James Rae

Commendation for Dr James Rae - School of Earth Sciences

Supervisors: Dr Gavin Foster, Professor Tim Elliott and Dr Daniela Schmidt

Funding: NERC Studentship

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PhD project: Boron Isotopes in Benthic Foraminifera: Measurement, Calibration and Glacial CO2


Cartoon of the how chemical changes in the foraminfea found in sediment cores inform on changing temperatures and atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations of the past.

James’ thesis investigated the cause of changing atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations between the modern (interglacial) and the last ice age (glacial).  This topic is central our understanding of the critical coupling between greenhouse gases and global temperatures, but finding an adequate explanation for magnitude of these glacial-interglacial changes in atmospheric CO2 abundance has proven elusive despite extensive study.  In addressing this ‘Holy Grail’ of past climate reconstruction, James exploited a recently improved means of determining past oceanic pH (which in turn reflects the amount of inorganic carbon dissolved in seawater) from isotopic analyses of foraminiferal shells (micro-fossils). James mastered and developed this boron isotope approach, comprehensively demonstrating its ability to reconstruct the pH of the past, deep ocean.  This was both an analytical tour de force and a notable first, succeeding where many had stumbled. James then applied this world-leading methodology to two key oceanic locations, in the South Atlantic and NE Pacific.  At both sites he illustrated two pulses of changing pH during deglaciation, that documented mixing and exchange of carbon-rich deep waters with the surface ocean.  These data provide striking and much sought after evidence for a mechanism of glacial-interglacial carbon dioxide exchange by enhanced oceanic ‘ventilation’.


James Rae

Taking a break from feeding foraminifera on the Red Sea

I grew up in Edinburgh and attended James Gillespies Primary School and George Watson's College.  Hiking, mountain biking and surfing trips in the Scottish Highlands cultivated my interests in cold water, mud and the environment, and I was lucky to be able to combine these with an interest in science for my first degree, in Earth Sciences (Geology) at Worcester College Oxford (MEarth Sci, first class). 

I was drawn to Bristol Earth Sciences for my PhD by its world class status for isotope geochemistry and studies of past climate change, and its equally renowned social life.  My expectations of Bristol were high and have been comfortably surpassed by my experience here: I've been lucky to work on an exciting new technique for studying past changes in CO2 and climate; my supervisors have given me a lot of time, advice, mentoring and entertainment; I've travelled to the Southern Ocean, America, New Zealand, Israel and all round Europe to do fieldwork and present my research; I've lived in a fantastic city; and I've made many really good friends. 

I'm currently finishing up my work in Bristol as a postdoc in the School of Geographical Sciences, before moving to Caltech in Pasadena, California, as a NOAA Climate & Global Change Postdoctoral Fellow.  My long-term aim is to improve scientific and public understanding of how earth's climate system works, to help guide our decisions about future climate change.

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