Physical Geography

See the supervisors involved in Physical Geography in the School, and the projects they'll be working on in the coming year.

Dr Linden Ashcroft in collaboration with colleagues at the University of Newcastle

From cyclones to snowfall: recuing the climate of eastern NSW, 1843–2021

Glenthorne weather diary

Over the past 10 years, a collection of weather observations has been rescued across eastern New South Wales, spanning the 1840s to the 1950s. Combined with modern observations from the Bureau of Meteorology, these records provide a rare opportunity to examine 175 years of climate variability in a part of Australia that is influenced by temperate and subtropical weather features: where both snow and tropical cyclones occur.

As our climate changes, there is an urgent need to understand more about this unique region in the pre-industrial period, to identify the change in both mean and extreme weather and climate conditions.

In this project, you will address this need by studying the unexplored weather records and diaries taken by farmers, scientists and colonial families. In collaboration with historians, archivists and atmospheric scientists from the University of Newcastle, you will delve into these pieces of history, conduct rigorous testing to determine their quality, and combine instrumental, documentary and reanalysis datasets to reveal the climate in this unique part of Australia from the 1840s to today.

Find an expert: Dr Linden Ashcroft


Prof. Barbara Downes

Improving the biodiversity of streams damaged by land clearance for agriculture

The project is supported by an ARC Linkage grant and involves collaboration with Melbourne Water and the Arthur Rylah Institute (State Gov. Dept. of Environment, Land, Water & Planning).

Many streams have been damaged by land clearance for agriculture, which has resulted in fewer detritus (leaves, bark, wood from bankside vegetation, which provides food and living space for aquatic species) entering streams. Additionally, many streams have been de-snagged, which has removed the capacity of streams to retain detritus in situ, which may explain low species diversity in these streams.

In this project we will test hypotheses regarding the relations between the amount of riparian vegetation, wood loading and channel characteristics and hydrology on the capacity of the stream to retain in-stream detritus (e.g. by logs, branches, etc.). We will also be conducting a multi-river field experiment to test whether increased retention improves detritus densities and hence the biological diversity of streams.

  • How does retention vary in restored Victorian streams?
    You can build on some research that has developed a method for measuring natural retention in streams to test hypotheses about the relationship between retention and aspects like width and extent of riparian zones in streams where effort has been made over the last decade to repair the vegetation of riparian zones (e.g. by Melbourne Water). This will provide a way of testing the effectiveness of riparian planting.
  • What is the role of drift dispersal?
    Assess the role of drift dispersal (dispersal of invertebrates in stream currents) in bringing about improvements in biological diversity by measuring the rate of arrival and departure at experimental sites compared to controls. Theoretically, experimental sites will accumulate individuals in search of resources (higher arrival than departure rate) whereas control sites will show no such effect (arrival and departure rates will be equivalent).
  • What is the role of adult dispersal and recruitment?
    What is the role of adult dispersal and egg-laying in bringing about improvements to biological diversity rather than the movement of animals in the drift? We know some species of insects lay their eggs on bark and wood so the establishment of these species may be done through adult flight between streams rather than by drift dispersal.

Find an expert: Prof. Barbara Downes


Prof. Russell Drysdale

The timing of glacial Termination IX in Italian lake sediments: a test of orbital theory.

Termination IX (the climate transition between Marine Isotope Stages 20 and 19, about 800,000 years ago) occurred as Earth's glacial-interglacial cycles switched from a ~40-kyr to a ~100-kyr periodicity. It is one of only two terminations of the last million years that lacks firm radiometric age constraints. In this project, stable-isotope and carbonate-content analysis will be performed on lake sediments from the Sulmona Basin (Italy) that span T-IX. The results will be used to reconstruct rainfall isotope and temperature changes across the termination that can be directly tied to the record of ice-sheet collapse preserved in ocean sediments off Portugal (data already available).

