NEC05883 Ecological implications of increased storm disturbance: will substrate exposure and flooding generate vacant niche space under global change

Lead Research Organisation: NERC Centre for Ecology and Hydrology
Department Name: Soils and Land Use (Lancaster)


In December 2015, Storm Desmond (5-6th), Storm Eva (23rd) and Storm Frank (28th) caused extensive flooding and land slippage across Cumbria, Lancashire and Yorkshire. Urban and rural environments and transport routes were impacted exposing typically freely draining flood-plain grasslands to severe inundation and exposing sub-soils and parent material along valley sides and river banks. We take the 28th as the date when the science opportunity became fully available. We propose work to sample exposed and flooded substrates in Cumbria resulting from these three storm events. The work is urgent because as flood waters recede and agricultural management cycles restart, soil conditions will be less reflective of the immediate storm impact. Also land slips and major erosion may be subject to remediation and maybe capped or otherwise landscaped thus removing the sampling opportunity.

Across the UK extremes of wind and rainfall are becoming more frequent under a warming climate. Storm-induced vegetation disturbance resulting from flooding and land-slip will therefore become a more common feature of urban and rural environments. Because we rely on soil and vegetation complexes for a range of natural 'services' such as crop production, soil stabilisation, flood defence and pollination, knowledge is required about whether and how storm-induced gaps will naturally re-vegetate in the short and longer term, and whether re-colonising species will be in shorter supply because newly exposed substrates and a changing climate, provide unsuitable conditions for native and naturalised plants present in the local, regional or wider species pools. Identifying which plant species are favoured by new configurations of soil and climate is important because new colonists may provide a different suite of 'botanical services' to the pre-existing vegetation. In Cumbria flooding and land-slip have impacted high and lower quality agricultural grassland, river bank, municipal parkland and other urban vegetation. If left to re-colonise naturally would present and future vegetation gaps provide different levels and types of 'botanical service' or is re-colonisation failure likely to occur because new conditions represent new niche space with respect to the local and regional flora?

Planned Impact

With increasing frequency of high wind and intense rainfall expected as the climate further warms we expect that our results will find ready audiences among a range of stakeholders and land owners in Cumbria and also in those communities beyond the study area thathave also been affected by extreme weather in the last decade. The data and results generated will have wider utility, beyond the scientific questions being asked, in assessing and predicting impacts of climate change and its effects on both semi-natural and agricultural habitats. The project will therefore be of benefit to different land owners and managers (Farmers, Conservation bodies) and the relevant departmental bodies concerned with management of water and land (Environment Agency and Natural England). The results of this project will increase understanding of the tempo and trajectory of ecosystem recovery following extreme weather events, including an assessment of whether recovery of vegetation and botanical services provided by plants prior to impact from the storm events could be hampered by a lack of suitable colonists. This knowledge can be integrated into land management plans and used to help mitigate against effects of extreme weather (for example, advice on plant species tolerant of flooding, and hence selected seed mix, depending on regularity or likelihood of flooding events in grassland). The project will also provide a test of the ability to forecast the impact of future events on Natural capital (NC) in these habitats (plant species, soil characteristics) and the Ecosystem Services (ES) they provide, including soil stabilisation, flood control, carbon storage, pollination support from nectar plants, crop and grass forage production. Both of these aspects can provide fundamental details contributing to cost-benefit analysis of remediation versus natural recovery, supporting planning and decision-making by local authorities.


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Description We discovered that the magnitude and direction of the joint impact of gradual climate change and extreme weather impacts (land-slip and flooding) depends on the kind of plant species involved. We grouped plants by the things they do for us such as forage grasses for livestock, nitrogen fixers, nectar plants and indicators of high wildlife value habitat (CSM species). Flooding negatively impacted all groups apart from CSM species and where soils were appropriate it tended to favour Sphagnum - good for carbon storage - and wetland plants generally, which are good for birds. In both land-slip and flooded sites climate change seemed to lessen the impact of the extreme weather event because the climate was forecast to become milder and more southern consequently favouring larger pools of most species groups. However, this will inevitably increase the likelihood of drought events.
Exploitation Route I have been asked to discuss these findings with the local National Trust and National Farmers Union reps, both of whom have a significant interest in future land-use in the study area (Cumbria impacted by Storm Desmond). I also intend to bid for a Phase 2 larger non-thematic project to answer the basic questions that arise from this research "Will the plants that we predict will do will under extreme weather and climate change actually be successful?" And secondly "Can we further apply our predictive capacity to other regions in GB that are vulnerable to flooding and land-slip?" The practical application of the results is to a) provide lists of species that people can look out for on impacted land, these being the ones we think will do well in future, b) use these lists to begin to advise land owners on the kinds of species and associated benefits and opportunities that may arise for changing land-use in future impacted sites.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Environment,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism

Title Cumbrian storm impacts database 
Description Comprehensive soil and co-located vegetation, GPS and photographic data recorded at 37 point locations in 4 sites across Cumbria and Lancashire that were impacted by Storms Desmond, Eva and Frank in December 2016. Measurements and sampling was carried out in impacted and paired unimpacted land coinciding with flooding and land-slip. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact None yet as still analysing. 
Description Contact with Environment Agency at Kendal Flood Fair 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Discussion at the Kendal Flood Fair was had with Environment Agency staff to make them aware of the project and represent its relevance to their remediation and outreach work in Cumbria post-storm. This led to further dissemination to National Trust, National Farmers Union and other regional EA staff.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
Description Invited lecture 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Invited to give seminar at Imperial College on the application of the Species NIche Models to extreme weather impacts modelling.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
Description Invited lecture 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Selected lecture given at the Climate Risk and Impact Meeting in Bristol on the 14th January
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019