Professor Patrick D. Nunn | UniSC | University of the Sunshine Coast, Queensland, Australia

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Professor Patrick D. Nunn

PhD Univ. College Lond., BSc (Hons) Univ. Lond. King's College, AKC

  • Professor of Geography
  • Director of the Sustainability Research Centre
  • School of Law and Society
+61 7 5456 5460
Office location
Sunshine Coast

After his BSc in Geography and Geology from the University of London King’s College, Patrick went on to undertake a PhD on Quaternary landscape evolution at University College London. After completing this and holding various short-term appointments in British universities, Patrick was appointed to a Lectureship in Geography at the University of the South Pacific, an international university serving 12 Pacific Island nations, based at its main teaching campus in Suva, Fiji. Thinking he would complete his three-year contract there before returning to the UK, Patrick in fact spent 25 years there, being appointed to a Personal Chair (Professor of Oceanic Geoscience) in 1997 and then in 2009 becoming Pro Vice-Chancellor (Research and International). Patrick left the University of the South Pacific in 2010 to become Head of the School of Behavioural, Cognitive and Social Sciences at the University of New England, a position he held until joining the University of the Sunshine Coast as Professor of Geography in March 2014.

Patrick’s main research interests for the past 30 years have focused on the Pacific Basin (both islands and the surrounding continents) and, as befits a true geographer, have been in a number of distinct areas. His early work on the Quaternary geology and tectonics of many islands and island groups in Fiji, Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu still represents the latest word on many of these issues today. In response to an invitation from the Fiji Museum, he began a collaboration that lasted more than a decade and involved Patrick directing a number of excavations in Fiji, notably the seven-year programme along the Rove Peninsula in southwest Viti Levu Island that involved the discovery of what is still likely to be Fiji’s first settlement at Bourewa, established perhaps 3100 years ago. Firmly believing in the importance of community awareness, Patrick has ensured that the results of his research have been returned to the people of the land in ways that they can understand its nature and importance, something helped in the case of Fiji by his fluency in the Fijian language and his familiarity with cultural protocols.

Within the last decade, Patrick has brought his experiences of Pacific Island cultures to Australia, focused largely on highlighting the depth and longevity of oral traditions, especially of memorable/catastrophic events like volcanic eruptions and post-glacial sea-level rise. Recently he has extended these interests to northwest Europe, especially to Brittany, and is focused on applying insights gleaned from Australia and the Pacific to the rest of the world.

Climate change has also been a long-term research interest of Patrick’s, focused initially on the Pacific Islands region but now more generally situated in poorer countries (the 'developing' world) and the Asia–Pacific region. Sea-level change has been another focus of this research and Patrick was a Lead Author on the most recent IPCC Report (AR5, 2014) on the chapter on 'Sea Level Change' (available at For the last few years, inspired by the manifest disconnect between donor intent, community support and adaptive action in the Pacific Islands, Patrick has started to research the processes of environmental governance in rural/peripheral areas of the Asia–Pacific region with particular emphasis on understanding what needs to happen to ensure that adaptation strategies are both effective and sustainable. This research aligns with with his interest is in oral traditions, particularly those that allude to or may encode memories of extreme events (such as volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, abrupt land submergence), and the ways that these might be used to improve adaptive strategies to future climate-driven environmental change.

Patrick’s world-class research in climate change was extended with his appointment as Lead Author on the ‘Small Islands’ chapter of the forthcoming (6th) Assessment Report of the IPCC, scheduled for completion in 2022. He also gave Keynote Addresses at the Adaptation Futures 2018 conference in Cape Town in June 2018 and at the Climate Change and Islands Symposium, funded by the Volkswagen Foundation, in Hannover the following month. In November 2019, he gave a keynote address at the 28th Annual New South Wales Coastal Conference.

Professional memberships

  • Institute of Australian Geographers


  • J.P. Thomson Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society of Queensland, awarded in May 2018

  • Best paper of 2016 in Australian Geographer by Geographical Society of New South Wales, awarded December 2016
  • Shared award of Nobel Peace Prize given to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2007
  • Herbert E. Gregory Medal of the Pacific Science Association, awarded only once every five years for the distinguished service to science in the Pacific. Awarded at the 20th Pacific Science Congress, Bangkok, Thailand, 2003
  • Pacific Islands team leader, International Study Team for Climate Change and Sea-Level Rise, Grand Prix (First Prize), Seventh Nikkei Global Environmental Technology Award, 1997

