Resilience and regime shifts in peatland microbial communities: implications for soil functioning

Lead Research Organisation: University of Manchester
Department Name: Life Sciences

Abstract

Humans rely on soils in many ways. They provide nutrients, water and anchorage for most of the crops that we eat, they filter and hold onto rainfall, and they store vast amounts of carbon, which helps to mitigate climate change. Soils also are home to a vast diversity of soil organisms, which play major roles in driving the biogeochemical cycles on which the functioning of Earth depends. Despite these important roles, a range of pressures, including changes in land management, land contamination, and climate change are threatening soils and the populations of microbes and animals that live in them. These pressures not only pose immediate threats to soil functioning, but also they could have longer-term impacts, for instance making soils more vulnerable to extreme climatic events, which are becoming more common worldwide as a result of climate change and can have devastating consequences for ecosystems. Evidence from studies of oceans, lakes and forests shows that extreme events, such as heat waves and drought, can trigger sudden and dramatic transitions, or regime shifts, from one ecosystem state to another. For example, reef communities off the western coast of Australia revealed a sudden and dramatic transition from extensive kelp forest to turf-forming seaweeds triggered by marine heatwaves. These regime shifts can have major consequences for the functions that these ecosystems provide. However, whether such regime shifts occur in soils is not really known.

In this small grant, we would like to tackle three so far untested questions of high relevance for Soil Security. First, we want to know if long term climate warming makes soils and their microbial communities more vulnerable to, and less able to recover from, extreme climate events, namely drought, which is increasing in frequency. Second, we want to test if long-term effects of climate on soils and their microbial communities make them more vulnerable to transitions, or regime shifts from one state to another, and whether these regimes shifts degrade the functions that soils perform, for example their ability to store carbon. Last, we want to see if these effects of climate change on soil functioning can be dampened, for instance through changing the management of vegetation.

We plan to make use of a unique warming and vegetation manipulation experiment that we set up several years ago on blanket peat at Moor House National Nature Reserve, northern England, funded by NERC. This experiment is ideally suited to this study because it has been running continuously since 2008, which puts us in a unique position to detect how long-term warming (9 years in 2017) has altered the resilience of soils and their microbial communities to drought, but also their susceptibility to regime shifts. The experiment also includes a vegetation manipulation treatment, which allows us to test if vegetation change, especially the presence of ericaceous dwarf-shrubs, can dampen effects of climate change on soils and their functioning. And finally, the experiment is on carbon-rich peatlands, which are not only of high relevance for UK Soil Security because they cover a large area of the UK land surface and store vast amounts of carbon, but also they add a distinct and highly complementary dimension to the NERC Soil Security Programme.

These questions are at the heart of the NERC Soil Security programme which seeks to resolve what controls the ability of soils and their functions to resist, recover and ultimately adapt, to perturbations, such as those caused by extreme climatic events. Also, by testing our questions, we will gain new, transformative understanding of the dynamics of microbial communities and their functioning in relation to on-going and rapid environment change, and produce knowledge that could help in the design of sustainable management strategies for maintaining resilience in peatlands.

Planned Impact

Who will benefit from our research?

The main beneficiaries of our project will be the soil science, ecological, and wider scientific research community interested in understanding how soils and their functioning respond to climate change, including extreme events. A unique interest of our research will be new insights in to the impact of long term, gradual climate change on soil resilience to extreme climatic events, which is rarely considered. We expect certain stakeholders, including landowners, local and national government departments (Defra) and agencies (e.g., Natural England) to also benefit from our research, especially via providing scientific evidence to underpin management strategies for mitigation of climate change effects on peatland carbon loss via vegetation management. Our project will also benefit the general public with interests in understanding how climate change will impact soils and their functioning under climate change, which is a topic that is gaining public attention. The peatland site we use is an area of high conservation and amenity interest, and is within the Moor House National Nature Reserve and close to an Environmental Change Network site; hence, increasing public awareness of our research will be an important goal of our project.

How will these benefits be realised?

Dissemination of research findings to international audience: This will be achieved through the publication of our research findings in leading international journals, and via presentations by PDRAs and PIs at international conferences and workshops. Given the novel and timely nature of our proposed research, and our track record of publishing work in top journals, we expect to publish at least two high impact publications in this work. The PDRA will be encouraged to present at international conferences and workshops, and to be actively involved in research networks, such as the BES Plants, Soils, and Ecosystems Special Interest Group and the to disseminate research findings.

To engage with and promote knowledge transfer to stakeholders: We will directly engage with stakeholders, including policymakers, land managers, farmers and landowners, and other interested parties. This will be done via two routes. First, we will integrate the policy relevant goals and findings of this project into our existing Soil Security (NE/M017028/1) engagement and knowledge transfer activities, and specifically a workshop planned for late 2017 aimed at exploring mechanisms of integrating research knowledge on climate change into sustainable soil management for maintaining resilience. Second, we propose to take is the making of a short film by a student intern filmmaker from the University, on threats of climate and vegetation change on peatland ecosystems and potential solutions or mitigation strategies.

To raise public awareness of our research: The lead PI and Co-I have a strong track record of being actively involved in outreach activities, promoting public awareness of our science through local and national media interviews, and by presenting our results at science communication events, and we will continue to use these knowledge exchange outlets (see CV's). For this project, we will raise public awareness via the above film, which will also be available to the general public, but also via our involvement in specific educational events at The University of Manchester and public engagement activities at Manchester Museum.

