LTLS: Analysis and simulation of the Long-Term / Large-Scale interactions of C, N and P in UK land, freshwater and atmosphere

Lead Research Organisation: Keele University
Department Name: Faculty of Natural Sciences


During recent decades and centuries, pools and fluxes of C, N and P in UK ecosystems have been transformed by the spread and fertiliser-based intensification of agriculture, by atmospheric pollution, and now by fossil-fuel induced climate change. We need to understand the processes that determine these effects, in order to improve the sustainability of agriculture, preserve carbon stocks, control the eutrophication of terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems, and reduce nutrient delivery to the sea and greenhouse gas emissions. Contemporary pools of C, N and P in soils and sediments reflect processes occurring on a range of timescales (up to 1000 years or more for organic matter turnover in soils) and also over a range of spatial scales. We propose research to address long-term, large scale processing of C, N and P in the environment.
The principal objective is to account for observable terrestrial and aquatic pools, concentrations and fluxes of C, N and P on the basis of past inputs, biotic and abiotic interactions, and transport processes, in order to address the following scientific questions;
1. Over the last 200 years, what have been the temporal responses of soil C, N and P pools in different UK catchments to nutrient enrichment?
2. What have been the consequent effects on C, N and P transfers from land to the atmosphere, freshwaters and estuaries?
3. How have terrestrial and freshwater biodiversity responded to increases in ecosystem productivity engendered by nutrient enrichment at different locations?
We aim at an integrated quantitative description of the interlinked land and water pools and annual fluxes of C, N and P for the UK over time. Central to the project is the application, development and parameterisation of mechanistically-based models applicable over long timescales and at a broad spatial scale. The models will be designed to exploit the large number of existing biogeochemical data for the UK, with new targeted measurements to fill important gaps. A key ingredient is radiocarbon data for natural organic matter in soils and waters, which provide a unique means of estimating longer-term turnover rates of organic matter.
The project is organised into seven workpackages, as follows.
WP1 Data. This involves the collation and management of monitoring and survey data and literature searches. Data will be required for driving and parameterising models.
WP2 New measurements. Gap-filling information will be obtained about C & N releases from fuels, soil concentrations of C, N, P, and radiocarbon, vegetation contents of C, N and P, a major effort on soil denitrification, riverine organic matter including radiocarbon contents.
WP3 Atmospheric model. This will use a variety of data, and atmospheric physics, to describe N deposition at 5 km2 resolution for the UK from 1800 to the present, and take into account emissions from industry and agriculture.
WP4 Terrestrial models. Models will be developed and parameterised to describe (a) biogeochemical cycling of C, N and P in natural and agricultural soils, simulating losses by gaseous evasion and solute leaching, and (b) physical erosion.
WP5 Aquatic models. These will describe sediment transport of organic matter (including C, N and P), lake processing, denitrification, and groundwater transport. Point source inputs will be quantified.
WP6 Integrated Model. The IM will bring together the models from WP3-5 within a grid-based hydrological system, applicable to the whole of the UK. Through the IM we will answer Questions 1 and 2, producing temporal and spatial terrestrial and aquatic outputs for representative catchments. The IM will include estimates of uncertainty and be applicable for future scenario analysis.
WP7 Biodiversity. Model output from WP3-6 will be used to analyse terrestrial plant diversity and diatom diversity in lake sediments, thereby addressing Question 3.

Planned Impact

The results of the proposed research would bring benefits to a variety of interest-groups

Research scientists
The results will be of general value to academic researchers working to understand nutrient systematics. Those working at smaller and more detailed scales will benefit from the framework for upscaling that that our results supply. Those working at larger scales (e.g. European, global) will be able to use the synthesised temporal information. This area is more fully covered under "Academic Beneficiaries

The Informed General Public, Schools & Universities
The subject of element interactions and how they have evolved through recent historical time is likely to be of considerable general interest, especially when set against the background of social and industrial change (see below). Our results will bring together the considerable body of data generated by the UK "biogeochemical experiment", and outputs from the Integrated Model could be used to encapsulate the scientific findings, making them readily apprenhendable. We plan to begin this process through web-based activities described under Pathways to Impact. Expositions at different levels are envisaged, to inform school and university students as well as informed citizens. As well as simply providing education, the results should also enhance the Environmental Debate, by showing how different issues are interrelated, and providing quantitative measures.

Historians, economists, social scientists
The social history of the UK is an academic topic of considerable interest, and this includes research into the relationships of the human population with its landscape (e.g. "The Making of the British Landscape" by Francis Pryor). There is scope to develop this analysis in a multidisciplinary approach, linking more fully to the Natural Sciences, particularly given the huge impacts humans have had on their surroundings. But doing so requires the scientific information to be more accessible, and the outputs of the integrated modelling developed in this research might provide a means to achieve this.

