Theme action plans - Phase 3 summaries
- Earth system modelling (ESM) strategy implementation
- Greenhouse gas emissions and feedbacks
- Human-modified tropical forests
- Mineral resources: science to sustain security of supply in a changing environment
- Resource recovery from waste
- Shelf sea biogeochemistry
- Flooding from intense rainfall
- UK droughts
- Radioactivity and the environment
- Mathematics and informatics for 'omics
- Deep Earth control on the habitable planet
- Observations & modelling of the tropical tropopause layer
- Marine Food Webs and their Impacts on Ecosystem Services
(£3m, contributes to climate system and Earth system science themes)
This programme will build on the work undertaken in developing an ESM strategy. This action has three elements:
- Process-based model evaluation. The goal of this element is to develop innovative methods of integrating observational information that is process-based into the evaluation of global Earth system models.
- Biogeochemical modelling. It has been identified that with ocean biogeochemical models and offline atmospheric chemistry models there is currently a wide diversity of model approaches in use in the community. In many cases there is disagreement over the appropriate level of complexity to represent particular processes in a global model, and the appropriate metrics to evaluate such models. This activity will support, firstly, the development of robust model metrics, and secondly the demonstration of traceable performance across models of differing complexity.
- Seabed modelling. A need has been identified to develop models of seabed processes (eg carbon burial in sediment, methane hydrate instability). A small scoping study is proposed to report on priorities and prospects for including seabed processes in ESMs. This would be placed late in the programme period to allow for input from process studies in progress (eg Arctic, Shelf Sea Biogeochemistry).
(£8·1m, contributes to climate system and Earth system science themes)
To quantify the influence of man-made greenhouse gases (GHGs) on recent and future climate it is essential to quantify their sources and sinks. This includes both direct anthropogenic emissions and the responses of natural sources and sinks to changing environmental boundary conditions.
Estimating emissions on national and even sub-national scales is important, both to quantify the impact of possible interventions (eg waste disposal methods to reduce methane emissions), and to enable administrations to know whether they are meeting statutory emissions targets.
However for some gases current top-down budget estimates are not consistent with bottom-up emission inventories, pointing to a key research gap. Further, there is currently very poor understanding of the impacts of drivers such as land use on GHG emissions, while the feedbacks from climate change itself on terrestrial and marine carbon sinks are also poorly known.
These factors are major sources of uncertainty in predicting future climate change in response to a variety of policy options. This programme focuses on the three major anthropogenic GHGs not regulated by the Montreal Protocol: carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O).
The goal of the programme of modelling and fieldwork is to improve 'top down' methods of estimating GHG budgets, and to integrate knowledge from all these methods with bottom-up inventories to deliver better GHG budgets and predictions both for the UK and for the globe at a regional scale.
A further key output is to define the requirements for a sustained UK GHG observing network that will meet requirements both for monitoring/policy purposes and for ongoing research.
(£8m, contributes to biodiversity and technologies themes)
Tropical forests are hotspots of terrestrial biodiversity. The loss, fragmentation and degradation of these forests are drivers of global biodiversity loss and have important implications for the global climate system; uncertainty in how the tropical biosphere will respond to global change is one of the major constraints on predicting the climate of the end of this century and therefore in assessing threshold values of greenhouse gas emissions that may avoid dangerous climate change.
However, tropical forest biodiversity and biogeochemical cycles are commonly studied in isolation. Biodiversity studies have tended to focus on changes in population and community dynamics; whereas biogeochemical cycles have tended to be studied from the perspective of physical and chemical processes, with relatively limited attention to the biological components of the system.
There is an increasing need to bring these areas together, both to gain a synthetic understanding of tropical forest ecosystems, and to provide evidence for policy decisions; and this is the focus of this new research programme.
The programme will integrate experimental and observational data with models to understand the role of biodiversity in major forest biogeochemical cycles; explore the spatial correlations between ecosystem function in terms of biogeochemical cycles and the distribution of species of conservation concern; and develop new technological capabilities for sustainable long-term observations of biogeochemical cycling in forests.
