University of St Andrews

Environmental Change

Research on environmental change in the Department of Geography and Sustainable Development focuses on the mechanisms, rates and trajectories of past, present and future environmental change at regional to global scales, and on the implications for the biosphere and society. Our research team comprises ten Physical and Environmental Geographers with complementary research interests in ecology and palaeoecology, palaeoceanography, palaeoclimatology and climate change, geomorphology, glaciology and geochronology, the societal impacts of environmental change and resource management. Collectively, we engage a global canvas that extends from tropical rainforests to arctic glaciers, and over timescales spanning the past million years to the future. Current research foci include:

  • Reconstructing Holocene environmental change and landscape evolution in a wide range of terrestrial and offshore shelf environments. 
  • Monitoring and modelling glacier and ice-sheet behaviour, including calving processes, ice/ocean interactions, surge glacier dynamics and glacier response to climate change. St Andrews Glaciology webpage.
  • Analysis of the dynamics of past glaciers and ice sheets, and their relation to atmospheric and oceanic circulation.
  • Investigation of the palaeoceanography, palaeoecology, climate change, environmental archaeology, land-use change and socio-ecological systems in the North Atlantic region (Greenland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Scotland).   
  • Reconstructing vegetational and climatic changes in the Mediterranean region over multiple glacial-interglacial cycles
  • Analysis of tropical peatland processes through palaeoecological reconstruction and peatland characterization.
  • Ecosystem resilience and early warning signals of thresholds and transitions to alternative states in Earth systems.
  • Assessment of the ecological, societal and economic impacts of past, present and future environmental changes and their implications for conservation, resource management and communities.

Our research incorporates diverse approaches and techniques, including geochronology (tephrochronology, radiocarbon dating, cosmogenic isotopes), the use of proxy palaeoenvironmental indicators (subfossil pollen assemblages, benthic foraminifera), geophysics, sedimentology, geomorphology, stable isotope geochemistry and numerical modelling. It is supported by an extensive range of laboratory and field equipment and comprises ‘one of the most comprehensive analytical facilities of its type in the UK’ (RAE2008 report).

The focus for research activity is the Environmental Change Research Group (ECRG), which is convened within the Department of Geography and Sustainable Development but welcomes participation by colleagues from other Departments and Schools within the university. Founded in 1990 to promote presentation and discussion of research problems, initiatives and results, it includes in its activities:

  • Sharing of technical skills and research experience, opening the way to internal collaborative research and expanding the scope of individual research agendas;
  • Discussion of strategy, appointments and infrastructural support through FEEA;
  • Dissemination of funding opportunities and discussion of grant applications, research management and knowledge exchange; and
  • Interfacing with SAGES, the Scottish Alliance for Geoscience, Environment and Society.

The 2008 RAE report identified the high standing of ECRG, noting that “outputs of the highest standing are predominantly the work of a broad cross-section of the Environmental Change Research Group”. Strategic priorities of ECRG include:

  • Expansion of our research capacity in the fields of Quaternary palaeoenvironmental reconstruction, Holocene environmental change, and environmental management to strengthen and diversify our research portfolio in these areas;
  • Exploiting our central position as a key research link between the Earth Sciences, Human Geography and Sustainable Development to develop joint research and funding initiatives;
  • Augmenting and improving our research infrastructure in line with the analytical requirements of present staff and future appointees; and
  • Expanding our thriving postgraduate and postdoctoral research community.

Select this link for a list of current PhD projects offered by our group.