Nicholas McKay

Nicholas McKay
Assistant Professor
Northern Arizona University
Earth and Sustainability
625 S Knoles
Fields of interest
Paleoclimate dynamics, decadal to centennial scale climate variability, time and spatial scales of variability, climate informatics
Description of scientific projects
My research is in the field of paleoclimate dynamics: I use fieldwork and statistical and numerical techniques to understand how and why climate has changed during past centuries and millennia. This is a broad field and has led my research program to grow into several disciplines each with multiple projects:

Paleoclimate synthesis

An overarching goal of my research is to understand large-scale changes in past climate dynamics. There are two basic approaches to addressing these questions. The first involves synthesizing paleoclimate evidence for broad regions and estimating of past climate changes in both space and time. I have been integrally involved in this approach, developing reconstructions for the past 2,000 years in both the Arctic and more recently in continental-scale regions throughout the world through the international Past Global Changes program. We are now focussing on developing Holocene climate reconstructions with several approaches. The second is investigating the output of climate models to better understand the underlying dynamics of the changes I observe. Model-data comparison is a consistent feature of my research papers, and a growing component of my research group.

Paleoclimate informatics

My initial work in paleoclimate synthesis projects revealed the dire state of paleoclimatic data structure and access, which motivated a new research avenue in paleoclimate informatics. The lack of uniform data formats or standards in the community means that paleoclimatologists often spend most of their time on data discovery, retrieval, and formatting, rather than than on investigating the scientific questions of interest. In collaboration with Dr. Julien Emile-Geay at University of Southern California, we have become leaders in paleoclimate informatics, developing the first published data format for paleoclimatology, the first paleoclimate ontology, and continue to develop tools for data analysis and train early career researchers how to use them.

Process-based modeling

At the forefront of modern paleoclimatology is the concept of integrating mechanistic modeling with reconstruction and synthesis techniques. The goal is to incorporate scientific understanding of the environmental processes that control how climate variability is recorded by the natural archives we use to understand past changes. For lake systems, this research avenue is largely unexplored. Our group has a long-running project to develop systems models that simulate how climate variability is filtered through glacier-river-lake systems at three glacier-fed lake basins in the Arctic. As part of this project, we’ve setup a major new field-based observational network at Lake Peters in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge in the Brooks Range, in the northeast Corner of Alaska.

Paleoclimate record development

My research group uses lake sediments to develop new records of past climate and environmental change. Our primary field are is in the San Juan mountains of southern Colorado, where we study and develop records from high alpine lakes. Our work to date has two primary foci. This first is developing high-resolution paleoclimate records using novel methodologies, most notably core-scanning hyperspectral imaging (HSI), for which we are developing novel methodologies for inferring the abundance of sedimentary pigments at sub-mm resolution. The second has been focused on developing a network of sites to infer variability in dust deposition throughout the Holocene in the San Juan mountains.