Wednesday, 28 March 2012

2 degrees, global warming and a planet under pressure?

The Planet Under Pressure conference has been taking place in London this week (26-29 March 2012), a major international gathering of policymakers, business leaders and scientists focusing on the challenges of global sustainability. On Monday delegates listened to a series of presentations on climate science and uncertainty. Coincidentally on the same day one of CEH’s climate scientists, Dr Chris Huntingford, had a new paper published in the journal Environmental Research Letters entitled “The link between a global 2°C warming threshold and emissions in years 2020, 2050 and beyond”.

The paper gives details of a recent study that investigates the link between the chances of global warming remaining below two degrees through to year 2500, and what this implies for emissions in 2020 and 2050. 2020 and 2050 are two ‘target’ years of particular relevance to policymakers, including many of those attending the Rio summit later this year.

You can hear Chris talk more about his climate modelling work in a video on our YouTube channel:

Additional information

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

The loss of UK sand dunes

Guest blog by Dr Laurence Jones, based at CEH's Bangor site.

Sand dunes are one of the UK’s most threatened habitats and are high in biodiversity, with many rare and interesting species such as natterjack toad and orchids. As with any coastal habitat, they are primarily long, linear features and so are particularly susceptible to pressures from the land on the one side, and from the sea on the other.

Work that CEH scientists and others did for the UK National Ecosystem Assessment (2011) collated the trends in UK dune area since the 1900s (Figure 1 below).

Estimated UK sand dune area over time
Figure 1: UK sand dune area, 1900, projected to 2060
Conversion to agriculture, and expansion of housing (Figure 2 below), tourism or leisure developments such as golf courses have been the main reasons for loss of dunes in the past. These losses are still continuing, but at a slower rate.

Habitat loss on the Sefton coast, north-west England
Figure 2: Habitat loss on the Sefton coast, north-west England, loss
to urbanisation, forestry and golf courses. Red line shows seaward
limit of urban extent in 1945. Note the subsequent development at Aindale
and Formby. Golf courses and afforestation of dunes pre-date 1945.

All coastlines around the UK are now experiencing sea-level rise which is already affecting many systems, causing a steepening of beach profiles which indicates a loss of sediment and will result in coastal erosion. A study in Wales has shown many dune systems are forecast to lose around 50m of coastline to sea level rise in the next 80 years.

The picture is more complicated however, and depends partly on the amount of sand supply to the beach and dune. Some dune systems are actively accreting (i.e. getting bigger) because they have adequate sand supply, despite sea level rise.

Sand dunes provide many useful functions for society, and one of these is sea defence. They form part of the natural sea defences along the Sefton coast in north-west England, north east England, the Severn estuary, the North Norfolk coast and in North Wales. Loss of dune area reduces this sea defence function, and means more costly (and ugly) hard engineering needs to be put in place instead.

As well as loss of area, many sand dunes are suffering from a deterioration in quality, and are in declining or unfavourable condition for conservation. This is due to a wide range of factors, including under-grazing or sometimes over-grazing, nitrogen deposition and climate change.

Sand dunes
Sand dunes, high in biodiversity and important sea defences,
are one of the UK's most threatened habitats.

However, despite these undesirable changes, coasts and dunes are still a very important resource for tourism in the UK and provide considerable value to society as a whole.

Added on 29 March 2012:

Declining habitat quality means that restoration has an important role to play, and CEH has conducted scientific monitoring of a dune restoration project in North Wales at Talacre Warren which looked at burying nutrient-rich surface layers under 1 metre of bare sand. 

Additional information

Dr Laurence Jones is a plant ecologist based at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology's Bangor site.

More details on CEH's Coastal Research.

UK National Ecosystem Assessment, Technical Reports, Chapter 11: Coastal Margins.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

50 years of predatory bird monitoring, and how you can help!

Barn owl
 Our colleagues who work on the Predatory Bird Monitoring Scheme (PBMS) have celebrated 50 years of long-term monitoring by refreshing the look of their website to provide even more information and background on their hugely important research which assesses the impact of chemical contaminants on birds of prey and the wider environment.

The PBMS relies on members of the public to send in deceased birds of prey and addled and deserted eggs (from licensed egg collectors only - it is against the law to interfere with bird nests and remove an egg without a licence). The PBMS scientific team hopes that the new website will help spread the word about how the scheme operates, the research they undertake, and encourage many more members of the public to send in samples!

A brief history

The PBMS is the longest running record of its kind: a long-term, large-scale monitoring scheme that quantifies a range of contaminants in the livers and eggs of certain species of predatory and fish-eating birds in Britain.

It started in 1962 when work began at the Monks Wood Experimental Station in Cambridgeshire to investigate the role of some insecticides and fungicides in the decline of several bird and mammal species. By 1966 the researchers were monitoring polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in predatory bird tissues and eggs and by 1970 they were also monitoring total mercury in the tissues and eggs. In subsequent years, the PBMS has focused on other chemicals.

Why is this important?

