John King

  • Emeritus Professor of Oceanography
  • Marine Geology and Geophysics
  • Phone: 401.874.6182
  • Email:
  • Office Location: Rm 1 Middleton Building / South Laboratory



Dr. John W. King became interested in paleoclimate and paleoecology fields when he was an undergraduate getting his special studies degree in Lancaster, PA, and that started him on a long and highly visible career that in turn has brought numerous benefits to his adopted home, Rhode Island.

As a student at Franklin and Marshall College, he had to provide a senior thesis and he chose to analyze cores from a local wetland identifying fossil pollen. The project intrigued him so much, he decided to pursue the studies as a graduate student at the University of Minnesota.

In graduate school, he soon found out that the age models being used to date sediment cores were not very good, especially if one had to compare cores from one site to another.

“So I decided I had to refocus my studies,” he says, noting that at that time a technique that looked very promising was to look at paleomagnetic variation curves. Earth’s magnetic field reverses polarity over large spans of time, leaving a record on rocks and sediments.

“I spent four years mostly doing the paleomagnetism work and my intention was to get back to fossil pollen—both things are quite time consuming and so I ended up doing 1.5 theses and not two. I decided after being there for seven years I had to get out of there.” King still does some paleobotany studies but mostly what he does is paleomagnetic studies in a special lab next to his office constructed out of transformer steel and which houses two magnetometers.

The lab, which he says is worth more than the building it is housed in, is busy with analyzing cores, some of which are retrieved kilometers beneath the sea floor.

“I’ve been doing it for 20 years and the analogy is that I feel I am a war correspondent watching global climate change sort of rolling through, taking out all of the things there are valuable.”

His work on cores enabled him to get involved in a backyard project—helping the state with site characterization studies for developing offshore alternative energy.

King was heavily involved in the RI Ocean SAMP (Special Area Management Plan) that was needed to help with the siting of the proposed wind turbine farm off Block Island.

“It is honestly more satisfying working on projects that are going to result in something that is going to mitigate global climate change rather than just documenting the negative impacts of climate change,” he says.

Cores of sediment were analyzed in the area to determine if the area is suitable for hosting the turbine towers. In the Block Island area, single, wide diameter piles will be driven down to anchor the turbine towers. That technique works because the towers would be in moderately shallow waters. Farther out to sea where it is deeper, other types of structures are needed.

King, a native of New Jersey, came to GSO in 1984 and his wife was fortunate enough to find a sociology faculty opening on the main campus. Dean John Knauss was at GSO at the time and “GSO was small but it had a good reputation—as good as some of the large oceanographic places but it did not have a downside that some of the larger places have—some of them are like snake pits. In my academic career I was not interested in going to a place where you had to keep your back to the wall all the time”.

“Knauss was impressive and GSO was a happy place. Everyone had common goals and worked together and everybody had a real sense of this being a quality institution and they wanted you to succeed—you don’t always find that in academic institutions.”

Besides the Ocean SAMP project, King has been involved in monitoring coastal erosion in Rhode Island, a project that has been going on for years. At first, he recalls, they used traditional surveying techniques (one transit was so old that it used spider webs for cross hairs) but today side-looking LIDAR gear can measure erosion along a coastline quickly using a laser.

Another project he has worked on is locating sea floor areas where sand can be harvested for beach replenishment. With sea level change, replenishing beaches by importing sand is merely “buying time,” he says.

King is a popular speaker on climate change topics, especially sea level rise in the Ocean State.
“I try not to get hysterical—you know there really isn’t any good news and I don’t sugar-coat it. Among the scientists there really is no controversy about climate change” he says. The problem is, he adds, mitigating the problem will take policy changes and that in turn takes a lot of time—time that many scientists say we don’t have.

In his climate change talks, King says maps showing how sea level rise will put popular landmarks underwater are dramatic convincers for the audiences.

One of King’s favorite assignments is teaching a challenge course to freshmen on the impact of climate change on the coasts of New England. The course starts with discourse on the pertinent social institutions—the students need to know the context in which the science is brought to bear on the question,” he says.

“One of the first things I tell them is that because scientists know the truths, that people should listen to what scientists say—they do not. They treat us just like any other pressure group that is trying to get money to do something. We go through the whole equation and then get to the science and that shakes them up. But what shakes them up even more is the way our social institutions work and where the power really resides in our society and that is largely news to them. When the students really start to think about the whole equation, they are apt to say, ‘Hey, that’s not fair.’

“Most of them are wondering why they have a general sense of unease in their lives—I just say in this day and age it is good to be a conspiracy theorist because there are real conspiracies against regular people out there.”

