Case study

Climate change

Climate change is one of the most pressing issues facing society today and forms an important strand of work for our Environmental Sustainability Research Centre (ESRC). Researchers from across the sciences are working on several projects that contribute to our understanding of climate change, its likely effects and how we can manage those.

Protecting and restoring coral reefs

Coral reefs are under threat mainly from the rising sea temperatures brought about by climate change. Tropical reefs are important in many ways:

Dr Michael Sweet, our Senior Lecturer in Invertebrate Biology, has been researching coral reefs and was involved in the creation of a purpose-built research laboratory in the Maldives (the Korallion Lab, 2013-2016). This was designed to improve access for researchers wanting to work in the Maldivian archipelago, as well as to engage the local community.

“We taught local people how to protect the coral reefs, which meant the skills stayed in the country, where they were most needed,” explains Dr Sweet. “This was the first project of its kind in the Indian Ocean. We ran short courses, workshops at local and neighbouring islands’ schools, funded internships for Maldivian nationals and delivered lectures at the Maldives National University.”

The sun shining through the surface as fish swim above a coral reef

Some of the research projects carried out at the facility included:

Dr Sweet and Dr Mark Bulling, Senior Lecturer in Ecology, are now working in collaboration on this research project, which has moved to a new location in the Maldives. Efforts are being focused on the hard-to-reach southern atolls in the archipelago. There are plans to continue community workshops along with a larger-scale reef restoration project with multiple partners.

Dr Sweet and Dr Bulling are also working with charities and non-government organisations, such as a small island research lodge, and there are regular student-led projects and research trips in the area. This research has also paved the way for an undergraduate module on Tropical Marine Biology and a spin-off short course.

Preserving archaeological sites

Dr Richard Pope, Reader in Climate Change, is looking at the risk posed by climate change on our ability to preserve an important historical site. The Sanctuary of the Great Gods is an ancient temple complex on the Northern Aegean island of Samothraki and is where one of the most famous statues of the Hellenic period was discovered, the Nike of Samothrace.

Dr Pope’s research feeds into a collaborative project involving a multidisciplinary team from Emory, New York, Washington and Athens universities.

“We’re using a research approach not tried previously, which combines optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) dating of river sediments and ground penetrating radar (GPR) work, to build up a history of ancient flood events, lateral shifts in rivers and sea level changes,” explains Dr Pope.

“This should enable us to predict the risk of extreme events threatening the Sanctuary. We aim to develop a tool to assess the preservation potential of other coastal archaeological sites in the broader Aegean.”

This research features in Dr Pope’s second year Geography module, Mediterranean Environments, and it has also enabled geoscience students to carry out their independent studies with other students from Europe and the USA.

The Roaches in Derbyshire

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The carbon cycle in peatlands

Dr David Elliott, Lecturer in Microbiology, has been undertaking research that aims to better understand peatlands. “Up to 70% of carbon-storing peat bog is in a degraded state,” says Dr Elliott. “While healthy peatlands store and absorb a lot of carbon, degraded peatlands are at risk of emitting large amounts of greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide and methane.

"As temperatures rise, the soil’s ability to store carbon may reduce, undermining efforts elsewhere to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Understanding soil microbes will help us predict and manage this. Peat could contribute significantly to climate change unless something is done to halt degradation.”

Dr Elliott’s studies have shed light on how microbes living in peat can help conservation efforts to reverse degradation. He is now working with collaborators in Finland to investigate how peat microbes will respond to global climate change.

Coastal management

Studies by Dr Sian Davies-Vollum, Head of Geoscience, at the Muni-Pomadze lagoon-barrier system in Winneba, Ghana, have revealed shoreline change since the 1970s. Her research has shown land loss from the front of the barrier that is probably associated with sea level rise. This work has been published, with recommendations for coastal management of lagoons in the UN-classified Least Developed Countries.

Flood defence management

As a result of a close collaboration with Derby City Council and the Environment Agency, the issue of flood defence management strategies that take account of climate change has been included in the new MSc Environmental Assessment and Control, led by Professor Aradhana Mehra, Director of the ESRC. This MSc has been developed in consultation with the city council, who are providing a live project on flood defence of the River Derwent for students’ field studies.

trees in a flooded park

Forthcoming collaborations

Dr Bulling and Dr Sweet, in collaboration with Mathematics colleagues Professor Peter Larcombe and Dr Nicholas Korpelainen, are adding a new dimension to the coral research through a postdoctoral project. This work aims to develop new mathematical and statistical methods for characterising and assessing changes in microbial communities associated with corals. The findings will have global implications, influencing early warning strategies for coral reefs at higher risk of disease due to climate change.

In collaboration with mineral product experts, Dr Rob Donnelly and Dr Andrew Smith, ESRC researchers are supervising a PhD on the use of Pulverised Fuel Ash (PFA) as a potential raw material in the manufacture of building supplies. The significant reduction of coal-fired power stations in the UK means that PFA supplies are declining. The study will explore alternatives to ‘fresh’ PFA – that obtained directly from power stations – in an effort to find a long-term solution.

Professor Mehra says: “We are undertaking multidisciplinary research, using not only the expertise within the University, but also the talents of external partners."

closeup of some coral in a fish tank

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