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Quaternary Palaeoenvironments

Knowledge of the palaeoenvironment and palaeogeography of the recent geological past is fundamental to our understanding of modern physical, biological and human environments. Understanding the Quaternary period, which spans the last 2.58 million years, is the central focus of the Quaternary Palaeoenvironments theme. We use multi-proxy approaches, combining both floral and faunal fossil analyses, together with sedimentary, magnetic and geochemical evidence, to reconstruct past environmental history from a range of environments across Britain, Europe, the surrounding seas, and beyond.

Research topics in this area are wide-ranging and include: Glaciation and environmental evolution of Fenland and Eastern England; the Pleistocene stratigraphy of the Birmingham region; Pleistocene evolution of the Bristol Channel; Global glaciations; Engineering geology of glacial and periglacial sediments in the English South Midlands; the British–Irish Ice Sheet during the Devensian Stage in the Vale of York; Interglacial vegetation history; Palaeoecology of Mediterranean ecosystems; Aerobiology; Clay mineralogy and diagenesis.

The Quaternary Palaeoenvironments laboratories are home to an extensive pollen reference collection, much of which can be viewed online; as well as the Quaternary Museum, which contains extensive teaching and research resources used by members of the wider Cambridge Quaternary community.

Research projects

Research projects currently being undertaken on this theme include:

The Pleistocene History of the Birmingham District

The Pleistocene History of the Birmingham District

Birmingham, England, is built on a complex sequence of Middle Pleistocene sediments representing at least three lowland glaciations (Anglian, Wolstonian, and Devenisan). Geological mapping accounts for 75% of the landmass as Quaternary, that is, predominantly glacial-sandy till, glacial-fluvial sand, and clay and organic silt/peat. Understanding the age of Quaternary deposits related to specific glaciations is critical to establishing a geochronology of Birmingham.

Engineering geology of formerly glaciated and periglaciated terrains

Engineering geology of formerly glaciated and periglaciated terrains

This project aims to investigate the influence of past terrestrial glacier and ground ice formation and decay on the variability in geotechnical properties and behaviour of Quaternary engineering soils. Geological bedrock of the Oxford Clay Formation and clay-rich diamicton (till) in the geographical area of the English south Midlands is investigated in in relation to the middle Pleistocene Anglian (Elsterian) glacial limit.

TwoRains

TwoRains

TwoRains is an international and interdisciplinary ERC funded project investigating the interplay and dynamics of winter and summer rainfall systems, investigate the nature of human adaptation to the ecological conditions created by those systems. It is using the Indus Civilisation to ask the question “Does climate change really cause collapse?”

Quaternary Palaeoenvironments Group projects

Quaternary Palaeoenvironments Group projects

Knowledge of the palaeoenvironment and palaeogeography of the recent geological past is fundamental to our understanding of modern physical, biological and human environments. Understanding this period, the Quaternary, is the central focus of research in the Quaternary Palaeoenvironments Group (QPG). The Quaternary, the last 2.6 million years of geological time, saw major climatic changes which caused ice sheets to advance into temperate latitudes. Repeated glacial episodes caused significant fluctuations in sea level, major geographical changes and major plant and animal population migrations. Sedimentary sequences record these changes in great detail and are central to unravelling past events. We use a multidisciplinary approach which embraces wide ranging litho-, bio- and chronostratigraphical methods to unravel events during Quaternary and later Neogene time.

Drainage development, thermokarst activity and periglacial landscape change in Southern England

Drainage development, thermokarst activity and periglacial landscape change in Southern England

Thermokarst landforms have been widely recognised in southern England, and particularly Fenland by workers such as Rodney Burton & Richard West. These landforms are represented by near-circular depressions and larger flat-bottomed embayments cut into Jurassic or Cretaceous clay or silt-rich bedrock, and surrounded by low, rounded hills. It appears that these features were formed during the Devensian (the last cold stage), or in some cases earlier cold stages, by the same processes which operate in arctic thaw lakes today. Their formation has been independent of past fluvial processes which have formed separate terrace aggradations. This research theme centres on the investigation of thermokarst processes, the mode of formation of thermokarst landforms, their geological setting and role in landscape change.

The Pleistocene Stratigraphy and Palaeoenvironments of the Cambridge District

The Pleistocene Stratigraphy and Palaeoenvironments of the Cambridge District

This study attempts to record and interpret Pleistocene geological data from the Cambridge District in a comprehensive format. The chief aim of the project was to describe, record and interpret Pleistocene stratigraphic, geological and palaeontological evidence from the Cambridge District to enable the reconstruction of past vegetation, climates, environments and landscapes. It is hoped that this work will lead to the creation of detailed geological maps of the Cambridge District, and a greater understanding of the chrono-stratigraphic position of the various Pleistocene deposits in the area, allowing correlation with British and European sequences.

Earlier projects