Research for resilience: From peatlands to cities


Until the end of November 2018, Gareth Clay from the University of Manchester, is working as Ida Pfeiffer Professor at the Faculty of Earth Sciences, Geography and Astronomy. In this interview he explains, how he expanded his research from peatlands to all kinds of ecosystems, why wildfires might be an issue in Austria and what students should expect in his courses.

You worked on peatlands and wildfires, the latter of which are not very common around Austria. Can you describe a bit more what your research in the UK was about?

Gareth Clay: I started doing work on peatlands during my PhD. I looked at the impact of fire on peatlands and how disturbances and land management alter the carbon cycle. Over time I have broadened my research interests to other ecosystems like savannahs, drylands or mangroves. I explore how carbon and organic matter gets moved from the biosphere to the atmosphere and back. I am also interested in how wildfires behave, how they interact with environments, how we can better prepare communities and communicate risks.

In recent years, I have broadened my research and I have been looking at environmental problems in urban areas. Specifically, how big cities like Manchester, where I am from, or Vienna, can become more resilient in the face of climate change. This includes the idea of using green infrastructure to help cool cities or to reduce flooding.

You have already met some members of the “Faculty for Exploration” and presented your work. How do you think your experience and specialisation will fit into the Faculty’s profile? What might you bring in, that is missing?

Clay: I hope they saw the broadness of my research. From geochemistry to projects that span physical geography, human geography, social sciences, planning. I can hopefully work with lots of different people across the faculty. My main collaboration will be with Stephan Glatzel’s Geoecology Group, where we will be looking at carbon dynamics in Austrian peatlands. However, my research also connects with geoscientists and human geographers, so I hope to get in contact with other groups as well.

Over the next few months, I want to find out about wildfires in Austria. They may not occur very often, but that makes such an event even more challenging for a country. That is part of the problem with wildfires in the UK. As they do not happen as often, nor are as big as in Australia or South Africa, when they do occur, often in hot springs or summers, they can cause many problems as people are not familiar with the issues.  Under future climate change, wildfires could become more common in many parts of the world, including UK and Austria.

As part of my time in Vienna I want to pull together collaborations on all these research areas that were not there before.

This is a broad spectrum from very natural, scarcely populated ecosystems to cities. Were there any authors or teachers that inspired you to go in this direction? What motivated you in the first place and keeps you going?

Clay: For me there wasn’t a specific book or a person. It is more about research questions where I thought: “I can apply myself to that.” I have been very fortunate in how to get where I am now. At the end of my undergraduate studies in geology I was thinking about what to do next but I had no plan to end up in academia. An interesting PhD position became available about challenges with fire management on peatlands, and my career naturally developed from there.

You have done research on the island St. Helena and come from the UK. Now you work in our landlocked country in the middle of Europe. Why did you apply here in Vienna/Austria?

Clay: It was an opportunity to broaden my network and expand it within Europe. I have been to Vienna many times with the European Geosciences Union conferences.

The job description for the professorship asks for excellent teaching. What do you like about teaching? What will you teach and what do you want to get across?

Clay: In the winter term, I will give a course on Terrestrial Ecosystems Ecology, on how carbon and nutrient cycles work in ecosystems. I went on an excursion in June to various field sites, e.g. Neusiedler See, to show the students how we monitor and measure different landscapes. What do I enjoy about teaching? To talk to students and to challenge them to read new things and to question received wisdom. For the past six years, I have taught a course on climate change in Manchester. The topic brings in newsworthy articles from the media that appear more or less every week. So I also focused on media literacy and challenged my students to think about the angle of the story and if it pushes an agenda. When you talk about environmental issues, somebody is going to be out there in the media or on the internet talking about it. In order to understand where they are coming from you need to understand the biases and opinions in the media a little bit. I challenge my students to question rather than to accept.

On the subject: There is a lot of discussion going on about the term “anthropocene”. Do you think that a new geological era with this name is justified?

Clay: As academics we can often get bogged down in definitions and details. When did the era start? What is the geological marker? and so on.  I do think “anthropocene” is certainly useful in communicating with the public and non-specialists about the impact of society on the planet. That impact is wide ranging: not only climate change, but biodiversity loss, alterations to the sediment cycle, resource overuse ... I think it is a useful term to get debate and discussion going on.

And the million dollar question: What would you focus on, to bring life on the planet back to sustainability. Your top three measures?

Clay: One would be education: Making sure younger generations are educated, not just in environmental issues. An educated society makes informed decisions, looks at evidence and makes decisions about challenging questions. The second would be for a set of hard decisions to be made by global leaders about moving our energy supply away from fossil fuels and towards renewables. We need brave politicians and bold decisions in a difficult world. That is not going to be easy and might come back to my first suggestion. The third, I’m not sure - come back to me in a few months’ time!

What do you know about Ida Pfeiffer?

Clay: I read a few articles about her including a summary of her travels. She was a tenacious woman with an exploratory vision to be admired. She is a pretty interesting character to have this professorship named after.

What do you like about Vienna? How will you spend your next six months beside research and teaching?

Clay: Vienna is a fantastic city. I want to explore it in greater detail, now that I have more time: go off the beaten tracks, but also into museums and the surrounding countryside. I hope to do a lot of walking and cycling and exploring. I also want to explore the whole region including other Central European Cities: go to Bratislava by boat or take a train to Warsaw. (kuff)


  • About the person: Till November 2018 Gareth Clay is working as Ida Pfeiffer Professor at the Faculty of Earth Sciences, Geography and Astronomy. The researcher and lecturer in Physical Geography of the University of Manchester concentrates in upland peats, the effects of fire on ecosystems and the role soils play in global cycling of carbon. In recent years he has broadened his research to environmental problems in urban areas.
Gareth Clay
Till November 2018 Gareth Clay from the University of Manchester is working as Ida Pfeiffer Professor at the Faculty. Originally concentrating on peatlands and the effect of wildfires, he has broadened his research in the last years to environmental problems in urban areas. Copyright: Gareth Clay