11 November 2016

Mountaineering researcher wins a prestigious fellowship to study how a changing climate could affect the role of mountains as global carbon sinks

Dr Rob Mills has been obsessed with mountains since his father first took him mountain climbing as a child.

“When I am in the mountains I am constantly looking around and wondering why things are the way they are,” says Rob, a soil ecologist and biogeochemist at the Lancaster Environment Centre at Lancaster University.

Now a soil security research fellowship, awarded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and supported by the Scottish Government, is allowing him to spend three years exploring his obsession. 

NERC fellowships, aim to support talented researchers who have completed their PhD within the previous seven years and who show promise of being leaders in their field.

“Mountains make up 25% of the world’s land mass so what happens in them is going to affect a lot of people,” explains Rob,  who spent three and a half years working as a researcher for the Swiss Government in Switzerland before coming to Lancaster.

“Mountain systems are incredibly heterogenous. Within a square mile of a Scottish mountainside there are all manner of landforms. This physical complexity drives a huge variation in the plants and soils we find there, and provides a potentially large range in climate responses”.

“The extremity of these mountain environments means they are very slow at cycling carbon - plants grow more slowly and carbon is released through decomposition more slowly as well.

Moisture strongly controls this process, and British mountains in particular store a lot of carbon because they are so wet.

“If these constraints are changed by a warmer climate or reduced moisture in spring, then very old carbon stores could be lost and vegetation could change and could become more homogeneous.

“Snow plays a significant role in these ecosystems, providing moisture and insulating soil and plants from extremes. Climate change is altering snow dynamics, with unknown impacts on these carbon-rich mountain soils.

The aim of Rob’s research project is “firstly to to understand how much carbon is stored in these mountainous ecosystems and then to gauge how sensitive they are to acute and chronic climate change”.

Rob’s novel approach is to examine the diversity of ecosystems at a micro level in mountain sites in the UK, Norway, Switzerland and Sweden, to see how topographical complexity contributes to a mountain’s ability to store carbon, and how this changes across large climatic gradients.

Using both radio carbon dating and stable isotope techniques, Rob aims to measure changes in mountain soil carbon over the short term, and very long term - from minutes to millennia - and to build a model connecting the two, the holy grail in ecosystem carbon modelling.

“The really, completely novel thing we are doing is to measure the radio carbon content of the carbon dioxide and methane that naturally comes out of the soil under winter and summer conditions to detect changes to ancient soil carbon stores.

Much of his work is taking place in the Cairngorm mountains in Scotland, where fellow researchers have been artificially warming the environment. He will take advantage of these experiments to look at the impact of climate on carbon cycling in both winter and summer, investigating whether warming stimulates microbial turnover and how resistant and resilient microbes are to changes in climate.

Rob’s fellowship comes under NERC’s Soil Security programme, which aims to understand how resilient soils will be in the face of climactic and other changes facing the world, and how soils can be managed to make them more resilient.

“This fellowship offers me the funding and the freedom to pursue my own aims and hypothesis: I am in the driving seat. I can also collaborate with other NERC fellows on the project. It is very exciting.”

Rob will be collaborating with researchers at the James Hutton Institute, Aberdeen University, NERC radiocarbon lab, Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, and with researchers in Sweden, Norway and Switzerland.

Rob also has strong ties with conservation groups and land managers such as National Trust for Scotland, John Muir trust, Natural England and Natural resources Wales, and believes that these links are central to developing truly meaningful and impactful science.

“The patterns we discover could hopefully apply to different mountain systems all over the world. My long term aim is to network with people studying mountain systems in different parts of the world - in the Rockies, the Andes and the Himalayas.”