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Science, Maths & Technology

Planet watchers

Updated Monday 2nd September 2013

As Open University researchers are discovering, environmental research is not just about the melting ice caps and endangered polar bears, but also needs to be about how soils release carbon dioxide and what the world's temperature was 120,000 years ago.

Planet watchers Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: The Open University The 'planet watchers' at The Open University While it may be grabbing the headlines in the 21st century, climate change has a long history of threatening civilisations. Discoveries published in Science journal suggest that successive dry periods in Central America culminated in a prolonged drought that resulted in the collapse of the Maya in around AD1100. An extended cold snap in the 1400s, called the Little Ice Age, gripped Greenland and ended Viking colonies in the area. These groups were all wiped out by unexpected but natural environmental change. Unlike the Mayans or Vikings, however, we have more knowledge to predict our future and respond to it.

Environmental research over the past 100 years has enabled the exchange of scientific data, information and opinions, allowing us to find solutions to the environmental problems facing our planet: what we throw away, where we get our energy from, what we eat, how we get to work and how we think about our future.

‘The environment has always been at the forefront of our research focus,’ says Professor Nigel Mason, Associate Dean for Research and Enterprise in the Faculty of Science at the OU, ‘but our recent progress in this area really reflects national and international concern about how the world is changing.’

Behind the scenes at the OU, research scientists are at work in labs in Milton Keynes to discover the causes and mitigate the effects of climate change. At the same time, they are influencing Government policy, shaping what we hear in the news and enhancing the science curriculum in schools and higher education. But the most important work does not always focus on the more high-profile examples of global temperature change.

‘People tend to talk about polar bears and melting ice caps, but what you don’t see is how it affects you. You have to see that if you reduce the amount of emissions and energy wastage in your house then it can have global impact. For example, we are performing research into waste management – the less glamorous side of climate change research,’ says Nigel, who believes that microclimates and biodiversity are also vitally important areas of environmental research.

The study of British floodplain meadows, litterfall in forests and precipitation in the Amazon reveals the impact of climate change.

‘Ecosystems perhaps don’t get as much publicity as the more headlinegrabbing issues,’ says Nigel, ‘but if there are even minor changes in the ecosystem of the Amazon jungle, that affects the weather systems of one of the largest continents of the world. This, in turn, could lead to large migrations of people from these areas, which is a far bigger issue than what is happening in the Arctic at the moment.

‘Likewise, by studying pollen microfossils in sediment from the banks of British lakes, we can build up an invaluable picture of how the UK’s plant and animal life will react to a temperature change of just one degree – and the results are dramatic.’

The research being undertaken by the OU could have a significant impact on how we understand and manage climate change. By including the findings from research in the teaching materials students receive at home, the OU is able to better inspire the next generation of researchers. This direct link allows researchers to not only transmit their findings and knowledge, but also convey their enthusiasm. 


Dr Will Gosling

The tipping-point historian

Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: The Open University Past changes to our environment, whether 100 or 100,000 years ago, can provide clues about the likely changes in the future. Dr Will Gosling, Research Scientist at the OU, has been focusing on looking at periods in the past, around 120,000 years ago, when the climate was one or two degrees warmer than today – exactly what has been predicted as the likely change over the next 100 years. ‘By looking at these geological records we can go back to that time and see what the vegetation and landscape was like, so we can use this as an early warning system,’ he says.

For Will, climate change is inevitable and people are going to have to adapt. ‘Predicting the direction and the course – that’s the tricky bit,’ he says. ‘The problem is, change is not going to be uniform across the planet, so understanding how it is going to affect different areas is a big challenge. I think the secret is to understand that we live on a dynamic planet. It has changed in the past, and it will change in the future.’

Will’s research looks at the ecosystem of Lake Titicaca in the Andes mountain range, an area where glacial ice that took at least 1,600 years to form has melted in just 25 years. ‘The usual prediction is that, as a planet gets warmer, animals and plants migrate “up slope”,’ says Will. ‘However, what we actually found was that as it got warmer, it also got dryer, meaning we saw a complete change in the flora surrounding the lake. The ecosystem experienced a tipping point, so the ice melted but the lake dried up, leaving a dry salt pan. The geological record gave us the chance to look at how these complex natural systems might respond in the future if similar temperature change is experienced.’ But, as Will admits, ‘Whether we can do anything to stop these changes is a different matter entirely.’


