Professor Ralph Fyfe
School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences (Faculty of Science and Engineering)
- Climate change
- Environmental change
- Human impact on the environment
- Pollen records
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My role at the University of Plymouth is to provide a broad-based education to undergraduate and postgraduate students, to undertake world-class research and provide strategic leadership of research within the Faculty of Science and Engineering (FoSE). My teaching is designed to promote geographical thinking and spatial literacy, particularly through leadership of programmes of learning in GIS (Geographical Information Systems) and long-term environmental change. Graduates from our GIS modules enjoy considerable success, obtaining jobs across a variety of sectors applying geospatial knowledge and practical experiences learnt at Plymouth. The teaching is informed by my research expertise and interests, and delivered through formal lecture classes, practical workshops, tutorial sessions and field-based teaching ranging from one-day local excursions to overseas residential field classes (including leading groups in Iceland and Western Ireland). I am Associate Dean for FoSE with responsibility for research, was the UoA14 (Geography and Environmental Sciences) coordinator for REF2021, and am a member of the Centre for Research in Environment and Society at the University of Plymouth.
My research broadly lies in reconstructing past environmental change. In particular I study how past societies influenced and shaped their surroundings, and apply this information to conservation and management of current and future environmental change. Understanding the past offers exciting insights into possible futures for people/environment relationships, and contributes to improved understanding of interactions in the whole earth system, including human disturbance of natural systems. As such much of my work is interdisciplinary, with strong links to archaeology, ecology and conservation management, and climate science. I have authored more than 100 academic papers and book chapters.
I have received more than £1.3M of funding to support my research since my appointment at the University of Plymouth (2006). Recent major programmes of research have focussed on transformation of the European landscape over the past 10,000 years through successive Leverhulme Trust-funded projects on: Deforesting Europe (2011-2014), Transforming the Face of the Mediterranean (2015-2018), Biodiversity and human land use (2019-2022) and Reclaiming Exmoor (2020-22) with key publications in Global Change Biology, Scientific Reports and a thematic special issue of The Holocene.I am currently involved with major international research programmes, including the Past Global Changes Landcover6K working group, the H2020 TERRANOVA International Training Network, and the ERC-funded COREX project.
I graduated in 1996 with a BSc (Hons) Degree in Geography from Durham University, and spent the subsequent year working on a variety of projects in the broad Quaternary Environmental Change area. This included excavation of interglacial sediments along the line of the A13 extension near Purfleet, opening sections of till on the Northumberland coast and coring peat sequence on the North York Moors. I subsequently completed an interdisciplinary PhD at Exeter University, drawing on both archaeological and geographical techniques to assess the value and importance of fluvial sediments for archaeological and environmental reconstruction. This work was undertaken in partnership with the Environment Agency and Exmoor National Park Authority.
I am a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society (FRGS), a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (FHEA) and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts (FRSA).
I have served as Membership Secretary of the Association for Environmental Archaeology and convened the AEA annual conference at Plymouth in 2014. I hold membership of a range of other professional associations, including the Quaternary Research Association, co-convening the QRA Annual Discussion Meeting at Plymouth in 2017.
Charting past changes for sustainable futures
A main area of Ralph’s research is the development of pollen-landscape calibration datasets for the quantification of past land cover and application to conservation and climate change.
The tree planting misconception: we should examine our ecological past before planning our future
Communities and governments around the world have recognised the scale of environmental damage caused to ecosystems by human actions.
My teaching supports three key areas of the student learning experience at Plymouth:
(i) development of GIS skills and spatial literacy;
(ii) palaeoecology, environmental change and archaeology; and
(iii) development of wider employability skills.
My teaching is divided between formal taught classes, practical skills development in the physical geography and IT labs, and fieldwork. Problem-based learning and research-led teaching develops the independent learning and creates ownership of the learning experience for my students. I have coordinated local field teaching (for example collecting air temperature data around Plymouth city centre for use within GIS labs, excursions to Dartmoor and Bodmin Moor to explore upland environmental change) and international residential field trips to Iceland and western Ireland.
Graduates from the GIS module are well equipped for employment, and enjoy success within a variety of industries including global management, engineering and development consultancy, and forensic sciences.
My current research falls into three main areas:
(1) Development of pollen-landscape calibration datasets for the quantification of past land cover, and application to archaeology, nature conservation and climate change research. This includes coordination of research on European land cover change over the past 10,000 years within the PAGES LANDCOVER6K working group, and contributing to the open-access European Pollen Database.
(2) Human-environment relationships in past societies, with a particular focus on prehistoric landscapes, including the completed Deforesting Europe (2011-2014) and Transforming the Face of the Mediterranean projects (2015-2018), and the ongoing Biodiversity and human land use project (2019-2022), all funded by the Leverhulme Trust. The ERC Synergy COREX (From Correlation to Explanation) project (2021-2027) aims to re-write the prehistory of Europe through a major interdisciplinary, big-data driven approach.
(3) Sustainable conservation and management of the archaeological and palaeoecological resource. I co-wrote key technical review documents for the IUCN peatlands programme, and work alongside Exmoor and Dartmoor National Park Authorities providing commissioned research and technical advice within major programmes of upland peatland restoration. The interdisciplinary Leverhulme Trust-funded Reclaiming Exmoor project (2020-22) that I lead speaks to the ecological consequences of historical processes of moorland improvement schemes, the results of which are being shared within the peatland restoration community to help understand ecological processes around disturbance.
