Professor Dan Charman
Pro-Vice-Chancellor & Executive Dean (College of Life Environmental Sciences)


Research interests

I am interested in the responses of ecosystems to climate change and management, and in using an understanding of ecosystem-climate links to reconstruct past climate variability and establish future earth system trajectories. My principal expertise is in peat-forming ecosystems, which have a key role in ecosystem services (carbon storage, biodiversity, water supply), but also are unique in recording their own past through the accumulation of peat. My research projects cross the boundaries between ecology, conservation, and climate change.

Research projects

Carbon cycling in wetlands, especially interactions between management, climate and carbon accumulation and release in peatlands
Peatland ecosystems hold very large amounts of carbon, accounting for at least a third of all global soil carbon. Understanding the dynamics of carbon and especially the way in which it is may be lost following human or natural disturbance is important to be able to predict feedbacks to future climate change. A recent research focus is on developing carbon inventories and assessing carbon accumulation rates and losses in relation to climate variability and disturbance.  We are investigating changes in global peat accumulation rates over the last 1000 years and the development of models to simulate the contribution of peatlands to the global carbon cycle. We are also working on an interdisciplinary project to understand the consequences of permafrost melting for carbon storage in arctic peatlands and soils.

Reconstruction of past climate variability
Reconstructing past climate variability is important in understanding natural climate dynamics as a context for future change. Past hydrological variability is particularly complicated to reconstruct because of regional and seasonal changes over time. Peatlands hold detailed records of past climate change as they accumulate steadily over millennia and contain well-preserved records in the peat. We have focused especially on using a group of microfossils (testate amoebae) to reconstruct change, and compiling multiple records to establish a more robust picture of hydrological variability over different spatial scales. More recently we have applied these and other approaches to understanding biologial responses to climate  change on the Antarctic Peninsula, one of the fastest warming areas on Earth. Read more about the project in Planet Earth here.

Hydrological responses of peatland systems to climate change on decadal to millennial timescales
The use of peatlands to reconstruct records of past climate change is based on an understanding of fundamental ecosystem response to climate variability. This is also important if we are to be able to predict ecosystem response to future climate change. We have developed methods for establishing high-resolution records of change for the last few hundred years and have used these with instrumental meteorological records to test hypotheses on peatland response to climate change. We are currently working on new methods of reconstructing past hydrological and climate change from peatlands. We are currently working on developing new isotope-based proxies of change from restiad peatlands in New Zealand, funded by NERC and the Leverhulme Trust.

Past environmental change and human societies
Human societies interact with the natural environment in various ways, both impacting on and being impacted by changes in resources and climate. Organic deposits associated with archaeological sites contain a wealth of evidence documenting these changes and give insights into past human lives and their relationship with the environment. Past research has mostly concerned environmental change and human settlement in upland Britain.  I have also worked in coastal settings. The Lyonesse project was a current  English Heritage funded project to discover past rates of sea-level change and landscape development during the Mesolithic through to Medieval times.

Testate amoebae as indicators of environmental and climate change
Testate amoebae are a group of protists (unicellular organisms) which form external shells (tests) and live in freshwaters and wet soils. They are known to be good indicators of soil moisture levels in soils and acidity in lakes but recent work has shown them to be responsive to other environmental factors also. Past research has focused on three areas: 1) developing techniques for reconstructing hydrological change on peatlands to determine past climate variability; 2) testing techniques for reconstructing past sea levels; and 3) using testate amoebae as biomonitors in peatland management. The work has been funded by NERC, the European Union, Scottish Natural Heritage, English Nature and Countryside Council for Wales. Testate amoebae are being used in several current research projects.

Research grants

  • 2015 Leverhulme Trust
    Holocene evolution of the Southern Annular Mode using novel peat isotope proxies. PI, with Matt Amesbury and investigators from Cambridge and Victoria, NZ. £245,011
  • 2015 EU Marie Curie Training Grant
    EU2020 Marie Skłodowska-Curie Research Fellowship - Anne Quillet. PEATMOD: PEATland modelling for global carbon cycle and climate models PI with Angela Gallego-Sala. €195,455
  • 2013 NERC
    NE/K000179/1. CYCLOPS: Carbon Cycling Linkages of Permafrost Systems. Co-I with Iain Hartley and investigators from Edinburgh, Sheffield and Sussex Universities. c.£530k (£203,376 to Exeter).
  • 2012 NERC
    NERC NE/J013595/1. Developing a novel proxy for Southern Hemisphere Holocene climate change: stable isotope analysis of restiad peat cellulose. £52,065.
  • 2011 NERC
    NERC Standard grant NE/I012915/1. MILLIPEAT: Peatlands and the global carbon cycle during the past millennium: a global assessment using observations and models. (Lead PI with CoIs at Exeter, Leicester and Imperial). £465,671 (£439,433 to Exeter)
  • 2010 NERC
    NERC Antarctic Funding Initiative NE/H014896/1. Terrestrial Holocene climate variability on the Antarctic Peninsula. (Lead PI, with Co-PIs at BAS and Cambridge Univ.). £709,349 (£336,739 to Exeter)
  • 2009 NERC
    NERC Standard Grant NE/G020272/1. PRECIP: Holocene Land-Ocean-Atmosphere Interactions on the Eastern Seaboard of North America (Co-PI with Southampton, Swansea). £580,000 (£163,591 to Exeter)
  • 2009 English Heritage
    The Lyonesse Project: Evolution of the coastal and marine environment of Scilly. (with Heritage Environment Service Cornwall Council, Cardiff University). Funded by English Heritage £129,292.

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