Q&A: Distinguished Research Master Kam-biu Liu

Liu, George W. Barineau III Professor and Chair of the LSU Department of Oceanography & Coastal Sciences, is an expert in the field of paleoenvironmental change—climate change that happened in the distant past, combining expansive perspectives of space and time with, for example, microscopic views of pollen.


How long have you been a researcher?

At least 40 years, a long time. If we expand it a little bit, thinking of actually doing research during my graduate school days, it’s almost 45 years.

Were you always interested in coastal research?

I am now being recognized as a coastal scientist because a lot of my current and most active research projects are being done along the coast. But all three of my degrees are in geography, as I was trained as a biogeographer and Quaternary paleoecologist. Half of me is in the biologically related areas and half of me is in the geographical areas, which means that I look at the biotic world from the spatial perspective. I look at big pictures. And even though I did not minor in history, history was my love since high-school, so I tend to look at things from a long-term perspective. I look at how things, especially biotic distributions, change through time, and this convergence defined my research interests early on.

Kam-biu Liu

“These piles—half of it is administration, half of it is research—and I am teaching, too. I need three hands,” says Kam-biu Liu.Elsa Hahne/LSU

Where did you grow up?

I was born and grew up in Hong Kong, a subtropical environment. Then I went to Canada and the University of Toronto for my master’s and PhD. I saw my first snow in September of 1976. September! That was a particularly cold winter. For my dissertation I worked on the postglacial history of the boreal forest in northern Ontario, a subarctic environment.

My main research skill is pollen analysis, or palynology. I use fossil pollen that’s preserved in sediments—in lakes, marshes, and other wetlands—to reconstruct how the climate and vegetation have changed in the last 10,000 years since the end of the last ice age.

Then I went to The Ohio State University for my post-doc and worked with the renowned paleoecologist Paul Colinvaux in the Amazon Basin, a completely different environment—the tropical rainforest along the American Equator. But I could use my skills in pollen and lake sediment studies to study how this biologically diverse tropical rainforest had changed since the last glacial maximum. Same techniques, just different areas. But you have to relearn the pollen flora because the trees are completely different.

I hear you’ve also worked on ice cores, but not in the most expected areas?

At Ohio State I got to know the world’s leading ice core paleo-climatologist, Lonnie Thompson. He would drill long ice cores from the tops of ice-capped mountains in the Andes in South America, and practically everywhere else in the world. He got me involved in his ice core work because we found out that virtually nobody was looking at the biological remains in the ice cores taken outside of the polar regions. I think I’m the first one who conducted pollen work in tropical and subtropical ice cores. Lonnie Thompson and I have published pollen records going back 15,000 years from ice cores in Western China, Peru and Bolivia.

Did you do this type of research in China after you came to the United States?

After I moved to LSU, I started developing relationships with colleagues in China. In the early-to-mid ’80s, China was just beginning to open its doors, and it was a whole new world of doing science. China is strategically located in the global environment. You cannot do global environmental change research without putting China into the jigsaw puzzle. Together with my wife Nina Lam—she’s also a professor here, in the LSU Department of Environmental Sciences—we started developing, independently, research collaborations with the Nanjing Institute of Geography in 1985—hers on the medical geography of cancer mortality in China and mine on the postglacial environmental changes in the Yangtze River delta. Since then I have developed research collaborations and personnel exchanges with many colleagues and institutions in China, including research projects not only in the Yangtze River delta but also in the Tibetan Plateau, Western China, the Chinese Loess Plateau, the East China Coast, Mongolia and Central Asia.

You’ve also worked in Tibet?

