Department of Geography


Photo of Dr Laura Cunningham

Dr Laura Cunningham

  • Qualifications: BSc (Hons) Geology and Botany, PhD, Grad Dip Ed.
  • Role Title: Senior Lecturer in Physical Geography
  • Address: Buckingham Building, Lion Terrace, Portsmouth, PO1 3HE
  • Telephone: 023 9284 2513
  • Email:
  • Department: Geography
  • Faculty: Faculty of Science


I graduated from the University of Adelaide in 1998 with a Bachelor of Science (Honours) in Geology and Botany. I then undertook my PhD studies through the Institute of Antarctic and Southern Ocean Studies at the University of Tasmania. My doctoral research focused on the ecology of, and human impacts on, benthic diatom communities near Casey Station in Antarctica.  This research enabled me to combine my interests in both aquatic and environmental sciences with a historical perspective; themes which continue to dominate my research today.

After completing my doctoral studies, I spent several years working as an aquatic ecologist for the Department of Environment and Department of Water in Western Australia. I then worked briefly as an environmental scientist within a consultancy firm, before returning to research orientated roles. I held several postdoctoral research positions between 2006 and 2013, working in Abisko, Umeå and St Andrews. These positions enabled me to further develop my interests in using sediment records to study past environmental and climatic changes, particularly within polar or alpine environments. 

I joined the University of Portsmouth in April 2013 as a Lecturer in Physical Geography.  

Teaching Responsibilities

I deliver physical geography components of the undergraduate teaching in the department. I am co-ordinator of the following units:

  • Practical Skills for Physical Geography 
  • Past Global Environmental Change
  • Environmental & Climate Change: Practice

I also contribute to the following co-taught units:

  • Environmental & Climate Change: Theory
  • Geographical Research Methodologies
  • Mountain Climates
  • Population, Resources and the Environment

I contribute to field courses to the Cairngorms, Colorado and Finland, with an emphasis on investigating how climatic information is recorded within both tree-rings and lake sediments. 

Whenever possible, I draw on examples from my own research to illustrate the importance and relevance of physical geography.  


A brief overview of my current research topics is given below. 

1.  Climate change during the last millennium

This area of research focuses on examining how various climatic parameters have varied over the last 1000 years, using a range of proxy records.  Key elements of this work include:

  • the comparison of climate reconstructions against measured climate data from the last 100 years – a process which provides an indication of the accuracy and reliability of the proxy-based reconstructions and can highlight any potential issues associated with specific proxies or methods; and,
  • combining records from different proxies or regional locations to strengthen the climatic signal and improve our understanding of driving mechanisms.

2.  Long-term climate reconstructions using lake sediments.

Examining climate change over longer time frames provides a valuable context against which more recent changes can be compared.  My research in this area focuses predominantly on the transition between glacial and inter-glacial periods during the last 350,000 years.  Glacial to inter-glacial transitions are periods of rapid warming, and thus can offer insight into potential responses associated with ‘Global warming’.

3.  Reconstructing environmental and landscape changes in the Cairngorms.

Modern landscapes are the cumulative result of landscape processes, climatic change and anthropogenic impacts.  To fully understand these changes, we need to use a variety of proxies which can capture different components of environmental change.  Within this project we are combining subfossil pine material, diatoms, pollen, mineralogy, isotope studies and geochemistry to reconstruct past changes in the NW Cairngorms  during the last ~10,000 years.  The tree-rings within the subfossil pine material will provide yearly information on past temperatures for discrete time periods in which there is sufficient material.  The remaining data will be used to provide a continuous record of environmental change and human influences for this region.

4.  Historical perspectives of human impacts on aquatic ecosystems.

We live in a constantly changing world shaped by a combination of natural processes and human impacts.  Our knowledge of this world is restricted to the data available, however, such data is often only collected after a problem has been identified.  Data stored within sediment archives enables us to reconstruct the historical conditions of a water body, and thus help determine whether specific changes are due to human influence or natural variability.

5.  Infrared spectroscopy: a new method for reconstructing past environmental change.

Infrared spectroscopy is an analytical method whereby the reflectance of light from a surface is used to determine information about the sample.  This method has been widely used within the pharmaceutical industry as cheap and effective method of quality assurance.  Recently, this method has been applied to the analysis of lake sediments and calibration models developed which enable the amount of organic carbon, inorganic carbon, nitrogen and biogenic silica within the sediments to be determined.  These variables can provide important information pertaining to the nutrient status, productivity and even climatic conditions of the water-body at the time the sediment was deposited. 

The advantages of this method, relative to more traditional analyses, are that it is quicker, cheaper and has a higher reproducibility of results.  I am interested in further developing the calibrations models, as well as expanding the range of parameters that can be inferred as well as developing calibration models for marine sediments.   


Research profile

Explore my research profile, publications and activities on the Portsmouth Research Portal

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