, DeConto explained, because these are the models used to predict global warming. He receives funds from the National Science Foundation to examine possible causes of the initiation of glaciation on Antarctica. "Antarctica became glaciated rather suddenly about 33.5 million years ago," DeConto said. "Prior to that, Antarctica was mostly ice-free and forested, different from today."

Another project is aimed at developing computer models which take into account the Earth’s vegetation. "Vegetation plays an important role in climate, and we have to think about more than the physical elements, such as the location of continents and ancient mountain ranges, atmospheric greenhouse gases, and changes in the sun’s energy," he said. "Distribution of vegetation is really important to maintaining climate, and in climate changes. We need computer models that reflect those relationships, because that’s the way the world really works."

DeConto is currently teaching an advanced oceanography course which takes into account the atmosphere and the biosystem as forces of change that affect the seas. He is also planning to teach a course on historical geology, which will include the evolution of the atmosphere and oceans, and the paleoclimatology of the distant geologic past. DeConto will also teach climate computer modeling next year.

In addition to his UMass research, he is collaborating with researchers at Pennsylvania State University and the National Center for Atmospheric Research, in Boulder, Colo.