Tephra layers in the lake sediments have already been precisely dated – all that remains is the construction of the palaeoclimate record. The resulting time series will be used to estimate when the termination commenced and how long it took to play out. This information will be compared with changes in Earth’s orbital parameters to test a recently published model of termination forcing over the last million years.

Palaeotemperatures in southern Australia during warm intervals of the recent past.

In this project, a recently developed method for estimating palaeotemperatures from speleothems (cave concretions) will be used to determine how warm regions across southern Australia became during ‘global warming analogues’ of the recent past: the Last Interglacial (128 ka), Marine Isotope Stage 11c (420 ka) and the late Pliocene (3.2 Ma). This is a low risk project: the samples have already been collected and the analyses (further radiometric dating and stable isotopes) will be conducted in our own laboratories.

Find an expert: Prof. Russell Drysdale


A/Prof. Michael-Shawn Fletcher

Michael specialises in environmental reconstruction using microfossil, stable isotope, geochemical and sediment analyses. He has ongoing research projects in Australia, New Zealand and southern South America and is especially interested in contrasting and comparing Southern Hemisphere environmental changes over multiple timescales and placing these changes within regional and global contexts.

Current projects include:

Assessing the influence of climate change on the resilience, tipping points and collapse in critically endangered ecosystems

Some Tasmanian rainforest communities are on the brink of extinction, with climate change increasing the incidence and magnitude of fires that destroy this fire-sensitive vegetation. This project will use detailed ecological data stored in lake sediments from Tasmania to assess the long-term ecosystem dynamics of critically endangered rainforest communities. A region-wide collapse of many rainforest systems occurred in response to fire around 3000 years ago. Recent modelling suggests that rainforest was lost from areas in which the climate was marginal for rainforest survival today, indicating that climate must have changed at these locations in the past, reducing their resilience to fire and resulting in eventual collapse. This project will combine ecosystem modelling of the resilience space of rainforest in Tasmania with high-resolution palaeoecology to test how climate affects the resilience of rainforest to climatic change and fire.

Australian bushfires: what drives long-term trends in bushfires in southern Australia?

Currently, climatic conditions associated with the El Niño‐Southern Oscillation are a key factor in the frequency and magnitude of southern Australian bushfires, but we know very little about what drives bushfire trends over longer, multiple decades or centuries, time‐scales in this region. This project will seek to document trends in bushfire history recorded in lake sediments by analysing changes in the amount of charcoal deposited through time in sensitively located Tasmanian lakes. This project will provide information vital to the understanding of what factors influence the frequency and magnitude of bushfires in this part of southern Australia over time‐scales previously invisible to Australian landscape managers.

Does Australia play ball when it comes to global climate change?

Our climate changes, whether driven by human activity and/or natural process, and we must develop an understanding of how the Australian climate system responds to global shifts in climate if we are to successfully adapt to new climatic scenarios on our unique landscape. Reliable climate data in Australia barely spans a century, yet most significant shifts the global climate system occur over multiple centuries or millennia. This project will seek to understand how part of southern Australia responds to global climate change by analysing changes in microfossil composition through time in lake sediments. The project will focus on high‐altitude lake sediments in south‐west Tasmania, a region critically located between the major climate systems influencing southern Australian climate.

He is also open to discussion about other projects that focus on environmental change in the southern hemisphere over time.

Find an expert: A/Prof Michael-Shawn Fletcher


A/Prof. David Kennedy

David is a coastal geomorphologist specialising in the response of coastal landforms (particularly coral reefs, estuaries and rocky coasts) to climatic and environmental change.The below projects are fully funded; however, you can also customise your own study. If you are interested in coasts please contact David as there are many research opportunities available for honours and masters study.

