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Conducting climate science: Vegetation and flooding research

Updated Wednesday, 19th February 2014

Watch a video interview with Professor David Gowing about his research.

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But where does this leave the ordinary person trying to understand climate change and the science behind it?

This learning journey aims to look at how climate science is done through the diaries of 3 OU science academics. It will not seek to answer all the big scientific questions around climate change, but it will give you an insight into some of the discrete pieces of research that are happening in the UK. These feed into models that together help us understand global warming and consider the range of possible future scenarios.

Our first diarist is David Gowing, Open University Professor of Botany (study of plants) and ecohydrologist (studying the interactions between water and ecosystems) with a special interest in floodplain meadows.

These are the questions that David, and all our diarists, answer in their video diaries:

  • What first triggered your interest in environmental issues?
  • What are you working on, concerned by, or motivated by at the moment?
  • What do you anticipate working on, or thinking about, in relation to environmental issues over the next 1 year, 5 years, and 10 years?
  • How optimistic or pessimistic are you as you look at where we might be in 2020, and why?

Activity Two

Watch David Gowing’s Creative Climate diary and then answer the following questions.

  1. What is David’s research about and how does he do it?
  2. Where does David do his research?
  3. What does David call the outreach work he does with the community, and what are the central features?
  4. Why does David feel it is important to engage the public in the collection of climate science data?


  1. Fritillaria meleagris, the snakeshead lily Creative commons image Icon By Michael Apel (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons under Creative-Commons license The snakeshead fritillary, Fritillaria meleagris, which only occurs naturally in floodplain meadows David is currently part-way through a 10 year project looking at the ways that vegetation responds to flooding and how long it takes to recover. He works at the micro level, surveying and documenting the effects of climate change. By counting the numbers of wild flowers in the same fields each year, David is able to build evidence on how rainfall is affecting the flood plains of central England. He puts down small squares and counts the number of plant species in that square each year and compares the results. David is particularly interested in the fritillary, a beautiful and striking wild flower shown on the right. David has discovered that different species of vegetation respond and adapt to flooding differently. The data collected enables him to generate hydrological models with which to assess the impact of varying conditions on the biodiversity of flood plains. This data is used in floodplain management. He has recommended that the management be more adaptive to flood plain incidents.
  2. Apart from central England, David has recently worked in South Africa, studying their wetlands and is currently planning to go out to Siberia, Russia to see how vegetation is behaving in response to flood events there.
  3. David is also engaged through his outreach work in popularising climate science. These kinds of research practices are often called citizen science, wherein citizens are invited to participate in data collection. Their results feed directly into the models David and his team produces. He further engages the public by feeding back to them the results and uses of their data collection through public meetings.
  4. Citizen science brings climate science close and personal and enables people to become actively involved in nature conservation.

This Learning Journey is part of the Creative Climate project on OpenLearn. You can return to the first page or move on to the next section: What is a model?




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