Department of Geography

New research projects

Thai Coast: Coastal Vulnerability, Resilience and Adaptation in Thailand

The goal of the Thai-coast project is to improve scientific understanding of the vulnerability of Thailand's shoreline and coastal communities to hydro-meteorological hazards, including storms, floods and coastal erosion, under future climate change scenarios. In Thailand the problems of coastal erosion and flooding require immediate solutions because they affect more than 11 million people living in coastal zone communities (17% of the country's population). The Department of Marine and Coastal Resources (DMCR), in the Thai Government's Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, has calculated that each year erosion causes Thailand to lose 30 km2 of coastal land. The Office of Natural Resources and Environmental Policy and Planning predicts that sea level will rise by 1 metre in the next 40 -100 years, impacting at least 3,200 km2 of coastal land, through erosion and flooding, at a potential financial cost to Thailand of 3 billion baht [almost £70 million] over that time period. The Thai-coast project addresses the urgent need to enhance the resilience and adaptation potential of coastal communities, applying scientific research to inform more robust and cost-effective governance and institutional arrangements.

Sample collection, Krabi Province, Thailand   Sample collection, Krabi Province, Thailand

Sample collection, Krabi Province, Thailand

The Thai-coast project aims to (i) establish causal links between climate change, coastal erosion and flooding; (ii) use this information to assess the interaction of natural and social processes in order to (iii) enhance coastal community resilience and future sustainability. The project focuses on two study areas, Nakhon Si Thammarat province and Krabi province, selected on the basis of DMCR coastal erosion data and with contrasting natural and socio-economic characteristics. The Thai-coast project uses a multidisciplinary approach, integrating climate science, geomorphology, socio-economics, health and wellbeing science and geo-information technology to improve understanding of hydro-meteorological hazard occurrence, their physical and socioeconomic, health and wellbeing impacts on Thailand's coastal zone and the ways in which governance and institutional arrangements mitigate their impact. We will examine future scenarios of climate change hydrometeorology, coastal landform and land use change scenarios and assess and model impacts (coastal erosion, river marine flooding, impacts on health and well-being), as well as population and community's adaptation, and socioeconomics scenarios for sustainable development goals (sustainable cities, health-related quality of life and well-being, good governance). Our collaborative team of natural and social scientists, from UK, US and Thai research institutions, have complementary, cutting-edge expertise and will work closely with Thai Government and UK and Thai industry partners to ensure that results are policy and practice-relevant.

Thai-coast research will benefit government and policy makers, who need to plan for potential impacts caused by climate change and develop resilient strategies to deal with their impacts on natural-social systems. It will provide a link with government agencies for business/industry interests in the coastal zone of Thailand in tourism, aquaculture and associated industry and business, to assess their needs and help improve their understanding of coastal resilience in their strategic investments and management. The wider public, who inhabit Thailand's coastal communities either permanently or temporarily for work or leisure, will benefit through the advanced knowledge and awareness of identified problems and learning processes to address them. The results of the Thai-coast project will benefit coastal communities more broadly, in all Thai coastal provinces, through its contribution to more robust, cost effective, governance and institutional arrangements.

Video:  Sediment core sampling, Krabi Province, Thailand

Appraising Risk, Past and Present: Interrogating Historical Data to Enhance Understanding of
Environmental Crises in the Indian Ocean World 

Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council of Canada20182025
Collaborators: McGill University (PI), University of Western Ontario (co-I), Murdoch University (co-I), University of Mainz (co-I)
Project partners: Multiple

Of the ten countries most at risk to climate change, six lie in the Indian Ocean World (IOW), running from Africa through the Middle East, South and SE Asia to China. The IOW contains most of the world’s population, is the region most vulnerable to diseases, such as malaria, cholera, and the plague, and is the focus of the planet’s major conflict flashpoints — which can be acutely exacerbated by adverse environmental factors. Environmental change in the IOW is thus of major economic, political and humanitarian concern.

The IOW is profoundly affected by a complex interplay between human and environmental factors — notably the monsoons, El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), cyclones and volcanism. As such, it offers a unique laboratory in which to explore how humans have coped with environmental crises over time.  These crises are characterized by significant climate change, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, droughts/floods, epidemic disease, socio-economic instability, mass migration, and high mortality. The multidisciplinary initiative, in collaboration with 21 partner organizations around the world, is investigating six of the greatest periods of environmental crises in the IOW from the mid-6th century CE to the present day aiming to:

(1) construct past-to-present patterns of human and environmental factors at work before, during, and following each period of crisis in the IOW;

(2) ascertain current and traditional IOW perceptions of environmental risk and risk management; and;

(3) use the results of this historical research to inform policy and enhance currently employed Environmental Risk Perception and Governance (ERPG) protocols.

