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Flood frequency of the world’s largest river has increased fivefold

Flooded area in the centre of Manaus in 2009
Credit: Jochen Schöngart, National Institute for Amazon Research

The Amazon is the largest river on Earth. It annually drains a fifth of the rainfall on land, which is more than the combined volume of the next seven largest rivers. Researchers found that this mighty river is getting even mightier. 

A recent study of more than 100 years of river level records from the Amazon shows a significant increase in frequency and severity of floods. The scientists’ analysis of the potential causes could contribute to more accurate flood prediction for the Amazon Basin. 

Water levels of the Amazon River have been recorded daily in Port of Manaus, Brazil since the beginning of the last century. The team used 113 years of water level records and found extreme floods and droughts have become more frequent over the last two to three decades. 

Their findings show that in the first part of the 20th century, severe floods with water levels exceeding 29 metres – the benchmark for a state of emergency in Manaus City – occurred roughly every 20 years. Now, extreme floods occur on average every four years. 

Study lead author, Dr Jonathan Barichivich, from Universidad Austral de Chile and former Research Fellow from the University of Leeds, said: “Increases of severe droughts in the Amazon have received a lot of attention by researchers. However, what really stands out from this long-term river record is the increase in the frequency and severity of the floods. With a few minor exceptions, there have been extreme floods in the Amazon basin every year from 2009 to 2015.” 

According to the study, the increased flooding is linked to a strengthening of the Walker circulation – an ocean-powered system of air circulation caused by differences in temperature and pressure over the tropical oceans. This system influences weather patterns and rainfall across the tropics and beyond. 

Co-author Professor Manuel Gloor, from the School of Geography at Leeds, said: “This dramatic increase in floods is caused by changes in the surrounding seas, particularly the Pacific and Atlantic oceans and how they interact. Due to a strong warming of the Atlantic Ocean and cooling of the Pacific over the same period, we see changes in the so-called Walker circulation, which affects Amazon precipitation.  

“The effect is more or less the opposite of what happens during an El Niño event. Instead of causing drought, it results in more convection and heavy rainfall in the central and northern parts of the Amazon basin.” 

The ultimate underlying cause for the warming of the Atlantic is not entirely clear. However, in addition to natural variability, global warming is at least partially responsible but in an unexpected and indirect way, according to the study. 

As a result of greenhouse warming, wind belts in mid to high latitudes in the Southern hemisphere have shifted further south, opening a window for transport of warm Indian ocean waters around the tip of Africa, via the Agulhas current, towards the tropical Atlantic. 

The changes to the Amazon Basin’s water cycle have had severe consequences for people and livelihoods in Brazil, Peru, and other Amazonian nations. 

Co-author Dr Jochen Schöngart from the National Institute for Amazon Research in Manaus, has experienced Amazon River floods first-hand. He explained that these extreme flooding events last for many weeks and have disastrous consequences. Flooding can contaminate water supply and spread disease, as well as destroy homes and livelihoods. Economic activities in the floodplains such as agriculture a cattle ranching are strongly affected.

The research indicates that these floods are not over yet. The year 2017, which was not included in the study, again saw water levels rise to over 29 meters. As the tropical Atlantic is expected to continue warming faster than the tropical Pacific over the next few decades scientists expect more of these high water levels. The findings of this study could help predict the probability of flooding extremes in the Amazon in advance and help mitigate the impacts for urban and rural Amazonian populations. 

Further information: 

High res images and captions available for download at: 

The paper Recent intensification of Amazon flooding extremes driven by strengthened Walker circulation is published in Science Advances 19 September 2018 (DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aat8785)

For more information contact press officer Anna Harrison at the University of Leeds a.harrison(at) or +44(0)113 343 4031. 

Full list of authors: J. Barichivich, E. Gloor, P. Peylin, R. J. W. Brienen, J. Schöngart, J. C. Espinoza, K. C. Pattnayak, Recent intensification of Amazon flooding extremes driven by strengthened Walker circulation. Sci. Adv. 4, eaat8785 (2018).

Leeds to host upcoming Enhancing Fieldwork event

The School of Geography will play host to the 8th annual Enhancing Fieldwork Learning Showcase, supported by the British Ecological Society next week.

The event, which is open to academics across the UK, aims to promote fieldwork teaching best practice, with a particular focus on the use of emerging technologies in the field.

“The University is a real advocate of blended learning, and within the School we encourage students to take ownership and to use their own devices to enhance their studies.” said Dr Karen Bacon, one of the event’s co-organisers and Lecturer in Ecology at the University of Leeds. 

“Fieldwork is an important learning tool, but time in the field is limited, and so it is important to make the field learning opportunities the best possible, using evidence based techniques. Many of the ideas that we embed within our teaching originally come from the Enhancing Fieldwork Showcase, for example using Camera Traps on our Malham fieldtrip, or Twitter for sharing ideas in the field,” added Dr Julie Peacock, event organiser and Lecturer in Ecology at the University of Leeds.