Professional Social Media

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Current PhD students

  • Louisa-Anne Buwalda (Women’s experiences of natural disaster – Ni-Vanuatu women’s voices on their issues and solutions)
  • Ryan Delaney (An ecocritical exploration into constructions of masculinity in contemporary Australian literature)
  • Aaron Driver (Telling tales: narratives for climate change)
  • Christopher Evans (Migration and Livelihood Sustainability in Fiji and Tuvalu)

  • Leigh Franks (Precise age determination of Indigenous Australian stories: examples of maar lake formation in Queensland)
  • John Grogan (Defining and actualising 'migration with dignity' for I-Kiribati)
  • Loredana Lancini (Environmental and local traditions, a comparative approach: ancient European societies vs. Australian Aboriginal and/or Pacific Oceanic societies)
  • Daniela Medina Hidalgo (Climate change vulnerability and resilience in Pacific Island Countries)
  • Tony Millroy (Baroon, A Social History: From Flinders to Federation. The people, events, and ramifications of the colonisation of South-East Queensland)

  • Madeleine Page (Knowledge for climate-change adaptation in remote Queensland communities)
  • Sarah Pye (Using biography to engage a non-specialist audience in conservation)
  • Delia Siivola (Indigenous Knowledge in Protected Areas Management: Adaptation, Sustainability and Opportunities in the Circumpolar North)
  • Nittya Simard (Socio-ecological impacts of developing shell-handicraft livelihoods in a coastal community, Papua New Guinea)

  • Lila Singh-Peterson (Examining landscapes, values and livelihoods in the South Pacific and the influence of globalisation and multifunctionality activities)

Recently completed PhD students

  • Jack Koci (Hydrogeomorphic processes driving sediment and nutrient movement in dry-tropical rangelands and implications for land management) 2019.
  • Shalini Lata (Facilitating Climate Change Adaptation and Engagement by Understanding Risks and Climate Behaviours: An Assessment of Future Sea-Level Rise Risks and Climate Change Community Perceptions in Fiji) 2018.
  • Annah Piggott-McKellar (Community uptake of climate-change adaptation in Kiribati and Vanuatu) 2020.
  • Jasmine Pearson (Understanding Pacific Islander knowledge and attitudes towards changes in mangrove ecosystems and associated coastal resources) 2020.
  • Sarah Pye (Saving Sun Bears: one man’s quest to save a species) 2020.

Potential research projects for HDR and Honours students

  • Understanding people's attitudes towards environmental risk (including climate change)
  • Threats to traditional livelihoods in the Pacific Island countries
  • Interpreting Aboriginal and other culturally-embedded myths about environmental change
  • Effects of sea-level change on coastal landscapes and human systems
  • Traditional coping with environmental risk and natural disasters
  • Human–environment interactions, particularly in poorer Asia–Pacific countries

Research grants

Project name        Investigators Funding body    Year Focus

Psychological adaptation to climate change risks among youth and adolescents in the Pacific Small Island Developing States

Nunn and four others

British Academy, $90,823


Looking at how young people in the Pacific cope with climate change

Walking to K’gari: Indigenous Memories of When Fraser Island was Connected to the Mainland

Nunn, McCallum

USC Indigenous and Transcultural Research Centre, $3000


Collecting and interpreting ancient stories of rising sea level

How climate change affects island communities: insights from the hillfort period of Fiji history (AD 1400-1800)


New Colombo Plan, $198,000


Continue research into Fiji’s ancient hillforts

'Stories in Rocks and Minds': Unwritten Histories of Niue Island (Central Pacific)


New Colombo Plan, $165,000


Research Niue’s unwritten histories

SUNRISE: Situated Understanding of Resilience in Island Societies and Environments

Nunn and four others

Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), UK, $180,000


Understanding how and why island societies are resilient to environmental stressors

ECHAPH (Environmental Changes and Heritage in Atlantic and Pacific Hillforts)

Nunn and two others

Centre national de la recherche scientifique, France, $20,277


Researching commonalities of origin and purpose in medieval French and Pacific Island hillforts

Comparing small Island states and subnational island jurisdictions: Towards sustainable island futures Nunn and five others Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada A$204,672 2018-2020 Drawing lessons about sustainability issues from adjacent pairs of islands under contrasting regulatory oversight

Crises environnementales et traditions locales: regards croisés sociétés antiques/ sociétés de l’Océan Pacifique

Nunn, Compatangelo-Soussignan

Région Pays de la Loire A$76,537

2017-2020 Understanding culturally- grounded coping with environmental adversity expressed through oral traditions

