Professor and Chair of the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, Peter J. Fawcett has been elected as a Fellow of the Geological Society of America (GSA). This honor is bestowed by the Society Fellowship to recognize the best in their profession.

Participants within the GSA community nominate other GSA members in order to recognize the distinguished contributions that these members have made to the geosciences and the Geological Society of America through such avenues as, publications, applied research, teaching, administration of geological programs, contributing to the public awareness of geology, leadership of professional organizations, and taking on editorial, bibliographic, and library responsibilities.

“It’s very gratifying to have your contributions to the society and science recognized by your peers and I’m deeply honored by the recognition. It also speaks to how much support I’ve had at UNM – from colleagues, students, our incredible departmental staff and our research support staff at UNM,” expressed Fawcett.

Fawcett is known for his research in paleoclimatology, which is the reconstruction of past climates in Earth history and determining which factors were important in driving past climate change. He and his students use climate proxies from lake sediment cores (sedimentology, geochemistry, pollen and macrofossils) to reconstruct past climates, and work to determine what factors were important in driving past climate change in the absence of human impacts. 

Fawcett explains that this timeframe ranges from thousands of years ago to millions of years ago. He works collaboratively with other scientists at UNM and other institutions around the country and around the world.

“I’m especially proud of my paper published in Nature in 2011 – this was work from a deep drill core in the Valles Caldera New Mexico. We reconstructed 200,000 years of climate change from northern NM and showed that (natural) long-lasting drought occurred when temperatures were a few degrees warmer than today. This work showed how past climates can serve as natural analogs for future warming.”

Fawcett also mentions that he takes pride in papers that his graduate students have participated in, especially a recent paper on Stoneman Lake, Ariz., where one of his Ph.D. students, Spencer Staley, was able to document over 1 million years of climate and environmental change. This was published in the Bulletin of the Geological Society of America, and other papers over the years where graduate students were the first author.

One of the reasons that Fawcett was nominated according to Richard Alley was because “he combines international field work, 'big data', and extensive modeling to make fundamental discoveries about Earth surface processes, climate change, and hydrological processes affecting society today, while proving strong academic leadership and promoting diversity.”

Fawcett has been involved as a chief or co-chief scientist of three big continental scientific drilling projects (with tens to hundreds of meters of sediment recovered), including the Valles Caldera, N.M.; Stoneman Lake, Ariz.; and most recently in the Basin of Mexico (Mexico City) where he and his team cored 500 meters of sediment from Lake Chalco, one of several former lakes in the basin that were drained by the Spanish in the 1,700s. These drilling projects are large international collaborative efforts (especially the Mexico City project), where several scientists from institutions around the country and around the world work on different aspects of climate reconstruction.

“In each of these projects, we recovered sediments that go back hundreds of thousands of years and show how climate and ecosystems (pollen, macrofossils, molecular biomarkers) have changed in concert with ice ages, orbital changes and atmospheric carbon dioxide. This work has been complemented by climate model analysis – using climate models to study past climates and how different factors might have impacted change.”

In his role as department chair, Fawcett has worked with colleagues and students towards improving the climate in his department including trying to remove some of the hidden barriers that keep many of the undergraduate students from moving on to graduate school.

“We have expanded undergraduate research opportunities for our students – both semester-long and shorter-term research experiences with graduate students funded through alumni donations. We have also worked to send more undergraduates to national conferences where they have the chance to present their research and meet prospective advisors from other universities.”

Fawcett mentions that they now have a DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) committee in the department that is coming up with creative ideas for enhancing diversity including graduate student service awards, pizza lunches for students to meet alums working in their field and sponsored workshops on different topics (e.g., bystander intervention).

Fawcett’s applied research is trying to understand how past climate change has affected New Mexico and the broader southwest, and understanding how past episodes of warm and drier climates can serve as natural analogs for future climate change in a world impacted by global warming.

“I try to integrate results from my research program in all of my classes, especially my class in Paleoclimatology (upper-level undergraduate), graduate classes in paleoclimate, and introductory classes in environmental science. Students can especially relate to the material when it includes local research, and we’ve taken several class field trips to areas of interest like the Valles Caldera.”

Through his many opportunities, Fawcett has been able to speak with news outlets from local to national reports about his research, and in his position as chair, he highlights what his students and faculty are doing. He also developed a project to renovate UNM’s Geology Museum with capital development funds from the state and internal UNM funds.

“Thousands of people visit our museum each year, and it is especially popular with NM elementary school students. We also sponsor outreach activities with local organizations and schools in our department – we have a particularly committed group of graduate students who love doing this kind of work.”

Fawcett concludes, “Being at UNM and living in New Mexico has really helped advance my career – there are so many great opportunities to do fieldwork in this region and there are so many interesting stories to tell about past environments in New Mexico.”