King says he likes that class. “Critical thinking skills are not something that gets taught well prior to the university level. It seems kids are being taught how to take tests. It is interesting to see the reactions. In the first half of the class students are really ticked off because you are rocking their world because they really did not want to know any of this stuff and they are upset that you are telling them things they did not want to know about—usually they are over that at the end of the course.”

Asked what he would like to do if someone offered him a pot of gold, King says he would like to continue a potentially expensive project that would analyze sediment cores taken from lakes and estuaries in Canada and eastern U.S. Those cores would give scientists the ability to look at annual variations in climate change on a decadal scale rather than an orbital scale for thousands of years. Such analysis would give scientists a better prediction as to what is about to happen in the next 100 years, he says. He says he already has a list of sites for the project but money has not been found.

As for improving the situation for graduate students at GSO, King says several avenues have to be explored including getting more teaching assistantships and boosting federal funding for higher education.

“People don’t realize that quality of higher education is tied to our economic strength. People used to get that but not anymore.”

For relaxation he likes gardening and he likes travel to places where he doesn’t have to work. “Hey—I’m a geophysicist and I’ve never been to Yellowstone.”


Carbon cycle, Climate change, Coastal and estuarine health, Coastal and estuarine physical oceanography, Coastal erosion, Geochemical tracers, Marine habitat and ecosystems, Ocean policy and education, Offshore renewable energy, Paleoceanography, Paleomagnetism, Science communication, Seafloor mapping, Sedimentology

John King’s current research interests include geomagnetism and paleomagnetism, environmental magnetism, sedimentology, paleoclimatic studies,sediment core logging, coastal and marine habitat and ecosystem studies, trace metal geochemistry, pollution studies, and how global climate change affects localities and communities.
John King teaches a graduate course in Environmental Magnetism and High-Resolution Quaternary Climate Studies, as well as graduate courses in Geological Oceanography and Introduction to Marine Pollution.

He has given numerous talks and presentations to the general public on global and local impacts of climate change.


Ph.D. Geology, University of Minnesota, 1983

B.A. Special Studies – Bio-Chem, Franklin and Marshall College, 1974

John King teaches a graduate course in Environmental Magnetism and High-Resolution Quaternary Climate Studies, as well as graduate courses in Geological Oceanography and Introduction to Marine Pollution.

Selected Publications


Cantwell, M. G., B. A. Wilson, J. Zhu, G. T. Wallace, J. W. King, C. R. Olsen, R. M. Burgess, and J. P. Smith, 2010 “Temporal trends of triclosan contamination in dated sediment cores from four urbanized estuaries: evidence of preservation and accumulation.” Chemosphere, v. 28, p. 347-352, DOI: 10.1016/j.chemosphere:2009.11.021, 2010.

Guarinello, M.L., E.J. Shumchenia, J.W. King, 2010. “Marine habitat classification for ecosystem based management: A proposed hierarchical framework.” Environmental Management, DOI 10.1007/s00267-010-9430-5, 2010.

Han, W., X. Fang, S. Yang, and J. King. “Differences between East Asian and Indian monsoon climate records during MIS3 attributed to differences in their driving mechanisms: evidence from the loess record in the Sichuan basin, southwestern China and other continental and marine climate records.” Quaternary International. Vol 218, Issues 1-2, May 2010, pp. 94-103.

Heil, C. W. Jr., J. W. King, M. A. Zarate, and P.H. Schulz, 2010. “Climatic interpretation of a 1.9 Ma environmental magnetic record of loess deposition and soil formation in the central eastern Pampas of Buenos Aires, Argentina.” Quaternary Science Reviews, 29, 2705-2718, doi:10.1016/j.quascirev.2010.06.024.

Shanahan, T. M., J. T. Overpeck, K. J. Anchukaitis, J. W. Beck, J. E. Cole, D. L. Dettman, J. A. Peck, C. A Scholz, and J. W. King, 2010 “Atlantic forcing of persistent drought in West Africa.” Science. v. 324, no. 5925, pp. 377-380. DOI: 10.1126/science.1166352, 2010.

Shumchenia, E.J., and J.W. King, 2010. “Evaluation of sediment profile imagery as a tool for assessing water quality in Greenwich Bay, Rhode Island, USA.” Ecological Indicators 10, 818-825, 2010.


Boes, X., S. B. Moran, J. King, M. N. Cagatay, and A. Hubert-Ferrari, 2009. “Records of large earthquakes in lake sediments along the North Anatolian Fault, Turkey.” J. Paleolimnology, DOI: 10.1007/s10933-009-9376-x. Published online, 17 September, 2009.