Victorian Coastal Monitoring Program

In collaboration with Deakin University and the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning David has co-established the Victorian Coastal Monitoring Program, a $3 million investment focusing on the coastal and shallow marine environments of Victoria. Drones, field surveying and marine surveying aboard the RV Yolla provide many opportunities for research projects from Gippsland to Discovery Bay on beach and dune dynamics and response to sea level rise and storms. Projects will also align with the National Centre for Coasts and Climate.

Wave dynamics onshore platforms in Victoria

Using the latest wave probes, this project will explore the energy transfers that occur as waves break across shore platforms. Fieldwork is core to this project and involves experiments based around Lorne as well as the Mornington Peninsula.

Higher sea levels in Victoria

Almost nothing is known about how much higher sea levels in Victoria were in the recent past, yet such information is essential for understanding future climate change. This project will involve field mapping of highstand deposits around Victoria.

Sediment dynamics in estuary mouths

Using the latest techniques in sedimentology this project will involve coring of estuaries in Victoria to unravel questions related to acidification, entrance opening and infill related to sea level change.

Basaltic and/or carbonate shore platform development in Port Philip and Western Port Bays

This project involves investigating the morphology of shore platform developed in basalt and/or carbonate rocks locally and determining the boundary conditions of their formation.

Find an expert: A/Prof David Kennedy


Dr Jan-Hendrik May

Upcoming and potential projects

Hendrik (Henne) May is a geomorphologist with a focus on Quaternary landscape evolution in the Southern Hemisphere. His main interest is reconstructing the impact that climatic changes have on landscape-scale Earth surface processes utilizing field and laboratory methods as well as remote sensing and GIS. He has ongoing research projects in several parts of Australia (e.g. Flinders Ranges, lower Murray River, Top End) and cooperative projects in NW Argentina and China.

Possible HSc and MSc research projects include (but are not restricted to):

  • Late quaternary human and environmental history of the Central Murray River – a GIS aided literature review (associated with DP200101875 Environmental and cultural change along the Central Murray River)
  • Investigating climate and environmental controls on sedimentary dynamics along the Central Murray river (associated with DP200101875 Environmental and cultural change along the Central Murray River)
  • Source-bordering dunes and their value in understanding the late Quaternary fluvial history of the lower Murray River (associated with DP200101875 Environmental and cultural change along the Central Murray River)
  • Pleistocene Aeolianites along the Victorian south coast – sedimentology and paleoenvironmental significance
  • Late Quaternary landscape evolution along the Werribee River, Victoria
  • Testing grain sized based methods of reconstructing wind speed variations in NW Argentina over the last 1.2 Mio years
  • Understanding changing sedimentary environments in a high-elevation elevation Andean landscape (NW Argentina)

Find an expert: Dr Jan-Hendrik May


Dr Sarah McSweeney

Upcoming and potential projects

Sarah is a coastal geomorphologist whose research interests span coastal physical processes, landform evolution, and management. Her research is motivated by helping us build a better understanding of how interacting physical processes control the morphodynamics and evolution of coastal landforms, and how these processes and landforms are in turn impacted by human activities.

Principle scientific questions that drive her research include:

  • Where is sediment eroded, transported, and stored across the coastal zone?
  • How will coastal landforms respond to changing boundary conditions over tidal to geological timescale?
  • How does geologic setting influence natural and human processes?

Sarah uses a combination of field, lab, and modelling methods in her work to predict changes in coastal processes occurring in the past, present-day, and future. A main focus of Sarah’s research is the evolution, management, and entrance processes of estuaries that intermittently close to the ocean. A key goal of her work is producing information that is useful for managers and policy makers.

