Mendenhall Research Fellowship Program

18-17. Developing coral-based reconstructions of natural environmental variability in south Florida to better predict future impacts to ecosystems and coastal communities


Closing Date: January 6, 2020

This Research Opportunity will be filled depending on the availability of funds. All application materials must be submitted through USAJobs by 11:59 pm, US Eastern Standard Time, on the closing date.


The natural and human communities of south Florida are highly vulnerable to hazards such as sea-level rise, hurricanes, and other environmental disturbances. Accurately projecting and effectively managing the future impacts of these disturbances requires a comprehensive understanding of the forcing mechanisms that control regional environmental changes over a range of temporal scales (i.e., storm events to millennial scales). Long-term records of environmental variability are critical for validating climate models and forecasts, teasing apart natural variability from anthropogenic change, and identifying the environmental drivers of ecosystem change. Unfortunately, instrumental records are typically too short to capture multidecadal to centennial-scale trends in natural environmental variability, so proxy-based reconstructions of environmental change are needed to expand the spatial and temporal range of paleoenvironmental data from marine systems. Corals can provide centuries-long, high-resolution geochemical proxies of past environmental changes that can help to bridge the gap between the high-resolution instrumental records of the last century and other longer-term, but low-resolution geological archives. These records are critical to identifying the drivers of natural environmental variability and making predictions about the likely environmental changes that will impact south Florida in the future.

The USGS Core Archive housed at the St. Petersburg Coastal and Marine Science Center (SPCMSC) contains an invaluable collection of nearly 500 modern coral and Holocene reef cores from throughout south Florida. Recently, USGS scientists collected a unique collection of cores from sub-fossil corals deposited off the coast of southeast Florida during storm events throughout the late Holocene (~4200 years ago to present). The decades- to centuries-long paleoenvironmental records preserved within individual cores in the core archive can give important historical context for understanding modern environmental change and its impacts. The core records also provide the unique opportunity to test hypotheses about the environmental controls on coral growth using records of coral calcification and erosion from those same cores. 

We are seeking a Mendenhall Fellow who will use existing records from the USGS Core Archive to develop paleoenvironmental reconstructions that will 1) better constrain the natural environmental variability of south Florida and its drivers, 2) evaluate links between environmental variability driven by large-scale ocean circulation (such as the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation, the size of the western Atlantic Warm Pool, etc.) and coastal-change hazards such as storms and sea-level rise, and/or 3) determine the impact of changing environmental conditions on Florida’s coral reefs. Ultimately, the outcomes of this project will provide new information on the magnitude, drivers, and impacts of natural environmental variability in south Florida that can help to improve and test operational assessments of coastal hazards in this and other regions.

At the SPCMC, the fellow will work with a multidisciplinary team of researchers from the Coral Reef Ecosystem Studies Project. The research fellow will have the opportunity to collaborate on a variety of ongoing research projects with the Research Advisors and their collaborators, to participate in multi-investigator field expeditions to existing research sites throughout south Florida and in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and to mentor support staff. There are also opportunities for the fellow to recruit and mentor student technicians from nearby academic institutions.

The fellow will have full access to the collection of coral and reef cores in the USGS Core Archive at the SPCMSC and will, therefore, be able to begin their research immediately. Additionally, because the Research Opportunity is well-aligned with the ongoing work of the Research Advisors, there are already extensive analytical facilities and trained support staff available to facilitate the project. The fellow will have the opportunity to utilize state-of-the-art coral geochemistry facilities at the SPCMSC including a computer-driven triaxial micro-drill for sampling of coral skeletons and a high throughput inductively coupled plasma optical emissions spectrometer (ICP-OES) for trace-element analysis. The Research Advisors will also work with the fellow to leverage existing collaborations both across centers within the USGS and with external academic collaborators to meet any additional analytical requirements. 

Interested applicants are strongly encouraged to contact the Research Advisor(s) early in the application process to discuss project ideas.

Proposed Duty Station: St. Petersburg, FL

Areas of PhD: Marine geology, carbonate geology, paleoclimatology, oceanography, marine science or related fields (candidates holding a Ph.D. in other disciplines, but with extensive knowledge and skills relevant to the Research Opportunity may be considered).

Qualifications: Applicants must meet the qualifications for: Research Geologist, Research Oceanographer, Research Physical Scientist

(This type of research is performed by those who have backgrounds for the occupations stated above.  However, other titles may be applicable depending on the applicant's background, education, and research proposal. The final classification of the position will be made by the Human Resources specialist.)

Human Resources Office Contact: Audrey Tsujita, 916-278-9395,



Lauren Toth

Research Oceanographer
St. Petersburg Coastal and Marine Science Center
Phone: 727-502-8029

Julie Richey, Ph.D.

Research Geologist
St. Petersburg Coastal and Marine Science Center
Phone: 727-502-8123