The team at Sussex involves climate scientists from Geography and environmental historians from the Centre for World Environmental History, as well as partners at the UK Met Office and the British Library. In 2021 Sussex hosted the first of a series of summer school project workshops, introducing Early Career Researchers to the characteristics and drivers of climate across the IOW region, as well as reviewing the use of historical environmental archives and how to critically appraise uncertainty in these records.

Unlocking records of past permafrost thaw through isotopes of fossil bones (Palaeo-Thaw) 

Leverhulme Trust grant, 2021–2025, with UCL (PI) and Leeds (Co-I) 
Project partners: Government of Yukon, Canada; Russian Academy of Sciences; Romanian Academy; Museum of Prehistoric Anthropology, Monaco; Prehistory Museum of Tourette-Levens, France; University of Santa Cruz, USA; Natural History Museum London

This project intends to develop fossil bone isotope signatures as a new proxy for creating high-resolution chronologically-constrained records of past permafrost thaw. Through comparison to palaeoclimatic proxies, the sensitivity of permafrost to past global warming events will be investigated. This information is crucial for modelling the response of present-day permafrost (a major source of greenhouse gases) to current and future climatic warming. The overarching aim of this project is to establish the drivers of the major upheaval in Late Pleistocene terrestrial biogeochemical cycles recorded in fossil bone δ34S isotope signatures. To achieve this, we will test our working hypothesis that high magnitude changes in fossil bone collagen δ34S are linked to changing biogeochemical cycling caused by permafrost thaw. Environmental sampling along a transect in NW Canada during 2022 will develop an in-depth mechanistic understanding of sulphur biogeochemistry in permafrost environments, related to the relationship between plant δ34S, permafrost characteristics, redox status and soil conditions.

Can the formation of new soil organic matter offset decomposition losses from thawed permafrost soils? 

NERC standard grant, 2019–2023, Collaborative with Exeter (PI) and Sheffield (Co-I) 
Project partners: Stockholm University, Sweden; Northwest Territories Geological Survey, Canada; Yukon University, Canada

It is predicted that 10s of billions of tonnes of carbon will be released as global warming promotes permafrost thaw in arctic and boreal regions. This release of carbon is considered to be potentially the most important carbon-cycle feedback that. The anticipated release of carbon is not accounted for in current predictions of how rapidly the Earth will warm this century yet could add 10 to 20% to the social costs of our carbon dioxide emissions, and make it even more challenging to avoid the most dangerous consequences of climate change. 

Measurements made in the field have demonstrated that, where permafrost thaws, previously-frozen soil organic matter (SOM) can decompose to release carbon dioxide. The observed rates of release are so high that there is little chance of warming-induced increases in plant growth offsetting these soil carbon losses. However, while plant biomass changes themselves may be too small, greater plant productivity may increase rates of carbon input into soils, promoting the formation of new SOM. we still know very little about how rates of SOM formation are controlled, and whether new SOM can become stabilised and protected in the soil matrix and, thus, be stored for a long time. the few studies that have been able to measure changes in soil carbon storage following permafrost thaw have suggested that new SOM formation is important, potentially offsetting a substantial proportion of decomposition losses. We currently cannot predict the extent to which anticipated carbon losses from permafrost thaw could be offset. 

Recent studies have demonstrated that by isotopically-labelling new inputs from plants, rates of new SOM formation and stabilisation can be quantified, with evidence showing that soils may have a maximal capacity for stabilising and protecting organic matter, and that how close a soil is to saturating this capacity may determine if carbon is lost or gained in response to global change. Critically, processes like cryoturbation, the vertical mixing of soil profiles due to freeze and thaw, result in different types of permafrost soils having very different profiles of how carbon contents vary with depth, so may differ in terms of how close different horizons are to their maximum stabilisation capacity. Thus, testing the carbon saturation hypotheses in contrasting permafrost soils has great potential for developing the understanding required to predict rates of new SOM formation and stabilisation. 

During 2019 and 2020 in NW Canada, project partners collected samples of the permafrost soil types that store the majority of carbon present in high-latitude ecosystems, but which differ fundamentally in terms of how their carbon storage varies with depth. Starting in 2021 we will grow a representative high-latitude plant species in these soils under an isotopically-labelled atmosphere. This will allow us, for the first time, to quantify potential rates of SOM formation and stabilisation in these contrasting soils, and to compare these with rates of decomposition of pre-existing organic matter. The focus on different soil types allows key hypotheses to be tested and the understanding developed to be up-scaled to the regional and circumpolar scale, providing the first estimate of the role new SOM production could play in offsetting carbon losses from thawing permafrost. This information is urgently required for improving predictions of the magnitude of the permafrost feedback.