Huge carbon stores discovered beneath UK grasslands

 

A nationwide survey by ecologists has revealed that over 2 billion tons of carbon is stored deep under the UK’s grasslands, helping to curb climate change.

However, decades of intensive farming, involving heavy fertilizer use and excessive livestock grazing, have caused a serous decline in valuable soil carbon stocks in grasslands across the UK.

The nationwide survey was carried out by a team of scientists from the Universities of Manchester, Lancaster, Reading and Newcastle, as well as Rothamsted Research.

The team found that 60% of the UK’s total soil carbon stored in grasslands – covering a third of UK land surface – is between 30cm and 1m deep. The team estimated the total grassland soil carbon in Great Britain to be 2097 teragrams of carbon to a depth of 1m.

Though the effects of high intensity agriculture are strongest in the surface layer of soil, they also discovered that this deep carbon is sensitive to the way land has been farmed.

Dr Sue Ward, the lead author of the paper from Lancaster Environment Centre, said:

“What most surprised us was the depth at which we were still able to detect a change in soil carbon due to historic land management.

“We have long known that carbon is stored in surface soils and is sensitive to the way land is managed. But now we know that this too is true at considerable soil depths under our grasslands.

“This is of high relevance given the extent of land cover and the large stocks of carbon held in managed grasslands worldwide.”

In contrast, the soils that were richest in carbon were those that had been subjected to less intensive farming, receiving less fertilizer and with fewer grazing animals. The team found that soil carbon stocks were 10% higher at intermediate levels of management, compared to intensively managed grasslands.

Professor Richard Bardgett from The University of Manchester said:

“Our findings suggest that by managing our grasslands in a less intensive way, soil carbon storage could be important to our future global carbon targets, but will also bring benefits for biodiversity conservation.”

He added:

“These findings could impact how grasslands are managed for carbon storage and climate mitigation, as current understanding does not account for changes in soil carbon at these depths.

“Our findings suggest that by managing our grasslands in a less intensive way, soil carbon storage could be important to our future global carbon targets, but will also bring benefits for biodiversity conservation.”

The research is part of a five year research project, supported by DEFRA, aimed at managing UK grassland diversity for multiple ecosystem services, including carbon capture.

 


The paper, ‘Legacy effects of grassland management on soil 1 carbon to depth’ is available in the journal Global Change Biology.

Tuesday Feature episode 31: Franciska De Vries

In episode 31 of the Tuesday Feature we question Franciska about all things soil.


 

Please can you briefly explain your research in simple terms?

I look at how plants and soils interact. Plants pump carbon into the soil and there are lots of microbes and other organisms in the soils which use this carbon to perform important processes, they release nutrients for plants to use and I study how that works. Mainly I look at how feedbacks and processes respond to climate change and land-use change.

How does this research benefit the general public?

It’s important to know how ecosystems will respond to climate change and other future changes such as land-use change. Ecosystems provide valuable functions and deliver important services such as food production and carbon sequestration for climate mitigation.  We look at how soils will be able to continue under climate change which underpins society and human life. We need to eat and food comes from the soil in one way or another!

How did you first become interested in soils?

When I was doing my undergraduate degree at Wageningen University in the Netherlands I had a really good lecturer who gave particularly interesting lectures on soil biodiversity,  I guess it was from there that I discovered how interesting soil science really is. I just really wanted to learn more!

Did you have any science heroes growing up? Who inspired you?

I went to study environmental studies for my undergraduate degree because I wanted to save the world. I wanted to be a scientist on a green peace ship so it actually turned out all differently. I didn’t really have a big hero – I just wanted to save the world.

How has working in Manchester helped you?

Massively – it’s just a really inspiring environment and there are a lot of very good people that are really supportive in anything you want to do. I have had a lot of support; particularly for my grant applications and it really is a great place to work.

What do you do outside of work?

I do a lot of sports: I like to mountain bike, run and climb. Sport is kind of in the background now because I have a one year old that takes up all my time.