(£7m, contributes to sustainable use of natural resources theme)
A growing global population coupled with exceptional resource consumption in emerging economies has increased demand for mineral resources to previously unknown levels. Concern about the security of supply of some metals is particularly acute because substitutes do not exist and recycling rates for key elements like gallium, indium, tantalum and rare Earth elements are currently less than one percent.
Rapid advances in science are needed to understand how strategic minerals are mobilised and concentrated in the crust; to embrace cross-disciplinary science (eg geomicrobiology) to deliver advances in process-understanding; to develop models to predict the environmental impact of scaling up new technologies for low-carbon mineral extraction; and to evaluate the implications of exploiting deep, more dispersed or more inaccessible minerals in the future.
The science goals of this programme are to:
- Quantify the processes mobilising and concentrating mineral associations, supporting environmental technologies.
- Predict the environmental impact of low-carbon extraction/recovery of strategic minerals.
(£6m, contributes to sustainable use of natural resources and environment, pollution & human health themes)
Meeting global challenges on natural resource use (for example food and energy provision, water security) depends on a twin-track approach that finds new ways to use existing natural resources alongside new methods to extract further use from waste materials.
Current solutions to waste management reliant on disposal are not sustainable given a growing global population and highly dynamic product development for human needs. This means that not only is the volume of waste produced increasing (c. 3 billion tonnes municipal solid waste are generated in the EU each year) but also its composition (particularly the residual material resulting from waste treatment) is changing as new materials enter the waste stream, often with unknown biospheric feedbacks.
Despite recent technological advances, a growing tension exists between recovering physical resources (eg nutrients, minerals) and recovery of energy through incineration with heat and/or electricity generation, or anaerobic digestion to create biogas.
Rarely does this trade-off start from a consideration of the best options for the health of the environment; partly because quantitative evidence on the impact of new waste technologies on which to base decisions is lacking at appropriate scales or across science disciplines. This means the anticipated environmental gains remain unclear. In particular, biospheric feedbacks in the anthroposphere are poorly understood.
The vision for this programme is to lead the delivery of the strategic science needed to accomplish, ultimately, a paradigm shift in the recovery of resources from waste that is driven by environmental benefits integrated across air, soil and water resources and for human health, and not by economics. Further, the programme will forge new thinking that goes "beyond carbon" to understand waste as a resource from the perspective of ecological not carbon outcomes.
The starting-point for the conceptual development of the programme is the cross-disciplinary science of industrial ecology, which argues the management of waste products is built into a product or the waste treatment process itself. Advances in science are needed because the current conceptual framework fails to account fully for emissions to the biosphere during this process.
Strategic science investment in quantifying the risks and opportunities in terms of the quality of air, land and water of exploiting waste as a resource, is needed to develop both new scientific thinking and more fundamental experimental research in the laboratory, field and/or through advances in modelling.
(£9·6m, contributes to Earth system science theme)
The continental shelf regions have been identified as the most valuable biome on Earth in one recent environmental economic analysis and their value to the UK is particularly high given the scale and economic significance of the UK continental shelf.
We know that continental shelf regions are the sites of major biogeochemical transformations that occur at a scale that affects the whole Earth system, including carbon storage and denitrification, but we do not understand the controls on these processes and therefore cannot predict how they will change in the future.
A range of recent developments in modelling, observational and analytical techniques make an investment in this area timely. This integrated programme of fieldwork and modelling will build on recent NERC investments in Ocean Shelf-Edge Physical Exchange and existing investments by NERC, Defra and others in marine observational systems.
(£5·2m, contributes to natural hazards theme)
Intense rainfall events commonly last for a few hours, or even a few minutes, but present flood forecasters and flood risk managers with major problems. Our knowledge of processes associated with such extremes is poor and we cannot predict associated flood risks with confidence.
