Earth Systems and Environmental Sciences (UoA 7)
Research Excellence Framework 2014
Earth Systems and Environmental Sciences research at Portsmouth is primarily based in the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences and the School of Biological Sciences. Our research activities are carried out by 28 staff in five research groups: Ecotoxicology and Environmental Monitoring focuses on the impacts of chemicals in aquatic systems; Natural Resource Management and Modelling work on valuation of fisheries resources and marine protected areas; Biodiversity and Evolution have strengths in plant diversity and the study of evolutionary processes; the Environmental Microbiology and Biotechnology group have a focus on preservation and degradation of marine woods, microbial ecology and anti-fouling technologies; the Crustal Evolution group are using cutting-edge technologies to gain new insight into the evolution of the Earth. This activity forms a significant part of ‘Dynamic Planet’, one of three strands that constitute the University of Portsmouth Environment Network (UPEN), one of our cross-discipline themes.
Our research has made a positive impact on society through development of new technologies and engagement with the media and public. Our impact case studies were all classed as world-leading or internationally excellent. These included the development of new methods to protect marine structures from bio-degradation and novel technologies for monitoring to support a cleaner environment. Communication of our science through TV, film and the press has stimulated worldwide awareness and debate on key scientific issues including the evolution of early life and the risks associated with nuclear power.
View a map of international collaborators involved with our research
- 100% of our research impact was classed as outstanding or very considerable in terms of reach and significance
- 72% of our research outputs were classed as world leading or internationally excellent compared to 45% in RAE2008
- The Grade Point Average of our research has risen from 2.40 in the previous submission to 2.78 and our Research Power Index has more than doubled
- We are placed third out of the post-92 universities who submitted research in this area
- Nearly twice as many research staff were submitted compared to the previous 2008 research assessment exercise
- There was a three-fold increase in our research income compared to the previous assessment period
Research groups / Research themes
Earth Systems and Environmental Sciences research at Portsmouth is primarily focused in two Schools: the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences and the School of Biological Sciences. Research on natural resource management is also carried out in the Portsmouth Business School. Activities are coordinated in five research groups:
- Ecotoxicology and Environmental Monitoring (Allen, Fones, Ford, Mills, Reynolds, Smith, Thorpe (Karen), Watson) focusing on quantification of transfers and evaluation of impacts of a range of chemicals (including nutrients, pharmaceuticals, radionuclides and heavy metals) in aquatic systems
- Natural Resource Management and Modelling (Thorpe (Andy), Watson, Wattage, Willis), a cross-disciplinary group complemented by fisheries economists (Failler and Bjorndal) submitted under UoA19 Business and Management Studies. Valuation of fisheries resources and marine protected areas is a particular research strength
- Biodiversity and Evolution (Armbruster, Barrales, Gale, Loydell, Minter, Tallis, Willis); has strengths in plant diversity and evolution together with studies of evolutionary processes over geological timescales
- Environmental Microbiology and Biotechnology (Cragg, Hayes, Hellio, May, Watts) focus on preservation and degradation of marine woods, microbial ecology and anti-fouling technologie
- Crustal Evolution (Benson, Darling, Fowler, Rust, Storey, Strachan) has particular strength in the innovative use of accessory minerals to gain new insight into a range of tectonic processes and also ice coverage on Greenland. Recent appointments have added complementary strength in rock physics and deformation as well as isotope geochemistry.
Three of these groups (1 - 3) are cross-school collaborations reflecting the interdisciplinary nature of our research and our strategic research aim to build critical mass, aligned to RCUK and EU objectives, from existing research strengths across the University. Research in Ecotoxicology and Environmental Monitoring and Biodiversity and Evolution is complemented by work on environmental change submitted under UoA 17 Geography, Environmental Studies and Archaeology.
Impact case studies
The Chemcatcher - an approved passive sampler for monitoring water quality
The development and marketing of the Chemcatcher passive sampler has significantly improved the way water quality is monitored. These cost-effective devices are either used alongside or can replace established approaches that rely on infrequent spot or bottle sampling. We have contributed to the development of national and international standards for the use of passive samplers, and the dissemination of results to end users has facilitated the uptake of passive sampling technology worldwide. Our passive samplers have been used to monitor a diverse range of environmental problems, from pharmaceuticals in drinking water to the release of radioactive caesium after the Fukushima nuclear reactor incident in Japan.
Enhancing public understanding of nuclear safety issues following the Fukushima nuclear accident
This impact case study describes major public communication activities by Professor Jim Smith on the immediate and long-term consequences of the Fukushima accident through radio, television, print and internet media. During the weeks after Fukushima, Smith made a key contribution to the developing scientific understanding of the likely consequences of the accident and to the worldwide dissemination of that understanding. This made a documented improvement to international news agencies’ coverage of the event and “helped elevate and inform the debate” on the risks and consequences of nuclear power.
Driving innovation in wood protection for the marine environment
Marine wood borers cause huge economic losses by damaging maritime structures. Research conducted by Cragg’s team has driven the move from broad-spectrum, environmentally-hazardous wood protection methods towards environmentally-benign approaches tailored to target specific organisms. Their novel testing methods have accelerated evaluation of protection methods while reducing testing costs. Their evaluations have been used to inform guidelines for selection of timbers for waterside construction issued by the UK Environment Agency and to market less well-known timber species. Their information on invasive borers affects local and global decision making.