 

FLS staff contribute to National Climate Change Report Card

Two Faculty scientists are helping to shape policy by submitting scientific evidence to the latest National Biodiversity Climate Change Report card. Ecologists Professor Richard Bardgett and Dr Franciska De Vries have both been asked to contribute to the report which summarises the latest scientific evidence and understanding of how climate change is affecting UK biodiversity. The card itself shows where observed changes are likely to have been caused by changes in the UK climate over recent decades, and assesses potential future impacts of climate change on biodiversity.

Dr De Vries says:

This report card is important because it shows, at a glance, how UK biodiversity is already being affected by climate change. It shows which ecosystems and groups of organisms are most vulnerable to future changes , and this information is important if we want to act on climate change and protect UK biodiversity.

It is important that we take action to protect UK biodiversity against the effects of future climate change, because many ecosystem services depend on the diversity and composition of communities present. The report card includes potential ways for adaptation to climate change. For example, it is now clear that the way we manage land influences how species populations and communities respond to climate change.

It is hoped that reports such as these will give governments a clearer picture on what actions should be taken to protect our environment.


A link to the report can be found here (pdf)

Shark eggs in a future climate

Our students often have exciting summers and this summer was no different. Here, undergraduate Molly Czachur, talks about her summer of sharks and symposiums.


I am an undergraduate student, and this summer I have had the privilege of receiving funding for a Sustainability Studentship at The University of Manchester. I worked together with Syafiq Musa, a first year PhD student for 3 months.

My project was to assist him in setting up a study of the effects of climate change on the early development of 2 endemic British elasmobranchs: the small spotted catshark (Scyliorhinus canicula) and the thornback ray (Raja clavata). These responses may provide vital evidence for the sustainability of these native UK elasmobranch species under predicted climate change, and these species were chosen as a model to represent all elasmobranch species whose life history strategy includes an egg case phase.

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Molly Czachur (left) with her supervisors Dr. Holly Shiels (middle) and PhD student Syafiq Musa (right).

 The wider project aims to establish the effects of predicted climate change for the year 2100 on the development of the shark egg cases. For me, this involved helping to set up a system of 8 mini biospheres, each with its own mini climate that reflects different aspects of climate change. These aspects included changes in temperature (ocean warming), carbon dioxide (hypercapnia) and oxygen (hypoxia).

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The setup of the 8 biospheres for our project.

 To help us build our system of mini biospheres, we attended conferences and read scientific literature to build up our knowledge of sharks and climate change. The first conference we attended was on the theme of ocean acidification with the Royal Society in London. We met some of the world leading researchers in the field of climate change, and talked to them about our project.  I had the opportunity to learn from the experts about the direct effects of human habits that are not sustainable for the oceans and our environment, and I watched leading scientists present their research that tested the effects of ocean acidification on marine life.

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Syafiq and Molly at the Royal Society Ocean Acidification Conference in London.

 We also attended the annual symposium held by the Fisheries Society of the British Isles, and this years’ theme was elasmobranch biology, ecology and conservation. The 5-day conference was held in Plymouth, and included presentations about sharks and rays, which expanded my knowledge of elasmobranchs beyond my university education, allowing me to apply the biology and ecology that I learnt to inform my own understanding on how to sustainably manage our study species. We also spoke to researchers from all over the world about experimental approaches and their experiences of working with our study species. I met lots of like minded people, became informed on how to share science to a wider audience, and I was even inspired to set up a Twitter page (@zoologymolly)!

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Molly and Syafiq at the Elasmobranch conference in Plymouth.

 In addition to our conferences away from our University, I was able to attend multiple tutorials, lab meetings and even an Ecology conference in Manchester with Syafiq, where I heard members of our laboratory speak about their projects and their progress with PhD and other projects, as well as Syafiq and I talking about our own progress over the summer. I had a chance to learn about the scope of the projects and facilities available at The University of Manchester, as well as meeting with people working in academia -a priceless experience for an undergraduate student like myself.

