Palaeoflood research has developed rapidly since the 1970s as the value of assembling long flood histories has become more widely appreciated across the Earth and environmental sciences, and in river basin management and related policy formulation. Palaeoflood science links several disciplines and involves a wide range of field-based, theoretical, and modelling approaches. Increasingly, researchers are using palaeoflood data to explore linkages between various components of global change and the past dynamics of river systems. Pleistocene and Holocene flood records are now providing essential context for the short gauged records that are commonly used for flood hazard assessment and river basin management. Recent advances in palaeoflood science were presented at the 4th International Palaeoflood Workshop in Crete in June 2007. This paper reviews the background to this meeting, sets out the structure and key themes of this special issue, and outlines potential future research directions.