Professors Michael Griffiths and Nicole Davi Awarded $234,000 Research Grant from the National Science Foundation

The researchers aim to create and analyze a millennium’s worth of historic temperature and precipitation records for northern and southern Laos

Nicole Davi and Michael Griffiths

William Paterson University professors Michael Griffiths and Nicole Davi, environmental science department faculty, have received a $234,000 research grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). William Paterson is the lead institution on the project, “Calibrating South East Asian Proxies: Speleothems and Tree-Rings,” in collaboration with researchers from University of California – Irvine and Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO). Across the three institutions, the project has received a total of $815,000 in NSF support.

Through their grant-funded work, the researchers aim to create and analyze a millennium’s worth of historic temperature and precipitation records for northern and southern Laos, as evidenced in the atmospheric and land surface signals transferred to cave stalagmites and trees.

“For the first time, we will be combining these records in order to better understand the dynamics of hydroclimate over the past 1,000 years in a region where millions of people depend on monsoon rains to grow their food,” Davi says. “Our research will also advance knowledge on how best to combine these different proxies, since they each have their own nuances. The information will help inform future cross-disciplinary research.”

Griffiths and UC-Irvine’s Kathleen Johnson are speleothem experts, while Davi and Columbia’s Brendan Buckley are tree-ring experts. Together, according to the researchers, tree rings and speleothems offer the best prospects for reconstructing Southeast Asian monsoon history because each absorbs evidence of various meteorological indicators.

“Trees are likely to be biased toward their distinct growing season while speleothems may be biased toward the period of peak monsoon rainfall, when a greater fraction of water infiltrates to the cave,” Griffiths explains. “The positive aspect of analyzing these differences is that we can construct a more detailed and relevant portrait of climate variability.”

Due to the various logistical challenges in accessing the remote caves in Laos’ rugged terrain, where mountains still house unexploded bombs from the Vietnam War, there is a paucity of paleoclimate records in the area. Therefore, Griffiths and Davi hope these natural archives of rainfall variability will better constrain future projections in southeast Asia, a region occupying approximately 9 percent of the world’s population.

This work, to take place over the next three years, will present and support extensive undergraduate research opportunities at William Paterson University and on the LDEO campus. At least two students per semester will serve as their main research assistants on this project.

William Paterson’s ties to this project also extend beyond the campus. Two of the University’s graduates – Kyle Hansen ’16 and Rose Oelkers ’15, environmental science majors and students of Griffiths and Davi during their undergraduate careers – will be contributing to this research, and serving as co-mentors to the undergraduate assistants along with Griffiths and Davi, through their current positions as full-time technicians at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. The research skills they acquired from their WP professors landed them each a job at Columbia’s Tree-Ring Laboratory.

“They will be responsible for generating important new datasets from tree-rings in Laos, and thus will be included on high-profile publications in the coming years,” Griffiths says. “This is a classic example of the important role of undergraduate involvement in research at William Paterson University.”

Community and government affiliated groups in Laos – including Explo-Laos, Green Discovery Laos, the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), and the Institute for Southeast Asian Archaeology – are also included in the grant-funded project. Griffiths and Davi will work collaboratively with these groups where they, among other things, will help to identify suitable study sites, collect monthly rainfall and cave drip-water samples, and gauge modern tree-ring growth patterns.

The group of researchers will travel to Laos in January 2018 to begin their funded work.