Peter Downs

senior fellow
EURIAS cohort 2016/2017
discipline Environmental Studies
Associate Professor in Physical Geography, Plymouth University

Research project

Rivers in the Anthropocene: An Integrated Analysis of Cumulative Historic Human Impacts on Fluvial Systems and their Management Implications


There is a long-standing interest in the influence of human activities on the morphological evolution of river channels in the historical period. Such understanding allows society to make informed choices about the potential environmental impacts of land use changes and water resource management actions and to improve the sustainability of river management. The impacts are highly complex because human actions and fluvial system responses are constantly evolving to create an ever-shifting environmental context that requires management approaches vary between locations. Considerable improvements to understanding could be achieved using a causally-based, integrative approach to fluvial geomorphology in the historical period.


Researchers have recently begun to reconstruct river channel evolution in response to multiple natural and human causal factors. Studies require data sets of high spatial and temporal resolution and are generally constrained by limits on robust historical data. Such approaches potentially define a new focal time-scale for fluvial geomorphology that sits between traditional short-term analyses of spatial processes and Holocene time-framed reconstruction of past environments spatial analyses of annual-scale processes and environmental reconstruction over Holocene time periods. While a historically-themed fluvial geomorphology has precedents, recent studies are distinct in their integral inclusion of human actions and so potentially define a methodologically distinctive fluvial geomorphology of the Anthropocene. Initial reviews of this nascent sub-discipline illustrate that studies rely largely on temporal synchronicity and spatial proximity to establish cause and effect. Conversely, our conceptual understanding of fluvial systems suggests a reach-differentiated sensitivity of river channels to change in terms of the likelihood, location, persistence and relative magnitude of response relative to alterations in the drivers for change.


This project aims to address these inadequacies by (i) synthesizing existing knowledge, (ii) developing a better analytical basis for such studies, and (iii) building a common vision for potential methods and applications. The central goal of this proposed research is to create an improved analytical basis for Anthropocene fluvial geomorphology based on combining earlier experiences utilising additional analytical expertise, and by building consensus using an international network of "early adopters".




Peter Downs is Associate Professor in Physical Geography at the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences of Plymouth University. He holds a Ph.D in Geography from the University of Southampton and his career has included two academic appointments and a decade as a consulting scientist in California, USA. His research interests span both pure and applied fluvial geomorphology with the latter focused on the development and application of techniques for the planning, design and evaluation of sustainable, catchment-scale approaches to river management.


Selected publications


'The Geomorphology of the Anthropocene: Emergence, Status and Implications', with A.G. Brown et al., Earth Surface Processes and Landforms, [early view], 2016, DOI 10.1002/esp.3943.


'From Past Patterns to Future Potential: Using Historical Ecology to Inform River Restoration for an Intermittent California River', with E. Beller et al., Landscape Ecology, vol. 31, 2016, pp. 581–600.


'The Anthropocene: Is there a Geomorphological Case?', with A.G. Brown et al., Earth Surface Processes and Landforms, vol. 38, 2013, pp. 413-434.


'Reach-Scale Channel Sensitivity to Multiple Human Activities and Natural Events: Lower Santa Clara River, California, USA', with S.R. Dusterhoff & W.A. Sears, Geomorphology, vol. 189, 2013, pp. 121-134.


River Channel Management: Towards Sustainable Catchment Hydrosystems, with K.J. Gregory, Arnold, London, 2004.



senior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2015/2016
Collegium de Lyon
discipline Geography
junior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2016/2017
Collegium de Lyon
discipline Sociology
junior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2014/2015
Collegium de Lyon
discipline Philosophy
senior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2017/2018
Collegium de Lyon
discipline Environmental Studies