Quaternary Science and Landscape Change Research Group

We give deep-time, science-based perspective on contemporary environmental issues through new understandings of the complex relationships between long-term environmental change, human adaptations and resilience embedded in landscapes.

Man standing with back to camera looking over mountains and lakes

Our research themes

  • Reconstructing Pleistocene and Holocene landscape change and ice sheet processes
  • Storminess and geomorphological responses to extreme coastal events across timescales
  • High resolution assessment of landscapes as evidence of human adaptations and resilience to environmental change
  • Readying cultural landscape assets for environmentally change(d) futures

Our purpose is the understanding of terrains and landscapes as narratives of the ever-changing, and often vexed, relationships between people and their environments now, in the past and in the future. Working within Anthropocene, Quaternary and Historical frameworks of reference we drive research programmes with global reach in the near Arctic, South Asia, the Middle East, Southern Africa, South America as well as in Scotland. These programmes highlight the glacial and coastal geomorphological processes resulting from global to local environmental dynamics and climatic change, the relationships between environmental change and urban landscapes, environmental impacts of settlement, adaptation in pristine landscapes and the long-term exploitation, management and restoration of water, soils and vegetation resources.

Our approach is based on sensitive co-produced knowledge that integrates local community groups, national governments and international agencies; the development of temporal landscape frameworks through working closely with colleagues in the Optically Stimulated Luminescence Laboratory at St Andrews and the Radiocarbon Laboratory at SUERC; fully integrate field survey, remote sensing and mapping capabilities with laboratory expertise that includes thin section micromorphology and SEM-EDX analyses together with pedological, sedimentological and palaeo-botanical analyses; and interdisciplinary approaches though our global networks of collaborators that includes anthropologists, archaeologists, historians, educationalists, geoscientists and engineers.

Our work is setting major academic agendas and influencing international policymakers, practitioners and educators on diverse themes including temporal analogies for ice sheet collapse, subsistence agricultural futures, the origins of human culture, post-earthquake rebuilding approaches in of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and in preparing natural and cultural heritage for a climate change(d) future.

Research activities

We explore landscape and seabed expressions of glaciation and past global change, to provide new and foundational analyses for models predicting ice-sheet behaviour and related sea-level changes. We seek to quantify rates of change focusing on landform and sediment archives of natural-process-driven phenomena and key global environmental events spanning the last 2 Million years of Earth history.

Our sedimentary and geophysical analytical capabilities deliver new insights into glacier dynamics and associated geomorphic changes on a range of timescales from minutes to millennia. Our research bridges disciplinary divides in marine and terrestrial science to tackle global challenges and provide solutions-focused outcomes to a range of stakeholders.

We investigate the process-response mechanisms driving coastal landscape change at timescales of individual storm events to millennial periods of intense storminess. By integrating morpho-sedimentary, geophysical, remote sensing and a suite of numerical modelling techniques, our work bridges the understanding of past changes with the prediction of future coastal evolution.

We seek to quantify the processes that drive coastal landform change in response to tropical and extratropical storms in different geographies, integrating the compounding effects of sea level change and human modification of coastal landscapes. We embed new insights on coastal morpho-dynamic processes in the development of nature-based coastal adaptation solutions, locally addressing global challenges posed by climate change and the increased societal exposure to coastal hazards.

Landscapes are an expression of both cultural and physical environmental processes, with this dynamic relationship shifting over time. We use the rich and diverse palaeo-environmental archives across the globe to explore these relationships as they influence and drive landscape change. We create and apply novel combinations of palaeo-environmental proxies and geo-chronologies, working across and within diverse disciplines to generate records of past environments.

Our work tells of landscape change at a range of spatial and temporal scales, and we specialise in defining records that relate to local landscape change over a human generation. These highly resolved records bring new insights to community identities, sustainability and resilience over time. They provide present day communities, national and international government agencies with an intuitive and evidence-based foundation from which to make well informed decisions and choices as they adapt to current and future environmental change.

We seek to understand and anticipate the complex micro-and macro-scale impacts of climate change, earthquake and conflict on landscape heritage assets. Working with detailed climate change predictions including UKCP18, we undertake controlled environment chamber experimentation of temperature, humidity and precipitation scenarios on heritage construction materials that include stone, turf and brick.

Advanced digital, microscopic and SEM-EDX analyses methods indicate the early modifications of these climate sensitised materials and from which robust mitigation measures can be proposed. Our work in seismic zones focusses on identifying heritage values associated with the construction of traditional earth-based foundations, their response to seismic events and their role in heritage monument reconstructions.

Analytical facilities include advanced light microscopy with image analyses, and SEM imaging with associated EDX element-based capability. This facility works in close collaboration with the Instrument Laboratory, and the Controlled Environment Facility. It has an extensive collection of soil thin sections accessible to the research community.

Find out more about the thin section and micromorphology laboratory.

Recent and active research programmes

US National Science Foundation. Threatened science and heritage in Greenland: Response and capacity building (RESPONSE).

Australian Research Council. An archaeological investigation into the collapse of Pollonnaruva, Sri Lanka.

ANR - France. Monsoon, climate anomalies and social dynamics in medieval India.

British Academy / GCRF. Reducing Disaster Risk to Life and Livelihoods by Evaluating the Seismic Performance of Retrofitted Interventions within Kathmandu's UNESCO World Heritage Site during the 2015 Earthquake

AHRC / GCRF. Can we rebuild the Kasthamandap? Promoting post disaster excavations, salvage and subsurface protection protocols in Kathmandu.

NERC / UK Research Council. BRITICE-CHRONO - constraining the rate and style of marine-influenced ice sheet decay.

JPI Heritage Plus / AHRC. Cultural Landscape risk Identification, Management and Assessment. http://www.clima-project.eu/

EU H2020. Developing Optimal and Open Research Support for the Black Sea.

Heritage Lottery Fund. Soil legacies in the north-west Highlands. 

Historic Environment Scotland. Conservation in a climate change(d) future.

Historic Environment Scotland. Long Term land-use, archaeological and Environmental changes in Holyrood Park, Edinburgh.

Marine Scotland / Scottish Government. Blue Carbon in the Marine Ecosystem.

Royal Geographical Society (with IBG). Does lichenometry really work?

National Trust for Scotland Ben Lomond Environmental Study

De Beers Group. Shoreline change and storm erosion modelling in Southern Namibia. 

Contact us

Please contact Professor Ian Simpson for any queries or information.