Climate change, sea level rise, ice-ages, human evolution, the migration of peoples, cultures, plants and animals, and the formation of the landscape and habitats of today are all subjects that elicit passion and interest among the public. The little-known term that incorporates all these scientific strands is ‘The Quaternary.’
The Quaternary is a geological period, which began 2.6 million years ago and is characterised by ice-ages: cycles of colder, glacial conditions in mid- to high-latitudes interspersed with the warmer ‘inter-glacial’ periods in which we live today. It is the period during which humans evolved and includes the whole history of our species. In fact, so influential have humans become to the Earth’s processes that geologists have proposed a new geological sub-division for the latter years of the Quaternary – the Anthropocene – which is distinguished by the unmistakeable imprint of human activities on the geological record such as the extinctions caused by humans and evidence of nuclear energy and plastic production.
What does an Irish Quaternary scientist do?
Quaternary scientists study how climate and sea level have varied naturally in the past so that man-made changes can be distinguished and future changes predicted. They study the formation of Ireland’s landscape, 90% of which is of Quaternary age and all of which needs to be mapped and understood for farming, geohazard (e.g. landslides and bog flows), engineering and construction purposes. They study the history of the formation of Irish bogs, so characteristic and important to our landscape, and research the migration history and impacts of successive waves of plant, animal and human settlers to this Island. They study coastal dynamics, saltmarsh formation and responses to sea-level change, the carving of our valleys and hills, how habitats develop and much, much more.
In short, Quaternary scientists help us to better understand the history of humankind, and our interaction and impact on the natural world. These are essential in underpinning the vital decisions and responses to climate and societal changes that lie ahead.
Learn More about the Irish Quaternary Association – Click here