Grants & contracts
I have received >£1.3M funding for my research since my appointment at Plymouth in 2006, from a variety of sources, including UK research councils (e.g. NERC/AHRC), the EU, prestigious national funding agencies (Leverhulme Trust/British Academy/English Heritage) and 'third stream' funders. My research income has helped support and develop the careers of various undergraduate Research Assistants, PhD students and Post-doctoral fellows, as well as allowed me to explore and develop my personal and collaborative research agendas.
36. Leverhulme Trust (£263,127): "Long-term biodiversity and human land use change". PI, with Pelling (Historic England) and Smith (Birmingham); 35. Dartmoor National Park (£16,983): “Long-term ecology and human impact at Amicombe Hill, Dartmoor”
34. Exmoor National Park (£4,187): “Prehistoric and historic land use on Codsend Moors, Exmoor”; 33. Dartmoor National Park (£10,449): “Environmental context and dating of the Sittaford stone circle”
31. Leverhulme Trust (£294,146): "Changing the face of the Mediterranean: land cover and population since the advent of farming". CoI, with Roberts, Shennan (UCL) and Bevan (UCL); 30. Scottish Natural Heritage: PhD scholarship for research into river ecosystem services
29. English Heritage (£1,283): "The environment of the Glastonbury Lake Village"; 28. PU ISSR Small Collaborative Award (£4,028): "Automated mapping of river networks for ecosystem services assessment" CoI with Gilvear, Fletcher and Bolton; 27. English Heritage (£12,561): "White Horse Hill project" additional funding Cornwall County Council (£3,201): "Palaeoecological analysis at Porthloo Beach, Scilly"; 26. Mires on the Moors project (£17,720): "The context of prehistoric landscapes (phase 2)" PI, with MacLeod (RHUL)
25. Mires on the Moors project (£10,700): "The context of prehistoric landscapes: preliminary analysis of sites on Exmoor". PI with Daley; 24. NERC (£20,084): "Quantifying the biodiversity threshold for peatland carbon service delivery". CoI, with Daley (PI), Street-Perrott and Loader (Swansea); 23. Mires on the Moors project (£25,266): "The Exmoor millennium project (phase 2)". PI with Daley, Macleod (RHUL) and Smith (Birmingham)
22. Mires on the Moors project (£18,018): "The Exmoor millennium project (phase 1). PI with Daley; 21. English Heritage (£9,473): "Whitehorse Hill cist project" PI with Macleod (RHUL); 20. ENPA (£4,500): "Exmoor woodland project"
19. NERC RCL (£6,380): "A palaeoecological approach to understanding the impact of coastal change on past societies" [11 AMS radiocarbon dates]. PI with Perez, Gehrels, Charman (Exeter) and Roberts (Aberystwyth); 18. British Academy (£7,100): "Neolithic monumentality on Dartmoor"
17. Leverhulme Trust (£146,741): "Deforesting Europe: a pollen-based reconstruction of Holocene land cover change". Co-PI, with Roberts (Plymouth); 16. Trustees, FD ESA (£62,794): "Dartmoor Blanket Bog Restoration Project: Palaeoecological Analysis, 2010-12"; 15. NERC RCL (£1,560): "Constraints of late glacial sealevel change in western Ireland" [3 AMS radiocarbon dates]. CoI, with Gehrels and Edwards (TCD); 14. University of Plymouth PUP fund (£6,370): "High Upland Landscapes Project"; 13. DNPA (£910): Trial excavation, Tottiford Reservoir, Dartmoor; 12. DNPA (£1,000): Post-excavation analysis, Bellever Bronze Age round house project
11. University of Plymouth PUP fund (£5,200): "The pollen-based record of landuse change in the British Isles" Co-I, with Roberts; 10. Trustees, FD ESA (£60,340): "Dartmoor Blanket Bog Restoration Project: Palaeoecological Analysis"
9. ENPA (£9,700): "Assessment of Exmoor’s Areas of Outstanding Archaeological and Historical Importance"; 8. NERC RCL (£4,680): "Testing a preliminary event stratigraphy (30-8ka) from the southern Hemisphere" [9 AMS radiocarbon dates]. CoI, with Newnham, Callard (Plymouth) and Vandergoes (NZ); 7. English Heritage (£95,000): "Lyonesse project". CoI, with Mulville (Cardiff), Johns (Cornwall CC), Charman, Gehrels, Head (all Plymouth)
6. British Academy (£7,405 ): "Geochemical identification of prehistoric metallurgy in southwest Britain"; 5. DNPA (£6,803): "Cut Hill Project" phase 3; 4. English Heritage (£2,441): "Roman Lode iron working site: palaeoecology"
3. DNPA (£2,500): "Shovel Down Project" environmental post-excavation analysis; 2. DNPA (£4,993): "Cut Hill Project" phase 2; 1. GWR/ENPA (£55,200): PhD Scholarship for "Sustainable management of upland peat" (Dr Heather Davies)
Key publications are highlightedJournals
Co-Chair (with Dr Caroline Clason) of Quaternary Research Association Annual Discussion Meeting on Data-model inter-comparison in Quaternary Science at Plymouth, 2018
Chair of Association for Environmental Archaeology Annual Conference on The Big Picture: Archaeology, Society and Environment at Plymouth, 2014
Convenor of Quantitative pollen-based reconstructions of plant cover for environmental and archaeological research session at the European Palaeobotany and Palynology Conference, Dublin, 2018
Convenor of Pollen-based Holocene land-cover reconstructions for climate modelling session at the XIV International Palynology Congress, Salvador (Brazil) 2016
Convenor of Land use and Land cover change over Holocene timescales session at the European Geosciences Union conference, Vienna (Austria) 2016
Convenor of Environmental consequences of the onset and development of agricultural societies session at the International Quaternary Union (INQUA) congress, Nagoya (Japan) 2015