Skip over navigation

Thompson Webb

Professor Emeritus:
Geological Sciences
Phone: +1 401 863 3128
Phone 2: +1 401 863 3339

With interdisciplinary interests in paleoecology and paleoclimatology, I collaborated in COHMAP (Cooperative Holocene Mapping Project) and TEMPO (Testing Earth System Model with Paleoenvironmental Observation) to use pollen data and lake-level data to test climate model simulations of climate change since the last glacial maximum 21,000 years ago. Recent research includes studying sedimentary records of land-falling hurricanes and producing animated maps of vegetation change in North America.


I received a botany degree from Swarthmore and a PhD in atmospheric sciences from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In 1972, I joined John Imbrie and R.K. Matthews to study Quaternary climates, as CLIMAP was starting. I added a terrestrial paleoclimate and paleovegetation focus to their paleoceanographic perspective on earth system history. Once COHMAP (Cooperative Holocene Mapping Project) began in 1977, I worked with colleagues at Wisconsin, Minnesota, Oxford, Durham, Lamont, Brown, and Oregon to compile large data sets, to interpret them in climate terms, and to compare the results with climate-model simulations of the past 21,000 years. Key results appeared in Science in 1988, in a joint-edited book in 1993 and in an issue of Quaternary Science Reviews in 1998. In 1996, I and Jeff Donnelly began studying the sedimentary record of land-falling hurricanes. I retired in 2005 and continue teaching in Summer and Continuing Studies at Brown.


Thirty-six years at Brown:
After two years of postdoctoral studies with Margaret Davis at the University of Michigan, Thompson Webb, III came to Brown in September, 1972. He has enjoyed thirty-six productive years during which he profited from the high scientific standards and excellent collegiality in the Department of Geological Sciences. With a degree in botany from Swarthmore (1966) and a PhD in atmospheric sciences from the University of Wisconsin-Madison (1971), Tom brought an interdisciplinary perspective, which included two years as a postdoc in paleoecology at the University of Michigan. He joined John Imbrie and Rob Matthews, who was then Chair, in the "Soft Rock" group, which has now evolved into the Earth System History group. CLIMAP, which John Imbrie headed, was just getting going with its global view of late Quaternary climates, and Tom added a terrestrial paleoclimate focus to CLIMAP's general paleoceanographic perspective.

Tom began as an Assistant Professor (Research), and shared that beginning rank with both Jim Head and Jan Tullis. He was appointed an Associate Professor in 1975 with tenure in 1979 and advanced to full Professor in 1984. He and the Pollen Lab were initially housed on the third floor of Lincoln Field before moving into modern quarters when the "new" building was completed in 1982. His paleoclimate research flourished with its focus on mapping large data sets and the calibration of pollen data in climate terms. From 1977 to 1994, he collaborated with Herb Wright (University of Minnesota), John Kutzbach (University of Wisconsin-Madison), Patrick Bartlein (University of Oregon), Bill Ruddiman, Columbia University and University of Virginia), Alayne Street-Perrott (Oxford University), Brian Huntley (Durham University), and Warren Prell on an National Science Foundation (NSF)- and Department of Energy (DOE)- supported international research project called COHMAP (Cooperative Holocene Mapping Project), which was patterned after CLIMAP. During the mid-1980s, COHMAP held a series of workshop meetings in Madison, Wisconsin each summer, where Tom's graduate students and postdocs had a chance to interact with a wide variety of paleoclimate researchers. Research in COHMAP and later TEMPO (Testing Earth System Model with Paleoenvironmental Observations) featured the development of global pollen and lake-level data sets and climate model simulations for studying the climate, vegetation, and hydrological changes since the last glacial maximum 21,000 years ago. Inspired by Patrick Bartlein in 1984, Tom created a series of postage stamp maps to illustrate vegetation dynamics in eastern North America, and between 1998 and 2002 Jack Williams (PhD '00), Bryan Shuman (PhD '01), and Phil Leduc helped Tom create animations of the maps for all of North America, which are available on the web at Pollen Viewer through the World Data Center for Paleoclimatology, which was originally set up at NOAA by two of Tom's former students, Jonathan Overpeck PhD '86 and Robin Webb PhD '90. A lead article in Science in 1988, two edited books (1988 and 1993), and two edited journal issues (1985 and 1998) describe the key results from COHMAP.

