12 November 2015

Lancaster scientists gain prestigious NERC Highlight Topic funding to track the source and fate of chemical elements in our rivers and lakes

Scientists from Lancaster Environment Centre are part of a £2.9 million project, looking at how the UK’s freshwater ecosystems are affected by human activity.

The Hydroscape project, led by the University of Stirling, is one of the first projects funded through the Natural Environment Research Council’s new Highlight Topics route, which supports research that helps to address the key environmental challenges facing society.

The Lancaster team is receiving £253,000 to focus on the sources and fate of carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus, three chemical elements that are key to the functioning of life on earth.

They will use stable isotope techniques to track where these elements in rivers and lakes come from and where they end up.

“Stable isotopes offer exciting new ways to track the sources of chemical elements,” said Dr Ben Surridge, an expert in phosphorus cycling in the environment. “Policy makers want to know whether these elements come from fertilisers used in agricultural production, from human waste water or from natural sources.”

“We are also finding out how these elements are processed once they enter a river or lake and what impact they have on our freshwaters.”

While using stable isotope techniques to track nitrogen and carbon is relatively well established, tracking phosphorus in this way is very new: Lancaster is one of only a handful of institutions in the UK and globally where this research is undertaken.

The second focus of Lancaster’s work, led by Professor Philip Barker and Dr Peter Wynn, will use stable isotopes to map changes in chemical elements over time.

Using core samples of sediment from the bottom of lakes, they will analyse chemical changes over time in the shells of diatoms, single celled organisms that are deposited on lake beds over thousands of years. The unique capabilities of the Lancaster stable isotope facility make this one of a few laboratories around the world where this work can be routinely undertaken.

Highlight Topics mark a new approach to funding for NERC, which asked the environmental science research community to identify and prioritise the research areas which will have most impact.

In announcing the successful projects, NERC said that the aims of all the funded projects provided an excellent match to the challenges and opportunities identified in the Highlight Topics and will enable the science to move on swiftly in these important areas

The four year Hydroscape project also involves the University of Glasgow, University College London, Natural History Museum, the British Trust for Ornithology, and a research team at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology based at Lancaster Environment Centre that is led by Professor Stephen Maberly.