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.”


Downloading data from a Nikon Total Station TS415 – a (necessary!) step-by-step guide

Whilst on fieldwork recently I was tasked with downloading spatial coordinate data from a Nikon TS415 Total Station. Turns out it is not as easy as it should be! And the available guides on the internet aren’t particularly helpful either. But, after a few hours I managed finally to get the records off the machine and into an excel spreadsheet. For anyone else who is having similar difficulties, a handy guide to the way I managed to do it in the end…

  1. Download the free software “Trimble” from When you run the setup wizard, you will be asked whether you want to install “Mapping and GIS devices” as well as “Land Survey Devices”. You only need to download “Land Survey Devices” (the one that says it is for getting data from survey equipment).
  2. Connect the Total Station to your computer via the serial cable. You will probably need a serial-USB adaptor for this. If so, connect the serial-USB adaptor, and then on your computer under Control Panel>View devices and printers, make sure all the drivers for the serial connector are downloaded and updated.
  3. Then search your control panel for “device manager” and open the PORT settings. Something like “USB port COM4” should be displayed.
  4. Leave this open on your computer and now go to COMM settings on the Total Station (under Menu>Settings>Comm).
  5. Make sure all the PORT settings on the computer and the COMM settings on the Total station match.
  6. Also set the computer Flow Rate to XOn/XOff.
  7. Close the PORT settings on your computer.
  8. Now, open trimble.
  9. Click Devices>New>Nikon/TS415.
  10. Select port COM4.
  11. Give the total station a name like NIKONTS.
  12. Trimble should now say that the Total Station is CONNECTED and the green button should be “depressed”.
  13. Now click DEVICES> properties, and check that the settings there match both your PORT COM4 settings on the computer and the COMM settings on the total station.
  14. I had to restart the computer at this point.
  15. Go back into Trimble.
  16. Click ADD.
  17. Select Data Collector file(s).
  18. This should now appear in the “name” box.
  19. Under “files of type”: select “Nikon Coord files”
  20. Choose a destination folder
  21. Click Open
  22. Now click “Transfer All”
  23. Navigate on the Total Station to Menu>Comm>Data download
  24. Set the top line to “Nikon” and the lower one to “Coord”
  25. Press ENT and then GO.
  26. You should now see that the data is being transferred from the total station to the computer, as a .csv file.
  27. Simply navigate to the file (in the destination folder you picked earlier) and open it in excel.

Hope that helps you if you are ever in a similar situation!


My PhD looks at reconstructing past catchment vegetation around small lakes in the Arctic and assessing the best ways this can be achieved.   As the Arctic becomes warmer, a process called “greening” is occurring where plants are migrating northwards into areas they could not previously survive in.  It is currently unknown how this migration of plants will affect the carbon cycle. Our NERC-funded project is looking at the role of Lakes in the Arctic Carbon Cycle (LAC) The species composition and carbon-fixing productivity of a lake depends on the vegetation surrounding it.  We want to know how lakes will change in response to the shift in vegetation we are starting to see in the Arctic.  One of the ways we can do this is by looking at the pollen and plant macrofossils preserved in lake sediment records to determine vegetation changes associated with past climate warming events.  Using models such as REVEALS and LOVE (Sugita, 2007) we aim to quantitatively reconstruct the regional and local vegetation.  Estimating how much pollen plants produce (Pollen Productivity Estimates, PPEs) is an essential input into these models, however the majority of current estimates are derived from European species.
So, last summer Mary, Pete and I headed off to the boreal forests and open tundra of Alaska to obtain the first PPEs from this region.

After a couple of days recovering from jet lag and getting all the kit together, we headed off down the Richardson Highway towards the Alaska Range.

The first half of the fieldwork focused on collecting samples and modern vegetation data from ten plots in the open tundra, largely along the Denali Highway, south of the Alaska Range.   The fieldwork methodology involved collecting moss polster samples which contain around 7-10 years of accumulated pollen.  The vegetation coverage was then recorded up to 100m around each sample.  This methodology allows us to distance-weight the vegetation around the plot.  To test the models and see how they represent the modern vegetation we also collected surface samples from three small lakes we named ourselves; Drop Down Pond, Oh that Pond! and Petty Pond.   At the end of a hard day’s work we retired to the camp site, surrounded by fantastic views of mountains and lakes, tundra vegetation and topped off by designated gravel camping areas, designed for your comfort!


The second half of the fieldwork focused on twelve sites in the boreal forests around Fairbanks.   This is where the exhaustion hit me and the mozzies got me!   The sites ranged from the beautiful and majestic birch and aspen forests to the dense mature spruce forest which often felt like we were navigating our way through a tangled jungle. Thankfully, we had an extra pair of hands come to the rescue and we were joined by Mary’s friend, Jessie.


All this data will eventually be fed into an Extended R-value (ERV) model which will estimate the PPEs for the taxa.  At the end of an intense four weeks we had hugged and measured over 800 trees and recorded 691,150.46m2 of vegetation and every mosquito bite was worth it.