 After learning the theory behind the two elasmobranch species, Syafiq and I set off into the field looking for egg cases in a natural environment -usually attached to seaweed by their long and stringy tendrils. Also known as mermaid’s purses, the egg cases are often found washed up on beaches at the high tide line, hidden in the seaweed that has also washed up. All of the egg cases that we found were empty, so the shark had already left the egg case, but they were still useful because we could study the egg cases in detail. Later stages of Syafiq’s project will involve scratching the dark pigmented layer off the egg case to leave a window, where he will be able to look into the egg cases and see the shark embryo developing inside in real time. We could therefore use the empty egg cases to practice scratching off the pigment. As well as being useful for us, we were able to submit our egg case findings to a nationwide survey called The Great Eggcase Hunt by The Shark Trust, contributing to a large record of egg cases distribution across the UK.

Whilst in the field, we used specialist equipment to measure the seawater conditions, to give us more information about todays water conditions.

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Molly beachcombing and snorkelling for shark eggs.

Based on all that we learnt in theory and in the field, we then set up the biosphere system, with the 8 tanks that imitate different aspects of the predicted future climate for the year 2100. We created 8 environments: four of the tanks were at an ambient temperature of 15°C, and 4 tanks were at an elevated temperate of 20°C. Each of the four tanks had different treatments for 1) a control biosphere which was the same as todays conditions, 2) a low oxygen environment (hypoxic), 3) a high carbon dioxide  environment (hypercapnic) and 4) a combined hypoxic/hypercapnic treatment.

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Schematic of the biosphere set-up.

Together we wrote a proposal for a supply of shark egg cases from an aquarium, which allowed me to practice writing in the style of a project proposal -a useful skill for writing grant proposals in the future, and very relevant to the academic career that I hope to pursue.

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Molly during a shark tagging trip off the coast of North Wales.

Through my many contacts that I gained during this studentship, I ended up volunteering at Manchester Museum where I filmed and edited a short film (https://youtu.be/NuqZvYvpCcY) and helped recurate a collection of crustaceans. I also had the chance to go shark tagging off the coast of North Wales, where I had first hand experience of some of our very own British shark species. By working at Manchester University with the Undergraduate Sustainability Studentship, many doors opened for me. This scheme not only reinforced the importance of acting sustainably to support marine wildlife, it also gave me a priceless opportunity to work alongside academic staff and postgraduate researchers, something that would not have been possible without the funding from this scheme, and I hope that this initiative continues to spread the important message of sustainability to undergraduate students.


Tuesday Feature episode 6: Professor Amanda Bamford

Are we really already on Episode 6 of the Tuesday Feature? That’s gone so quickly – please let us know what you think of the series so far in the comments below.
Bamford Amanda

Today we talk to the Faculty’s Associate Dean for Social Responsibility, Professor Amanda Bamford. Amanda now focuses on teaching rather than research, so we thought we’d delve into her past to find out how she got to where she is today.

We know you’re focused on teaching nowadays, but could you tell us a little bit about what you used to research?

Well, I used to work on air pollution.

I did my PhD on the effects of air pollution on crops and crop production; plants like barley and crops like that.

Every time you drive your car, you produce nitrogen dioxide. I was looking at the effects of nitrogen dioxide on plants.

Could you tell us how did you first get interested in your research area?

I got to the end of my first degree and I thought to myself ‘I’m really enjoying this. I’m not ready to finish.’ I was just getting the hang of it.

I really, really enjoyed my first degree – probably a bit too much!

So I got to my final year and I kind of thought – ah, I think I need to settle down here and really get something going.

I’ve always been really interested in social responsibility and I used to go on marches for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). I belonged to the Student Union’s Eco Action. We used to go out looking at plants and fungi.

By my third year I thought, I’m enjoying this life, I’m enjoying the people I’m working with, and I feel as if I’m starting to get to grips with the topic. I wanted to carry on.

Air pollution was something I was interested in because it was the days of acid rain. The 1980s – The Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace. There were lots of campaigns around acid rain. I don’t know if anyone remembers that there used to be these big posters, and every time it rained the poster changed colour because it was made of litmus paper. So it would be saying ‘it’s raining and it’s acid rain coming.’

The huge poster at the side of the road used to change colour – and that’s what got me into air pollution.

