Developing new ways to monitor the state of our soils and waterways

New investment will support the development of high-tech systems to improve environmental monitoring.

The research being funded from Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and Defra includes four separate projects involving the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (UKCEH). These will develop:

  • a web-based tool to better measure changes in soil organic carbon
  • a new sensor that monitors nutrients levels in water courses
  • a paper-based test that detects the presence of invasive non-native species
  • innovative low-cost instruments to monitor greenhouse gas emissions.

Companies voluntarily offset their own greenhouse emissions by paying landowners for management actions that increase storage of soil carbon, such as reduced tillage and planting cover crops. But verifying that soil carbon has changed over time is difficult to demonstrate, largely because of the detailed statistical analysis required to account for all uncertainties.

The Committee for Climate Change has warned there must be stronger guidance, regulation and standards, or there is a risk that the UK’s progress towards net zero greenhouse gas emissions could be slowed. A new tool being developed by UKCEH, Biomathematics and Statistics Scotland, University of Glasgow, Future Forest Company Ltd will improve the integrity of the soil carbon credit market.

The tool will provide a data pipeline from soil sampling, lab results, to archiving data in a public repository. This will include the detailed statistical analysis necessary for detecting change across different surveys, accounting for all the uncertainties, and give guidance on the sampling design required in the future.

UKCEH ecosystem modeller Dr Peter Levy, who is leading the project to develop the tool, said:

“It is widely acknowledged that the UK will not be able to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions sufficiently to reach net zero by 2050, so land-based options to sequester carbon are also required to offset emissions.

“Our new tool will help achieve this target, by improving the integrity of the carbon credits market, supporting the sustainable management and restoration of the UK’s soils. It will be designed for, and freely available to, government, land managers and any potential providers of carbon credits.”

UKCEH is also involved in a new project, led by the University of Southampton, to test and develop a new, compact sensor for freshwater environments that simultaneously monitors levels of different forms of the nutrients phosphorus and nitrogen. In combination with warm, stable weather conditions and lack of rainfall, these nutrients contribute to the formation of harmful algal blooms, which negatively affect water quality and aquatic biodiversity, as well as producing toxins harmful to animals and people.

At present, monitoring usually relies on manual spot measurements or sensors that typically only measure a single nutrient and existing equipment tends to be large or of low accuracy. This makes current monitoring of multiple nutrients very expensive and limited to only a few studies. Using information from other environmental sensors, the multi-nutrient sensor will also adapt its monitoring frequency to improve our understanding of the freshwater environment.

UKCEH freshwater ecologist Dr Eleanor Mackay explained:

“In the right conditions, harmful algal blooms can grow relatively quickly and we need a better understanding of a wider range of nutrient inputs into lakes so we can improve our predictions of when and where blooms are likely to be triggered. This will inform action to reduce the risk from blooms.”

Invasive non-native species pose a dramatic risk to other wildlife in freshwater environments through predation or out-competing them for food. UKCEH is involved in a new project to develop a low-cost, easy-to-use diagnostic test to detect the presence of different invasive species – Chinese mitten crab, demon shrimp, killer shrimp and mink – that can be used by non-specialists at the point of water sample collection, to deliver accurate results within less than an hour.

Creatures leave behind traces in water through their DNA, for example in their faeces, and the new test – developed by a research team led by the University of Lincoln – will be similar to a COVD-19 lateral flow test in providing a rapid, user-friendly way of detecting these minute amounts of DNA.

Water from rivers and lakes will be sampled and added to a special paper-based test that, through diagnostic colouring, will show if environmental DNA from each of the target species is present. On the basis of this real-time information, river managers can then take rapid action to protect these rivers and lakes.

Further information

The new projects were among 13 research-led investments, which were part of a wider £12 million programme by NERC, Defra and Innovate UK to support the development of new sensing systems for monitoring of our waterways, habitats, soil and greenhouse gas emissions.

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