One of the ways in which the School has managed to make fieldwork more accessible is by using the campus as a teaching tool for urban ecology in Level 1 and as a back-up field site in the event of extreme weather

As part of this year’s Showcase event, there will be practical sessions with a focus on the Leeds campus, the urban ecology of the campus and the work of the Living Lab for research-led teaching..

The event’s programme also includes keynote speaker Professor Graham Scott (University of Hull), sessions on invasive species, structure from motion and a talk from Thom Cooper of the University’s Living Lab for Sustainability.

This year’s Showcase is a collaboration between the Enhancing Fieldwork Learning Team and the School of Geography, supported by the British Ecological Society, Water@Leeds and ESRI.

You can still register to attend the event, and find out more on the British Ecological Society’s website.

Understanding the evolution of nitrogen fixation in trees

A new study gives insight into the prevalence of nitrogen-fixing trees in tropical rainforests and calls into question prevailing hypotheses for why they are so much more abundant than in temperate forests.

Levels of soil nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus can significantly affect forests’ ability to gain biomass and effectively absorb and capture carbon in what are known as carbon sinks. Some tree species are better suited for soil that is lacking in certain nutrients, such as nitrogen-fixing trees that can absorb nitrogen from the atmosphere. Some trees can also use phosphatase enzymes that help access phosphorus from the soil that otherwise would be unavailable to plants.

Understanding the tree species that make up a forest can help scientists predict the robustness of carbon sinks in various conditions. The prevalence of nitrogen-fixing trees in tropical forests, despite the predominance of nitrogen-rich, phosphorus-poor soils, is currently a mystery to ecologists. 

New research led by Dr Sarah Batterman from the School of Geography and Priestley International Centre for Climate at the University of Leeds tested two hypotheses for the prevalence of nitrogen-fixing trees in tropical forests by evaluating whether nitrogen fixation and phosphatase activity are linked across 97 trees from seven species. 

Using reforested trees in Panama, the team measured how young trees acquire nutrients in each of four common species of fixers and three common species of non-fixers that were grown in soils with varying levels of nutrients. 

Their results, published in Ecology Letters, found no evidence to support the dominant hypothesis that tropical nitrogen fixation evolved and became abundant in tropical forests because these trees can use fixed nitrogen to enhance their access to soil phosphorus through the use of phosphatase enzymes. 

The team evaluated a second hypothesis, which proposes that trees adjust the way they acquire nutrients to satisfy demand for particular nutrients in excess of soil supply and found no evidence to support this hypothesis either. 

Dr Batterman said: “One of the biggest challenges surrounding the future of tropical rainforests is to understand whether nitrogen fixation can supply enough nitrogen to support a carbon sink as climate changes. 

“The findings warn us against relying on nitrogen-fixing trees to support a continued carbon sink into the future, especially if phosphorus becomes the limiting resource. It suggests that something else besides trading nitrogen for phosphorus must explain why nitrogen fixers have become so abundant in tropical forests. Without understanding that explanation we cannot confidently rely on their future contributions to the rainforest carbon sink.” 

“However, the exciting finding of our study is that different species of trees function in different ways. That tells us that the high biodiversity in tropical forests is crucial for maximizing their function, and may even help support the carbon sink into the future.”

Further information: 

The paper “Phosphatase activity and nitrogen fixation reflect species differences, not nutrient trading or nutrient balance, across tropical rainforest trees” is published in Ecology Letters (DOI: 10.1111/ele.13129) 

Additional authors include Jefferson S. Hall, Benjamin L. Turner, Lars O. Hedin, J. Kimiko LaHaela Walter, Pete Sheldon and Michiel van Breugel

Image credit: Purple Coral Tree

Faculty of Environment is a key part of Leeds’ global funding success

The University of Leeds has been ranked in the top three UK universities for global funding success, according to new data from Research Fortnight. 

Across the University, 53 different projects are supported by the Global Challenges Research Fund and the Newton Fund – including projects within the Faculty of Environment.

Both awards schemes are intended to fund research which will directly benefit lower and middle-income countries.

The projects conducted by the School of Earth and Environment and the School of Geography have so far focused on African and Asian countries, and have aimed to improve the quality of life for people in developing countries. 

“Our researchers have spent many years building relationships with NGOs, governments and civil organisations in countries like Bangladesh, Nepal and in sub-Saharan Africa” said Professor Lisa Roberts, Deputy Vice Chancellor: Research and Innovation at the University of Leeds. 

“We have learnt what these countries need to do to thrive, and have harnessed our exceptional breadth and commitment to working across traditional boundaries, to support them with solutions to some of the greatest global challenges facing humankind today.” She added. 

Between 2014 and 2018, the University has secured more than £36 million from both GCRF and the Newton Fund. 

Research Fortnight analysed 1,140 GCRF and Newton Fund grants awarded by the UK’s research councils to compile the figures


Japanese Knotweed not as dangerous as we thought

A recent study from AECOM and School of Geography researchers, has suggested that the damage caused by Japanese knotweed is not as significant as previously thought.

