Work on marine climate history attracts prestigious Medal Award

Dr Paul ButlerDr Paul ButlerDr Paul Butler of the School of Ocean Sciences has been awarded the prestigious Lewis Penny Medal by the Quaternary Research Association for his research on marine climate history. The prize recognizes early career researchers who have made a significant contribution to our understanding of the changing climate and environment of the last 2 million years.


The citation for the award recognizes that Paul is both an exceptional and unusual nominee for the Medal; exceptional in terms of his abilities, impact and his central role in the rapidly developing field of molluscan sclerochronology (the study of growth rings in shellfish); unusual in that, now aged 57, his research career has developed in just nine years following his return to academic study in 2001 after a London-based career as a computer consultant.  Paul completed an undergraduate course in Ocean Sciences at SOS and obtained a First Class Honours Degree in 2004. He was then awarded the Cemlyn Jones Studentship to carry out research into the use of the shell of the very long-lived mollusc Arctica islandica in the study of the history of marine climate in the Irish Sea.  His PhD was completed in 2009, and he is now a Research Fellow in SOS, funded as part of the Climate Change Consortium of Wales (C3W).


Paul’s research field (sclerochronology) is a marine equivalent of tree-ring research.  Many marine shells contain prominent annual growth bands whose patterns over time are common to all the individuals from the same area, showing that they are all recording the same signal from their environment.  This means that, just like trees, dead shells can be dated by cross matching their banding patterns with shells whose dates are known.  So an archive of precisely dated shell material can be built up, generating records of the marine environment that can potentially go back thousands of years.  By comparing the banding patterns with instrumental measurements, it has been shown how shell growth responds to different aspects of the environment, such as seawater temperatures or food supply.  It is also possible to investigate marine climate by analysing the makeup of the shell material itself.


Until now archives with such a high resolution have not been available for the middle and high latitude oceans.  So what we have here is a new tool which will contribute to the detailed study of the history of the Earth’s climate system as it has developed over the last few thousand years and which will improve our ability to model future climate change.


Paul has been centrally involved in these developments, effectively “unlocking” a completely new archive of the changing climate of the oceans. The citation noted that the key to Paul’s success is his ability to “read” shell series, to de-code these records, and to interpret them with the help of advanced statistical methods derived from tree-ring research.

Publication date: 18 January 2011