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: Rothamsted Research
Department Name: Sustainable Soils and Grassland Systems


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.


10 25 50
Description that we are able to model the flow of agricultural nutrients through the environment with acceptable accuracy
Exploitation Route We have met with stakeholders, e.g. water companies to discuss how they might make use of our capability to understand movements of nutrients at the large scale and will be meeting again shortly. A follow on project has been applied for which will involve stakeholders more closely
Sectors Environment

Description Workshop with Stakeholders
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Influenced training of practitioners or researchers
Impact Awareness made to environmental policy and stakeholders including water companies of our long-term large-scale modelling capacity for nutrients int he UK, particularly from an agricultural perspective
Amount £8,500,000 (GBP)
Organisation Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 03/2017 
End 03/2022
Amount £5,000,000 (GBP)
Organisation Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 03/2017 
End 03/2022
Description CropNet
Amount £250,000 (GBP)
Funding ID NE/S016821/ 
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 02/2019 
End 01/2020
Description FACCE JPI Surplus
Amount € 1,600,000 (EUR)
Organisation Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 03/2016 
End 04/2019
Description Tree of Tradeoffs - engagement with members of the public 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact As part of the Rothamsted Festival of ideas celebrating 175 years of Rothamsted, we held an event over the last weekend in June 2018 to ask members of the public about what they would like to see from Agriculture. We had a manufactured tree on which visitors were invited to hang different coloured leaves representing their 4 choices from 6 possibilities: cheap food, rural livelihoods, environment, nutritious food, farm profit or food security. Crucially visitors were limited to the 4 choices. This enabled us to engage with them and talk about what issues were more important than others. Visitors were also encouraged to write comments on the leaves that they hung on the tree. We reached over 600 people in this way, many of them children
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018