Highlighting Wetlands research at Bangor University to mark RAMSAR World Wetlands Day
A team of scientists at Bangor University are studying how Wales’ wetlands can control flooding, provide clean drinking water and even change our climate.
Under the leadership of Prof Chris Freeman world-leading research is being conducted at the University’s Wolfson Carbon Capture Laboratory, at the School of Biological Sciences.
The majority of the team’s work involves peatlands - a unique type of wetland found extensively across north Wales, which include bogs, fens and marshes.
“Peatlands are made up of semi-decomposed plants and so store huge amounts of carbon,” explained Prof Freeman.
“Indeed peatlands only cover about three percent of the Earth’s surface yet contain more carbon than all our forests.
“Unfortunately a lot of peatlands are being drained and destroyed, causing the carbon in them to be released into the atmosphere as harmful greenhouse gases.
“In Wales, peatlands also help control local water levels, reducing the risk of flooding, and provide us with much of our drinking water.”
“Bogs and marshes are often considered bleak and uninviting places so people are often surprised to find out just how important they are to us,” Prof Freeman added.
Mike Peacock is a PhD student at Bangor University, working in collaboration with the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, and the National Trust. He has a BSc in Zoology, and an MSc in Ecology, both from Bangor University.
“My work focuses on the restoration of peatland, namely blanket bog. Blanket bog is a moorland habitat characterised by heather and moss species. Across the UK this habitat has been degraded by the digging of drainage ditches to make the land drier and to allow for grazing and shooting, and forestry planting. This practice has altered the carbon balance of these ecosystems, resulting in more carbon dioxide being released to the atmosphere. As peatlands store one third of global soil carbon this has profound implications for climate change.
Now, in collaboration with the National Trust, a four hundred mile network of ditches has been blocked on the Migneint bog in Snowdonia. The aim is to restore the landscape and to raise the water table back to natural levels to allow peat-forming plants to once again flourish. Detailed research will measure the gas exchange from the peat for several years, to discover whether this method of restoration works at locking up more carbon. Additionally, it is hoped that the ditch blocking will improve the quality of the water draining from the peatland into streams and rivers.”
Christian Dunn is a PhD student at Bangor University with the Wolfson Carbon Capture Laboratory was awarded the innaugural Ramsar Award for his work on wetlands. He has a BSc in Biology and an MSc in Ecology. He returned to academia after several years working as a journalist.
“I’m looking at developing geoengineering techniques to increase the amount of carbon stored in the world’s peatlands. If we can come up with a safe, cost effective way of doing this it may be possible to absorb some of the excess carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere. It’s hoped this could start to reverse the effects of global warming; saving many species and eco-systems which are at risk of extinction, and even stop catastrophic shifts in our weather patterns and rises in sea levels. The work also has more immediate financial benefits, as any additional carbon stored by peatlands can be accounted for and sold on emerging carbon markets.
I get to look at all types of peatlands, from blanket bogs on our doorstep here in Snowdonia, to the mangroves in Florida and from Arctic permafrosts to tropical swamps.”
David Hughes is a PhD student part-sponsored by Dŵr Cymru Welsh Water and holds a BSc and MSc in Chemistry from Bangor University. He is a chartered chemist and worked as an analytical chemist for 15 years.
“Dissolved Organic Carbon molecules formed as plants decompose,are suspended in water within the tiny spaces within soils and peat. The amount of these molecules moving from our wetlands into our rivers and lakes has increased over the past 20 years. Although they are harmless in their natural state, they do present a cause for concern. They form trihalomethanes (THM) when they are subjected to disinfection processes in our water treatment plants. It is well documented that these are considered to be carcinogens. However, there are stringent regulation as to the maximum concentration levels of THMs in the water supply.
I am contributing to a project which is studying how THMs are formed from dissolved organic carbon molecules. The project will also create an information package for the water industry.
Mark Cooper is currently writing-up the findings from his PhD studies. He has a degree in Ecology from Bangor University.
"My research uses a range of techniques to focus on the exchange of greenhouse gases between peatlands and the atmosphere. There have been recent concerns that the carbon store in peatlands may, in some areas, be changing to becoming a carbon source. Annual studies in various locations tell us how much carbon is currently stored or released from the peatland and enable us to predict how these ecosystems will respond to future climatic changes. My project is part of a nationwide Centre of Ecology and Hydrology project ‘carbon catchments’ based at various locations. My entire PhD work has been on a site in Conwy. Other aspects of my research involve looking at the influence of peatland restoration on the catchment scale greenhouse gas flux.”
