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.

Dr Linden Ashcroft in collaboration with colleagues ANU

An evaluation of a state-of-the-art climate dataset to capture pre-1900 Southern Hemisphere atmospheric circulation variability and changes

Anthropogenic climate change has been most clearly observed in the midlatitude regions of the world. However, the limited number of observations for the Southern Hemisphere prior to the year 1900 has prevented the development of a long-term understanding of these changes. This is particularly important for placing contemporary changes to Australia’s climate into a long-term context.

In this project, you will examine the ability of a newly developed global climate dataset (20th Century Reanalysis version 3) to reveal insights about the atmospheric dynamics of the pre-industrial period in the Southern Hemisphere. The ability of this dataset to capture these dynamics is a long-standing and globally significant question. Such an evaluation was impossible before now, however recently recovered historical observations from across southern Australia now provide the necessary information base for a thorough and robust assessment.

This project will be an excellent opportunity if you are interested in learning more about the past changes and the drivers of Australia’s climate, as well as analysing dynamics associated with daily extremes like heatwaves and severe storms.

Find an expert: Dr Linden Ashcroft

Prof. Russell Drysdale

Russell specialises in the study of past climates using evidence preserved in speleothems, ocean sediments and ice cores. He has several ongoing projects from which Honours and Masters level topics can be calved: (i) Milankovitch Theory and Early Pleistocene glacial terminations (based on Italian speleothems and North Atlantic Ocean sediments); (ii) Millennial climate change in southern Australia during the Last Glacial period (based on speleothems from Naracoorte Caves, South Australia); (iii) hydrological changes in southern Australia during the Holocene (based on Naracoorte Caves, South Australia); (iv) palaeotemperatures in southern Australia during past global-warming analogues of the Last Interglacial (125 ka), Marine Isotope Stage 11 (420 ka) and the late Pliocene (3.2 Ma) (Nullarbor Plain and Naracoorte Caves). In most cases, these are low risk projects with samples already collected and all analyses conducted in-house. Field work is possible in some cases.

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 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

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.

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