This NERC-led, LWEC, UK-focused programme will reduce the risks of damage and loss of life caused by surface water and flash floods through improved identification, characterisation and prediction of interacting meteorological, hydrological and hydro-morphological processes that contribute to flooding associated with high-intensity rainfall events.
The programme will:
- Improve the length and accuracy of forecasts of the occurrence and intensity of rainfall associated with convective storms.
- Identify the susceptibility to high-intensity rainfall of different catchment types, based on characterisation of the properties that govern the dynamic, non-linear, hydrological and hydro-morphological processes which initiate, extend and intensify associated flood risks.
- Enhance flood risk-management through the development of both flood risk estimation and real-time forecasts of floods associated with high-intensity rainfall, integrating multiple meteorological and hydro-morphological processes occurring before, during and after intense precipitation events.
(£6·5m, contributes to natural hazards and climate system themes)
Droughts can cause enormous socio-economic damage through their impact on water supply, health, food security, and infrastructure. They pose a significant hazard to the UK, and are likely to increase in frequency and severity as a result of climate change.
Decision-makers find it challenging to make informed adaptation and management choices in relation to droughts as it is difficult to predict their occurrence, duration, intensity and extent of their impact. Currently the many drivers of drought, both meteorological (eg anticyclonic blocking) and societal (eg supply & demand balance, water storage, transfer and utility trends), are often considered in isolation.
This programme will identify and predict the interrelationships between multiple drivers and impacts of UK droughts - over daily to multi-annual timescales and on spatial scales from metres to 500km - to inform adaptation and management decisions before, during and after drought events. The scientific goals are to:
- Characterise the historical occurrence, intensity, geographical pattern and impacts of drought in the UK through identification of the contribution of multiple drivers of drought, including antecedent conditions (eg cumulative dry winters13) and water utility patterns.
- Identify, model and predict the climate drivers of key drought types at lead times from months to years. A particular focus should be on the potential for exceeding the historical envelope, for example through the interaction of climate change with natural climate variability.
- Identify the nature, extent of impact, interaction and functioning of key ecological and hydrological systems during periods of water scarcity - addressing in particular non-linear responses, system thresholds and potential for recovery.
- Develop integrated tools to assess the risks associated with drought, by coupling new and existing models that describe the drivers, feedbacks and impacts, to support decision-making before, during and after drought events, and determine optimal adaptation and management strategies.
(£5m, contributes to environment, pollution & human health theme)
Environmental radioactivity is an area of particular national importance. In response to tough targets for reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, it is now almost certain that new nuclear power plants will be commissioned in the UK and elsewhere. The UK also faces serious legacy issues associated with radioactive waste and contaminated sites.
Changes in international recommendations (eg the requirement to protect the environment from ionising radiation) are impacting on legislation, regulators and industry within the UK. Research priorities include improved understanding of transfer pathways for less studied radionuclides, effects of radiation on wildlife and the impact of climate change on environmental behaviour and radionuclides.
The scientific foci of the programme include transfer factors and dose estimation in representative animals and plants, dose-effect relationships, migration of radionuclides released from deep geological disposal, characterisation and quantification of natural background radiation and impacts of long-term environmental change on pathways leading to human exposure.
(£4·5m, contributes to technologies theme)
Rapid and ongoing advances in 'omics technology are providing new potential for understanding the functional relationship between organisms and the environment. Thus there are opportunities to develop a detailed interpretation of the interaction between multiple levels of molecular organisation (eg genome, transcriptome, proteome, metabolome) and organismic response to environmental change - from localised direct human modification to large-scale effects such as climate change.
Historically observations and measurements have formed the scientific bottle-neck in expanding knowledge in this area. This has now changed with rapid advances in analytical capability for sequencing and for the measurements of other 'omic properties.