Hillfort mapping and understanding in Fiji


New Colombo Plan A$66,000


Mobilising USC students to understand issues of climate change and heritage conservation in the tropical Pacific

Revision of Fiji’s Climate Change Policy


Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) A$62,693


Design a climate change policy that expresses Fiji’s unique situation in advance of COP-23

Risk and resilience in the Pacific:  influence of peripherality on exposure and responses to global change


Asia–Pacific Network for Global Change Research (APN) A$196,000


Understanding community diversity along core-periphery gradients in archipelagic countries

USP–USC Twinning Scheme


Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) A$600,000


Cooperating with the University of the South Pacific to improve outcomes for students researching in agriculture, fisheries and forestry

Optimising community-based climate change adaptation in the Pacific Islands

McNamara, Nunn, Watson Australian Research Council (ARC) A$180,000 2016–2019 Helping Pacific coastal communities respond appropriately to climate change

Enhancing climate change communication: strategies for profiling and targeting Australian interpretive communities

Hine, Reser, Nunn,

National Climate Change Adaptation Facility (NCCARF) A$79,964



Geoarchaeology of Lapita-era settlements, Rove Peninsula, Fiji


Various A$248,000


Reconstructing paleoenvironments

Global change affects oceanic islands


Vetlesen Foundation A$187,000


Effects of global change in island livelihoods in Fiji and Samoa

Integrated methods and models for assessing coastal vulnerability and adaptation to climate change in Pacific Island countries

Nunn, Koshy

Assessments of Impacts and Adaptations to Climate Change (AIACC), START- International grant A$240,000



Research areas

  • climate and sea-level change
  • human–environment interactions — past, present, future
  • community governance and responses to environmental risk
  • geomythology and the role of cultural knowledge in adaptation and disaster-risk reduction
  • perceptions of environmental threats
  • geography, Quaternary geology, geoarchaeology
  • islands and coral reefs
  • Asia–Pacific

Patrick regularly lectures in the following courses:

Teaching areas

  • ENP236 Regional Transformation: political and economic geographies Regions, Change and Sustainability
  • ENP245 Landscapes, Place and People Landscapes, Place and People
  • GEO100 The Changing Planet Changing Planet Earth
  • GEO340 Historical Geographies Historical Geographies
  • HIS210 Explorations in Environmental History Explorations in Environmental History
  • SUS310 Sustainability Project


In addition to numerous peer-reviewed publications, Professor Nunn is the author of several books including:

Professor Nunn is also the senior author of the most viewed paper in the 119-year history of the prestigious journal Australian Geographer. The paper was published in September 2015 and describes Australian Aboriginal memories of coastal drowning. According to an editorial in the first issue of the journal for 2016, the paper was downloaded more than 14,000 times in its first six weeks online and as of June 2021 has been viewed more than 26490 times.

Featured publications

In addition, Patrick has recently produced a number of popular articles, including:

  • Clissold, R., Piggott-McKellar, A., McNamara, K.E., Nunn, P.D., Kumar, R. and Westoby, R. 2020. Their fate isn’t sealed: Pacific nations can survive climate change – if locals take the lead. The Conversation, published online 30th June 2020, available at
  • Nunn, P.D. 2019. Go Tell It On The Mountain: Mythical Tales of Giants are Rooted in Geological Realities. History Today, 69(4), 46-55.
  • Nunn, P.D. 2019. Firepits of the Gods: ancient memories of maar volcanoes. The Conversation, published online 4 June 2019, available at
  • Nunn, P.D. 2019. Responses to ocean rise: the ancestors’ tales. Cosmos: The Science of Everything, published online 5 June 2019, available at
  • Nunn, P.D. 2020. Endings. Chicago Quarterly Review, 30, 20-32.
  • Nunn, P.D. 2020. Doomed to Drown. Cosmos: The Science of Everything, 87, 74-77.
  • Nunn, P.D. and Ponciano, L.C.M.O. 2019. Of bunyips and other beasts: living memories of long-extinct creatures in art and stories. The Conversation, published online 15 April 2019, available at
  • Piggott-McKellar, A., McNamara, K.E. and Nunn, P.D. 2019. Climate change forced these Fijian communities to move – and with 80 more at risk, here’s what they learned. The Conversation, published online 30 April 2019, available at

Professor Patrick Nunn's specialist areas of knowledge include geography, sustainability, climate and sea-level change and geology, Pacific islands, heritage, history, perception.

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