Some potential projects in physical geography could include:

  • Evolution of Intermittently Open/Closed Estuaries
    This project will investigate how changes in sea level, wave conditions, climate, and sediment flux influence estuary evolution. We will undertake fieldwork at two estuaries in the Great Ocean Road area, with fieldwork being sediment coring and surveying. You will get to undertake stratigraphic analysis and learn a range of lab skills. This would be coupled with spatial analysis of topographic data. From this, we can then compare rates of infill and determine the key processes delivering sediment into these estuaries which will be helpful for coastal managers and communities who may be worried about sediment accumulation.
  • Reconstructing the Holocene evolution of a subtropical estuary (Far North QLD)
    The tropical rivers of Far North QLD deliver large amounts of sediment to the ocean. Estuaries store a portion of this material, but much of it is still exported offshore (e.g. to the Great Barrier Reef). This project will use existing field data (sediment cores), paired with hydrological modelling, a literature review, and spatial analysis to reconstruct the evolution of a tropical estuary over the last 8,000 years. Understanding how sediment has been stored in the landscape and how it may change in future will help us predict the amount of sediment reaching the ocean. There is potential for fieldwork in the coastal Daintree Rainforest area.
  • Capturing water seepage processes as a (catastropic) mechanism of estuary opening
    In estuaries with very steep beach berms (sand bars) fronting their lagoons, water from the lagoon can seep through the berm and cause it to collapse. This results in a dramatic sequence of change, where the channel rapidly expands and incises, and the lagoon drains. The process of estuary opening via seepage has been qualitatively described, but not yet captured via quantitative data. This project would focus at the Sherbrook River (west Victoria, right by the 12 Apostles). Here the estuary opens >20 times per year due to seepage and berm collapse and provides an excellent field site to drill down into this process. This project would involve a combination fo fieldwork monitoring estuary openings and potential flume studies to try to recreate the process.

Sarah is also happy to take students who want to customise their own project in any area of coastal geomorphology and management. Some funding is available for field costs associated with projects. Please get in touch to discuss projects that are of interest to you.

Find an expert: Dr Sarah McSweeney


Dr Amy Prendergast

Was the spread of plant and animal domestication in the Mediterranean influenced by climate change?

The domestication of plants and animals and the shift from hunter-forager to pastoral-agricultural lifeways in the Neolithic was one of the biggest changes in the history of humankind. In the Mediterranean, this began at different times and occurred in different ways across the region. This project seeks to characterise the potential influence of rapid climate change events in the Neolithic transition. It will involve generating high-resolution palaeoenvironmental records from archaeological sites across the Mediterranean using carbonate geochemistry.

Exploring how prehistoric tropical communities adapted to Late Pleistocene to Holocene environmental change in Vietnam

This project combines archaeological, geological and ecological history of the Tràng An massif World Heritage site, Ninh Binh, Vietnam. We will use geochemical records from land snail shells preserved in several archaeological sites to reconstruct local environmental conditions experienced by the region’s past inhabitants. This project will involve aspects of modern proxy validation as well as palaeoenvironmental reconstruction.

Calibration of new high-resolution sea surface temperature proxies for southeastern Australia using mollusc shell chemistry

Mollusc shells have periodic growth increments which allow the reconstruction of chronologically constrained records of palaeoenvironmental variability at unparalleled high temporal resolution. Studying the growth and chemistry of these periodic growth increments is known as sclerochronology. There are few high-resolution marine palaeoenvironmental proxies available for southeastern Australia. Mollusc shell sclerochronology holds great promise for reconstructing quantitative, sub-seasonally resolved sea surface temperature and salinity records from this region via the analysis of shells from Late Pleistocene to Holocene archaeological sites. However, before these archives can be used for palaeoenvironmental reconstructions, it is necessary to undertake modern calibration studies to understand how geochemical variations are influenced by local environmental conditions, kinetic and vital effects. This allows the generation of quantitative and reliable proxy records of environmental change.

This project will use field and lab-based sclerochronological methods on intertidal mollusc species to calibrate new high-resolution palaeoenvironmental proxies for southeastern Australia.