Starting in the ’90s, I developed collaborations with different groups of Chinese researchers to study the history of environmental changes in the Tibetan Plateau. People call the Tibetan Plateau the “third pole” because of its high elevation, above 4,000 meters on average, and Tibet is very important because it plays a major role in the modulation of the strengths of the Indian summer monsoon, or Asian monsoon. I’ve done fieldwork in the Tibetan Plateau five times. My last field expedition was in 2007, when we went all the way to Western Tibet to get sediment cores from small lakes. Together with my colleagues and students I studied the pollen and the sedimentary record to reconstruct the history of the summer monsoon since the last ice age. The Asian monsoon is a very important part of the climate system, and it affects the livelihood of over a billion people. If the monsoon gets stronger, you have flooding in many parts of Asia. And if the monsoon gets weaker or fails, you have crop failures and famine.

Paleotempestology is a scientific field that studies hurricane activities in the past, going back thousands of years, with an emphasis on revealing the relationship between hurricane activity and climate change. That’s a field I developed after I came to LSU in 1984. To be sure, hurricanes are not new to me. I grew up with typhoons in Hong Kong, which is basically the same thing as hurricanes here.

You’re maybe most known as a paleotempestologist. Explain?

Paleotempestology is a scientific field that studies hurricane activities in the past, going back thousands of years, with an emphasis on revealing the relationship between hurricane activity and climate change. That’s a field I developed after I came to LSU in 1984. To be sure, hurricanes are not new to me. I grew up with typhoons in Hong Kong, which is basically the same thing as hurricanes here. But the idea of using my training and techniques to study the long-term history of hurricanes did not come to me until I moved to the hurricane-prone Gulf Coast here in Louisiana. I developed the idea that if we can find coastal lakes or wetlands that are situated behind a sandy beach with sand dunes or beach ridges, maybe we can take sediment cores from the bottom of the lakes and find sand layers caused by strong hurricanes with high storm surges, over-topping the sand dunes and washing a lot of sand into the bottom of the lakes. We can then use these sand layers to count the frequency of catastrophic hurricanes going back thousands of years.

This was a novel idea—no one had thought of it before. I think it was in the summer of 1989 that I took my students and went to coastal Alabama and found a suitable lake and started studying the sediment cores. It confirmed our hypothesis.

Where did the term paleotempestology come from?

Dr. Kerry Emanuel at MIT coined this term to describe my work. He was the one who started calling me the father of paleotempestology because I’d established a new field of science. I can proudly put the LSU stamp on it. We’re recognized as a leader and pioneer in this still very young field of science. Since 1989 we have conducted this kind of research in many places, not only along the entire Gulf Coast from Texas to the Florida Everglades, but also along the Atlantic Coast from Cape Cod to Georgia, in the Caribbean and Central America and the Pacific Coast of Mexico. In fact, I just came back from a whole week of lake-coring fieldwork in Baja California, Mexico.

What inspires you?

Most of my research is driven by curiosity. I am grateful that the National Science Foundation has funded my work almost continuously for 30 years.  But at the same time, it is very rewarding to know that my research has great relevance to society, too.

At one point, after we published our first record of hurricane activities on the Gulf Coast over the last 5,000 years, I was contacted by the Risk Prediction Initiative (RPI) of the Bermuda Biological Station for Research. The RPI is a partnership between climate scientists and the reinsurance industry who are interested in understanding the effects of global climate change and hurricane activities. And they found my work. They’re interested in paleotempestology because this science can affect their bottom line. They hire the best minds in applied math to do modeling to estimate hurricane risk, like what’s the chance of New Orleans to be hit by another Katrina? But modeling or number crunching in the lab can be garbage in and garbage out—they need empirical data to test their models, and my research data can tell them how many hurricanes like Katrina have hit a certain location on the Gulf Coast during the past 3,000 years. So, they invited me to go to Bermuda, many times, and they funded some of my early work. That was very rewarding. While we are doing this research based on our curiosity and love of science, people can take our research and improve important policy decisions that affect all of society.


Meet our other Distinguished Research Master, William Demastes, an expert on modern and contemporary British and American theater and alumni professor at the LSU Department of English.


Elsa Hahne
LSU Office of Research & Economic Development