2009-2010 Schlanger Fellow – Heather Ford

Heather Ford

University of California – Santa Cruz

Investigating ENSO Variability Over the Past 5 Million Years





Ford_SchlangerDuring the early Pliocene, paleorecords and climate models indicate that the equatorial Pacific was in a permanent El Nino-like mean state, which is thought to have significantly contributed to Pliocene warmth. However, some models generate ENSO variability during the early Pliocene. This project aims to characterize ENSO variability in the Pliocene for the first time by analyzing populations of planktonic foraminifera shells for stable isotopes and minor elements. If the early Pliocene was in a permanent El Niño-like mean state, ENSO variability itself should have been minimal when compared to today when ENSO dominates tropical variability. Understanding the role of the tropical mean state and variability will aid in identifying mechanisms important for climate change.




I was born and raised in California’s Central Valley and earned a B.S. in Geology from the University of California, Davis.  While working in the paleoceanography lab, I was fascinated by organisms the size of sand grains that were used to reconstruct climate. Their journey as a climate indicator starts from life at the sea surface, deposition at the ocean bottom upon death, and finally recovery on scientific drilling missions. After Davis, I attended San Diego State University for a M.S. with Dr. Stephen Schellenberg and worked on developing a temperature proxy for the common intertidal mussel. Afterward, I headed to University of California, Santa Cruz to work with Dr. Christina Ravelo for my PhD.  Currently, I use those small organisms to reconstruct climate from the Equatorial Pacific. When I’m not doing science I enjoy swimming, cooking, and singing along loudly with the car radio.