Using giant clam shells to reconstruct past environments and cyclone activity in the tropical Pacific

Giant clams (Tridacna spp.) are one of the major carbonate components of tropical reef systems. Their shells have annual growth increments. By analyzing the growth and chemistry of these increments it is possible to reconstruct past environmental conditions as well as short term events such as cyclones. This project will employ these techniques on modern and fossil clams to provide a palaeoenvironmental and palaeostorm reconstructions from the Late Holocene using samples from the Great Barrier Reef and Polynesia.

Understanding paleoenvironments and human interactions around a mid-Holocene shell midden in South America’s largest inundation savannah(jointly supervised with Dr Jan-Hendrik May)

Early to mid-Holocene archaeological sites are extremely rare in the Amazon basin. Anthropogenic shell middens provide valuable windows into past human-environmental interactions in the northern Bolivian inundation savannah, and hold clues on the type of existing resources, their seasonal to longer-term variability in the landscape, and their link to the natural and paleoenvironmental dynamics in a tropical riverine environment. This project addresses these questions via developing high-resolution records of paleoenvironmental change and seasonal resource use by applying microscopic, geochemical and sclerochronological techniques to freshwater apple snail shells (Pomacea spp.) from a midden in the Bolivian Amazon.

Find an expert: Dr Amy Prendergast


Dr Rebecca Runting

Land swaps for biodiversity and ecosystem services in Indonesian Borneo.

Image of slog

Indonesian Borneo is a major evolutionary hotspot, contains high species richness and endemism, and includes charismatic species such as the Orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus). In this region, much of the landscape is controlled by the national-level Ministry of Environment and Forestry (known as the ‘forest estate’), and is primarily used for protection or production forests. Local authorities manage the remaining land, where a greater variety of land-uses are permitted.

There may be opportunities to swap land between these jurisdictions, particularly where forest exists outside of the designated ‘forest estate’.

This project will determine the effectiveness of these ‘land swap’ strategies when assessed for biodiversity, ecosystem services, and economic outcomes using spatial optimisation methods. A consideration of the social and political feasibility of such swaps will also be included. The project will involve working in GIS/R and you will learn about emerging ideas in spatial planning and the application of optimisation methods to conservation issues.

The potential for Payments for Ecosystem Services to enhance pollination in Costa Rica

Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES) schemes aim to incentivise private landholders to provide ecosystem services that are of benefit to people in the broader landscape. Costa Rica is a world leader in the implementation of PES, which has resulted in the restoration of large swaths of land. However, it is currently unclear the extent to which pollination services are incentivised via these schemes, as pollination is typically maximised by many small patches throughout an agricultural landscape (rather than fewer, larger patches).

This project will build on previous spatial optimisation work to determine the potential of PES to deliver pollination services in a coffee production landscape. This project will involve working in GIS/R, and analysing Costa Rican policy documents.

Upcoming and potential projects

Dr Rebecca Runting has an interest in supervising projects spanning spatial landscape planning, ecosystem services, climate change adaptation and ecological economics.

Find an expert: Dr Rebecca Runting


Prof. Ian Rutherfurd

Melbourne Water support for Honours Thesis projects in 2022

Melbourne Water is wanting to provide support for Honours projects in Geography (note that is a year-long research project) for 2022. Supervision would be with Professor Ian Rutherfurd and Dr Kathryn Russell.

  • Project 1 and 2
    There is a new focus from MW on erosion and sediment into Westernport Bay from agriculture and gullies in the catchment leading to the two following projects.
    • How active is my gully?
      Mapping rate of incision and recovery of gullies, and connectivity of gully sediment sources to sinks in Westernport catchment, using GIS analysis and field verification.
    • Runoff in transition
      Understanding the temporal dynamics of the hydrologic transition from agricultural to urban land, using infiltration testing of soils, and GIS mapping of impervious surface change through the urban development process.
  • Project 3
    MW is also interested in understanding the changes and the form/morphology of urban streams in Melbourne.

