News and events

Caving in Assynt

1 June 2023

We just got back from a fantastic weekend exploring the caves of Assynt in northern Scotland. We were joined by colleagues and friends Beth Fox from the University of Huddersfield, as well as local experts Tim Lawson and Peter Dowswell. They literally wrote the book on caves in Assynt. And of course the most important member of the party was Geodog Pebble.

The first stop for most of us was Rana Hole, first excavated in the 1990s by the Grampion Speleological Group over a period of 12 years. Their explorations revealed a 30 m shaft that connected via a series of passages to the Claonaite Cave System of the surrounding area. This was the first time caving for many of our group and an initial descent via an electron ladder over a 30 m drop made for a nail biting introduction. Talk about in at the deep end!

We’ll keep this page updated with the latest news from the ISOPERM project including announcements, events and dispatches from the field.

But it was worth the effort. The deep shaft opened out into a series of caverns where we set about collecting temperature loggers that PI Seb had left last year, and collected sediment, dripwater, and carbonate samples. This data will tell us more about environmental conditions within the cave. They might even help us reconstruct the temperature in the past!

Things got a bit easier thereafter. A quick stop at the nearby Bone Cave, where human (and “polar” bear) remains were discovered in the 1920s was followed by some very wet scrambling in several caves in the Traligill Basin. A great opportunity to refresh those caving skills before fieldwork in Mongolia in the summer.

PhD Opportunity Available

8 December 2022

Are you enthusiastic about environmental science and climate change? ISOPERM have a fully funded PhD position available from summer 2023 looking at palaeo-environmental changes in the permafrost region of Mongolia.

This PhD project focusses on reconstructing climatic and environmental scenery for human migrations during warm interglacial periods, and the Holocene. You will work with stalagmite samples collected with our colleagues from the Mongolian Academy of Science in northern Mongolia.

You will first date the samples and establish temporal constrains for the disappearance/ re-establishments of continuous permafrost in northern Mongolia; this work will be conducted at Oxford University. You will then use stable isotopes, element ratios, and potentially biomarkers to build a multi-proxy timeseries of past environmental changes. The established palaeoenvironmental reconstruction will constitute a cornerstone helping archaeologists in evaluating human migration across the region. You will be supported by an international team of experts in palaeoclimatology, archaeology, and meteorology. This project presents a great opportunity for candidate interested in trans-disciplinary and transformative science.

We are looking for an enthusiastic, well-organised and highly motivated candidate with a strong background in environmental sciences and climate change. Experience in chemistry or physics would be advantageous but are not mandatory.

You will receive training in relevant methods in state-of-the-art laboratories at Northumbria University and have the opportunity to work closely with experts at leading institutions, including Oxford University, Johannes-Gutenberg University Mainz, Germany, and the Academy of Sciences of Mongolia.

This project is supervised by Sebastian Breitenbach and Ola Kwiecien. For informal queries, please contact

For further details of how to apply, entry requirements and the application form, see

Find out more about the OnePlanet DTP program here and find the specific project by searching ‘permafrost’ in the keyword box on this page.

SRT Training in the Yorkshire Dales

7 November 2022

We’ve just come back from an incredible few days in the Yorkshire Dales training in single rope techniques for ascending and descending in caves. Five of us from Northumbria were joined by Fatai Ilesamni from Teeside University and our brilliant trainers Jo and Helen.

We spent a fun packed morning at the Yorkshire Subterranean Society’s indoor SRT training wall, learning the basic techniques. Although all of us had been in a cave before, a lot of us had never used climbing equipment. I realised we’d been spoilt by those shallow inclined Siberian caves we were used to.

Once we’d mastered the basic rope techniques, we descended into the caves of North Yorkshire. Our first stop was the Valley Entrance of the West Kingsdale Master System, accessed through a small man-made doorway. After a short scramble, through what I’m reliable informed is referred to as “sporty” conditions (also known as wet), we descended a short (7 – 8 m) drop using our newly acquired techniques.

