The Multi-Scale Response of Water Quality, Biodiversity and C Sequestration to Coupled Macronutrient Cycling from Source to Sea

Lead Research Organisation: Bangor University
Department Name: Sch of Ocean Sciences


Catchment research has traditionally been focussed on the science and management of water flow and quality. In recent years, achieving good ecological status and compliance with the Water Framework Directive has been a priority. This has been challenging not least because the majority of rivers in the UK are heavily polluted with nitrogen, phosphorus, and a range of contaminants including pathogens and transfers of dissolved organic C from upland areas are increasing. These can be detrimental to the ecology of rivers and coastal waters, be a risk for human health and increases costs of the water industry. Following the publication of the National Ecosystem Assessment (2011) and the Government's White Paper on the Natural Environment (2011), catchment managers face an even greater challenge trying to ensure water resource objectives do not compromise delivery of other functions which deliver a range of regulating, provisioning or cultural services which we all benefit from. Underpinning delivery of these ecosystem services are basic ecosystem processes such as carbon fixation by plants and the return of carbon back to the atmosphere through decomposition (the carbon cycle), the cycling of nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus through plants, soil, water and the atmosphere and detoxification of a range of contaminants including pathogens. Much is known concerning the individual carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus (C, N and P) and contaminant cycles, however the coupling of these cycles through the landscape and the subsequent impacts on the natural environment and the services provided are rarely studied.

To respond to this gap in our current understanding we will address two research questions. The first is when, where and how do coupled macronutrient cycles (of C, N and P) affect the the functioning of the natural environment within and between landscape units at the catchment scale? The second is how will these coupled cycles alter under land use, air pollution, and climate-change and what will be the effect on water quality, carbon sequestration and biodiversity (three important ecosyststem services) at both catchment and national scale?

To achieve this, we will quantify the fluxes, transformations and coupling of the C, N, and P cycles through key processes (net primary productivity, decomposition, nutrient cycling) and quantify the links to pathogen transfer and viability using a combination of targeted field-based monitoring and field- and laboratory-based experimentation in the Conwy catchment supplemented by measurements in intensively farmed areas of the Ribble.
The following outcomes are expected:
1. Quantification and improved process-understanding of coupled C, N and P processes, transformations and fluxes across soil functional types and within processing hotspots.
2. Quantification of the effects of instream ecosystem function and co-limitation of N/P on eutrophication development in freshwaters.
3. Testing of hypotheses that terrestrial and freshwater biodiversity can be explained at the catchment- and national-scales as function of macronutrient flux and primary productivity.
4. Source to sea flux quantification and process-understanding of the fate of pathogens and the controls exerted by macronutrients within very fine sediments (flocs).
5. An integrated, parsimonious coupled macronutrient (C, N, P) air-land-water modelling platform, configured for a 1 km grid across the Conwy (i.e. an enhanced JULES model).
6. Sensitivity analysis of carbon sequestration, water quality and biodiversity to past and future climate, nutrient and land (forest) cover change to determine the key controls on past and future changes in carbon sequestration, water quality and biodiversity.
7. Quantification of trade offs in delivery of carbon sequestration, water quality and biodiversity at the catchment scale and the relationship to land cover type and climate regime.

Planned Impact

The Pathways to Impact is based on engagement with Partners representing key stakeholders, and the national and international science community including the Macronutrients working groups. It aims to ensure that the excellence in science produced by the project has real impact on the next generation of coupled biogeochemcial models both at the catchment and Earth System scale and the implementation of policy linked to the management of Ecosystem Services. Impact will be ensured in the following ways.

The project Steering Group is at the heart of the impact plan and will consist of: Environment Agency, and we hope Defra (who have verbally expressed interest in the project), other project partners identified in the Pathways to Impact, selected academic experts, invited members of the Macronutrient Science Management Team and/or cross-theme Working Groups, and the project Investigators. The role of the Steering Group will be to: A) keep the project closely aligned with stakeholder activity and strategy while maintaining the core scientific aims; B) to keep the project informed of other relevant research to ensure knowledge exchange and complementarity; C) to disseminate the research within stakeholder groups, within and beyond the macronutrient programme; and D) to coordinate transfer of models and data in both directions.

National and international scientific collaboration is another central aspect of the Pathways to Impact plan. The project will seek to collaborate with Macronutrient and other relevant projects, both through the cross-theme Working Groups and independently. Key collaborations will be with NERC's BESS programme, the NERC/DFID ESPA programme, NERC Sensor Web programme, NERC EVOp project and FP7 projects (e.g. EXPEER, SOILTREC, REFRESH, WISER and BIOFRESH), Defra/EA DTCs, an Defra large air quality projects (CLDMII and TU). The project is inherently linked with Reading's Walker Institute - for which an aim of these research centres is to disseminate climate change research and ensure national and international impacts.


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Description Under fairweather conditions, suspended matter, and its associated particulate nutrients and pathogens, are fractionated in the river estuary transition zone so that particles move landward or seaward according to their size. During river flood events, all particles move seawards.
Exploitation Route The direction of flux of particulate nutrients and pathogens has important consequences for coastal water quality, aquaculture developments, and human health.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Environment

Description Environment and human health
Amount £1,200,000 (GBP)
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 04/2015 
End 04/2018
Description Conference: American Geophysical Union, San Francisco, USA. 14-18 Dec 2015 (poster). 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Cosby, B., Withers, P., Thompson, J., Evans, C., Fovet, O., Bowes, M., Gozzard, E., Demars, B., Stutter, M. (2015). Changes in the coupling of C, N and P cycles during river transport from source to sea.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
Description Coupled Macronutrient Cycles Programme Meeting, Oxford 21-23 September, 2015 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Withers, P.J.A. (2015). Understanding the co-Limitation of N and P for eutrophication control in freshwaters. Discussion followed oral presentation - influenced further development of Turf2Surf research programme.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
Description Talk to National Farmers Union/Farmers Union of Wales: 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact "Turf2Surf: A project update" - this was presented by Helen Glanville on Thurs 12 June 2014.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015