Thursday, 28 February 2013

CEH gives evidence to Commons water quality inquiry

Two of our CEH colleagues, Professor Andrew Johnson and Mr Neil Runnalls, gave evidence to Parliament this week, as the House of Commons Science & Technology Committee continued its new inquiry into water quality.

You can view their evidence below (from approximately 42m 25s):

Written evidence has already been submitted to the inquiry which was launched in December 2012 after the European Commission proposed a list of chemicals whose release to the environment should be controlled by wastewater treatment. In the oral evidence from science and industry, the committee heard that some of the chemicals are widely used in pharmaceutical products but their toxicity or otherwise to the environment is not yet fully understood. Furthermore the cost of their removal from wastewater has been estimated at  more than £27 billion over 20 years, although such long-term investment could prove beneficial in managing future pollutant threats. Concern was also raised at the UK's position, particularly in England, in relation to the amount of water available to dilute waste.

CEH has extensive experience in water quality monitoring and in modelling chronic and extreme threats to the environment. Professor Johnson's research at CEH focuses on threats to the aquatic environment, such as posed by chemicals including endocrine disrupting substances, as well as nanoparticles and viruses. Neil Runnalls is Programme Manager of the NERC Water Security Knowledge Exchange Programme and a CEH Business Development Manager. He attended the session on behalf of Research Councils UK.

Others giving evidence included Thames Water, the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, the Blueprint for Water Coalition, the Marine Conservation Society and Plymouth University.

You can view the full Terms of Reference of the water quality inquiry here. The Science and Technology Committee (Commons), which is chaired by Andrew Miller MP, is due to hear more evidence next month.

Additional information

Staff page of Professor Andrew Johnson, CEH

Science and Technology Committee (Commons)

Posted by Paulette Burns

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Nitrogen narratives in Nairobi – confessions of a reluctant blogger

Professor Mark Sutton from CEH has been in Nairobi, Kenya, this week at the United Nations Environment Programme Governing Council. Here he reports back on experiencing life at the sharp end of the science-policy debate.

Here you find a reluctant blogger. I am currently writing this late at night, after a day full of meeting people of so many nations, many disciplines and many roles.

Half the day has been spent talking - trying to better understand what makes people tick, understanding why they hold their positions. Half the day has been spent talking to press colleagues, and lining up interviews with various newspapers, radio and TV channels - often by mobile phone. Not all of these interviews will come off, but a fraction will, and through them we can reach a much wider audience than our scientific papers and reports. The other half of the day has been spent reading and writing emails, trying to keep up with everything that is going past. (All of this would not have been possible without the great support from UNEP colleagues in DEPI, DCPI and DEWA divisions).

As you can see my maths does not add up –  but you hopefully get the right impression.

In fact impressions are everything here. As a scientist one can spend a long time designing experiments, collecting and interpreting data - refining the message for a scientific audience. But here I am, at the Governing Council of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in Nairobi. 1000 delegates have joined together to address environmental issues, to review the UNEP programme of work, and even make a few decisions about how to manage the planet's environment better.

So, what about making impressions. My point is that the delegates present here are nothing like a scientific audience. Peer review, statistics, lovely data series, and even new conceptual paradigms, don’t count for much around here. As several people here have commented, by far the strongest thing is "the narrative". Yes, it's great to have the scientific data and the evidence in the background [and really it is VERY important!]. But the thing that grabs their attention is a good story, where we simplify our science to its barest essence, turning complexity into something that everyone can understand.

This seems to be my job for the week. I am here to launch a report, "Our Nutrient World", commissioned by UNEP. It's about "the challenge to produce more food and energy with less pollution". We need nutrients, like nitrogen and phosphorus, to make crops grow and feed the world. The problem is that most of these nutrients leak out to the environment, weaving a web of air, water and soil pollution, contributing to climate change and threatening biodiversity. So let's manage nutrients better, let's think about a suitable goal, and let's get people talking.

In fact we have 10 key actions in our pack of options, from farming management techniques and sewage treatment to the ambition to recapture NOx (nitrogen oxides) into useful products.

But not many people want to talk about smart manure spreading. So I focus on what people do want to talk about. And that is food. In a way it's their call.

Throughout the week I’ve been highlighting the fact that 80% of the harvested nitrogen in the world ends up feeding livestock rather than people, that Europeans eat 70% more protein than needed for a healthy diet, and that, for many of us on the planet, we live in a world of "food luxury" rather than struggling to maintain a minimum "food security".

It’s a great discussion for dinner and just about anywhere you like. And before you know it, the horse-meat scandal has become linked up with nutrient management. People are thinking about their food choices. We have the demitarian option on the table, and the journalists and radio producers want to hear about it.

So it seems somewhat ironic when a lunchtime radio presenter says that: surely I am speaking to the wrong audience. Surely the team from "Our Nutrient World" should instead have been making recommendations to farmers...

And, of course we are.  But if we had only done that, then no one would have been listening. The food debate has given nitrogen an opening - and a chance to explain what we can do about this pan-dimensional problem.

It’s a challenge that crosses all global change issues. We need nitrogen, but we need to manage it better. And really: every citizen needs to know nitrogen. Because until they do, the politicians will not be empowered to make decisions, and start taking the local, national and intergovernmental conversation to the next stage.

