Resistance and resilience of mountain soils in the face of change

Lead Research Organisation: Lancaster University
Department Name: Lancaster Environment Centre


Mountain ecosystems are extreme environments, experiencing strong seasonal contrasts in climate. The plant and animal communities that are found there are uniquely adapted to these extremes, and together create a familiar and magnificent landscape. This landscape represents a beautiful, apparently empty wilderness to many, yet it provides numerous benefits upon which we all rely, such as water storage and purification, storage of carbon and nutrients in soils, agriculture (such as grazing), as well as a habitat for many rare plant and animal species. The ability for mountain ecosystems to support these attributes depends upon the resistance to extreme conditions, and this is nowhere more important than in the soils. Often thin and superficial, mountain soils support the very functioning of the ecosystem as a whole, by cycling carbon and a nutrients, and providing habitats for billions of microbes, and hundreds of plant species. Knowledge about these soils, and the microbes that inhabit them is very poor, and this knowledge gap vastly reduces our ability to understand how mountain ecosystems might change under a changing climate, or due to alterations in land use. One direction of change, which is rarely considered, is changing snow cover in our mountains. There are increasing data which show snow cover reducing in the northern hemisphere, and this is predicted to continue as we move through the century. Snow acts like a blanket, covering the soil and insulating it against extremes of temperature. Loss of snow will expose the soil to these extremes, but also reduce the availability of water for plants and soil microbes, with potentially strong negative impacts on the functioning of these ecosystems. This is nowhere more significant than in the mountains of Western Europe, which hold large stores of very old soil carbon, which if released due to climate warming, could drastically change the functioning of the ecosystem, and also contribute towards climate change through a feedback mechanism. The soil security theme aims to understand how our soils will respond to change, and how the microbial communities that are found in soils can withstand change - resistance, and recover from extremes - resilience. This project aims to understand the resistance and resilience of mountain soils to climate extremes, and to long-term climate warming. In this project, soils from different regions of the UK and continental Europe will be studied. These soils will be examined to see what kind of microbes can be found, and how they contribute to the cycling of carbon and nutrients. By exposing these soils to simulated extreme climatic events such as freezing, and high rainfall, we can explore how resistant and resilient they are. This will allow us to forecast how our mountain soils might change over the coming years. The project will also use an existing research site in the Scottish alpine, where a climate simulation of warming has been running since 2004. There, we can use cutting edge techniques using isotopes of carbon (different 'forms' of carbon that are found in varying quantities in the environment, and can be used to track processes) to explore how the soil has responded in the medium term (over a decade), and how this might continue as the climate continues to warm. This will take advantage of the Natural Environment Research Councils world-class facilities at the Radiocarbon Lab in East Kilbride. We can then use these data to improve models that are used to predict how ecosystems will respond under climate change, and how we can incorporate this knowledge into policy and land management to safeguard this vital ecosystem. Based at the University of Lancaster's Environment Centre, this project will draw on the world-leading expertise in terrestrial ecology found in the UK, and bring in European partners to tackle this highly pressing ecological challenge to understand the resistance and resilience of mountain soils in the face of change.

Planned Impact

Beneficiaries of the work fall into four categories: 1.Scientific community; 2. Stakeholders; 3.policy-makers; 4.general public.
The scientific community will benefit from the project through enhanced understanding of fundamental ecological principles, and the application thereof to an understudied ecosystem. They will also benefit via new and improved estimates of seasonal processes in mountain soils, and the underlying links among microbial community structure, microbial functions, and changing abiotic conditions. These improved estimates will be used directly to improve parameter estimates in biogeochemical models, and indirectly through syntheses and comparative studies by colleagues. The scientific community will obtain data and output via the scientific literature, through conference presentations, public output (website etc), and through direct interaction (i.e. through collaborators, emerging synergies).
Stakeholders from conservation bodies (e.g. Wildlife Trust), public bodies/agencies (e.g. Scottish natural heritage), and national landowners (e.g. National trust) have been contacted and integrated in the pathways to impact, and they will benefit from this interaction throughout the course of the project. In particular, the project has been designed to provide a spatial representation of the contrasting mountain systems of the UK, and through integration of disturbance gradients, it will consider some of the impacts of management that all bodies are interested in. This will allow direct output via improved local understanding, but also through generation ofa national picture of the state of mountain sols, from which such agencies can draw perspectives.
Policy makers, strongly related to stakeholders, will benefit through an ehnaced understanding of the implications of change for mountains systems, and also through the likely relevance of key management practices. It is expected that links will be established with key policy officers in devolved governments of Scotland and Wales, as well as central government, to explore how derived data can be used to inform policy. Calls to report, such as the recent Environmental audit committee call on soil health (2nd Dec, 2015) are a good platform to start such input, but direct discussions with audit committee members will allow direct communication with policy makers on how to streamline feed-through of data. Greater understanding of the functions of mountain systems, and how we can manage them under change will have strong societal benefits in terms of wellbeing and ensuring provision of key services, and will also underpin rural tourism and agriculture, with related economic benefits.
Finally, the general public will benefit through access to scientific output, and interaction with the researchers involved. This will be primarily through the public engagement outlined in the pathways to impact, but also via the website and the youtube video blog. The website will allow direct exchange of ideas and discussions, and the video blog will provide a regular update on the development of the research and the seasonal change in the ecosystem. This may have knock on effects if used by third parties in schools for example.


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Description NI: The functional ecology of alpine systems; a global network
Amount £80,904 (GBP)
Funding ID NE/S008764/1 
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 11/2018 
End 11/2020
Description AVD demonstration 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an open day or visit at my research institution
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Undergraduate students
Results and Impact During applicant visit days to LEC, I presented a demonstration of mountain ecology, and the experimental setup in situ that is used at my study sites. this was designed to inform the undergraduates and parents about my research in general, but also the nature of fellowships, and the specific work being undertaken. A dialogue on the work was established, and a good exchange was made with attendees.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017