Policymakers and managers
The Project Description and Pathways to Impact documents set out how the research would provide new insights and tools that could be used by policymakers, environmental managers and farmers. Contributions that our research can make include the control of freshwater nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, carbon sequestration in the uplands, the temporal responses of biodiversity change to nutrient enrichment, forecasting future responses of terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems under different policy and management scenarios while factoring in the effects of climate change, and information for cost-benefit analysis of nutrient usage (cf. EU Nitrogen Assessment). A range of organisations would benefit including Defra, EA, DARD-NI, SEPA, Scottish Government, Welsh Assembly, Forest Enterprise, Natural England, Scottish Natural Heritage, ADAS, NFU, and environmental organisations.

Economic benefits
With further research and development, the Integrated Model could be developed into a valuable tool for environmental analysis, applicable to catchments and regions outside the UK. This could lead firstly to international research contracts, but could also find application through commercial consultancies.


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Comer-Warner SA (2019) Seasonal variability of sediment controls of carbon cycling in an agricultural stream. in The Science of the total environment

Description Advanced, applied, test and developed the applicability of the 15N GAS FLUX method for quantifying in situ denitrification in soils under natural and semi natural terrestrial ecosystems. Following this method, the emission of N2O source partitioned between denitrification and nitrification and estimated annual denitrification rates in soils under different land use types in two replicated catchment systems.
Exploitation Route Our method paper is picking up citations showing its adoption by peers for denitrification measurements. I plan to apply this method in soils under arable agriculture with an attempt to close up the the budget and address the certainty associated with denitrification losses of nitrogen.
Sectors Agriculture

Food and Drink



Description The project is on-going and once finished, the findings will be used for testing terrestrial CNP cycle models to be developed by the the PI at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Lancaster (Prof. Edward Tipping).
First Year Of Impact 2014
Sector Agriculture, Food and Drink,Environment
Impact Types Policy & public services

Description FACE underground:can trees in mature forests gain greater access to soil nutrients under elevated atmospheric CO2?
Amount £613,016 (GBP)
Funding ID NE/T000449/1 
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 01/2020 
End 12/2023
Description Large Area Distributed Real Time Soil (DiRTS) Monitoring
Amount £343,504 (GBP)
Funding ID NE/T012323/1 
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 01/2020 
End 12/2024
Description Restoring soil quality through re-integration of leys and sheep into arable rotations
Amount £769,325 (GBP)
Funding ID BB/R021716/1 
Organisation Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 03/2019 
End 10/2023
Description Towards Precision Agriculture
Amount £75,000 (GBP)
Organisation Newton Fund 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 03/2017 
End 03/2019
Description Undergraduate Summer Research Bursary
Amount £1,440 (GBP)
Organisation Royal Society of Chemistry 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 06/2014 
End 09/2014
Title Denitrification and greenhouse gas emissions in natural and semi-natural terrestrial ecosystems [LTLS) 
Description EIDC data storage under NERC 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2017 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact Shared with collaborators in Germany and China for using our experimental data for checking and validation of their denitrification models. 
Title Denitrification and greenhouse gas emissions in natural and semi-natural terrestrial ecosystems [LTLS] 
Description Data comprise monthly field measurements of in-situ denitrification rates in different land use types of the Ribble Wyre and Conwy catchments. The data include greenhouse gas emissions (methane, carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide), denitrification data (nitrogen and nitrous oxide) and soil properties data (nitrate, dissolved nitrogen, ammonia, bulk density, carbon to nitrogen ratio, dissolved organic carbon, moisture content, organic matter content, pH, temperature and water filled pore space). The research was funded by the UK Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) grant (NE/J011541/1) awarded to Keele University and supported by the NERC Life Sciences Mass Spectrometry Facility Steering Committee. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2017 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Description Comparative CH4 and N2O flux from peatlands globally 
Organisation University of Tartu
Country Estonia 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution I provided logistical support to the visitor from Estonia University in setting up gas chambers for CH4 and N2O flux measurment at the Mignient peatbog in North Wales. Facilitated travel to the project site and acquired access permission for the visitor.
Collaborator Contribution The measurment of CH4 and N2O fluxes by the visitor using chambers, which are different to what I am using has made comparision of data possibility both methodologically and instrumentally.
Impact We shared data and currently going through comparisons to check the accuracy and precision of the two methods used for flux measurments
Start Year 2014