The plant, which was introduced to the UK from Japan in the 19th Century, has for a long time carried the stigma of being damaging to structures. However, the recent research – the most extensive to date – has found no evidence that the plant causes significant damage. 

Research was carried out by assessing 68 houses where Japanese knotweed was present, to look for evidence of the plant damaging the properties. The study found that the knotweed was linked to less damage to the houses than trees, climbers and shrubs also present. 

“The negative impact of Japanese knotweed on such factors as biodiversity and flooding risks remains a cause for concern. But this plant poses less of a risk to buildings and other structures than many woody species, particularly trees.” Said Dr Karen Bacon, from the School of Geography. 

"Japanese knotweed is capable of damaging built structures, but where this occurs, it is usually because an existing weakness or defect has been exacerbated.” She added. 

As part of the research, a survey was also conducted with species control contractors and property surveyors – finding that damage associated to Japanese knotweed was rare. 

Despite this, homeowners have found the value of their property has been affected when the plant is found within close proximity, whilst many people have been refused mortgages on such properties. 

“Our research sought to broaden existing knowledge about the risk to buildings of Japanese knotweed compared to other plants.” Said Dr Mark Fennell, Principle Ecologist at AECOM and lead-researcher on the study. 

“We found nothing to suggest that Japanese knotweed causes significant damage to buildings – even when it is growing in close proximity – and certainly no more damage than other species that are not subject to such strict lending policies.” He added.

Further reading

Japanese knotweed - not such a knotty problem? – University of Leeds 

Risk of damage from Japanese knotweed overstated, says report – The ENDS Report 

Good Morning Scotland – BBC Radio Scotland 

‘No evidence’ Japanese knotweed damages structures, Aecom says – Construction Manager

Students develop their skills in the Alps

Last month 27 second-year Geography students took part in the annual Alps field trip.

The trip, led by Dr Steve Carver, saw the students spending seven days in the Hohe Tauern National Park in Austria, where they had the opportunity to look at geomorphology and ecology as well as glacial meltwater processes in relation to the glaciers within the Park.

“This was our 18th year on this field class so we know the area and features well. It is pretty amazing, and worrying, how far the glacier has retreated over this period, as are the majority of glaciers in the European Alps and indeed worldwide” said Dr Steve Carver about the area.

Work conducted on the field trip aims to provide students with a better understanding of the implications of glacier retreat, such as water supply, hydroelectric power and ecosystems. Accompanied by Dr Steve Carver, Dr Julie Peacock and Dr Will James, the students were given in-field training, helping them to gain a better understanding of the processes and their current and future impacts on the area.

As part of the trip, students are encouraged to use time in the evenings to analyse and interpret findings, and then ending the trip by designing and implementing their own research project. These projects bring together the data that they have collected throughout the trip and draw on their newly learnt research and field skills.

“Despite some pretty challenging weather conditions in the Alps, the students worked hard and produced some excellent work” said Dr Carver.

Top ten place for Leeds in Guardian University Guide

The University of Leeds has moved into the Guardian University Guide top ten for the first time, jumping four places and rising for the fourth consecutive year.

Leeds also recently improved its position in the latest Complete University Guide and achieved a top three position in the Times Higher Education Student Experience Survey.

The Faculty of Environment has also improved its position for Earth and Marine Sciences, jumping three places and ranking 6th in the UK in the latest Guardian University Guide, while maintaining its position for Geography and Environmental Studies, ranking 11th  for a second consecutive year.

Professor Tom Ward, Deputy-Vice-Chancellor: Student Education, said: "I want to thank our students and staff for making Leeds a top ten university.

"This position is a fantastic tribute to them and highlights the excellence across the board that is on offer at Leeds; in the quality of our teaching, our research, our international focus, and the way in which we nurture students by creating a supportive and friendly environment. My sincere congratulations to them. 

"The key is working collaboratively at a local, national and international level. We prize this very much at Leeds and our success in this and other rankings is a testament to that."

The Guardian University Guide, published today, uses a range of measures, including student satisfaction with teaching, spend per student and graduate employment.

Further information

For further information, contact the University of Leeds Media Relations office via  or call +44(0)113 343 4031. 

Olivia Byrne and Linda Latuta, winners of 2018 Beaumont Awards

Environment student success in new University awards

Two students from the Faculty of Environment have been recognised in the inaugural University of Leeds’ Beaumont Awards, announced today.

The winners, Olivia Byrne, School of Earth and Environment, and Linda Latuta, School of Geography, received their awards at a special ceremony on Wednesday evening.

The Beaumont Awards recognise excellence in undergraduate research projects in the areas of Biological, Environmental and Physical Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine and Health. The judges are looking for projects which ‘display the greatest potential to impact on society.’

“I am so grateful to be one of the winners of the Beaumont award as it has meant the costs of my expedition to carry out my dissertation research in such a remote part of the world in Indonesia was possible” said Olivia Byrne of her award. 

“I feel a great sense of reward for the hard work I have done to collect and analyse my coral mortality data in response to the most recent and strongest El Nino event, which is incredibly relevant in the face of contemporary climate warming. Finally, the enterprise bootcamp will aid developing new skills to make me more employable and therefore help pave my future career path now I have finished university” she added. 

