Past, present and future impacts of sea-level changes

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Past, present and future impacts of sea-level changes


During his 25 years at the University of the South Pacific, USC’s Professor of Geography Patrick Nunn developed a special interest in how past sea-level changes impacted on societal evolution in island contexts.

Professor Nunn joined USC in March 2014 and is now Co-Director of the Australian Centre for Pacific Islands Research and Associate Director of the Sustainability Research Centre.

His current research projects, funded by the Australian Research Council and the Asia-Pacific Network for Global Change, include understanding the diversity of traditional ways of coping with environmental stress and knowledge of global change across rural communities in Fiji, the Federated States of Micronesia Kiribati and Vanuatu.

“We want to ask local people about the source of the information they use to cope with environmental change,” said Professor Nunn. “I believe the results of this research will be helpful to any agency, particularly donor partners, who seek to make effective interventions in rural communities.

“These interventions might be for the purpose of climate-change adaptation, for understanding disaster preparedness, for identifying traditional knowledge worth preserving, or even for understanding how particular communities are likely to respond to agribusiness opportunities.” 

A related USC project has focused on adolescents’ understanding of climate change in order to identify the knowledge needs of future decision-makers in the Pacific Islands. This project is directed by USC Psychologist Dr Bridie Scott-Parker and researcher Roselyn Kumar.

Another project led by Professor Nunn looks at the possible impact of historical sea-level changes by investigating the little-known hill fort period of Pacific Island history in collaboration with the Fiji Museum.

In most high island groups, people moved from coastal to settlements in fortifiable locations inland and upslope around AD 1400 and stayed there for a few hundred years.

This was a time of conflict which, Professor Nunn argues, is plausible to suppose was driven by a small fall of sea level about AD 1300 that devastated coastal food availability causing an enduring food crisis.

For the past 10 years Professor Nunn has worked to identify, map and excavate these hill fort locations, uncovering tools and pottery to establish when the inhabitants lived there and what sort of foods they ate.

The second part of this project is to collect oral histories from nearby communities to find stories about why their ancestors lived there and why and when they moved back to the coast – where most people live today.

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