Geography 50

Recent patterns in global sea-level change

Since the turn of the millennium, Plymouth geographers have played an invaluable role in forecasting the potential environmental impact of a rise in global sea levels. Professor Roland Gehrels (now at University of York), along with Professor Dan Charman (now at University of Exeter), Professor Rewi Newnham (now at Victoria University Wellington, New Zealand) and Dr Tim Daley secured a series of significant grants from the Natural Environment Research Council, the results of which made major contributions to scientific papers and even the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Their work generated insights into...

Getty 825546438 Seals in arctic acceleration of sea-level rise caused by inputs such as the melting of ice sheets and thermal expansion of water
Dawlish railway line
...major societal challenges posed by sea-level rise through specific examples such as the future viability of the Dawlish rail line

Long-term human impacts on terrestrial ecosystems

The spread of agriculture across Europe transformed our ecosystems and landscape. How, where and when this happened is a question that has preoccupied scientists for many years – and it is one that has been tackled by several collaborative research projects at Plymouth, bringing together geographers and archaeologists, both within the institution and outside.
These have included major Leverhulme projects on long-term deforestation of the European continent and biodiversity (Professor Neil Roberts, Professor Ralph Fyfe and Dr Jessie Woodbridge), and ‘wildscapes’ and crannogs (Professor Nicki Whitehouse).

Transport and mobility

Transport is a key component of human geography, and Plymouth has truly excelled at research focused upon sustainable transport and policy. Indeed, in the 2014 Research Excellence Framework, the University had a four-star rated impact case study relating to smart ticketing systems.

Led by Professor Jon Shaw and Dr Andrew Seedhouse, the University has attracted more than £4 million in research funding to assess the validity of a nationwide equivalent of an Oyster Card, and launched a spin out company South West Smart Applications Ltd to oversee its rollout.

Now almost all buses around the country have been equipped with ticket machines compatible with smart ticketing, and an increasing number of smart ticketing options are starting to appear.


Pioneering the use of environmental diagnostics for real-world soil conservation and management

Soil erosion is a global challenge that has serious socioeconomic consequences for energy, food, water and environmental security. Professor Will Blake and his team have used nuclear techniques to show the linkages between unsustainable farming and forestry practices and erosion and downstream sedimentation.

Working with the United Nations, they have developed tools that are being used to train scientists in other countries, helping them in turn to generate evidence and inform soil conservation policy.

They have also developed and implemented a methodology combining natural and social science, to demonstrate how co-produced, community-owned land management practices can lead to improved resilience in East Africa.

Farmer walking on infertile soil
The project brings together scientists and Maasai people to find ways to overcome soil erosion challenges
Will Blake

Identifying and measuring community resilience

The work of Professor Geoff Wilson, who retired last year, made an important contribution to understanding socioeconomic systems and resilience in communities.

A leading social scientist, Professor Wilson worked across Europe, China and Africa to identify some of the factors behind socioeconomic resilience, and applied this to the creation of a framework to assess the vulnerability of communities.

Other academics in this area, including Professor Richard Yarwood, Dr Claire Kelly and Dr Martyn Warren have also worked on issues such as socioeconomic change in rural areas, the diversification of farm enterprises and dementia in farming communities.


Reconstruction of Holocene climatic change

Plymouth geographers have made major contributions to the scientific reconstruction of past climates, in particular that of the Holocene period – the near 12,000 years since the last Ice Age. This has been extended to understand what controls and drives climate change over long term timescales and the impact of humans upon it.

This work was underpinned by major international projects led by the likes of Professor Dan Charman (pioneering the reconstruction of climate from peat bogs), Professor Rewi Newnham (particularly climatic change in the southern hemisphere) and Professor Neil Roberts (reconstructing Mediterranean climate change from lakes).


Environmental policy and politics

Environmental sustainability covers a range of areas and Plymouth, in particular through the work of Professor Ian Bailey, has led and worked on a range of projects relating to emissions trading, smart cities, political strategies for future climate policy and the impact of marine renewable technologies on the environment.

Geographers have also made a major contribution to the Sustainable Earth Institute, which brings researchers together with businesses, community groups and individuals to develop cutting-edge research and innovative approaches that build resilience to global challenges.

Celebrating 50 years of geography

2019 marked the 50th anniversary of geography as a degree subject at the University of Plymouth.
In the last half century, 6,394 students have graduated from our geography programmes and 154 staff have worked with us, supporting and carrying out world-class research and teaching.