Chemicals are used to protect animal and human health, food security, and economic sustainability. It is important, however, to quantify any effect these substances may have on wildlife and the wider environment. Some pesticides, biocides and substances used in industry and manufacturing (for instance, polybrominated diphenyl ethers - PBDEs) can be accumulated by non-target wildlife species and have adverse effects.

The PBMS monitors the concentrations of contaminants of concern that are accumulated in the livers and eggs of sentinel species (a species whose well-being in a particular environment is indicative of the health of that environment as a whole). This provides information on the extent of risk to vertebrate wildlife (and potentially humans) in terrestrial, freshwater and marine environments, and how contamination varies temporally and spatially.

Through its monitoring the PBMS provides underpinning scientific evidence that informs policymakers and regulators in their decisions to authorise, restrict or withdraw pesticides, biocides and other chemicals. A current example is that PBMS monitoring of second generation anticoagulant rodenticides in wildlife is used as an evidence base by regulators to assess the occurrence and importance of the impacts of these biocides on wildlife. This monitoring is also used by rodenticide manufacturers and suppliers to help them promote to their customers the importance and need for responsible use of rodenticides.

How you can help

Engagement with the public, in particular volunteer collection of carcasses and eggs, is crucial to the success of the PBMS. On average the PBMS receives some 400 birds of prey carcasses and 200 eggs per year. Body tissues and egg contents are stored in the PBMS archive at Lancaster. This now contains more than 40,000 tissue samples and 10,000 eggs – a tremendous resource that can be used to analyse long-term trends in contamination. The website contains details of what species the PBMS currently analyses and how to send in samples.

The Predatory Bird Monitoring Scheme is currently funded by a consortium that comprises CEH, Natural England, the Environment Agency, the Campaign for Responsible Rodenticide Use and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). It has also recently been instrumental in establishing a network between various different UK surveillance schemes that monitor disease and contaminants in vertebrate wildlife called the Wildlife Disease & Contaminant Monitoring and Surveillance (WILDCOMS) network. Where appropriate, samples, data and other resources will be shared between the network’s partners. The network will help to ensure an even more coordinated approach to detecting current and emerging chemical threats to the environment.

Be sure to check out the new PBMS website here. If you are interested in following their work, you can also like them on Facebook.

Posted by Paulette Burns, with thanks to Lee Walker, Jacky Chaplow and Richard Shore of the PBMS.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Decades not years - An historical perspective on UK droughts

Our latest Monthly Hydrological Summary for the UK has just been published prompting me to take a look back through the archives at how droughts have affected us in the past.
As regular blog readers know, we run the National Hydrological Monitoring Programme* which gives our scientists a unique perspective of how the hydrological cycle operates across the country. We’ve published reports analysing every major drought episode since the 1975-76 drought which was, at the time, considered the most severe experienced across much of the UK. Using data from the National Water Archive our staff also carry out analysis of all major historical droughts in England and Wales since instrumented records began. One of the publications resulting from this research is a 2007 paper in the journal Weather (free access) titled ‘Major droughts in England and Wales, 1800–2006.’

A typical drought image

Skimming through the Weather paper I was intrigued to find that the longest UK drought episode in recent times lasted 20 years(!), when the ‘Long Drought’ of 1890-1910 led to “significant water supply problems” and “major and sustained groundwater impact” - including a period in London’s East End when a 73-day sequence of rainless days was reported! The paper states that “Although punctuated by several notably wet interludes, the 1890–1910 period includes the most sustained drought conditions captured in the instrumented record” and goes on to say, “A defining characteristic of the ‘Long Drought’ is the long sequences of very dry winters, especially in the English Lowlands.”

February 2012 river flows - from the
latest Monthly Hydrological Summary

I’ve also found another interesting perspective on historical droughts in a 2008 discussion paper on the History and Policy website. Written by historians Dr Vanessa Taylor and Professor Frank Trentmann ‘Hosepipes, history and a sustainable future’ states that “Droughts have been a constant feature of modern life”, and goes on to suggest that “the history of droughts in the UK reveals a mismatch between consumers' willingness to accept drought-time economies and their unwillingness to reduce consumption in the long term.”
Water companies and regulators are rightly worried about how the dry weather will impact the UK over the next few months, but taking an historical perspective we should perhaps spare a thought for those citizens of Victorian and Edwardian times who had to endure decades rather than years of drought!

Useful links
The Weather paper - Terry Marsh, Gwyneth Cole and Rob Wilby (2007) Major droughts in England and Wales, 1800–2006. Weather, Volume 62, Issue 4, Article first published online: 3 APR 2007
Hosepipes, history and a sustainable future by Vanessa Taylor and Frank Trentmann. History and Policy website
National Hydrological Monitoring Programme - Occasional Reports, including reports on the following drought events: 1975 - 76; 1984; 1988 - 1992; 2003; 2004 - 2006.
Our standard answer to 'What is a drought?' - the simple answer being "droughts mean different things to different people"

Key information from the latest monthly hydrological summary for the UK, covering the month of February 2012 can be read here.