Buhay, W. M., S. Simpson, H. Thorleifson, M. Lewis, J. King, A. Telka, P. Wilkinson, J. Babb, S. Timsic, and D. Bailey, 2009. “A 1000-year record of dry conditions in the eastern Canadian prairies reconstructed from oxygen and carbon isotope measurement son Lake Winnipeg sediment organics.” Journal of Quaternary Science, 24(5), pp. 426 – 436. DOI:10.1002/jqs.1293, 2009.

Heil, C. W. Jr., J. W. King, J. G. Rosenbaum, R. L. Reybolds, S. M. Colman. “Paleomagnetism and environmental magnetism of GLAD800 sediment cores from Bear Lake, Utah and Idaho,” IN Rosenbaum, J. G., and D. S. Kaufman, eds. Paleoenvironments of Bear Lake, Utah and Idaho, and its catchment: Geological Society of America Special Paper 450, p. 291-310, DOI: 10.1130/209.2450(13), 2009.

Hubeny, J. B., J. W. King, and M. Cantwell, 2009. “Anthropogenic influences on estuarine sedimentation and ecology: examples from the varved sediments of the Pettaquamscutt River Estuary, Rhode Island.” J. Paleolimnol, 41, p. 297-314.

Nie, Junsheng, Y. Song, J. W. King, and R. Egli, 2009. “Consistent grain size distribution of pedogenic maghemiete of surface soils and Miocene loessic soils on the Chinese Loess Plateau.” Journal of Quaternary Science, vol 25, issue 3, pp. 261-266.


Cantwell, M. G., R. M. Burgess, and J. W. King, 2008. “Resuspension of contaminated field and formulated reference sediments Part I: Evaluation of metal release under controlled laboratory conditions. Chemosphere v. 73, pp. 1824 – 1831. DOI: 10.1016/j.chemosphere:2008.08.007, 2008.

Cronin, T. M., S. A. Smith, F. Eynaud, M. O’Regan, and J. King, 2008. “Quaternary paleoceanography of the central Arctic based on Integrated Ocean Drilling Program Arctic Coring Expedition 302 foraminiferal assemblages.” Paleoceanography, 23, PA1S18, doi:10.1029/2007PA001484.

Frank, M., J. Backman, M. Jakobsson, K. Moran, M. O’Regan, J. King, B. A. Haley, P. W. Kubik, and D. Garbe-Schönberg, 2008. “Beryllium isotopes in central Arctic Ocean sediments over the past 12.3 million years: Stratigraphic and paleoclimatic implications.” Paleoceanography, 23, PA1S02, doi:10.1029/2007PA001478, 2008.

Hubeny, J. B., J. W. King, and M. Cantwell, 2008. “Anthropogenic influences on estuarine sedimentation and ecology: examples from the varved sediments of the Pettaquamscutt River Estuary, Rhode Island.” J. Paleolimnol, DOI 10.1007/s10933-008-9226-2, 2008.

King, J., B.Hubeny, C.Gibson, E.Laliberte, K.Ford, M.Cantwell, R.McKinney, and P.Appleby, 2008. “Antropogenic Eutrophication of Narragansett Bay: Evidence from Dated Sediment Cores.” IN: Science for Ecosystem-based Management: Narragansett Bay in the 21st Century. Springer Series on Environmental Management. p. 211-232.

Lewis. C. F. M., J. W. King, S. M. Blasco, G. R. Brooks, J. P. Coakley, T. E. Croley II, D. L. Dettman, T. W. D. Edwards, C. W. Heil, Jr., J. B. Hubeny, K. R. Laird, J. H. McAndrews, F. G. G. McCarthy, B. E. Medioli, T. C. Moore, Jr., K. K. Rea, and A. J. Smith, 2008. “Dry Climate Disconnected the Laurentian Great Lakes.” EOS, vol. 89, No. 52, 23 December, 2008, pp. 541-542.

Nie, J., J. King, and X. Fang. “Link between benthic oxygen isotopes and magnetic susceptibility in the red-clay sequence on the Chinese Loess Plateau. ” Geophysical Research Letters, 35, L03703, DOI: 10.1029/2007GL032817, 2008.

O’Regan, M., J. King, J. Backman, M. Jakobsson, H. Palike, K. Moran, C. Heil, T. Sakamoto, T. Cronin, and R. W. Jordan. “Constraints on the Pleistocene Chronology of Sediments from the Lomonosov Ridge.” Paleoceanography. 23, PA1S19, doi:10.1029/2007PA001551, 2008.

Shanahan, T. M., J. T. Overpeck, J. B. Hubeny, J. King, F. S. Hu, K. Hughen, G. Miller, and J. Black, 2008. “Scanning micro-X-ray fluorescence elemental mapping: A new tool for the study of laminated sediment records.” Geochem. Geophys. Geosyst., 9, Q02016, doi:10.1029/2007GC001800, 2008.