Thursday, 8 March 2018

New research into carbon capture and sequestration in peat…by guest blogger Coleen Murty

My name is Coleen Murty and I began my PhD with Newcastle University and the British Geological Survey in September 2017. My research aims to increase current understanding of carbon cycling in peatlands and determine whether these large terrestrial carbon sinks can be preserved, protected and even harnessed to store external carbon. In this blog, I talk about the experience I had while out on a recent field visit to my study site in Cumbria.

 In late February 2018, I was joined by Chris Vane (British Geological Survey) and Geoff Abbott (Newcastle University) on a field visit to Butterburn Flow, the largest of 58 wetlands which lie on the border between Cumbria and Northumberland. Butterburn is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and is considered one of the most valuable mires in England, operating as a substantial carbon sink. We were particularly lucky, as the weather was perfect with clear skies and sunshine, which is a rare occurrence on Butterburn Flow! During our 3 day visit, we took water table measurements and collected peat cores, water samples and moss samples.

Peat coring, water sampling and moss sampling

One of the main challenges of the trip was carrying gear and equipment through uneven and boggy ground containing loads of hidden ditches! Although this provided me with a great opportunity to learn the technicalities of collecting different types of peat cores. We collected a series of 1-2 m peat cores using a combination of Russian coring equipment and polycarbonate tubes. Various cores were taken from 4 different sites across the bog, each containing a water level datalogger used to monitor changes in the water table overtime. Water data and air pressure can be downloaded onto an android device and correlated with peat cores taken nearby. Changes in the water table can have positive or negative impacts on a peatlands ability to accumulate carbon and therefore must be carefully monitored. The collected peat cores will be used for a combination of geomolecular and bulk geochemical analyses: from bulk density measurements used to estimate carbon stocks, to a series of laboratory mesocosm experiments by which peat cores will be placed in a ‘microenvironment’ where natural field conditions will be mimicked in order to monitor the changing chemistry of the cores in different conditions and assess their ability to sequester carbon.

Butterburn Flow, a valuable carbon sink and the largest of 58 wetlands that
straddle the border between Cumbria and Northumberland
A variety of water samples were collected from: the water level wells, the river which runs across the northern section of the site, and Sphagnum-dominated bog pools. Different Sphagnum moss species were also collected for species identification and chemical characterization. The nature and abundance of carbon within the bog and river water running off the peatland will give insights into the source, stability and fate of different organic molecules being flushed through the peat profile and how their mobility affects the resilience and vulnerability of the carbon being retained within the wetland.  Sphagnum moss is the dominant peat-forming species across the Northern peatlands. It thrives in wet, acidic conditions and its high recalcitrance allows it to store large amounts of carbon compared to other peatland plants. Characterizing the water extractable, solvent-extractable and macromolecular chemistry of Sphagnum moss will improve current knowledge regarding its role in carbon cycling within peatland ecosystems.

From L-R: Bog pool with an abundance of Sphagnum cuspidatum growing at the water surface; Levelogger well containing
water monitoring equipment that records alterations in the water table (four of which are deployed across the site)
Peatlands are complex systems where carbon accumulation rates exceed decomposition rates, however this balance of carbon uptake and loss may be shifted by periods of intense drought which are becoming more common in the light of climate change. Finding solutions to protect and preserve carbon stocks locked up in peat is essential as we move towards a more sustainable future.

Coleen is a PhD student at the University of Newcastle and is being supervised at the BGS by Chris Vane.

Friday, 2 March 2018

Natural Hazards and Disaster Risk Reduction in Joel Gill

Eruption of Santiaguito (2014)
Guatemala is exposed to multiple natural hazards, including earthquakes, volcanic eruptions (and all their associated hazards, such as ash, lava flows, pyroclastic density currents and lahars), tsunamis, landslides, floods, droughts, ground collapse, tropical storms and hurricanes, extreme temperatures, and forest fires. The impacts of these hazards threaten economic growth, lives and livelihoods. The World Risk Index (2017) ranked Guatemala 4th globally in terms of the risk of becoming a disaster victim due to an extreme natural event.

Natural hazards (in Guatemala, and elsewhere) do not always occur independently, but there can be interactions between natural hazards. One hazard may trigger multiple secondary hazards, which can subsequently trigger further hazards. For example, in Guatemala regular eruptions of the volcano Santiaguito (pictured) result in large volumes of volcanic debris. This debris can be mobilised as lahars, and enter the hydrological system, triggering erosion and flooding, with the potential to damage important infrastructure. Understanding potential interactions and chains of interactions can help to improve disaster preparedness and response.

During my PhD (at King’s College London, funded by NERC and the ESRC), I spent two-months in Guatemala collecting evidence of potential hazard interactions. I used fieldwork, interviews and data-generating workshops to help construct comprehensive and systematic frameworks of hazard interactions in Guatemala at national and sub-national scales. These frameworks take the form of visual matrices of primary hazards and potential secondary hazards. This project, and subsequent work outlined below, directly supports the UN Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, which calls for new "multi-hazard" approaches that characterise and integrate information about hazard interactions.

Through the BGS Innovation Flexible Fund, I recently returned to Guatemala to share this work and discuss with partners how government agencies responsible for hazard monitoring and disaster reduction could use frameworks of hazard interactions. An important step in the research process, and an ethical responsibility for scientists, is communicating and sharing our work with stakeholders, including those who have contributed to the research and those who may benefit from its results. It is a really rewarding part of being a scientist. Knowing that the work I spent many (long) days on as a PhD student won’t just sit on a shelf in the UK, but can support the work of a fantastic and dedicated team of hazard and risk professionals in Guatemala is very special.

Meeting with scientific staff at INSIVUMEH to discuss
hazard interactions
During my recent visit, I presented the hazard interaction frameworks in Guatemala through seminars, workshops and meetings at universities, INSIVUMEH (the National Institute of Seismology, Volcanology, Meteorology and Hydrology), CONRED (the National Coordinator for Disaster Reduction), and the Guatemalan branch of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Multiple partners identified the value of the frameworks as reference tools in both disaster response and preparedness. For example, some participants noted their use in informing public communications regarding potential secondary hazards after a primary hazard. Others observed interactions in the matrix that they had not previously considered, but they acknowledged could occur and that they could integrate into their planning. All partners agreed that a priority next step would be developing tools that inform municipal level planning and preparedness.

The scientific and risk professional teams in Guatemala work under difficult conditions to protect lives and livelihoods. I am very grateful for the help and time they provided during my visits. At the heart of the UN Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (and the Sustainable Development Goals) are international cooperation and respectful partnerships. I finished my time in Guatemala by meeting the British Ambassadors to Guatemala and Honduras, sharing the results of our meetings, and discussing disaster risk reduction in the region. We all agreed that there is significant scope for future collaboration between hazard scientists and disaster professionals in the UK and Guatemala.

Meeting with HE Carolyn Davidson (British Ambassador to Guatemala) and
HE Tom Carter (British Ambassador to Honduras) to discuss disaster
risk reduction in Guatemala
Original research funded by a studentship grant from NERC/ESRC (NE/J500306/1). This work was continued through BGS Innovation Flexible Funding (2017/18) awarded to Joel Gill (BGS Global) and Katy Mee (BGS Geoanalytics and Modelling).