Our second day began with a visit to Bull Pot of the Witches, a much steeper descent that could be accessed via a swift single rope descent, or a slightly longer, but less fear-inducing belay. Thereafter, a couple of short abseils down some incredibly tight shafts brought us out in a small cavern. A hard scramble back to the surface and we were delighted to see the light of day once again.

An incredible weekend that’s left me with a few bruises, but some longer lasting memories. Thanks to Mike Rogerson for organising the trip, the Yorkshire Subterranean Society for hosting us, and our wonderful instructors Jo and Helen.

Thomas Opel departs for Canada

25 May 2022

Our very own permafrost expert Thomas Opel will be heading out to the Yukon and Northern Territories of Canada today for fieldwork.

Originally destined for northern Siberia, Thomas had to quickly adapt his plans following the unrest in Ukraine. Thomas will be collecting relic permafrost ice to measure water isotopes and deduce information about palaeo-seasonality.

Follow Thomas on Twitter @iso_topel

Team meeting

24 May 2022

We took a break from the EGU conference this week to finally meet in person for the first time since our project began, a little over a year ago.

Our original kick-off meeting, planned for June 2021 was put on hold due to the ongoing pandemic. So when we realised most of us would be in Vienna this week for EGU, we jumped at the opportunity to meet in person, many of us for the first time.

Plenty of science chat, but mainly we were all just delighted to finally socialise in person again. It’s been a long few years!

ISOPERM making headlines

13 March 2022

We were delighted to make the national news agenda this week in an interview with the Press Association looking at the impact of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine on scientific collaborations between Russia and the UK.

Our work was featured on BBC radio, and several national papers, including The Evening Standard, iNews, and Metro.

Northumbria to collaborate with Irkutsk National Research Technical University

3 March 2022

We were delighted to sign a formal collaboration agreement with the Irkutsk National Research Technical University during our recent fieldwork in Siberia.

Our institutions have agreed to work together to push forward research into permafrost dynamics in the Baikal region. INRTU bring extensive expertise in permafrost and water geochemistry to the ISOPERM team. We hope to welcome students from both insitutions for scientific training and research experience in the future.

Gearing up for Siberia

28 January 2022

After months of planning we’re nearly on our way. On February 1st we’ll be heading to Siberia for a month of fieldwork. First stop is Botovskaya Cave, around 350 km north of the city of Irkutsk, where we’ll spend two weeks camped out collecting speleothem, water, and soil samples. After returning to Irkutsk for a quick freshen up, it’s back on the road to Argarakan Cave, nearby Lake Baikal.

We’ll be travelling with our scientific colleagues from Potsdam and the University of Mainz and meeting our Russian caving experts from Speleoclub Arabika in Irkutsk. It’s been an exhausting few months planning logistics, obtaining visas and sourcing equipment but we’re excited to be hitting the road. Keep your eyes peeled for some updates from the field!

Seb Breitenbach predicts the future

6 January 2022

Congratulations to our PI Seb who has been interviewed for EU Horizons Magazine this week, giving his thoughts on the future of palaeoclimate and anthropology research.

Seb sees big developments in 2022 on our understanding of how and when early humans migrated across Eurasia.


15 October 2021

Thanks to Andrew Mason for welcoming us down to Oxford last week to collect and curate our Siberian speleothem samples which had been in storage at the Earth Sciences Department. We’ve now got plenty of amazing samples to analyse for clumped isotopes and U/Pb dating.

It wasn’t all work, we did find time for a tour of the laboratory facilities where we got to dress up for the clean lab and see a handful of mass spectrometers. Sparing an hour to see Oxford’s natural history museum, we later safely delivered the samples to Northumbria University. 

Welcoming Jade Robinson

1 October 2021

We’re delighted to welcome Jade Robinson, ISOPERM’s first PhD student, to the project team. Jade brings a wealth of knowledge to the role already, having conducted work on Holocene stalagmites for her MSc thesis at UCL.

As you can see, Jade has already acclimatised to the cold Siberian winters, and brings a fair grasp of the Russian language with her – so we’re confident she’ll settle in just fine during our forthcoming fieldwork. Jade will spend the first part of her PhD working on samples from Botovskaya Cave to analyse past permafrost dynamics and the palaeoenvironment.