Nina Menichino is a PhD student at Bangor University, part-sponsored by the Countryside Council for Wales, researching how plant species respond to the restoration of degraded fens in north-west Wales. She holds a BSc and MSc in Ecology after coming to university as a mature student.
Fen systems, found in lowland valley wetlands, provide an essential ecosystem service and are vital for human well-being. These freshwater catchments filter contaminants to provide drinking water for human consumption and are fundamental for controlling climate change, as carbon is captured here. Despite their importance, fens in the UK have degraded, primarily due to a reduction in traditional uses and maintenance. This has led to a decline in their biodiversity and their effectiveness as filters and carbon stores. Fens support specialist plant communities which require management to avoid being overtaken by trees and shrubs, which change wetlands to dry land.
Therefore, a re-introduction of management is planned. This will include activities such as hand strimming and mowing to ensure these habitats remain wet. It is predicted that this management will make the habitat more functional and attractive to wildlife. This research will provide new information on how we can improve the functionality of these wetlands to support drinking water quality and control the release of greenhouse gases to manage climate change. This combined with an increase in biological diversity will support ecological restoration of these important wetlands.”
Rachel Gough is a PhD student at Bangor University. Rachel has a BA in Combined Studies and after a brief period in environmental consultancy returned to education to complete an MRes in Analytical Chemistry and begin her PhD, sponsored by Dŵr Cymru Welsh Water.
“Part of my project is investigating the impact of rewetting a drained area of peatland near the Alwen reservoir, near Corwen, on the quality and quantity of dissolved organic carbon (DOC) released. Not only does DOC compromise the taste of drinking water, it also reacts with chlorine during the disinfection stage of the treatment process to form THMs. Optimising methods of DOC removal during water treatment, and understanding the impact of land management decisions such as rewetting on the quality of raw water is the main purpose of this research. Rewetting peat has a significant impact on soil water chemistry, and ultimately on the quality of water draining into our upland reservoirs. So we’ve designed an experiment where we adjust the level of water in peat cores extracted from the site. Soil water samples are extracted from these cores over time in order to monitor changes in water chemistry. Rewetting of peat has become widespread as the important role of intact peatlands as carbon sinks is increasingly being recognised. Minimizing THM formation in drinking water has become a priority for the water treatment industry since the discovery that the ingestion of high levels of these compounds has been associated with adverse health effects.”
Postdoctoral research scientist Tim Jones has been involved in wetland science for 10 years. Having obtaining a degree in Environmental Science at Bangor, Tim completed a PhD investigating the effects of wetlands on drinking water quality in 2006. He has since been working on a number of postdoctoral research projects, all with a wetlands theme.
“I research the role of wetland ecosystems on global biogeochemical cycles and their influence on freshwater lakes and rivers. The main type of wetland that I study are peatlands; globally the most widespread wetland type and arguably the most important due to their ability to lock away carbon that would otherwise end up as carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. A large proportion of my research experiments are based on a phenomenon that has taken place in rivers and lakes in many northern hemisphere countries in the last two decades - a large rise in DOC, particularly in rivers that originate from peatlands. This was first thought to indicate that peatlands may be destabilising due to climate change, but our experimental work has demonstrated that this in fact may be due to the large reduction in acid rain that has occurred over the last 20 years and that peatlands are simply returning to a more natural ‘pre-industrial’ state. I am currently working on DEFRA and EU funded projects investigating the impacts of DOC on drinking water quality and how the transfer of DOC from peatlands to freshwaters may have implications for climate change. I am also collaborating on projects investigating the impacts of land use change on carbon emissions from tropical peatlands and the potential benefit of carbon sequestration in salt marshes.”
Mike Peacock, Nina Menichino, Christian Dunn and Rachel Gough’s research scholarships are funded under the Knowledge Economy Skills Scholarships (KESS) Programme. KESS is a major European Convergence programme led by Bangor University on behalf of the HE sector in Wales. Benefiting from European Social Funds (ESF), KESS supports collaborative research projects (Research Masters and PhD) with external partners based in the Convergence area of Wales (West Wales and the Valleys). Both the Research Masters and PhD elements are integrated with a high-level skills training programme, leading to a Postgraduate Skills Development Award. KESS will run until 2014 and will provide 400+ PhD and Masters places.
Publication date: 1 February 2012