"Receiving the Beaumont Award encourages me to continue my academic pursuit in the field of microplastic pollution, as well as gives me courage to tackle this issue in the world outside of academia to make a difference in the life of people and the planet” said Linda Latuta. 

The awards are inspired by the life and work of Michael Faraday, whose discoveries were crucial in the development of technology innovation.

Professor Adam Beaumont, Founder and CEO of aql, a Visiting Professor in Cyber Security at the University of Leeds, and the sponsor of the awards said:

"When I was studying for my finals, I remember feeling as though I wasn't good enough. I remember working really hard. Particularly at my final year project and trying to make sure it was solving a real world problem.

“When it came to my graduation day, I found that I'd won the Jordan Award for that project. I remember what that felt like. I was organising my new office last year and discovered the award and it evoked those feelings again and I want to pass that feeling on to others.

“These awards are given to those who have not only delivered an exemplary and impactful final year project, but who have articulated their passion for the change it could have on society. I'm looking for our future leaders and change-makers.

“Faraday was passionate about delivering science to the masses and impassioned those for whom science, or aspiration was out of grasp.”

Sir Alan Langlands, Vice-Chancellor, University of Leeds, said:

“The Beaumont Awards reflect the University’s commitment to research-led education and research-based learning.  Final-year undergraduate research projects are an important part of the Leeds student experience and often result in some truly outstanding work.  Adam Beaumont’s generosity borne of his own experience will inspire our students to reach for new heights of academic excellence.”

Eleven students in total were awarded £500 cash, a medal, support from SPARK (the University of Leeds’ student business start-up service) and a place at the SPARK summer boot camp as part of their prize.

A fill list of winners and information about the awards can be found here.


Wastewater plants are key route into UK rivers for microplastics

Water samples from UK rivers contained significantly higher concentrations of microplastics downstream from wastewater treatment plants, researchers have found.

In one of the first studies to determine potential sources of microplastics pollution, scientists from the University of Leeds measured microplastics concentrations up and downstream of six waste water treatment plants. They found all the plants were linked to an increase in microplastics in the rivers – on average up to three times higher but in one instance by a factor of 69.

Lead author Dr Paul Kay, from the School of Geography at Leeds, said: “Microplastics are one of the least studied groups of contaminants in river systems. These tiny plastic fragments and flakes may prove to be one of the biggest challenges in repairing the widespread environmental harm plastics have caused. Finding key entry points of microplastics, such as wastewater treatment plants, can provide focus points to combating their distribution.

“However, pervasive microplastics were also found in our upstream water samples. So while strengthening environmental procedures at treatment plants could be a big step in halting their spread, we cannot ignore the other ways microplastics are getting into our rivers.”

These tiny plastic fragments and flakes may prove to be one of the biggest challenges in repairing the widespread environmental harm plastics have caused.


Microplastics are pieces of plastic with a diameter less than five millimetres. They come from a wide range of materials including tiny plastic beads found in health and beauty products, plastic fibres from clothing and plastic flakes that break down from packaging. 

In addition to exposing river ecosystems to the pollutants found in microplastics, a huge quantity continues to flow downstream and is then flushed into the ocean, posing a further threat to marine environments. Recent research has also found microplastics in fish stocks eaten by humans.

The researchers examined 28 river samples from six different field sites across Northern England. The treatment plants included in the study varied in the size of the population they served, the treatment technologies used and the river’s characteristics. These variations allowed for a broader understanding of how different factors could affect how much wastewater treatment plants contribute to microplastic pollution.

In addition to treatment plants providing an entry point for microplastics found in both commercial and domestic wastewater, such as clothing and textile microfibres that shed into washing machines, wastewater treatment plants may also contribute secondary microplastics as a result of plastics caught in the treatment process breaking down further.

The study categorised the types of microplastics found, into pellets/beads, fibres and fragments/flakes. Fragment and fibres made up nearly 90 per cent of the microplastics found in the river samples.

“By categorising the types of microplastics we can identify what aspects of our lifestyle are contributing to river pollution,” said Dr Kay.

 “Not that long ago microbeads in toiletries and cosmetics were the microplastics getting all the public attention. Seeing the amount of plastic microfibres from clothing and textiles polluting our rivers, we need to think seriously about the role of our synthetic fabrics in long-term environmental harm.”

Further information

Wastewater treatment plants and river catchments included in the study:

Wanlip, Soar river catchment, Leicestershire 

Barnard Castle, Tees river catchment, County Durham

Horbury Junction, Calder river catchment, West Yorkshire

Naburn, Yorkshire Ouse river catchment, North Yorkshire

Driffield, Hull river catchment, East Yorkshire 

Thorp Arch, Wharfe river catchment, West Yorkshire

Dr Paul Kay is available for interview. Please contact the press office at the University press office +44 (0)113 34 34031 or pressoffice(at) to arrange interview or for additional information.