ISOPERM profiled by the Centre for Life

7 September 2021

We enjoyed showing Ben Rutherford-Orrock from Newcastle’s Centre for life around the lab today. Ben is making a series of videos profiling the work of environmental scientists in the North East, that will be released in the run-up to COP26.

The whole team pitched in to show Ben the process of analysing a speleothem from collection in the field, to data analysis on the mass spec. Here’s star of the show, Sevi, showing Ben our Thermo Delta V (AKA Dr Octopus).

Sebastian Breitenbach becomes Associate Professor

23 July 2021

Congratulations to our Principle Investigator Sebastian who’s groundbreaking research and teaching have been rewarded by Northumbria University with a promotion to the position of Associate Professor.

The ISOPERM team will be raising a glass to celebrate over the coming days. Congratulations Seb!

New autosampler arrives

22 July 2021

Out latest arrival in Northumbria’s NICEST lab is a Sercon XYZ autosampler. This snazzy bit of kit will be used predominantly for helium flushing prior to isotope analysis on our Thermo Delta V mass spectrometer.

It’s capable of flushing up to 240 vials at a time, helping to double our sample throughput.

ISOPERM appoints new Intern

15 June 2021

ISOPERM welcomes Rebecca, the latest member of the team. She joins as a GIS and Spatial Data Intern and will be working on producing spatially referenced maps of Botovskaya cave and providing a helping hand with the carbonate isotope measurements.

Rebecca joins us after completing her thesis involving the environmental reconstruction of Northeastern India using stalagmite proxy data. ‘After conducting my dissertation from home during the pandemic, I am eager to get some practical experience and excited to be a part of such a important project’ said Rebecca, who will be working alongside the team on campus at Northumbria University.

New study shows Siberian permafrost has survived several periods of past warming

15 June 2021

ISOPERM researcher Thomas Opel has been part of a major study of the Batagay Megaslump, a kilometer wide depression in eastern Siberia, formed by thawing permafrost.

The international team of researchers used multiple innovative dating techniques to show that the oldest permafrost in the region dates back approxiamately 650,000 years. This means it has survived several past interglacial periods, including the ‘super-interglacial’ MIS 11c some 420,000 years ago when temperatures were 4 – 5 oC warmer than our current climatic epoch.

Launch of the SYP autosampler

14 June 2021

The ISOPERM team have been working with the University of Waikato to develop SYP – a new portable fluid autosampler for extreme environments.

Exceptional battery and vial capacity allow sub weekly sampling over year long deployments with comprehensive sensing of humidity, temperature, and air pressure. SYP has been developed through years of in situ testing and we’re looking forward to deploying the final model out in Siberia over the coming months.

SYP is commercially available at

Thomas Opel joins ISOPERM

25 May 2021

We are delighted to welcome Thomas Opel to the ISOPERM team, who joins as a post-doc for three years. Thomas will be based at AWI Potsdam and will take the lead on analysis of relict ground ice.

Thomas brings a wealth of experience to the team, having worked in the Russian Arctic for over 15 years. His work with ISOPERM will continue his exceptional record of permafrost research in the area

ISOPERM welcomes Stuart Umbo

1 May 2021

ISOPERM welcomes its latest team member. Stuart Umbo joins as a post-doc at Northumbria and will be working on producing clumped isotope measurements on carbonates.

Stuart Joins us after completing his PhD in clumped isotope analysis of foraminifera at the University of East Anglia. ‘I can’t wait to get working on such an exciting project with obvious real-world applications in informing future projections of anthropogenic climate change’ said Stuart, who will be getting to grips with new instumentation over the coming months, before joining on fieldwork.

ISOPERM Receives funding

1 March 2021

ISOPERM have been awarded a £489,000 research grant from the Leverhulme Trust to assess the long term impacts of climate change on Siberian Permafrost.

Thawing permafrost is considered one of the key climate tipping elements that would lead to long-term irreversible changes to global climate. Better understanding historical changes in permafrost extent will help understanding of future vulnerability of this vast carbon store.

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