Additional information

Prof. Mark Sutton is the lead author on Our Nutrient World - The challenge to produce more food and energy with less pollution. The report is a global overview of nutrient management and was published on 18 February 2013.

Mark was also lead researcher on the European Nitrogen Assessment published in April 2011.

UNEP 1st Universal Session of the Governing Council / Global Ministerial Forum, Nairobi, 18-22 Feb 2013

Friday, 8 February 2013

Tropical forests, climate change and carbon

Tropical rainforests are often called the "lungs of the planet" because they generally draw in carbon dioxide and breathe out oxygen. But the amount of carbon dioxide they absorb, or produce, varies hugely with year-to-year variations in the climate. A new paper published this week in the journal Nature shows that these variations reveal how vulnerable the rainforest is to climate change. Dr Chris Huntingford from CEH was a co-author on the paper and here he describes the technique the scientific team used to answer the question of whether the Amazon forest will die back under climate change.

In our new paper “Sensitivity of tropical carbon to climate change constrained by carbon dioxide variability” Nature (2013), doi:10.1038/nature11882, a technique called “emerging constraints” is used. This method has the starting premise that all climate models (e.g. from different research centres, or the same centre but with alternative parameterisations) contain key information about particular future behaviours of the Earth system. The technique also accepts that no individual model will be “spot on” in its projections. However if there are robust features common to all models, and that link something that can be measured in the present day to a future issue of interest (here, the likelihood of global warming-induced damage to tropical forests), then this can be used to improve and constrain future prediction.

Amazon rainforest

What we show in the paper is that across climate models, the size of the ratio of simultaneous fluctuations in temperature and atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations are correlated to predicted future loss of carbon stores – i.e. potential extent of any rainforest “die-back”. Hence the amount of modelled carbon release in warm El Nino years, for instance, is a strong indicator across climate models to their modelled “die-back” risk in a future generally warmer world. This correlation is then exploited to give a more definitive prediction, substituting instead actual measurements of carbon dioxide and temperature variation as recorded in recent decades.

Climate research often focuses on explaining contemporary trends and how these may evolve in the approaching decades. What this new analysis demonstrates is that year-on-year variation also teaches us much about expected future average responses. The technique also shows how different model projections can be merged, along with present-day measurements, to exploit consistent inter-model features whilst simultaneously overcoming their individual biases.

Dr Chris Huntingford is a Climate Modeller based at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology in Wallingford, Oxfordshire

Additional information

"Sensitivity of tropical carbon to climate change constrained by carbon dioxide variability". DOI: 10.1038/nature11882 published by Nature

Staff page and research interests of Dr Chris Huntingford

Tropical rainforests, 'lungs' of the planet, reveal true sensitivity to global warming - CEH News, 7 Feb 2013

A press release about the paper was issued by the University of Exeter

Friday, 1 February 2013

Taking care of water

World Wetlands Day, which occurs annually on 2 February, is taking the theme this year of Wetlands and Water Management, focusing  on how wetlands take care of water quality. 

The UK has many different types of wetlands, including floodplains, fens, lake systems, wet grasslands and bogs. Scotland, for example, has more than 10,500sq km of blanket bog, where hydrology is controlled largely by rainfall and evaporation. There are at least 392,000 ha of fen, reedbed, lowland raised bog and grazing marsh, although the true extent is uncertain, and there are 963,700 ha of floodplains (figures from the UK National Ecosystem Assessment).

In UK wetlands alone, more than 3500 species of invertebrates, 150 aquatic plants, 22 ducks and 39 wader species occur, while all seven of our native amphibians depend on wetlands for breeding.

Wetlands provide many ecosystem functions, including the regulation of water quality, for example by acting as a natural buffer zone and breaking down animal waste and contaminants in runoff.

CEH carries out research towards understanding the processes at work in different wetlands and helps to provide advice on how to manage them. We use our specialist skills in hydro-ecological modelling, field-data collection and monitoring in many wetland projects, from the well known and large-scale Great Fen restoration project to smaller studies, for example investigating eco-hydrological conditions at particular sites.

CEH has been involved in ecohydrological investigations at
Braunton Burrows in North Devon

Globally, CEH scientists advise the International Convention on Wetlands (Ramsar) and the wetlands programme of IUCN - The World Conservation Union.

CEH scientists also work on coastal wetlands. Recently staff have published three new scientific papers on salt marshes and dune slacks:
Another research paper published in Nature on 30 January, which was led by the Open University and featured CEH, looked at globally important tropical wetlands and carbon loss.

Wetland sites are great for nature spotting. Given our recent rainy weather, if you are out and about at a UK wetlands site over the weekend, try to stay dry! Any photos you might take are very welcome to be added to our Wetlands in the UK Flickr group.

Additional information

More information on CEH's wetlands work can be found on our Why Study Wetlands web pages

Each year the 2nd February is designated as World Wetlands Day, marking the date of the adoption of the Convention on Wetlands in 1971, which occurred in the small Iranian city of Ramsar. Additionally 2013 has also been designated as the UN’s International Year of Water Cooperation, in recognition of the fact that water is critical for sustainable development and for human health and well-being.

Explaining more about this year's World Wetlands Day theme, the Ramsar Convention has produced an illustrated leaflet entitled "Wetlands Take Care of Water".

UK National Ecosystem Assessment