The paper, ‘Wastewater treatment plants as a source of microplastics in river catchments’, by Paul Kay, Robert Hiscoe, Isobel Moberley, Luke Bajic, and Niamh McKenna,  is published in Environmental Science and Pollution Research (DOI: 10.1007/s11356-018-2070-7)


Climate change could increase arable land

Climate change could expand the agricultural feasibility of the global boreal region by 44 per cent by the end of the century, according to new research. However, the scientists warn that the same climate trends that would increase land suitable for crop growth could also significantly change the global climatic water balance – negatively impacting agriculture in the rest of the world. 

An international team of scientists have assessed the impact of climate change on land that could support agriculture in the boreal region, which includes large sections of Canada, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Russia and the United States. 

They found that the upper edge of land suitable for crop growth could shift as far north as 1,200km from the current position with the most dramatic changes occurring in the inner-continental regions of North America and Eurasia. 

Currently only 32 per cent of the boreal region falls into ‘growing degree days’ – the climate parameter linked to crop growth – and rainfall requirements for small cereal crops, such as oats and barley. 

Using global climate models the team was able to predict the future extent of growing degree days and changes in rainfall. The study, published in Scientific Reports, estimates that by 2099 roughly 76 per cent of the boreal region could reach the right conditions for agriculture. 

However, the study also warns that while total rainfall will generally increase on an annual basis, a warmer climate will also lead to more evaporation with potentially dramatic impact on the climatic water balance, both geographically and across seasons. For example while the inner continental regions would suffer drought conditions during the summer, the regions around the ocean’s rims could see an increase in water available to crops. 

Additionally, regions that would suffer temporary summer droughts might see wetter autumns which would have a negative impact on the harvest season. 

Study co-author Professor Joseph Holden, water@leeds director at the University of Leeds, said: “Climate change will have a profound impact on our agricultural regions. A projected consequence is the loss of farmland and crops from areas that are currently productive – cause for concern regarding long term global food security. Therefore we need to know whether in northern high latitudes new areas will become suitable for crops. 

“Understanding future environmental conditions will be vital for agricultural production. But any plans for northward agricultural expansion must be done carefully and with long term environmental sustainability in mind.” 

Study lead author Dr Adrian Unc, from Grenfell Campus, Memorial University Canada, said: “We must not forget that any changes in land use has extensive impacts on the entire natural ecosystem, impacts that must be understood and included in any planning effort. After all we must insure that a short–term gain does not come at the cost of a long– term loss in ecosystem sustainability.” 

Further information: 

Northward shift of the agricultural climate zone under 21st-century global climate change is published in Scientific Reports 21 May 2018 (doi:10.1038/s41598-018-26321-8) 

Prof. Adrian Unc developed the project, assembled and led a Grenfell team (Myron King, Dr. Daniel Altdorff, Dr. Lakshman Galagedara), with collaborators from the University of Leeds (Prof. Joseph Holden) and Xi’an University of Science and Technology (Dr. Pengfei Li). 

Please contact University of Leeds press officer Anna Harrison a.harrison(at) or +44(0)113 343 4031 for any additional information.


Peatlands are vital to UK water security 

Peatlands must be protected to preserve the UK’s water supply, say scientists. 

water@leeds scientists from the University of Leeds have developed a new global index that identifies water supplied from peatlands as a significant source of drinking water for the UK and the Republic of Ireland. 

The scientists estimated that in the UK 72.5% of the storage capacity of water supply reservoirs is peat-fed water. In the Republic of Ireland they estimated that drinking water fed by peatlands supports the equivalent of 4.22 million people or 68% of the national population. This demonstrates the crucial role peatlands play in the water security of these countries. 

Study co-author, Professor Joseph Holden, director of water@leeds said: “Globally only 28% of peatlands that supply drinking water to large populations are pristine or protected. In the UK it’s imperative that we support the great work of peatland restoration agencies and partnerships which are working with water companies to enhance the condition of our degraded peatlands. 

“The UK consumes approximately 1.56 cubic kilometres of drinking water per year that has come from peatlands; that is roughly the volume of 630,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools. This resource supports the equivalent of 28.3 million people or more than 43% of UK population. Threats to peatlands could mean a significant threat to the UK’s water security.  

“Worldwide, predicted rising global temperatures and the draining or burning of peatlands for agriculture and industry are a real concern as degradation of these fragile ecosystems could seriously compromise the water quality peatlands provide.” 

The study, published today in Nature Sustainability, analysed global peatlands, their proximity to human populations and data for flow into drinking water supplies. The index developed determined the amount of drinking water contributed by peatlands and locations where populations may be reliant on this water supply. The study estimates peat-rich catchments provide water to roughly 71.4 million people globally. 

The scientists found that in many regions worldwide large peatlands with high water content were too far away from human populations to provide major sources of drinking water. However, the study also identified hotspots where peatlands are crucial for water supply. Most of these key areas were found to be in the British Isles, where approximately 85% of all global drinking water sourced directly from peatlands is consumed and therefore emphasising the need for peatland conservation in UK and Ireland to protect water supplies. 

