New Canada Research Chair looks back 15,000 years to understandfuture climate change

By looking at remains left by plants, animals and people over the past 15,000 years, a new Canada Research Chair (CRC) at Western University hopes to find a key that opens the time capsule of climatic change in North America.

In the process, Fred Longstaffe hopes to use this knowledge of the past to anticipate future climate change. The earth sciences and anthropology professor was named Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Stable Isotope Science this morning.

As ice from the last glacial period retreated, plants, animals and people left behind a detailed record of their environment. Stable isotopic compositions – variants of particular chemical elements – of such remains, recovered from soil and lake sediment, may help us better understand climate change over a long span of time.

“Teeth and bone, for example, preserve the oxygen isotopic composition of water consumed during your life – you are what you drink!” Longstaffe says. “Drinking water at a given location has an isotopic composition directly related to temperature and other climatic parameters – it is even possible to distinguish seasonal variations.”

Similarly, the carbon and nitrogen isotopic compositions of plant and animal tissues are a measure of what grew and lived in an environment – and who ate whom. In the course of his studies, Longstaffe also hopes to answer why some animals went extinct – was it climate change, human impact, both, or something else?

He and his interdisciplinary team focus primarily on the Great Lakes basin.

“The region’s past sensitivity to climate change will be judged against a modern baseline and these data will help anticipate the impact of future change – including lake level fluctuations – on this vitally important inland waterway,” Longstaffe says.

In addition, following a full re-application process, five Western Chairholders had their CRCs renewed for another term:

  • Paul Beamish, Tier 1 CRC in International Management
  • Morris Karmazyn, Tier 1 CRC in Experimental Cardiology
  • Ravi Menon, Tier 1 CRC in Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Sean Cregan, Tier 2 CRC in Neurodegeneration and Repair
  • Elizabeth Gillies, Tier 2 CRC in Biomaterials Synthesis

The Chairs program has been designed to encourage and promote top research and innovation in universities.  Tier 1 Chairs are awarded $200,000 annually for seven years to fund their research and are awarded to outstanding researchers who have developed reputations as world leaders in their fields.  Tier 2 Chairholders are awarded $100,000 annually for five years and are recognized as exceptional and emerging researchers with the potential to lead their respective fields.

Fred Longstaffe, Canada Research Chair in Stable Isotope Science, 519-661-2111 x 83177,
Douglas Keddy, Research Communications Manager, 519-661-2111 x 87485,

For more information about the Canada Research Chairs program, please visit