Tom was the major advisor to 10 PhD and 7 ScM students in the department and a co-advisor to 4 other PhD students in biology at Yale and in anthropology and applied mathematics at Brown. His lab also housed 5 postdocs and 5 visiting scientists over the years. From 1990 on (when both his daughters were in college), he served regularly as the Geo-Bio advisor and enjoyed the many requests for recommendation letters that came with all this added contact with undergraduates. He also enjoyed working with Jan Tullis whose dedication to advising is a departmental strength.

Tom taught courses in Weather and Climate, The Fossil Record, Mathematical Models in Geology, Paleoclimatology, and Quaternary and Human Paleoecology. His interest in teaching led him to be active in the Sheridan Center for College Teaching, where he was a Teaching Fellow from 1997-2002. He also helped Jan Tullis in the department in being a liaison with the Sheridan Center. From 2000-2004, he and Terry Tullis shared an interest in promoting more active University support for the use of instructional technology in teaching. Tom continues to explore the best uses for technology in teaching with his current involvement in Summer and Continuing Studies at Brown.

To read heart-felt tributes to Tom from his former students and colleagues, go to: Tom Tributes.


1) B.A. with Honors, Swarthmore College, 1966
2) Elected to membership in Sigma Xi, 1966
3) Awarded an NSF Postdoctoral Fellowship for 1970-71
4) Awarded an I.S.T. (Univ. of Michigan) Postdoctoral Fellowship for 1970-71
5) Elected as a Visiting Fellow at Clare Hall, University of Cambridge for 1977-78
6) CIRES Fellowship, Visiting Professor, University of Colorado, Boulder, 1988-89
7) Elected as a Fellow of AAAS, 1991
8) Selected to give the Oosting Memorial Lecture at Duke Unversity, April, 1994
9) Bullard Fellowship, Harvard University, 1995-6
10) Listed in Who's Who in America, 1996-2000 (4th Generation)
11) Selected to give the Case Memorial Lecture in Paleontology, University of Michigan, 1996
12) Distinguished Career Award for 2006, American Quaternary Association, 2006


American Geophysical Union
American Quaternary Association
Ecological Society of American
Wisconsin Academy of Arts, Letters and Sciences
Forest History Society


Professor Webb is an Emeritus Faculty, and therefore is no longer teaching regular classes.

Classes Taught:
GEOL 0310: Fossil Record
GEOL 1350: Weather and Climate
GEOL 2300: Mathematical Models in the Geological Sciences
GEOL 2350: Quarternary Climatology Seminar
GEOL 2390: Quaternary Paleoecology Seminar

Current PhD Students:
Paige Newby

Former Graduate Students:
Chris Bernabo, Ph.D. '77
Jennifer Bravo, Sc.M. '97
Jeffrey Donnelly, Ph.D. '00
Benjamin Felzer, Ph.D. '96
Peter Jaumann, Sc.M. '91
Ruth Laseski, Ph.D. '83
Richard Lederer, Sc.M. '00
Sheldon Nelson, Sc.M. '81
Jonathan Overpeck, Ph.D. '86
Barbara Santamaria Cross, Sc.M. '75
Hong Shao, Sc.M. '91
Bryan Shuman, Ph.D. '01
Alison Smith, Ph.D. '91
Polychronis Tzedakis, Sc.M. '87
Kathleen Vanerwall-Heide, Ph.D. '81
Robert Webb, Ph.D. '90
John Williams, Ph.D. '00

Web Links

Curriculum Vitae

Download Thompson Webb's Curriculum Vitae in PDF Format