Amanda being interviewed for the Tuesday FeatureWho inspired you? Do you have any science heroes?

No, I don’t. Not really.

When I grew up in Essex, rough Essex right next to the Thames, nobody went to university. You had to look hard to find nature, put it that way. But we did find nature.

There was a local quarry called Gray’s Quarry or Gray’s Pit or something like that. It was an old chalk quarry and if you looked carefully you could see orchids growing in there. At one time there were six different species of orchids; bee orchids, man orchids. And then I found out that they were going to build a shopping centre on it.

My friends and I had a big campaign to try and save the quarry. We failed, but it really inspired me to carry on and try and make a difference. And that’s one of the reasons why I went to university. Which was very unusual from where I lived.

Could you please tell us a little bit about your role as Associate Dean for Social Responsibility?

I see my role, leading on from what we’ve just been talking about, as really empowering people to exercise their own social responsibility.

But if everybody in this huge university of ours did only a little bit, got out there and made a difference in any which way; volunteering, going and talking to schools, helping in Platts Field, imagine it.

If everyone only did one hour a year or a day a year, we would have a huge impact.

I see that as the crucial part of my role – supporting and encouraging and making it a part of the ethos of everybody that’s at the University.

Have you always been interested in social responsibility? And how did you first get involved?

The only time I realised that social responsibility is a part of me is when I applied for this role. I had to write out a reason why I wanted to do it. I talked about Gray’s chalk quarry.

When I went to university I did Applied Biology, not just Biology. I didn’t do Zoology or Plant Sciences. I wanted to do something more applied.

So I went to do Applied Biology, and there weren’t many places that did Applied Biology then. The degree I went to do included three placements. So each year there were six months at university and six months working somewhere.

I worked for Kew Gardens and Kew Seed Bank, so that was conservation. Social responsibility. I worked for Shell looking at herbicides for controlling weeds and improving crop production. More social responsibility.

But it wasn’t my reason for doing them – I was just interested in them. It wasn’t as if I was an eco-warrior going around. It was just that those were the sort of topics that interested me.

Then my final placement was a place called Silwood Park, which was a university field station. There, I worked on root disease of potatoes. I really enjoyed that one the most and that’s why I stayed on. I wanted to do more. So from that, I stayed on and did my PhD in air pollution. And from air pollution I did my post-doc in climate change. The effect of climate change on rice production.

I’m sure everybody knows that rice feeds most of the world’s population. It’s a very, very important crop. And at those times in the late 80s global climate change was just coming into the fore. I went to America to do my second post-doc working on rice and climate change.

So even though it wasn’t a deliberate, conscious decision to have that social responsibility as part of my agenda, looking back it was obviously a thread going through my life.

Could you tell us a bit about your interests outside of science and social responsibility?

What else do I get up to?

Well, I used to do fencing! Until last year when I ruptured my Achilles tendon. So I’ve been told I can’t go back to do fencing.

But I’m a bit geeky – I like going birdwatching. Whenever we go on holiday or wherever I go I always visit the nearest botanical gardens. I like walking.

But I don’t really like exercising – you won’t ever get me jogging or running or doing anything like that!

Can you tell us a bit about how working here in Manchester has helped your career?

Coming to Manchester has really helped me because it has given me the opportunities that I needed.

I have three children. When I came here it was originally a full time post, but I said I can’t do full time. I had two young children at that time. And they said, well, ‘how many hours do you want?’

So I came back 40%, and then as the children got older I went to 50%, 60%. And it’s only since 2011 that I’ve been full time.

They gave me the flexibility, as a mother, to keep my career going.

And they gave me other opportunities. They sent me on leadership programmes. Manchester has really been good to me and I’m very loyal to Manchester. It’s been a fantastic place to work.

Well that seems as good a place as any to leave it!

Thank you, Amanda – that was another fascinating installment of the Tuesday Feature. Great to hear how someone’s determination led them to a role that seems to fit perfectly with everything they’ve done before. And who knew we all had an eco-warrior in our midst!

