Scientists gain funding for £3.4M research projects


13 December 2018 09:00
Carbon and volcanic ash plumes

Lancaster University scientists are helping to transform our understanding of how soil stores carbon and how volcanic ash plumes disperse in the atmosphere.

Two major research projects involving Lancaster University scientists have received funding under the highlight topics programme, awarded by the National Environment Research Council (NERC) to support the “very best research” on strategic issues. 

NERC Associate Director of Research Ned Garnett said: “The highlight topics programme allows us to receive ideas from both the research community and users of environmental science to ensure that we are providing funding where it is most needed. The provision of top quality environmental research has never been more essential as we continue to tackle some of the greatest environmental challenges of our time.”

A £1.8M research project, led by Lancaster University, is pioneering new techniques to predict the movement of volcanic ash plumes, which present a global hazard to health, the environment and the economy.

Radar-supported Next-Generation Forecasting of Volcanic Ash Hazard (R4AsH), is a collaboration between volcanologists, atmospheric and radar physicists and meteorologists, working directly with the UK Met Office. It will combine advanced numerical models, techniques for understanding uncertainty and state-of-the-art satellite observations of volcanic plumes to provide critical insight into how plumes evolve as they are dispersed.

Principal investigator Dr Mike James, from the Lancaster Environment Centre, said: “The disruption caused by airborne ash to aviation is well documented and can have serious financial repercussions. Forecasting the extent and evolution of ash-rich plumes is vital for hazard assessment, allowing improved mitigation for health effects, infrastructure damage, agricultural contamination and aviation hazards.

“However, the accuracy of numerical plume models is currently limited by uncertainties about the amount and size of the ash particles initially injected into the atmosphere, and how high they ascend. We will be developing new techniques using multi-frequency radar as a powerful new measurement tool.”

This work complements previous research involving Lancaster University that used photographs from the International Space Station to help constrain eruption models.

Research partners are the Universities of St Andrews, Reading, Cambridge and Oxford.

The other successful project is ‘Locked Up’, a £1.8M study focussing on the processes and mechanisms of soil carbon formation and loss. It will help to quantify the amount by which we can increase soil carbon storage to mitigate climate change.

Loss of soil carbon is an escalating global threat caused by unsustainable land management practices. The world’s soils hold around twice the amount of carbon that is found in the atmosphere and in vegetation. If ‘unlocked’, this carbon can enter the atmosphere and contribute to climate change. Soil carbon loss also makes soils less fertile and so impacts global food production.

Dr Jeanette Whitaker, from the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, is leading the project. She said: “Maintaining and increasing soil carbon stocks globally is critical to ensuring food security and mitigating climate change. Small increases in soil carbon over very large areas could significantly reduce net carbon dioxide emissions from agriculture. This project will help to achieve this by advancing our understanding of what makes carbon stable in soils and developing quantitative methods to assess the mitigation potential and feasibility of increasing soil carbon storage across UK and global soils.”

Professor Nick Ostle, from the Lancaster Environment Centre, said: "Global ambition to control climate change will need some radical and innovative solutions. Soils are powerful but fragile sinks of carbon that should contribute. Research will combine 'state-of-the-art' techniques to test the capacity of global soils to 'lock up' more carbon. We want to understand whether micro-scale soil bio-physical processes can sequester and stabilise more carbon underground.

"Human civilisations have always relied on soil for their survival and success. We need healthy soils more than ever for food, fuel, fibres and medicines, and now to mitigate climate change.”

Other research partners are the University of Leeds; with advisory support from Shell International Exploration Inc., Max Planck Institut, Germany and Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique (INRA), France.

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