Dr Emma Sayer

The carbon investigator

Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: The Open University Soil carbon is the largest terrestrial pool of carbon in the world. Although this carbon is usually stable, little is known about how climate change will affect soil carbon storage. Changes in the amount of fresh organic material can affect soil carbon storage negatively, causing the soil to release carbon as carbon dioxide, which could pose a huge risk to the climate.

‘In one footprint of soil there are more than a trillion microorganisms,’ says Dr Emma Sayer, Lecturer in Environmental Sciences at the OU. ‘Those microorganisms are processing carbon and either releasing it as carbon dioxide or storing it in the soil. We don’t know what stimulates their activity, meaning we cannot predict how things will change in 50 years’ time.’

Emma studies the importance of litterfall in soil and is currently working on a project comparing the temperate forests in the UK to tropical forests in countries such as Panama in Central America. ‘Each bit of research will eventually lead to a solution,’ she says. ‘First you have to predict the change, and then we can think about how to mitigate it. It’s a tough one because it’s happening so fast.’

Key to any experiment is to have controls, comparing the effects of the experiment against systems that have not been changed. But, as Emma explains, ‘We only have one planet and nothing to compare it to.’

Emma believes that human nature means climate change will continue. ‘It’s happening at such an alarming rate, and a lot of people are not going to do anything about it until it seriously affects their way of life. The most important thing we have to combat this kind of attitude is awareness. Scientists and researchers need to get out there and communicate their research.’


Professor David Gowing

The bio-community worker

Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: The Open University While many Britons may have never given them a second thought, the UK’s floodplains have evolved over hundreds of years to host a diverse community of plants. They help to protect homes
from flooding and they mitigate the effects of global warming by storing carbon. But many have been destroyed or are at risk due to changes in management and climate. Innovations in floodplain management, led by the OU, are helping to secure the future of this ancient and species-rich feature of the British landscape.

‘By understanding how sensitive plant species are, we can predict how they will respond to future scenarios,’ says OU Professor of Botany David Gowing, who is leading the research on protecting plants in floodplain meadows. ‘Climate change is the biggest threat to natural systems and could mean that certain plant species are no longer sustainable, which has repercussions on local ecosystems and the British countryside.’

‘The best possible outcome of the research,’ says David, ‘would be to get the public to think of these rural communities in the same way they would a Grade I listed building – as monuments of social history. We’ve already been in talks with English Heritage about this.’

David’s team has developed a new method for quantifying the relationship between the composition of plants in a floodplain area and variations of soil wetness, and many meadow sites have now altered their water management practices in response to the findings of David’s work over the past 20 years. ‘We call these bio-communities the “canary in the cage” of climate change,’ he says, ‘because they
represent the effects of the whole catchment, and from them we can see how vegetation changes hugely in response to patterns in the weather.’


Dr Vincent Gauci

The gas monitor

Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: The Open University Researching acid rain and deforestation in tropical peat swamps, Dr Vincent Gauci’s work is all about greenhouse gases. ‘CO2 is the gas that everyone talks about, and rightly so as it has a huge impact on our atmosphere and climate, but few know that methane is about 25 times more powerful,’ says the Research Scientist at the OU.

Methane has a relatively short lifespan in the atmosphere, lasting just 10 years, compared with CO2, which has a lifespan of more than 100 years. But, as Vincent points out, ‘If we cut the level of methane emissions in half tomorrow, you would experience the benefits in just 10 years’.

Cutting these emissions means understanding the concentrations of methane in the atmosphere, which is where Vincent’s research comes in. ‘My approach to greenhouse gases has always been to try and understand the process, but I’ve also always yearned to grapple with what it means on a larger scale,’ says Vincent. ‘It’s all well and good making measurements on a peat bog in Scotland or a tree in Oregon, but you have to consider its global significance.’

A research paper by Vincent’s team has been accepted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and is already having an impact on altering global policy on deforestation. So is the end in sight for his research? ‘My aim is to develop an understanding of how the world’s ecosystems interact with the atmosphere,’ he says, ‘but it has no end in sight. In five years I’ll be generating the questions that I’ll be answering in 10 years – that’s the nature of discovery.’ Vincent hopes that, even without headlinegrabbing discoveries, the media interest will remain strong: ‘The impact isn’t necessarily about lots of people knowing – it’s about the people with the power to make change knowing.’

 

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