Next week we talk to Dr Emma Gowen about her intriguing studies of autism and how her personal circumstances have shaped her career. Come back for that, you won’t want to miss it!

‘Unbelievable underground’ could improve sustainable land management

A new study from Faculty scientist Professor Richard Bardgett and Professor Wim van der Putten of the Netherlands Institute of Ecology may demonstrate how organisms below-ground could have far-reaching impacts on future ecosystems. This previously neglected area could help us to understand how ecosystems are responding to climate change. The paper also discusses how the world beneath us could be used for sustainable land management. Professor Bardgett explained:

“The soil beneath our feet arguably represents the most diverse place on Earth. Soil communities are extremely complex with literally millions of species and billions of individual organisms within a single grassland or forest. Despite this plethora of life, the underground world has been largely neglected by research. It certainly used to be a case of out of sight out of mind, although over the last decade we have seen a significant increase in work in this area.”

This increase has helped to explain how the organisms interact with each other and, crucially, how they influence the above-ground flora and fauna. Professor Bardgett discussed the results:

“Recent soil biodiversity research has revealed that below-ground communities not only play a major role in shaping plant Soil Biodiversitybiodiversity and the way that ecosystems function, but it can also determine how they respond to environmental change. One of the key areas for future research will be to integrate what has been learnt about soil diversity into decisions about sustainable land management. There is an urgent need for new approaches to the maintenance and enhancement of soil fertility for food, feed and biomass production, the prevention of human disease, and tackling climate change. As we highlight in this paper, a new age of research is needed to meet these scientific challenges and to integrate such understanding into future land management and climate change mitigation strategies.”

Norwegian reindeer herds boosted by climate change

According to Faculty researchers and their colleagues from The Arctic University of Norway in Tromsø, climate change is not Reindeer in Norwaythreatening the reindeer of the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard. Instead, their long-term study indicates that the population is thriving because of rising temperatures.

In one of the very few studies of animal population and climate change that has actually counted the number of animals instead of simply estimating, the research team discovered that the number of reindeer on Svalbard has increased by 30% in the last year.

Since 1979 there has been an annual census of the animals in the valley of Adventdalen, led by Dr Nicholas Tyler.  Over that period the population has increased in close parallel with winter warming, growing from around 600 animals in the early 1980s to an average of around 1000 in recent years. Dr Tyler said:

“Winter warming is widely held to be a major threat to reindeer across the arctic. But, in the high arctic archipelago of Svalbard, global warming has had the opposite effect. Our data provides remarkable confirmation of this counter-intuitive observation.”

A Faculty team led by Dr Jonathan Codd and Nathan Thavarajah assisted with this summer’s reindeer census. Dr Codd said:

“The results revealed a remarkably successful year for Svalbard reindeer. Despite very high numbers in 2013, the population reached a new record of just over 1300 animals. The substantial increase in the numbers of reindeer is linked with frequent and pronounced periods of warm weather last winter.”

Prestigious fellowships for three Faculty scientists

A lab workerOur congratulations go to three Faculty researchers who have recently been awarded important independent fellowships. Gloria Lopez-Castejon and John Grainger received two of the twelve available Henry Dale Fellowships, while Franciska de Vries became the Faculty’s sixth recipient of a BBSRC David Phillips Fellowship.

The Henry Dale Fellowships, which are awarded twice a year, are for outstanding postdoctoral scientists who wish to build their own independent research career in the UK. Gloria and John both work in the area of inflammation. John’s interests focus on the role of lymphoid cells in the regulation of inflammation and immunity, whereas Gloria’s fellowship will focus on how the regulation of certain post-translational modifications of proteins orchestrates an inflammation response.

The BBSRC David Phillips Fellowship, which Franciska has been awarded, is intended for scientists who have demonstrated high potential and hope to establish themselves as independent researchers. There were only five awards available, and the support will last for five years.  Franciska will be researching the role of plant roots in ecosystem responses to climate change. Prof Ian Roberts, Associate Dean for Research in the Faculty, said:

“These fellowships are highly prestigious. To see our promising young researchers recognised in this way demonstrates the calibre of the scientists working in the Faculty.”