Removing peat sediment and dissolved organic carbon from water draining from degraded peatlands represents the largest costs in raw water treatment for water utilities in the UK. In recent decades concentrations of dissolved organic carbon in water from UK upland peatlands have increased rapidly due to changes in atmospheric chemistry and peat degradation. 

Study co- author, Dr Paul Morris, from the School of Geography at Leeds, said: “Future changes in climate threaten the stability of peatlands and water treatment costs. In England, up to 96% of deep peatlands are subject to degradation from historic pollution, erosion and land-management such as drainage. 

“The costs of dealing with further degradation from land management or climate change could be considerable, as new treatment methods may be required to cope with water from more degraded peatlands. Restoration and protection of peatlands to safeguard water quality may be the more cost-effective method in the long-term.” 

While the study highlights the importance of peatland water resources in the UK and Ireland, the researchers also identified a number of other regions where large amounts of drinking water are sourced directly from peatlands, including areas in Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, China, Germany, New Zealand, and the United States. 

Study lead author, PhD researcher Jiren Xu, also from the School of Geography, said: “This study is the first to examine the global and regional importance of peatlands in providing drinking water and therefore the role of these ecosystems in global water security. 

“Peatlands close to human populations are at greater risk of exploitation and degradation, but are also likely to play a more important role as a water resource. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals includes the provision of drinking water and our study highlights not only the need for responsible stewardship of peatlands but significant action to ensure the sustainability of this important resource.” 

Additional information: 

Download images: 

Image information:


Caption: Pools of water on UK blanket peat

Credit: Joseph Holden, University of Leeds 


Caption: Pools of water on UK blanket peat

Credit: Joseph Holden, University of Leeds 


Caption: River draining a peatland in Scotland

Credit: Joseph Holden, University of Leeds 


Caption: Chew Reservoir, fed by blanket peat moorland, Peak District, northern England

Credit: Joseph Holden, University of Leeds 

Please contact the University press office +44 (0)113 34 34031 or to arrange interviews or for additional information. 

The paper ‘Hotspots of peatland-derived potable water use identified by global analysis’ is published in Nature Sustainability 15 May 2018 (DOI: 10.1038/s41893-018-0064-6) 

This research was funded in part by the China Scholarship Council (201506420041) and School of Geography, University of Leeds, and the National Natural Science Foundation of China (41625001, 41571022). 

University of Leeds

The University of Leeds is one of the largest higher education institutions in the UK, with more than 33,000 students from more than 150 different countries, and a member of the Russell Group of research-intensive universities. 

We are a top ten university for research and impact power in the UK, according to the 2014 Research Excellence Framework, and are in the top 100 for academic reputation in the QS World University Rankings 2018. Additionally, the University was awarded a Gold rating by the Government’s Teaching Excellence Framework in 2017, recognising its ‘consistently outstanding’ teaching and learning provision. Twenty-six of our academics have been awarded National Teaching Fellowships – more than any other institution in England, Northern Ireland and Wales – reflecting the excellence of our teaching.

Research team on location in the mountains

Glaciologists return to drill the world’s highest glacier

School of Geography glaciologists are set to return to the Himalayas, a year on from a successful mission to drill through the world’s highest glacier.

The work is part of the EverDrill research project led by the University of Leeds and will be gathering more data from the Khumbu Glacier in the foothills of Mount Everest.

In April 2017, and working at around 5000 metres above sea level, project leader Dr Duncan Quincey and Dr Evan Miles were part of the first team to successfully drill to the base of the 17 km-long glacier which flows from an altitude of 7600 meters to around 4900 metres at its terminus.

At the highest point, near Everest base camp, the team spent three days drilling 150 metres into the glacier before recording its internal structure using a 360o camera developed by partners Robertson Geologging of Deganwy, north Wales.

This year the team will be working at around 300 metres higher up the glacier as they study its internal structure, measure its temperature, how quickly it flows and how water drains through it.

Combined with satellite images, the data collected will enable researchers to understand how the glacier moves and changes over time, and to model how it might respond to anticipated climate change.

Dr Quincey said: “Glaciers flow continuously and variably, deforming and mixing the snow that originally accumulated as seasonal layers. This makes them generally unsuitable as a record of past climate change. However, farther up Khumbu, at around 6000 metres, there are spreading domes and cols that hold those layers intact and where it is therefore possible to collect data on annual snowfall and ice formation extending back possibly 200-300 years. This represents a period from before the industrial revolution up to the present day, and is consequently highly significant for climate change research.”

Dr Duncan Quincey will be overseeing the field logistics. He will be joined by Polar Medal holder Professor Bryn Hubbard from Aberystwyth University who will be leading the drilling.  

Professor Hubbard said: “Returning to the sites where we drilled last year will enable us to collect the data loggers that have been recording for the last 12 months, and for the first time see how this glacier might respond to future changes in climate. We also want to take new measurements above Everest Base Camp, so that we have the best chance of characterising the ice descending from the Western Cwm.”

This year’s mission, funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), will also test new water heating and pressurizing equipment developed by commercial pressure washer manufacturer Kärcher that should enable team members to drill into the ice at elevations of up to 6000 metres.

