Cathy Whitlock is an Earth scientist recognized for her work in the area of Quaternary environmental change, paleoecology, and paleoclimatology. Her studies of past fire activity have helped reveal long-term linkages between fire, climate, and humans in temperate regions around the world. Whitlock grew up in Syracuse NY and Denver CO. She earned a BA from Colorado College and MS and PhD degrees in geological sciences from the University of Washington. She received a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship in 1976 and a NATO Postdoctoral Fellowship in 1983 to study at Trinity College Dublin. Her first tenure-track position was at Carnegie Museum of Natural History and the University of Pittsburgh (1984-1990); subsequently, she joined the geography department at the University of Oregon, where she was Department Head from 1999-2004. Since 2004, Whitlock has been a professor at Montana State University and served as founding co-Director of the Montana Institute on Ecosystems, and she is the lead author of the 2017 Montana Climate Assessment. Whitlock has been president of the American Quaternary Association, Chair of the U.S. National Committee for the International Quaternary Association, and on the Science Steering Committee of Future Earth’s Past Global Changes Program. She is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a fellow of the Geological Society of America and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Research Interests

Cathy Whitlock's research interests focus on Quaternary environmental change, and especially on the linkages between fire, vegetation, climate, and people over time scales of decades to millennia. Her laboratory group analyzes fossil pollen, particulate charcoal, and the chemical components preserved in the sediments of natural lakes and wetlands as the primary tool for reconstructing vegetation, fire, and climate history. These scholarly contributions have often served as fundamental components of larger interdisciplinary studies in environmental sciences, climate change research, and conservation-related fields. Whitlock's investigations have focused on the evolution of natural and altered landscapes in the northern and southern hemispheres including in the western U.S., Patagonia, Tasmania, and Europe. Following the 1988 Yellowstone fires, Whitlock and her team developed analytical tools to reconstruct past fires from macroscopic charcoal particles preserved in lake sediments; these methods are now used by fire-history researchers around the world and have helped establish a vibrant global paleo-fire community. Her research has also included studies about the effect of the Rocky Mountain uplift on the climate and vegetation history of the western U.S., the vegetation dynamics of Patagonia since the last glaciation, and the ecological consequences of fire in New Zealand, introduced by initial inhabitants about 800 years ago.

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Primary Section

Section 63: Environmental Sciences and Ecology

Secondary Section

Section 15: Geology