My twin research interests in peat stratigraphy and past human impact were sparked off while growing up in my native Northumberland and neighbouring Cumberland, counties with plenty of peaty places and of course the Roman Wall – a very visual impact on the landscape! As an undergraduate at Bristol University I studied Geography and Botany, an ideal combination for my subsequent research, which I pursued as a postgraduate at Lancaster University under the supervision of palaeoecologist Frank Oldfield and climatic historian Gordon Manley. My PhD, published by Balkema as Peat Stratigraphy and climatic change: a palaeoecological test of the theory of cyclic peat bog regeneration, formally refuted the autogenic theory of bog growth that had held sway since the early 20th century, and showed that climate controlled peat stratigraphy through shifts in the water table. This allowed changes in stratigraphy, analysed through plant macrofossils, humification and testate amoebae, to be used as proxy climate records which could be related to documented climate over the last few centuries and extended back to almost the beginning of the Holocene. Quantification of the records, first explored in a seminal 1994 paper*, led to a burgeoning literature on climatic change derived from peat, much of it by the 26 PhD students I have supervised, and by associated postdocs, some of whom have gone on to leading academic positions in palaeoenvironmental research.
I have been awarded a succession of NERC grants, studentships and radiocarbon allocations with which my group and collaborators have shown that the palaeoclimate records from peatlands can be correlated over much of Europe and across to Newfoundland, and are probably controlled by cyclic changes in the North Atlantic Ocean, linking to similarly paced changes in ocean sediment cores.
I participated in the International Geological Correlation Programme 158 on ‘Palaeohydrology of the temperate zone in the last 15,000 years’ during the 1980s, and was a Principal Investigator on two NERC Thematic Programme grants under the Palaeoclimate initiative and the TIGGER programme in the 1990s. I was Lead Co-ordinator of IGBP PAGES (Past Global Changes)/ PEP III (Pole-Equator-Pole, African-Europe transect) programme, 1998-2002, contributing to a major research monograph (2004). I was more recently (2003-2008) a Co-Investigator on the project ISOMAP-UK: a combined data – modelling investigation of water isotopes and their interpretation during rapid climate change events, part of the major NERC RAPID Climate Change thematic programme. This latest advance, in collaboration with colleagues at Swansea University, has involved the novel use of species-specific stable isotope analyses to yield coupled records of δ18O and δD which have been compared with our established palaeoecological records and which are being used in calibrating and validating an advanced modelling experiment.
My researches into prehistoric and historic human impact on the British landscape have paralleled my work on climate change and I have an abiding interest in the impact of climatic change on human society in the past. Using mainly high-resolution pollen analyses, and more recently geochemical analyses of peat and lake sediments, my group has contributed to the debates surrounding the impact of the Romans in Northern Britain, in particular around Hadrian’s Wall; the landscape changes wrought by the rise and dissolution of the monasteries, and the historical period of human impact in the Severn catchment, south and central Wales, Scotland, the New Forest and especially Cumbria.
It is now a far cry from my early days in research when the norm was to publish chapters in edited books or in non-Quaternary journals and I am therefore a committed supporter of the QRA’s Journal of Quaternary Science, in which I have published, with others, a number of papers, along with articles in Quaternary Science Reviews and The Holocene. For many years I was the only fulltime academic in PLUS, working with research technicians and postgraduates. I have retired happy to see that the research group now comprises four professors and a reader supported by three research technicians, with two visiting research staff and a number of postdocs and postgraduates.
* Barber, K. E., Chambers, F. M., Maddy, D., Stoneman, R. E. & Brew, J. S. 1994. A sensitive high-resolution record of Late Holocene climatic change from a raised bog in Northern England. The Holocene, 4, 198 - 205.
(Some of the above comes from the citation for my Honorary Membership of the QRA, published in Quaternary Newsletter, no. 120, February 2010).
Palaeoenvironmental Laboratory at the University of Southampton (PLUS)
Professor Keith Barber
Professor Emeritus of Environmental Change
Palaeoenvironmental Laboratory University of Southampton (PLUS)
Geography and Environment
University of Southampton
Southampton, SO17 1BJ
Tel (Lab): 023 8059 2226