Remote sensing of ecologically-relevant geomorphic attributes of Melbourne streams that capture habitat availability and channel complexity. It would incorporate field assessment of geomorphic complexity at a sample of sites and compare that to remotely sensed metrics derived from LiDAR, IR or visible imagery using automated or semi-automated GIS processes. The aim would be to find a metric or set of metrics that best represent geomorphic complexity or habitat availability but can be rolled out broadly without field assessment.

Students on any of these projects would work as part of a research team with excellent support, access to resources, as well as funding for any costs associated with the project. Students would learn skills in GIS, remote sensing, have plenty of fieldwork, and make good contacts with the water industry.

Upcoming and potential projects

Ian is a geographer interested in water and rivers. His research areas are fluvial geomorphology (which is the role of rivers in shaping the earth), and hydrology. He has a special interest in stream restoration, interactions between vegetation and river processes, and management of river systems (including integrated catchment management). A theme through his work is understanding the physical processes of change in rivers, and especially how rivers respond to (and recover from) human disturbance.

He is happy to supervise most Honours and Masters projects that relate to biophysical aspects of water and rivers, and human interaction with rivers. As an indication of his interests, he presently supervises a group of PhD students working on: processes of river avulsions and anabranching, roles of vegetation in river processes, designing mining river diversions, the role of riparian vegetation in improving water quality, and recovery of streams filled with sand-waves.

Examples of Honours topics include:

  • Long-term impacts of historical gold mining on rivers
    We have a large grant to investigate how Victorian rivers have recovered from the massive impacts of historical gold mining. This involves working with archaeologists, chemists and a multidisciplinary team tracking large volumes of sediment from mining, including with mercury contamination.
  • Large wood in rivers
    Large logs in rivers are critical to the health of streams, but they have been removed from rivers in their millions to increase flood conveyance. There are numerous research projects available around large wood and rivers that would suit students interested in physical and biological processes.
  • Movement of large wood in rivers
    Large, dead tree trunks are critical in the biological and physical functioning of rivers. How wood moves in Australian rivers is poorly understood (especially because our timber is so dense and rots so slowly). Jams of wood under bridges also represent a major flood hazard. Recent floods moved large amounts of wood in rivers, and there are some excellent projects available in this area.
  • River avulsion processes
    Most rivers experience changes of river course where the river quickly or slowly moves into a new course on the floodplain. How this process actually occurs requires plenty of interesting research. We now have abundant LIDAR remote sensing data for Victorian floodplains that allows several fantastic project meshing GIS work with field investigations. Target floodplains would be the Murray, Ovens, and Snowy Rivers.
  • Estuary mouth opening
    Governments spend a large amount artificially opening estuaries, but they often close soon afterwards. A PhD student has recently completed a great project on the artificial opening of estuaries that intermittently close. However, the role of river discharge in this process remains poorly understood.
  • Riparian vegetation and property values
    Revegetating riparian areas (land along stream banks) is a major management activity. There is an argument about whether landholders increase or decrease their property values by fencing off streams. A multidisciplinary project!
  • The impact of small and medium-sized towns on river condition
    There has been a huge amount of research done on the impacts of large cities on streams within that city (e.g. the effect of Melbourne on the Yarra). This research shows that streams are dramatically affected by stormwater from small areas of directly connected impervious surfaces. By contrast, there has been little work done on the impact of small and medium-sized towns on river condition. Most small towns are located on a waterway of some type. This project would (a) explore the spatial distribution of towns in relation to the spatial distribution of rivers and streams (b) The impact of towns on the river, in particular, channelisation for flood mitigation, and the impact of stormwater on the stream.

Note: Funding would be available to support fieldwork and other costs associated with most projects.

Find an expert: Prof. Ian Rutherfurd

Next steps

Once you've found a researcher you'd like to work with, we encourage you to get in touch with them and talk about potential projects. Then, download and fill out the Geography Supervisor and Research Project Form (PDF 148.8 KB) and include it in your application.

Apply for Bachelor of Science (Honours) Apply for Master of Geography