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Tom Spencer MA PhD

Emeritus Professor of Coastal Dynamics, Director of Cambridge Coastal Research Unit and Professorial Fellow, Magdalene College

Physical geography at the interface between geomorphology and the geological and biological sciences, with particular reference to coral reefs and associated ecosystems (seagrass, mangroves) and coastal geomorphology.



  • 1979-1988: University Lecturer in Geography, University of Manchester
  • 1989-1999: University Lecturer, Department of Geography, University of Cambridge
  • 2000-2011: Senior Lecturer, Department of Geography, University of Cambridge
  • 2011-2016: Reader in Coastal Ecology and Geomorphology, Department of Geography, University of Cambridge
  • 2016- : Professor of Coastal Dynamics , Department of Geography, University of Cambridge


  • 1997-present: Director, Cambridge Coastal Research Unit, University of Cambridge
  • 1989-2015: Official Fellow of Magdalene College, Cambridge, 2016- Professorial Fellow
  • 1990-1993: Dean of College, Magdalene College, Cambridge
  • 1994-1999: Tutor for Graduate Students, Magdalene College, Cambridge
  • 1994-2013: Tutor for Graduate Admissions, Magdalene College, Cambridge


  • MA Magdalene College, University of Cambridge
  • PhD Magdalene College, University of Cambridge ‘Limestone erosion rates and microtopography; Grand Cayman Island, West Indies’


Earth and Environmental Systems: Processes and Change – Monitoring and Modelling Environmental Processes

Hydrodynamics, sedimentation, ecological processes in temperate tidal wetlands and mangrove swamps; estuarine hydro- and morpho-dynamics; coastal zone management with particular reference to global environmental change.

Earth and Environmental Systems: Processes and Change – Environmental Change

Global environmental change in the ocean basins, including large-scale coral bleaching dynamics in the western Indian Ocean and sea-level changes on Pacific Ocean islands. Vulnerability of coastal wetlands to sea level rise, at global and regional scales.

Spatial Processes and Earth Observation – Earth Observation

Visualising the annual to decadal evolution of large-scale coastal morphology and sediment dynamics. Multi-spectral scanner technology to assess the stability of major European estuaries. The use of digital videography for coral reef monitoring. Terrestrial laser-scanning at the coast.

Supervision of doctoral and masters students

I welcome enquiries from prospective MPhil in Geography students for the academic year 2021-22. Please look at my current and recent research interests and my current graduate students, then get in touch with me with your ideas about research topics that I may be able to supervise. I am afraid that I am not able to consider new PhD students.


[Publications will be loaded automatically from the University’s publications database…]


  • Geographical Tripos (Undergraduate level)
  • Graduate Training Programme
  • MPhil in Conservation Leadership (Senior Examiner 2014-2017)