Transferable skills training: An important outcome of this project will be the delivery of highly trained staff with training in multi-disciplinary approaches to the study of soil. The PDRAs will also undertake public engagement training via NERC and the University.

Publications

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Bardgett RD (2020) Soil microbial community responses to climate extremes: resistance, resilience and transitions to alternative states. in Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences

 
Description We have completed an initial experiment testing how long term warming and vegetation change impact the resistance and resilience of microbial communities and their functioning. Results from this experiment indicate that both warming and vegetation loss alter the response of microbial communities to drought. However, different components of the microbial community respond in different ways. Short term drought overwhelms the longer term effects of warming and shrub removal on bacterial communities. Fungi is primarily affected by shrub removal and warming, with minimal response to or recovery from drought. We therefore suggest that multiple climate change drivers and non-random plant species loss can cause complex and long-term impacts on the soil microbial community. Forthcoming results will indicate whether this has further impacts on soil functioning and carbon storage.

We have followed this experiment with a second experiment that tests how the soil microbial community responds to long-term passive warming and severe drought in a range of tundra and alpine soils. These soils were contributed by members of the ITEX consortium, a long term passive warming study at 60 sites around the Arctic Circle and in Europe. All experimental work is complete for the resistance and resilience project, and data are currently being analysed for publication.

Activities are currently centred on preparing three manuscripts for publication: one from the first experiment, which is well developed and looking at the effect of drought on peatland soils that had previously been subjected to long-term passive warming and shrub removal. The second is from the trans-Europe study, where soils were taken from experiments from the International Tundra Experiment (ITEX) and subjected to drought. The paper centres around testing molecular drivers of greenhouse gas flux using real-time PCR data, and uses selected genes that are thought to be associated with methane and nitrous oxide emissions, and soil respiration. The third paper focusses on bacterial and fungal amplicon sequencing to find links between the microbial community composition and carbon and nitrogen storage.
Exploitation Route The results will ultimately inform on potential vegetation management to mitigate drought effects on soil microbial processes related to carbon and nutrient cycling.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Environment

 
Description We have presented aspects of the work at various public events, which have contributed to wider understanding of climate impacts on soils and mitigation strategies.
First Year Of Impact 2018
Sector Agriculture, Food and Drink,Environment
Impact Types Societal

 
Description International symposium on Above- and Below-Ground Biodiversity for Sustainable Ecosystems, AgrosScope 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Keynote lecture on soil microbial community responses to climate extremes: resistance, resilience and transitions to alternative states. Symposium on Above- and Below-Ground Biodiversity for Sustainable Ecosystems, AgrosScope, Zurich, Nov 2019.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Interviewed for Channel 5 programme Sinkholes by Boomerang Media 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact I recorded an in-depth interview discussing the ecological impacts and likely recovery rates of peatlands in response to devastating fires. This has not yet been broadcast (at the time of writing; Feb 2019), but I understand it will be broadcast later in 2019.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Keynote lecture, NERC STARS Annual Conference, Windermere 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Keynote talk at STARS annual conference, Windermere, Jan 2019
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Operation Earth, Natural History Museum, London 
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 Soil Security Programme ran astand at the Operation Earth exhibition at the Natural History Museum, London on 29th May 2018 to show the importance of soil to the general public and school groups. There were over 1000 attendees in two days. There was active participation and lively discussion with a range of people including school children, parents and other academics. Thre was a reported increase in citizen science data from the take-home pH kits that were given out at the event. These were designed to interest people in the soil in their local area, and pH data were logged with the location. Colleagues responsible for these data reported a wider geographical location as a result of the workshop, with entries coming from farther afield than previously.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description PhD Workshop Alpine Biology and Global Change, University of Innsbruck 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Plenary lecture on soil microbial community responses to climate extremes: resistance, resilience and transitions to alternative states, PhD Workshop Alpine Biology and Global Change, University of Innsburck, Jan 2020.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
 
Description Quoted in iNews article. 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Quoted in iNews article "Saddleworth Moor could take a decade to recover after 'apocalyptic' blaze, wildlife chiefs warn". 28th June 2018
https://inews.co.uk/news/saddleworth-moor-fire-blaze-wildlife-greater-manchester/

This was directly relevant to the project becuase of its focus on peatlands; EF took the opportunity to emphasise the vulnerability of peatlands to climate change in light of the catastrophic fire at Saddleworth Moor.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Round table discussion Chinese Academy of Science, Max Plank Institute Round Table, Shanghai, Nov 2019. 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Study participants or study members
Results and Impact Invited member and international expert with presentation on research challenges related to soil biodiversity and ecosystem functioning under global change: resistance and resilience to climate extremes. Chinese Acedemy of Science, Max Plank Institute Round Table, Shanghai, Nov 2019.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Summer Science Show, Royal Society, London 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact Soil Security Programme exhibit on soil science for FRS and the public, 4-5th July 2018. Lots of debate and education on soils importance, with demonsatrations of soil wetting and erosion. pH tests given out again.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Three interviews with BBC news anchor for broadcast on BBC North West tonight 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Recorded interviews with BBC North West Tonight where we visited Saddleworth Moor fires and discussed the devastating ecological impact on the peat on 29th June 2018, 8th July 2018 and 30th November 2018. These were broadcast during the 6:30pm bulletin. This sparked further requests for interviews, much debate with the reporters and local workers and landowners (e.g. Forestry Commission staff). Also interest on Twitter resulting in discussions with interested viewers.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description UnEarthed NERC Showcase 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Presented soil research at NERC Unearthed Event, Edinburgh, as part of Soil Security Programme
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017