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 and more, 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 5th Assessment Report (AR5, 2014) of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) 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 -his interest 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 latest (6th) Assessment Report of the IPCC, completed 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. In November 2020, he delivered the annual NAIDOC Week lecture at the University of Queensland’s Diamantina Institute on ‘Original Histories: Indigenous Memories of Ancient Disasters and their Future Implications’. In late 2021, following publication of his latest book ‘Worlds in Shadow’, Patrick delivered public lectures at both the Smithsonian Institution and the Boston Museum of Science. Reflecting the crossover of his interests in climate change and geomythology, Patrick delivered a Keynote Address at the 2022 Institute of Australian Geographers’ Annual Conference on ‘Memories of Thin Places: The Deep Roots of Contemporary Ecoanxiety’.

Professional memberships

  • Institute of Australian Geographers


  • 2023 Marion Newbigin Prize from the Royal Scottish Geographical Journal for his article, First a wudd, and syne a sea: postglacial coastal change of Scotland recalled in ancient stories.
  • 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

  • Susan (Zela) Bissett (Preserving Paradise: Fifty Years of Protecting K’gari)
  • Zoe Bridge (Climate-Aggravated Barriers to the Recognition of World-Class Tangible Heritage in the Pacific Islands)
  • Carmine Buss (Reducing Individual Carbon Footprints: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Climate Change for Promoting Climate Mitigation Behaviour)
  • Louisa-Anne Buwalda (Women’s experiences of natural disaster – Ni-Vanuatu women’s voices on their issues and solutions)
  • Aaron Driver (Telling tales: narratives for climate change)
  • 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)
  • Amalya Harding (Post-Pandemic Opportunities for Enhanced Food and Nutrition Security in the Tropical Pacific)
  • Tony Millroy (Baroon, A Social History: From Flinders to Federation. The people, events, and ramifications of the colonisation of South-East Queensland)
  • Wendy Nelson (Towards Intercultural Literacy - Growing intercultural competence in Australia and the Asia-Pacific Region)
  • Kirsty O’Callaghan (Discussing a ‘man-made’ problem: The role of gender in effective climate change communication)
  • Mark Reilly (Contrasting Histories of Coastal Barrier Evolution: Indigenous and Scientific Narratives of, the Origin and Evolution of the Younghusband Peninsula)
  • 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

  • Ryan Delaney (An ecocritical exploration into constructions of masculinity in contemporary Australian literature), 2022
  • Christopher Evans (Migration and Livelihood Sustainability in Fiji and Tuvalu), 2022
  • Jack Koci (Hydrogeomorphic processes driving sediment and nutrient movement in dry-tropical rangelands and implications for land management) 2019.
  • Loredana Lancini (Phénomènes volcaniques et traditions mythiques : du monde grec colonial aux sociétés de l’Océan Pacifique (îles Fidji)), 2022
  • 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.
  • Daniela Medina Hidalgo (Climate change vulnerability and resilience in Pacific Island Countries), 2022
  • Madeleine Page (Knowledge for climate-change adaptation in remote Queensland communities), 2021
  • 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.
  • Delia Siivola (Indigenous Knowledge in Protected Areas Management: Adaptation, Sustainability and Opportunities in the Circumpolar North), 2022

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 Asia–Pacific countries


Research grants

Project name        Investigators Funding body    Year Focus

Evolution, Morphodynamics and History of the Younghusband Peninsula

Nunn and seven others

ARC Discovery Project DP220102926, $379,000


Understanding Indigenous ‘stories’ about landscape evolution

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

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 Regions, Change and Sustainability
  • ENP245 Landscapes, Place and People Landscapes, Place and People
  • GEO100 The Changing Planet Changing Planet Earth
  • GEO340 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 December 2022 has been viewed more than 28000 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 Today69(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
  • Sharman, R. and Nunn, P.D. 2022. Inside the mind of a sceptic: the ‘mental gymnastics’ of climate change denial. The Conversation, published online 14th September 2022

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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