Until now the team have been using commercially available car wash units to produce the hot water that is needed for drilling into the ice.

Working with Kärcher, the newly developed equipment is now more portable and should enable the team to study the historical record of snowfall and environmental change in the Himalaya.

Technical challenge
For the second year on Khumbu, Dr Quincey and colleagues will be working at an elevation of over 5000m and will have to contend with a number of physical and technical challenges.

To facilitate the drilling, equipment weighing approximately 1500 kg will need to be lifted onto the glacier.

Half the equipment will be air-lifted by helicopter and half will be carried up by locally hired porters, yaks and the research team.

At sea level, helicopters used by the team would typically be able to lift over a tonne at a time. For altitude reasons, the payload for this expedition is expected to be under 200 kg per trip.

Drilling will be done with a specially adapted car wash unit that produces a jet of hot water at a pressure of up to 120 bar, enough to penetrate rough tarmacadam.

The drill will be powered by three Honda generators whose power output is expected to be compromised by up to 50% due to the lack of oxygen at altitude.

Water from surface ponds on the glacier will be filtered and then heated to ~40oC for drilling purposes.

Whilst their equipment is air lifted, the team will undertake an eight-day trek from Lukla airport as they acclimatise to their high-elevation surroundings.

Dr Gordon Mitchell

Dr Gordon Mitchell co-authors chapter in report published by Dame Sally Davies Chief Medical Officer for England

Dr Gordon Mitchell, School of Geography at the University of Leeds has co-authored a chapter in a report which is featured on the Department of Health and Social Care website. The report was published by Professor Dame Sally Davies, Chief Medical Officer for England.

The report comprises of nine chapters, with the first written by Professor Dame Sally Davies herself, and then follows with eight topic chapters which inform the development of chapter one. Dr Gordon Mitchell co-authored chapter six on ‘Pollution and Inequality’ with Gordon Walker from Lancaster University and Jamie Pearce at Edinburgh University.

The chapter synthesises evidence on pollution (particularly air quality) and inequality in the UK, much of it drawing on work Gordon has already published with colleagues from the University of Leeds; ‘Air quality management leaves poor behind’. The chapter also summarises that ‘There are strong geographical differences in the occurrence and concentration of pollutants. Analysis shows that these patterns, which vary by pollutant type, are related to measures of socioeconomic status, with pollution sources and higher concentrations of ambient pollution typically found in more socially disadvantaged areas.’

Dame Sally Davies picks out chapter six, co-authored by Dr Mitchell in her foreword: “And who will benefit from this? Clearly we will all benefit but those dedicated to reducing health and environmental inequalities may take particular interest in Chapter 6 of this report, ‘Pollution and inequality’.”

Read the full report here.

QS logo

QS World University Rankings by Subject 2018 

The Faculty of Environment at the University of Leeds has jumped again in the 2018 QS World University Rankings by Subject.

The annual survey evaluated 1,130 institutions across 48 subjects globally on a range of subjects. The Faculty of Environment has achieved top positions in the following areas:

QS awards
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Earth and Marine Sciences 14th in the World (was 18 in 2017)

Environmental Sciences 43rd in the World (was top 51-100 in 2017)

Geography 20th in the World (was 24th in 2017)

The rankings by subject are based on criteria such as academic reputation, employer reputation and research impact. To produce the rankings for this year over 22 million papers were analysed, producing close to 200 million citations. 1,130 institutions have been ranked across 48 subjects in 5 subject areas, creating 14,000 published entries.

For a full breakdown of the University of Leeds results by subject, visit the QS World University Rankings by Subject 2018 website.

Prize shield

School of Geography wins the prestigious Jon Walker award

The School of Geography has won the highly-coveted Jon Walker award from the Society for Location Analysis, which recognises excellence and innovation within the field of location analysis.

The award has previously been given to individuals, therefore the School of Geography are the first organisation to win it. They were awarded the prize following sustained success in the society’s national student dissertation competition where students and/or their supervisors are invited to submit work into an undergraduate (BA/BSc) or taught postgraduate (MA/MSc) category.

The School of Geography have received high levels of success in the student dissertation competition since its inception three years ago, winning the main prize each year and having several runners-up. Winning this award is a reflection of the high quality teaching and research currently in existence in the field of location analysis.

Luke Burns, Lecturer in the School of Geography and Society for Location Analysis committee member, said:

“This award recognises the hard work that individual students put into dissertations in location analysis.  To be the leading university with regards to location analysis student research over the past three years is incredibly pleasing and demonstrates the independence, employability and skills of our graduates.”

Geography at Leeds continues to produce world-leading academic research in location analysis in areas such as retail, health, crime and transport and is renowned by employers for its quantitative skills and Geographical Information Systems (GIS) teaching.

Jon in the forest
Giant tree in forest

Classifying the world’s tropical forests

A new study reveals surprising results about the genetic relationships between the world’s tropical forests, suggesting that they should no longer be divided into Old and New World.

