Research by Prof. Robert A. Spicer and the

Warm Earth Environmental Systems Research Group


Bob Spicer, Alexei Herman, Anders Ahlberg, Paul Valdes, Alistair Rees, Elizabeth Kennedy.

Research Students: Helen Craggs, Jenny Cripps and Charlotte Sweeney.


Two core interests of the Warm Earth Environmental Systems Research Group at the Open University are the use of the botanical fossil record to understand the evolution of plant communities and the analysis of plant physiognomy to characterise past climates.


A technique common to all our projects is the use of leaf architecture for determining past climatic conditions - the CLAMP technique.


Projects include:


NERC GR9/03542 The Neogene Elevation History of South Tibet
NERC GR3/11474 The Timing, Duration, and Environmental Impact of the Deccan Traps Volcanism: Its Relationship to the K-T Boundary
INTAS RFBR 95-0949 The Effect of a Warm Arctic on Eurasian Climates and Vegetation
NERC NER/T/S/2001/01232
CLAMP and Cold Continental Interiors (supported by the OU Alumni Fund)

 Selected Research Papers    




Climate Fluctuations Through Time
(based on Frakes, 1979)

Plants are excellent climate indicators as we can readily see from the world around us. Plants in deserts have few, if any, leaves and those that they do have tend to be small. Rainforest trees and plants on the other hand can have very large leaves and often large numbers of them. These architectural features of plants are similar in similar climates so that rainforests, for example, in Africa, South East Asia and South America look alike even though they contain quite different species. This convergence of form is expressed in the architecture of the whole plant, but also strongly in the form of the leaves.

Leaves are readily fossilised so the geological record contains a vast amount of information about past climates. Qualitative surveys of rocks and fossils show that the average temperature of the Earth has fluctuated through time, but that for about 80% of the time that animals and plants have lived on land the world has been warmer than it is now. Using plant fossils we can quantify a range of parameters such as temperature and rainfall for those past climates.

Understanding the pattern and process of climate change is one of the greatest scientific challenges of our time. This is best tackled from two different but related directions: 1) through climate modelling and 2) by interpreting the geological record. Iterative comparisons between these two approaches should converge on a more accurate understanding of past climates. Through a new technique known as CLAMP plant fossils can provide a powerful tool for characterising past climates and validating model results.