Dept of Geography, Environment and Development Studies | Our research | The Science and Politics of Environment, Landscape and Climate Change
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The Science and Politics of Environment, Landscape and Climate Change

Quaternary environmental change in Iraq

  • Principal Investigator: Dr Becky Briant
  • Co-Investigators: Dr Ismael Al-Ameri (University of Baghdad), Dr Stefan Engels and Dr Tim Reynolds
  • Funder: Iraqi Government Scholarship (2017), British Institute for the Study of Iraq (2018-19)
  • Dr Becky Briant and Dr Ismael Al-Ameri have been reconstructing past environments using radiocarbon-dated shells to determine movements of the Arab Gulf shoreline over the late Holocene. This is important in understanding the location of cities and their evolution during the Sumerian period. Ostracod and foraminiferal analysis from these sequences is ongoing. In 2018, in conjunction with Dr Stefan Engels and Dr Tim Reynolds, the team was successful in securing a Pilot Project Grant for fieldwork from the British Institute for the Study of Iraq for a new project entitled: ‘Bahr Al-Najaf: Assessing Palaeolithic potential in Southern Iraq’.
  • A number of competing theories exist about how, when and why anatomically modern humans dispersed across the globe. Many models focus on climate variability and environmental pressure as key drivers, but more data is needed to determine the exact timing and nature of the dispersal routes before these can be investigated further. Recent studies in Saudi Arabia and Oman have shown possible modern human sites dated to earlier than the previously recognised major spread out of Africa.
  • There is potential for similar finds in southern Iraq. In this region, the Bahr Al-Najaf lies on the routes thought to have been used by modern humans moving out of Africa into southern Asia. Bahr Al-Najaf is a depression in which is found both a shallow brackish lake (Najaf Sea) and extensive ‘sabkha’ deposits laid down in ancient shallow lakes, both of which will be investigated during fieldwork for this project.

A medical humanities approach to understanding the cultural dimensions of traumatic human-wildlife encounters

  • Principal Investigator: Dr Simon Pooley
  • Funder: Welcome Trust ISSF grant, 2017-2019
  • Globally, where populations of wild animals survive outside protected areas, traumatic encounters with humans occur, resulting in both physical and psychological traumas and damage to livelihoods of poor rural people and the harming of wild animals. I aim to address critical shortfalls in current understanding and mitigation of the resulting conflicts through methods drawn from the humanities but so far neglected in the fields of conservation science and development (see Pooley et al., 2017).
  • Working in India and southern Africa, I will investigate how people understand, represent and communicate about traumatic encounters with wild animals, and the after effects, in particular places and cultural contexts. What kinds of narratives do victims, conservationists and scientists tell themselves and each other about such events? How do they communicate these (or fail to) across cultural and institutional borders?
  • To begin to answer these questions, I will use narrative analysis approaches, analysing the content and structure of narratives, and environmental history methods to contextualise the case study sites.

Development and application of a shoreline response model

  • This research was conducted by Dr Sue Brooks (October 2015 - August 2016). The research set out to improve the way we understand shoreline response to climate variability. There are many natural shoreline structures (gravel barriers, sand dunes, salt marshes) that protect vulnerable populations from the impact of the sea and the number of people living at or near the coast is growing rapidly.
  • Shoreline change is complex, being a function of the combination of still water levels (which become elevated during storms) and wave activity (which also increases during storms). Clearly sea level rise is critical in setting the baseline conditions for shoreline retreat and several models exist that include the effect of sea level rise on changing shorelines. Sue developed and applied such a model to the rapidly retreating cliffs of Suffolk that are moving landwards at rates of up to 7 metres per year and during large storms can retreat by up to 15 metres. This model has been used to generate shoreline positions for the future under different sea level rise scenarios based upon the UK Climate Impacts Programme.
  • The models available to date have a heavy focus on sea level rise but recent storm activity has shown that the generation of large waves is arguably more important. Large waves provide the energy to cause cliff base notching and subsequent collapse, and have a particularly significant impact on the softer sand dune barriers that protect valuable areas of wetland and inhabited spaces. This research therefore seeks to extend the shoreline response model to include both sea level rise and wave activity so their combined effect can be better understood. Although in the last IPCC assessment report there is considerable uncertainty over how storminess will change in the future, we do see phases of higher and lower storm magnitude and frequency which might be linked to the North Atlantic Oscillation. This project set out to provide valuable insight into these effects which will be of benefit to societies and habitats in areas close to the coast, through early warning and evacuation planning. The Leverhulme Trust is gratefully acknowledged for funding this research.

Radiocarbon dating of macrofossil seeds

  • Principal Investigator: Dr Becky Briant
  • Co-Investigators: Dr Fiona Brock (Cranfield University), Professor Danielle Schreve (Royal Holloway, University of London), Dr Harry Langford
  • Funder: NERC Radiocarbon Facility (2014)
  • Radiocarbon dating is a method used by geologists and archaeologists to determine how old organic material is, based on the level of radioactive carbon that remains in the material, as explained by Dr Becky Briant here. It can be used to accurately date materials such as plants, seeds, shells and bones back to 25,000 years ago. Material between 25,000 and 50,000 years old is harder to date because by this time the level of radioactive carbon remaining within the material is low and it is easy to contaminate samples.
  • In 2013 and 2014, Dr Briant and colleagues Dr Fiona Brock, Professor Danielle Schreve and Dr Harry Langford were awarded Natural Environment Research Council funding for a project to improve chemical pretreatments for seeds of this age, making older radiocarbon dates on seeds more reliable. This has now been published in the journal Quaternary Geochronology (Briant et al., 2018). In this paper we recommend a strong acid-base-acid (ABA) pretreatment to improve contaminant removal and therefore age estimate reliability and also show that most of the published radiocarbon dates on plants or wood from the last glacial from discontinuous sequences are unreliable because the chemical pretreatments used were too gentle (coded red or amber below).
  • The next step for the project is to reinvestigate several sites within the UK and the Netherlands where researchers have discovered that despite largely cold, arctic conditions there have been short periods of warmer weather (circled on the figure above). Until now, we have not been able to pinpoint when these warm periods fell, but with these new pretreatments we expect to be able to provide reliable age estimates for these sites, or to robustly show that they are older than the limit of radiocarbon dating.
  • Briant et al. (2018) Fig. 5. Quantitative temperature estimates from published environmental sequences using three different methods (b,c,d), compared with the a) NGRIP ice core δ18O record (Wolff et al., 2010), used here as a proxy for temperature. Chironomid-based temperatures (b) are mean values, beetle-based temperatures (c) are the mid point of a range, plant-based temperatures (d) are minimum values. Errors are not shown because they are too large and not consistently reported, but are approximately the size of the symbols used. Alignment of ice core and radiocarbon age timescales was undertaken using IntCal13 (Bronk Ramsey et al., 2013) through OxCal online, with tie points and 20,000 and 45,000 radiocarbon years BP. Megafauna extinction dates (grey shaded box) after Barnosky et al. (2004) and Neanderthal/Anatomically Modern Human (AMH) ages from Higham et al. (2014). Green shapes have independent dating control that agree with radiocarbon dating, amber shapes have no independent dating control, red shapes have independent dating control that disagrees with published radiocarbon dating. Circles are sediment dates, with pretreatments either not stated or ABA. Squares are wood or seed dates, all of which are either acid washed or pretreatments are not stated. Triangles are bone dates, mostly collagen extractions. Black oval outlines show which data points suggest July temperatures of 15 °C or higher.