Public engagement with evolutionary science: Pterosaurs hit the big and little screen
Research on the anatomy, physiology and palaeoecology of pterosaurs by the Palaeobiology Group at Portsmouth University has had a wide and acknowledged impact, underpinning the creation and production of block-buster and pioneering television and film productions worldwide. The impact of this work is recognised by Sir David Attenborough, and by the producers of such TV successes as Walking With Dinosaurs and Flying Monsters 3D. These award-winning productions, highlighting our work, have reached a global audience and supported the generation of millions of pounds by the UK TV and film industry. Whilst the income generated is highly significant, perhaps their greatest impact lies in fostering a positive view of science, particularly in young audiences, by bringing cutting-edge evolutionary science direct to the World’s film and TV screens.
Infrastructure and facilities
To support aquatic sciences research across the Ecotoxicology and Environmental Monitoring and Environmental Microbiology and Biotechnology groups, the University continues to invest in laboratories at the Institute of Marine Sciences (IMS), an internationally important marine research station at the mouth of Langstone Harbour. The IMS brings together world-class research expertise and specialist facilities in molecular biology and gene regulation with those in ecology, ecotoxicology, and evolutionary biology. IMS has benefitted recently from the completion of new £2M Home Office-licensed aquarium facilities for both marine and freshwater species, quarantine and animal holding rooms, and research laboratories, which support, for example, Ford’s work on pharmaceuticals in the aquatic environment and Smith and Thorpe’s work on the impacts of environmental radioactivity on fish. A further £7M future capital investment is planned to provide flexible laboratory, workshop and teaching space for cross-disciplinary work in marine environmental sciences.
The School of Biological Sciences environmental research laboratories include a wide range of research facilities and equipment. Microbiologists in the Environmental Microbiology and Biotechnology group have laboratories and facilities for growing algae, fungi and bacteria. With the Ecotoxicology and Environmental Monitoring group, they access state-of-the-art equipment for studies of biomolecular structure, function and dynamics. Specifically, there has been investment in facilities for protein production and purification, NMR spectroscopy, surface plasmon resonance, fluorescence, electron (SEM & TEM) and atomic force microscopy, spectroscopy, and quantitative PCR. Through collaboration with structural biologists submitted to UoA 3, environmental scientists have used our Agilent X-Ray Diffractometer with cryojet and the Harwell Diamond Light Source to characterise the enzymes involved in wood degradation for Cragg’s BBSRC-funded biofuels research. Two GC/MS with dedicated sample introduction equipment are used in Fones’ and Mills’ passive sampler research for analysis of non-polar organic pollutants and an LC/MS/MS is used for analysis of polar organics found in water, sediments and soils. Additionally, the Biodiversity and Evolution group has access to a greenhouse facility for plant research and a dedicated sample preparation laboratory, in-house SEM imaging and a CL-imaging facility for stratigraphic and palaeontological work.
The Ecotoxicology and Environmental Monitoring group has also benefitted from substantial capital investment in the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences to provide infrastructure and equipment for Fones’ and Smith’s research on nutrients in aquatic systems and Fones’ NERC-funded marine sediment resuspension work. This includes a Seal Analytical Auto Sampler for nutrient analysis, Unisense microelectrode sediment profiling equipment (O2 and pH), a Turner designs AU-10 Fluorometer, and an Image analysis system (CDD Camera and ImagePro Plus) housed in refurbished Marine Biogeochemistry laboratories with portable fume cupboards and laminar flow cabinets. Additional Faculty funding has allowed purchase of two more Turner fluorometers, a CEM microwave digestion system and two new CTD systems. Unisense microelectrode equipment for O2, N2O, pH and nitrate was purchased from Fones’ NERC Macronutrients and Shelf-Sea Biogeochemistry grants, and a grant of £25K from the NERC Exceptional Equipment Capital round has purchased a CHN analyser.
The Crustal Evolution Research Group has benefitted from significant investment. The purchase in 2008 of a New Wave UP213 Nd:YAG laser (£80K), now coupled to the Agilent ICP-MS, has enabled U-Pb geochronology and trace element measurements in a wide range of accessory minerals. A Rigaku XRS Primus 2 XRF (£150K) was installed in 2012 and enables acquisition of high-precision whole rock, major, minor and trace element data to ppm detection limits from Be to U, with X-ray mapping capability and spot analysis to 0.5mm. These new analytical facilities, together with a recently-installed Nu Plasma multi-collector ICP-MS, support NERC-funded research by Storey and Fowler. Sample preparation is facilitated by full in-house rock crushing and mineral separation facilities and a thin-section laboratory. The group has full access to an SEM equipped with EDS and CL within the School of Biological Sciences. Further University investment in 2012 of £325k (supplemented by EU Grant €100k to Benson) has resulted in establishment of a state-of-the-art rock mechanics laboratory for investigating the deformation of crustal rocks up to simulated depths of 4 km, and measurement of physical properties of rocks and minerals (elastic wave velocity, permeability) to c. 50 km. This is achieved via a servo-controlled triaxial cell, hydrostatic pressure vessels, uniaxial deformation apparatus, and the latest acoustic emission instrumentation.
Geosciences research will be further supported by the acquisition in 2014 of a Phillips XL30 SEM, and £55k of funding has recently been awarded to assist in establishment of a Portsmouth Microanalytical Centre (PMC). This new hub for coordination and development of research and KT activities in related state-of-the-art microanalytical techniques will include upgrades to existing electron microscopy facilities to enable automated imaging and chemical mapping techniques.