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School of Geography

Earth Surface Science

We investigate how landscapes respond to the interacting chemical, physical and biological processes that drive their evolution over timescales varying from individual storm events through to millennia. Our research seeks to integrate the global-scale phenomena that force environmental change with an understanding of the micro-scale process mechanics and feedbacks that configure the local form, structure and dynamics of the Earth’s surface.

A section of the Fiume Tagliamento river in northern Italy.

Research carried out by our staff is helping to define the emerging science of the Earth’s surface and focuses on three overarching questions:

  • What processes drive the dynamics and co-evolution of rivers and their ecosystems?  
    Our research has demonstrated the two-way nature of the feedbacks between the physical and biological processes of fluvial systems and has shown how these interactions help to explain the complex three-dimensional form and dynamics of the rivers that drain the Earth’s surface. Research in this theme contributes to building the fundamental foundations of a quantitative river science whilst also enhancing the scientific-basis for sustainable river management. Our current research focuses on three key areas: (i) developing innovative geospatial technologies and methods to quantify the structure and dynamics of braided rivers over both event and decadal timescales (Angela Gurnell); (ii) innovative conceptual models of the interactions between aquatic biota, hydrodynamic and sedimentological processes (Angela Gurnell, Gemma Harvey and Geraldene Wharton); and (iii) the use of numerical methods to predict to the response of river systems to land-use change and simulate flood hazards (Alex Henshaw).
  • What controls biogeochemical processes and dynamics in aquatic and wetland systems?  
    This area of research aims to examine how macronutrient (C, N, P) and contaminant cycles interact with the biological, physical and anthropogenic drivers in freshwater and estuarine systems. Our work in this theme is strongly interdisciplinary and frequently plays an important role in shaping new practices to manage coastal sediments and improve our understanding of how rising sea-levels may impact coastal assets and wetland ecosystems. Our current research focuses in particular on three core areas: (i) developing conceptual and numerical models of the physical-biological feedback processes controlling peatland dynamics (Lisa Belyea); (ii) field and laboratory-based studies of nutrient cycling in groundwater and surface water systems (Kate Heppell); and (iii) the development of novel geochemical tracers to quantify cohesive sediment and related contaminant fluxes (Kate Spencer).
  • What can geo-archives tell us about patterns and processes of environmental change?  
    Our research interrogates and interprets evidence of environmental change through multiple approaches from microscopic to landscape scales and spans from the Quaternary, from the earliest evidence of humans in Britain and the palaeoenvironmental applications of ostracods. This work is enhanced by collaborations that provide access to unique geological datasets and nationally-significant archaeological collections, and support the development of global research databases. Key themes of our current research include: (i) establishing the environmental context for the dispersal of the first ancient humans in Britain (Simon Lewis - see; and (ii) advancing the application of ostracods for palaeoclimatic reconstruction (Dave Horne).          

We make full use of the facilities within the School of Geography’s Laboratory and Field Suite which supports our work concerned with environmental systems, their processes, their interactions in the present and past, as well as in the uncertain future.

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