So what is it you do?

Physical geography. It encompasses a lot of things, and its engagement with many modern problems like how to reduce flood risk is arguably one of the reasons why it is enjoying a resurgence in popularity. An article in The Guardian went some way to explain this new-found popularity, emphasising how important it is in today’s world and the benefits graduates with a geography degree have in the job market – i.e. they are highly employable. What interests me, and has for some time – especially since starting my Ph.D. – are some of the facets of physical geography that are overlooked.

We all know the typical (and believe me very clichéd) stereotypes about physical geographers:

“All you do is colour in maps!”

“You’re not doing a proper science.”

The former being something I have capitalised on for my twitter name; a little in-joke that amuses me more than it should and provides no amusement whatsoever for anyone else. But that is beside the point. Those with a little more knowledge are aware that physical geography encompasses the study of rivers, glaciers, deserts and all manner of other landforms. What I think is less known is that physical geography also houses an increasingly important subtopic: that of Quaternary science.

It would be no surprise to me if a blank look suddenly appeared. Why wouldn’t it? I didn’t even know about Quaternary science until I began my degree a few years ago. It is that which got me thinking about why people don’t know what Quaternary science is. More importantly, it got me thinking why should anyone care about it. To that end has come this attempt to remove the shroud of mystery from Quaternary science, and to hopefully explain why I think it is so important.

Where to start? Perhaps it is best that I start with the definition of Quaternary Science: it being the study of climatic and environmental change over the last geological period covering 2.58 million years. In the grand scheme of our planet it is but a snapshot of time, but it is a very important snapshot. During this time we, Homo sapiens, for better or worse evolved to make our mark on this planet. Over this time there have been many ice ages and warm periods through which our species and ancestors have survived. But how do we know that? How do we have any idea what changes our planet has been through when people aren’t around to measure or write down what’s happened? Why is understanding this important for our future?

It is here that you’ll have to indulge me. Quaternary scientists can be thought of as detectives, making us an environmental Sherlock Holmes and Earth’s climatic and environmental history as Moriarty. By no means am I implying that Earth is evil and has a self-involved agenda, but merely saying that it’s past environmental and climatic history keeps itself hidden. It’s not until us wannabe Sherlock Holmes’ find clues with the tools that we have at our disposal that we understand what went on.

These clues can be found in a multitude of places. Lakes; peatbogs; oceans; ice sheets; deserts; cliff faces; even the landscape itself can provide you with indicators as to what our planet’s climatic and environmental history was like if you know how to look. What’s more is that getting hold of these clues is really one of the most exciting things us Quaternary scientists get to do. They allow us to be let loose from our desks and out into the field: be this a lake in a far-flung island or out onto the Antarctic ice sheet.

The next question is how do you interpret these clues once you have them? A blood stain at a crime scene means little until you obtain the DNA that determines whom it belongs to. Like this, these environmental clues are worthless without a way to interpret them. In criminal investigations detectives can have direct evidence to identify the criminal such as CCTV. Unfortunately a Quaternary scientist does not have such evidence and we have to employ a middleman. In the business this middleman is termed a proxy, and there are a multitude of them. You can use pollen, single-celled algae, chemicals produced by living organisms, even ancient DNA preserved for thousands of years – to name a few. We never use just one of these bits of evidence on its own to piece together what happened in the Earth’s past – much like a criminal investigation doesn’t rely on one single piece of evidence to charge someone. We link these different lines of evidence to what we see at the present so that we can understand how our planet is working and expressing itself, allowing us to be confident that we are interpreting our evidence correctly. Only then do we piece together all the difference lines of evidence to disentangle the complex, and occasionally infuriating, mysteries of our planet’s past climate and environment. It is there that the strength of Quaternary science really lies: you don’t use one piece of evidence, you use many.

In all of this though the question still remains: why does it matter? Why should you care about someone looking at something that doesn’t directly relate to you in the here and now? With COP21 currently going on this is a particularly pertinent point because it does relate to you. Quaternary science can be thought of like your life experiences. Your life story helps you figure out what you should or shouldn’t do, informing every future decision you make. With more memories you become wiser and make better decisions for your future. Quaternary science is a human’s way of understanding Earth’s latest life story, and makes us the voice to a key part of our planet’s history that is otherwise mute. Being Earth’s ‘interpreters’ makes us a vital player in understanding and combating future global warming. Without Quaternary science we have no idea as to how the past climate changed; what the Earth’s natural variability is before humans starting affecting the planet. We are the ones who can tell you how the Earth could respond to the actions of man based on how it has responded in the past. Our role is not restricted to saying what will happen with more carbon dioxide. We can provide insight into whether ecosystems that we rely on for water or food have gone past a point of no return. Whether a landscape is going to stay as we want it to be or change irreversibly. It allows us to figure out whether the climate or environment motivated our ancestors to migrate and expand. Quaternary science is absolutely vital for understanding our planet, and Quaternary scientists are integral to being a voice that would otherwise go unheard. Simply: without Quaternary science we are lost in understanding our future.

Perhaps all this is best summarised with a quote that I heard in one of the first lectures I had about Quaternary science. It is by Charles Lyell  – one of the founding fathers of Quaternary science – and has resonance across more than just this field of study.

“The present is the key to the past, but the past is the key to the future.”

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