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Geography and Environmental Science

Professor Keith Barber – Pioneer of research on climate change and inspiring the next generation of scientists

Published: 23 October 2014
Professor Keith Barber

Although Keith Barber formally retired from the University of Southampton in 2009, the Emeritus Professor of Environmental Change, who also served as Director of the Palaeoecology Laboratory is still an active researcher and very much part of the team in Geography.

Keith continues to publish the fruits of his work on peat stratigraphy, landmark research that linked the growth of peat bogs with climate change for the first time. However, he is also proud of his role in encouraging the next generation of scientists and was recently nominated by Geography alumni as one of their favourite lecturers. Over the years, he has supervised 26 PhD students as well as teaching countless hundreds of undergraduates and he is delighted that many have gone on to distinguished careers in the academic world and now enthuse others with the excitement of scientific discovery.

“Many of my former students now hold significant roles such as Dr Mike Clarke, CEO of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds,” he says. “Professor Kathy Willis, the Director of Science at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew was an undergraduate at Southampton and I supervised her BSc dissertation on pollen analysis of a New Forest bog. She then went on to take a PhD at Cambridge. Many people will have heard her this summer on BBC Radio Four presenting a series of 15 minute programmes on plants. These have been an excellent introduction to plant science and I am proud to have started her on the botanical path!”

Keith joined the University of Southampton as an Assistant Lecturer in 1969 after studying Geography and Botany at Bristol and researching for his PhD at Lancaster, one of the first doctorates to be offered in conjunction with the Natural and Environment Research Council. “Teaching was a big part of my job, I gave 75 lectures in my first year and 10 weather map practicals but I enjoyed it and still like teaching today. I give talks to various groups in the New Forest where I have lived for over 30 years, and I am hopeful that we can start a branch of the University of the Third Age at Lyndhurst.”

His breakthrough in research came when he challenged the prevailing wisdom that the growth of different layers in peat was cyclical. Keith’s 1981 book Peat Stratigraphy and Climate Change followed detailed studies of Bolton Fell Moss in Cumbria, supported by radiocarbon dating. It revealed clear changes unrelated to cyclic regeneration but controlled by climate, and prompted much further research in this field. He has also been open to collaborations with researchers from other disciplines such as environmental conservation and archaeology which has brought new insights. A special volume of the journal Quaternary International in 2012 featured papers from authors supervised by Keith or from collaborative researchers all of whom had taken part in a special meeting in the New Forest at the time of his retirement.

Throughout his career, Keith was supported by his wife Jane who worked in public relations for the University of Southampton and presented a series of programmes for BBC Radio Solent.

 

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