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UMaine CCI celebrates 50 years of climate research

The University of Maine’s Climate Change Institute (CCI) celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, marking an impressive half-century milestone examining climate change and conducting innovative research concerning the past, present and future of the environment. 

The CCI focuses on graduate student research with an emphasis on interdisciplinary projects. It is one of the oldest climate change research centers in the United States, according to the CCI website. 

The CCI’s Director, Dr. Paul Mayewski, is a world renowned glaciologist and Distinguished Professor across 5 different schools at UMaine. He has led the CCI since 2002, and has seen an incredible amount of change in the last two decades. 

“When the opportunity to come to Maine appeared I was excited about coming to a new place and the potential that I saw here, and I haven’t been disappointed,” Mayewski said. “When I joined the institute, we probably had about 30 or 35 people. Now, we have about 130 people.” 

He credits this dramatic change to an uptick in environmental awareness and an increasingly active younger generation. 

“Obviously, interest in climate change has changed dramatically – particularly, in the last 10 years, its relevance to all of our lives has changed. So, as a consequence, we’re drawing in more and more faculty and graduate students who have a very broad perspective about what they can do in the future,” Mayewski said. 

The CCI has conducted research expeditions all over the world. They focus heavily on research for graduate students, enabling them to research underrepresented countries and areas that are highly affected by climate change: the South Sandwich Islands in 2019 and the Dailekh District of Nepal in 2022, for recent examples. They also focus on expeditions in Maine, like Katahdin’s last glacial termination and the evolution of the mountain’s alpine plants.

Maine State Climatologist Dr. Sean Birkel is an assistant professor at the Climate Change Institute who is heavily involved in climate research through his experience as a member of the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee of the Maine Climate Council. Mayeski reflected on his work with the CCI. 

“We house – and have housed since the very beginning – the Maine State Climatologist, who happens to be a former bachelor’s, Master’s, Ph.D. and postdoc from the University of Maine: Sean Birkel,” Mayewski added. “He’s done amazing things in reaching out to the public, as have many other faculty in the institute – [he’s done] a great job.” 

When professor emeritus Harold Borns started the CCI in 1973, it was known as the Institute for Quaternary Studies, focused on examining the climate solely in the past. Mayewski’s start in 2002 saw a name update to its current title, and a focus on climate in the present and future. 

“Climate change is a rapidly evolving field that impacts all of us,” Mayewski said. “It’s been wonderful to see how our Institute has grown and how we hope we’re keeping pace with the rapidly evolving activities related to climate change.”

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