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Fieldwork heads east and west at QMUL Geography - part 1

Friday 9 January 2015

Somerset selfie
BA Geographer Lai Sun Pang’s Somerset selfie with BSc Geographer Audrey Shulman and Professor Dave Horne.

From the Mendip Hills to Mumbai, student field work travelled east and west last term at QMUL Geography.

Second year BSc Geography student Katharine Parker headed to the west country on a field trip to Somerset where she and fellow BA and BSc Geographers looked for evidence of environmental change from 125,000 years ago to the present day. Reconstructing past environments and climatic conditions by identifying changes in the record of sediments and fossils helps inform understanding about the climate today and in the future.

“We visited several sites from our base on the coast of the Severn Estuary at Clevedon, including a farm in the village of Chedzoy. Here, we dug down using an auger to extract sediment which we can analyse in the labs back at QMUL. We found evidence of fossilised reed, for example, and its presence points to a time when that location was under water,” the 20 year old explained. As part of their investigations, the students also visited a raised beach at Swallow Cliff, the iconic limestone cliffs and caves of Cheddar Gorge and the Sweet Track – an ancient pathway constructed more than 5,000 years ago by Neolithic farmers to cross the marshes of the Somerset levels.

“Field work at degree level is quite different to A Level,” she said. “I feel I have been able to come up with my own ideas – it’s not as prescriptive. My observations are crucial to how I develop my own project,” Katharine added. “At Swallow Cliff we visited a raised beach and found evidence from both glacial and inter-glacial periods. Professor Dave Horne introduced us to the analysis of ostracods too – a prolific crustacean whose presence in salt and fresh water can be used by scientists as an indicator to the wider environmental situation.”


Students describing samples of peat in the Somerset Levels. © Daniel Crewe

One of the key skills that Katharine has been developing is her field note-taking and sketching. “We’re advised to keep very detailed notes and are encouraged to write down all our thoughts as we go along to make our project work easier and data collection more accurate,” she said. “I really enjoyed the freedom to explore – we were discovering the information for ourselves. It was like putting together a huge jigsaw puzzle.”

When the second years visit Somerset with QMUL Geography’s team, they are going to sites used in the School’s research. “They explore the significance of environmental changes for landscapes, ecosystems and humans, and it’s great to be able to take them to sites of ongoing investigation,” Dr Simon Lewis, who is Quaternary Scientist, said. “The module introduces them to how the global climate system works and mechanisms for climate change. On the field trip they learn key methods for gathering evidence about such changes and are encouraged to discuss the consequences of Late Quaternary climate change on the landscape and environment of north west Europe and the British Isles.”

Katharine Parker
BSc Geographer Katharine Parker with her trusty waterproof sketch book – essential kit.

Katharine, who has worked as a ranger at her local park back in Birmingham, said the field skills she learned in Somerset would be invaluable for her dissertation project in her final year. “I’ve already decided that I would like to focus on environmental change and I’m hoping I’ll be able to undertake a similar survey in my local area.”

Meanwhile, 30 of our third-year geography students have just returned from Mumbai - India’s financial capital and most populous city - where they met with local communities, small businesses and international organisations to explore globalisation, urban geographies of poverty and hope, and social mobility…read more

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