Helen Mackay

I started my Ph.D. in 2011 after studying environmental chemistry and geography at Glasgow University.  During junior honours, I largely focused on investigating and monitoring the current quality of the natural environment; however, a summer placement at NERC’s SUERC radiocarbon facility introduced me to the fascinating and diverse world of ‘palaeo’. My dissertation allowed me to explore this area further as I researched the impact of the Younger Dryas cold event on aquatic biogeochemistry in a Scottish lake; and also examined changes in peat accumulation over the last 200 years from a Scottish ombrotrophic bog.

I am now working on sites a little further from home, in Maine, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. I have collected cores from a transect of plateau peat bogs to investigate late Holocene environmental change. Plant macrofossils and testate amoebae will be used to reveal past hydroclimatic change, which will be temporally constrained using volcanic ash (i.e. tephra) layers as ‘pinning-points’. Identifying the manifestations and mechanisms of past alterations in the moisture balance may help to obtain more accurate projections of future change. This is especially important in eastern North America since it is increasingly experiencing turbulent conditions: during the last year alone, they have endured heat waves, droughts and snowstorms.

The majority of my efforts so far have focused on obtaining tephrochronologies for my cores and these data will contribute to the emerging North American crypto-tephrostratigraphical framework. To identify the volcanic origin of the tephra layers, I used the electron microprobe at Edinburgh University.   Having the opportunity to visit different places, whether it is for fieldwork, labwork or conferences, is an aspect of my work that I particularly enjoy. I am also driven by my fascination of the complex interactions that lead to changes in the peatland records and the wealth of information that they hold. I look forward to learning more new techniques in the coming years that will tease out more of this information and will help me to interpret these valuable landscapes.