There is a basic lack of fundamental knowledge about the mathematics and informatics needed to deal with unique problems in the co-synthesis of 'omics data with other environmental parameters - the biological, chemical and physical states of ocean, land and atmosphere. This basic knowledge gap has meant that 'omics information does not generally form part of mainstream environmental sampling.
The opportunities from enhancing this synthesis of 'omics and other datasets spans across almost all other themes, climate, biodiversity, EPHH, ESS, and SUNR. The action will support the development of a long-term underpinning technological capability of major strategic importance.
The action will develop basic new knowledge of environmental informatics which can be applied to help integrate the vast amounts of data generated by 'omics technologies with other environmental data to address the cross cutting science associated with organismic response to the environment on a molecular level. This is not just a matter of data storage and curation.
The action will develop fundamental knowledge for creating novel workflow methodologies and technologies for integration of such large volumes of data into environmental analyses.
A key goal is to promote development of informatics as a professional niche in order to meet the challenge posed by 'omics technologies and to ensure that the full potential of the latter is brought to bear in environmental research.
This will be achieved through investment in a cohort of highly skilled researchers, brought in where appropriate from other applied fields including medicine, mathematics and biotechnology, acting as a seed for new cross-disciplinary research groups.
(£250k investment in the first phase of a proposed action; contributes to Earth system science theme)
This is the first phase of a proposed multidisciplinary programme involving geophysics, geochemistry, petrology, mineral physics and modelling aimed at improving our fundamental understanding of the interactions between the mantle and the Earth's surface now and in the past.
This knowledge will, in the long term, improve our understanding of societally relevant issues, such as geohazards and mineral resources. This first phase will involve a scoping activity to define the details of a programme for future consideration for funding as a research programme.
This programme aims to enable UK participation in exciting and high impact unmanned aerial vehicle enabled science, through collaboration with NASA partners.
The programme will study the chemical and physical properties of the tropical tropopause layer (TTL) and the impacts of the TTL in controlling the composition of the upper troposphere and lower stratosphere.
The research will be delivered in partnership with NASA, through collaboration with the NASA Earth Venture Airborne Tropical Tropopause Experiment (ATTREX) mission, deploying the NASA Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) and the NERC/Met Office FAAM BAe 146 atmospheric research aircraft.
(£5·5m, contributes to biodiversity theme)
The diversity of life in marine ecosystems is exceptional. The functional roles of this marine biodiversity underpin major ecosystem services, including food production, climate regulation through the cycling of carbon and other macronutrients, and a range of cultural values (eg recreation, tourism) that rely on the natural environment to a far greater extent than on land. Biodiversity in marine ecosystems is experiencing on-going environmental change - impacts by fisheries on ecosystem structure, eutrophication, pollution, climate-driven change and growing human consumption and pressures (eg marine renewables). Understanding the consequences of these changes and designing, testing and refining potential management solutions to address them is important for the long term delivery of services from marine ecosystems.
Marine food webs play a key role in regulating these ecosystem services but there are important gaps in our knowledge and understanding of these functional roles and the way they might respond to environmental change. There is evidence that marine food webs are affected by both 'bottom-up' and 'top-down' processes. However, existing knowledge is much greater for lower trophic levels and associated biophysical factors and it is therefore difficult to understand the role of these processes and how the effects of climate change will cascade through the food web and impact on ecosystem services. 'Top-down' and 'bottom-up' processes are also inherently scale-dependent. Scale-dependence is poorly understood which makes it difficult to quantify the large-scale impacts on ecosystem services of changes at small spatial scales (eg marine conservation zones); and vice versa. How functional diversity affects the way marine food webs regulate ecosystem services is unclear, however there is evidence that a loss of biodiversity can negatively impact on ecosystem functioning and services.
The goal of this programme is to address these key knowledge gaps through a combination of existing long-term data and new field-based and experimental observations with recent theoretical advances from marine and terrestrial ecology and to facilitate the development of more realistic marine ecosystem models, which in turn would provide important tools for exploring the impact of environmental change on marine ecosystems and testing potential management solutions.