A pdf copy of the full 12-page summary can be downloaded from this link
If you wish to reproduce figures from the summary please respect the copyright credits contained within the document.

And finally please
call us if you have queries. We'll try and help!

The National Hydrological Monitoring Programme

*The Centre for Ecology & Hydrology jointly operates the National Hydrological Monitoring Programme (for the UK) in conjunction with the British Geological Survey. NHMP scientists produce the UK Monthly Hydrological Summary which assesses rainfall, river flows, groundwater and reservoir levels. They also operate the UK’s National River Flow archive. The NHMP also has a remit to analyse major flood and drought events in the UK and analyse long term trends in UK hydrological data.

Posted by Barnaby Smith

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Unravelling nature's networks

Guest blog by Dr Michael Pocock of CEH.

One definition of ecology is that it is the study of the inter-relationships of animals, plants and their environment. Through these inter-relationships all species are linked together in networks of interacting species.

Rarely are the relationships between hundreds of interacting species fully explored but that is exactly what I did in a paper published in Science last week entitled "The robustness and restoration of a network of ecological networks". This was a result of research I undertook before joining CEH in a project led by Prof Jane Memmott at the University of Bristol.

We looked at the relationships of over 600 species on a single farm in Somerset in one of the most complex studies of its kind. Of course, we could not study all species, but we chose to study a wide range of animal groups that relied on plants by eating leaves, visiting (and pollinating flowers) and eating plant seeds, and we included some of the animal groups that rely on those animals, such as the fleas on seed-feeding rodents. 

A dance-fly feeding on nectar from the flowers of  cow
parsley. Photo by Dr Michael Pocock.

Some of the animals we selected are UK headline indicators (birds and butterflies) and some are ecosystem service providers, which provide direct benefits to humans (such as the predatory insects that potentially provide biological pest control and the insect pollinators).

It was a huge effort to collect this data. Dozens of people helped gather the data, with ecologists spending hundreds of hours in the field sampling in all weathers and taxonomists in the lab identifying specimens.

Analysing the data provided a rich insight into the way that environmental change (such as the ways in which farmers manage their land) can affect biodiversity and the benefits nature provides.

The effect of environmental change (in all its forms) on whole networks of interacting animals and plants is one of the most pressing questions that we face today. In undertaking this research, I've found it humbling how complex and rich our natural world is, yet I have also found it sobering to discover more about its importance to us and its fragility.

Dr Michael Pocock is an ecologist at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology. His current research focuses on the impact of environmental change on networks of animal and plant interactions and engaging people with ecological science through projects such as Conker Tree Science.

Additional information

Monday, 5 March 2012

Have a go at science!

National Science & Engineering Week (NSEW) is now a well-established annual event that aims to celebrate science to the public and inspire the next generation of scientists by showing, through fun activities, how science, technology, engineering and maths relate to our everyday lives.

This year’s NSEW is the 18th to take place and once again a number of CEH scientists are taking part because they see that having a positive connection with the public, particularly with their local communities, is an important part of communicating about the state of the environment and how it is changing. And if that's not enough to convince you why they are happy to give up some of their free time to take part, well it's also because they find it fun!

Here’s a brief rundown of what our colleagues are up to for this year's NSEW - we hope you might have the chance to support them, or attend one of the other thousands of events and activities that are happening across the country for NSEW 2012.

Scientists from our Edinburgh site have organised two science “have-a-go” days at Penicuik Town Hall, on Saturday March 10 and Saturday March 17. Taking this year’s NSEW theme, “Our World in Motion”, as a basis, the events will look in particular at how pollution affects us and the environment. Using games, simple experiments, crafts and story activities, the days will examine how we can see the effects of pollution, ask why we should care and answer some of what we can do about it.

There will be contributions from scientists at CEH, Moray House of Education (Edinburgh University), as well as science creativity from Penicuik’s own “Making Space” from the Penicuik Arts Association. A feast of fun and information for all ages has been promised!

Our Edinburgh staff have also organised two free (but ticketed) science talks at the West Street Arts Centre in Penicuik on the evenings of Saturday March 10 and Saturday March 17. The first talk on March 10 is from Dr Andy Buckley, a CERN scientist, who will chat about aspects of the work with the Large Hadron Collider. The second talk is from Dr Brian Miller, head of Epidemiological research at the Institute of Occupational Medicine in Edinburgh. Brian will discuss aspects of how the environment and pollution affect human health.

Click here for more information on the Penicuik events.

CEH scientists at Bangor, meanwhile, are among those supporting a project that will be taking eight secondary school groups out on field trips to peat bogs during NSEW to learn about carbon storage and climate change. The Moorland Indicators of Climate Change Initiative (MICCI) has now been operating for more than four years and organises events as part of NSEW as well as  other times of the year. The trips will allow the students to carry out fieldwork and gather samples for laboratory analysis.

Our enthusiastic colleagues at Bangor also help to organise the Bangor Science CafĂ©, which is proving very popular in the town. Check out their Facebook page for more information on another great way to learn about science. 

Related links

Posted by Paulette.