External activities

Awards and External activities

  • Shoreline responses to storm impacts: North Norfolk coast, southern North Sea Oral presentation, EGU General Assembly, Vienna, April 2016
  • Creating an East Anglian Coastal Knowledge Centre Contribution to meeting on the formation of a Norfolk and Suffolk Coastal Partnership, Norwich, March 2015
  • From ’53 to ’13: responding to east coast storm surges 60 years apart NERC Biodiversity & Ecosystem Service Assessment in the Coastal Margin (BESA) advanced training short course, invited lecture, Arnside, Morecambe Bay, February 2015
  • Modelling flood risk on the North Norfolk coast in RISC_KIT Presentation to the Environment Agency and UK Met. Office flood forecasting teams, Peterborough, September 2014
  • 5 December 2013 storm surge impacts in North Norfolk and Suffolk Coastal Habitats 2100: The east coast response to tidal surges. Inter-Agency Workshop, Environment Agency, Norwich, March 2014
  • An update on the impact of extreme weather on the British environment including insights from the recent storm surge in Norfolk Rural Futures Seminar 1: Understanding environmental change, University of Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership, January 2014
  • More than MOSE: Challenges for the sustainability of Venice and the Venice lagoon in the 21st century ‘Italian Landscapes’ CIRN Symposium, University of Cambridge, May 2013
  • Subsidence from resource extraction and its geomorphic consequences ‘Anthropogeomorphologie’ International Seminar Series, University of Vienna, November 2013
  • Responses of the urban ecosystem to the challenges of climate change The future of Venice and its lagoon in the context of global change, UNESCO International Conference, Venice, November 2011
  • Terrestrial and coastal landscape evolution on tropical islands (with HA Viles) Islands: Palaeonotology, Geology & Tectonics Lyell Meeting, Geological Society, London, October 2011
  • Why the health of the Venice lagoon has implications for the city’s heritage Installations and catalogue (with J Da Mosto), 12th Venice Architecture Biennale, British Pavilion, Venice, August 2010 [reviewed in Nature 467, 529 on 30.09.2010]
  • Geomorphology and the consequences of global climate change Invited oral presentation in session ‘Geomorphic response to environmental change’, European Geophysical Union General Assembly, Vienna, March 2010
  • Geomorphology’s contribution to the global environmental change debate Solicited oral presentation to open session on ‘Geomorphology and global environmental change’, 7th International Conference on Geomorphology, Melbourne, July 2009
  • Those most curious rings of land: coral reefs from Darwin to now Invited Darwin Bicentenary Lecture, Royal Geographical Society, London, January 2009
  • UK Government (DEFRA) –nominated Review Editor on ‘Small Islands’, IPCC Working Group II, Fifth Assessment Report, 2010-2014
  • Co-Chair, International Working Group, International Association of Geomorphologists’ research theme on ‘The Geomorphological Implications of Future Climate Change’, 2005-09
  • UK Government (DEFRA) -nominated expert reviewer, IPCC Working Group II and Synthesis Report, Fourth Assessment Report, 2005-07
  • “Biological buffers at the coast” Progress in Physical Geography Plenary Lecture, RGS-IBG Annual Conference, London, 2006
  • Member, Steering Committee, International Technical Summit “Envisioning the future of the Gulf Coast: Using engineering and science to protect communities, the economy and the ecosystem” BP / America’s Wetlands / Universities of Louisiana / State of Louisiana, 2005 – 2006
  • Murchison Award, Royal Geographical Society 2004 ‘in recognition of a body of publications on coastal geomorphology’
  • Gill Memorial Award, Royal Geographical Society 1992 ‘for contributions to the study of coral reefs’
  • Lead organiser, International Discussion Meeting “Atmosphere – ocean – ecology dynamics of the Western Indian Ocean””, Royal Society of London, 2004
  • Co-Organiser, Science Meeting “The Big Flood” (meeting on the fiftieth anniversary of the 1953 floods), Royal Society of London, 2003
  • Co-Organiser, International Discussion Meeting “Flooding and Environmental Challenges for Venice and its Lagoon: State of Knowledge”, Churchill College, Cambridge, 2003
  • Chair, Scientific Committee, Chair, Local Organising Committee and Editor, Abstracts Volume, European Meeting of the International Society for Reef Studies, Robinson College, Cambridge, 2002
  • Member, Research Programmes Review Group (strategy for future research programmes), RGS-IBG, 2001-02
  • Co-organiser of mini-symposium and speaker, “Global climate change and coral reefs: geographic and ecological perspectives” 9th International Coral Reef Symposium, Bali, Indonesia, 2000
  • Co-leader, Southern Seychelles Atoll Research Programme 1998
  • “Bioconstruction, bioerosion and disturbance on coral reefs and carbonate rocky coasts”, invited speaker, 29th Annual Binghamton Meeting, Woods Hole, Mass., USA, 1998
  • Science Co-ordinator, Chair of Science Advisory Panel and Member, Planning Board, Royal Geographical Society / Royal Society Shoals of Capricorn Programme to the Mascarene Ridge, Indian Ocean 1997 – 2001
  • “Coral reefs and global environmental change”, invited keynote speaker, OECD Co-operative Research Programme on Biological Resource Management, RHBNC, University of London, 1997
  • “Geomorphic hazards in coastal environments”, invited keynote speaker, 28th International Geographical Congress, The Hague, The Netherlands, August 1996
  • Member, Expeditions and Fieldwork Committee, Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers) 1996-2004
  • Co-organiser, International Discussion Meeting “The Biogeography, Ecology and Prehistory of the Pitcairn Islands”, Linnean Society, London, 1994
  • Leader, Northern Cook Islands Scientific Expedition, 1993
  • Coral reef geomorphology: sea levels past, present and future”, 3rd International Geomorphology Conference, Hamilton, Canada. Organiser and Chair of Symposium “Geomorphic impacts of sea-level rise”, 1993
  • Member of Council, Institute of British Geographers, 1992-95
  • Royal Society Overseas Field Research Board, 1992-93
  • UK Co-ordinator for 15 month, multinational, interdisciplinary expedition to the Pitcairn Islands, S.E. Pacific, 1991-92
  • Royal Society South East Asian Rainforest Research Committee, 1990-95
  • Invited plenary address “Global environmental history: interaction and change in the geosphere-biosphere system” 26th Congress International Geographical Congress, Sydney, Australia, 1988

Editorial responsibilities:

  • Chair, British Geomorphological Research Group (BGRG) Publications Committee, 1999-2002
  • Series Editor (with O Slaymaker and A Orme), “Understanding global environmental change: Themes in physical geography” (Addison Wesley Longman), 1997-2003, now moved to Blackwell as “Environmental Systems and Global Change Series”, 2004-
  • Editorial Board, Earth Surface Processes and Landforms (Wiley: Chichester) 1996-2004
  • Editorial Board, Coral Reefs (Springer : Berlin), 1994-96
  • Editorial Board, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers (Ling : London), 1994-2002
  • BGRG Editor, Earth Surface Processes and Landforms (Wiley: Chichester), 1990-96