Co-author Professor Jon Lovett, from the School of Geography, is part of an international collaboration that has produced the first classification of the world’s tropical forests based on their phylogenetic similarity.

The study used information from tree plots around the world to compare forests based on their genetic relationships and evolutionary history.

The analysis produced unexpected results. It did not support the traditional view of a split between the tree species in the ‘New World’ tropics of South America and those in the ‘Old World’ tropics of Africa and the Indo-Pacific.

The evidence instead points to phylogenetic similarities between the African and South American forests, separating them from those in the Indo-Pacific region.

However, the classification is not clear cut. Some forests in eastern Africa are related to those from the Indo-Pacific.

Professor Lovett said: “The extraordinary species rich forests of eastern Tanzania and south-east Kenya are full of rare plant species known only from this small mountain area.

“Genetic affinities between these African forests and those in the Indo-Pacific indicate that there are ancient links. The links could be remnants from over 120 million years ago when India and Madagascar were joined to Africa as part of the Gondwana super-continent.

“But plants are also capable of moving great distances through seed dispersal, so it can be difficult to decide what could be a truly ancient link from when they were one forest or a more recent connection through long range dispersal.”

Another remarkable finding from the study, published today in PNAS, is that there appears to be a global dry forest region common to South America, Africa, Madagascar and India.

Professor Lovett said: “I remember the amazingly knowledgeable Kew botanist Jan Gillett telling me about the dry land connections between Africa and India 30 years ago. For example the African Blackwood, Dalbergia melanoxylon, can also be found in India.

“Very little research has been done on this intercontinental arid corridor and I’m sure there’s a lot more to discover”.

The northern hemisphere, including Great Britain, was once covered by lush tropical rainforests. These forests have since disappeared when global climates cooled and dried down.

However, this study shows that probable remnants of these once extensive forests still persist in the subtropics of Asia and America. Despite the huge distance between these Asian and American forests, they seem to share a common evolutionary history.

This research, led by Ferry Slik at the University of Brunei Darussalam in Borneo, is part of a global effort to produce a new classification of tropical forests. The findings could contribute to improving forest conservation.

Professor Lovett said: “Understanding patterns of phylogenetic distribution is fundamental to conserving the World’s biodiversity. Protected areas must cover the range of phylogenetic branches if we want to ensure that global genetic diversity is maintained.”

The research will also contribute to a better understanding of ecological resilience. The Indo-Pacific links of the eastern Africa forests are indicative of ancient ecological stability over evolutionary time-scales, which means that they cannot cope with disturbance, providing guidance on how to best manage this unique biodiversity hotspot.


Ferry Slik, J.W. et al. 2018. A phylogenetic classification of the world’s tropical forests. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

New study finds intact rainforests of Borneo are getting larger

The remaining undisturbed rainforests in Borneo, some of the world’s tallest and most carbon-dense, have been removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere over the past 50 years, a new study shows.

The research, led by the University of Leeds, found that while the intact forest area has declined, those that remain have increased in biomass. The study quantifies for the first time the role of South East Asian tropical rainforests in the fight against climate change. 

An international team of more than 50 scientists monitored tens of thousands of trees in over a dozen locations across Borneo for up to half a century, revealing the rainforest’s steady increase in biological material - biomass - as well as its vulnerability to climate and land-use changes. 

Lead author Dr Lan Qie, who carried out the work whilst at the University of Leeds’ School of Geography, said: “Borneo’s remaining rainforests are increasing in size, adding to their already high carbon stocks. 

“The average increase we saw in Borneo is equivalent to adding 700 household Christmas trees to each 100 metre by 100 metre forest plot, each year. There is of course both growth and death in these towering and dynamic tropical forests, but on the whole they are absorbing more carbon year after year, storing it as wood.” 

The team’s research, published today in Nature Communications, shows that Borneo’s average increase in forest biomass carbon, 430kg per hectare per year, is consistent with the increases shown across the tropical African and Amazon forests in the past.

Man measuring width of a large Borneo tree Measuring the trees in the Borneo rainforest. Picture by Dr Lan Qie Co-author Professor Simon Lewis, also from the University of Leeds, said: “After conducting dozens of field campaigns across the tropics over the past two decades, we can now finally say that the world’s remaining intact tropical forests, across the Amazon, Africa and Asia, are all acting as carbon sinks – absorbing more carbon than they are releasing. 

“It is now clear that undisturbed tropical rainforests across the world are all providing an important service to humanity in removing carbon from the atmosphere, adding a further reason to protect these vulnerable forests.” 

The international forest monitoring network of researchers that contributed to this work was developed with support from a European Research Council grant awarded to Professor Oliver Phillips and Professor Simon Lewis, both at the University of Leeds.

Forests under threat 

The study highlights two threats to continued carbon uptake by rainforests: droughts and forest fragmentation. 

Co-author Professor Oliver Phillips, from the University of Leeds, said: “By monitoring forests before, during and after the 1997-1998 El Niño drought we were able to show how the drought killed trees, so returning carbon to the atmosphere and halting the forest’s ability to act as a carbon sink. 

“This illustrates the risk posed by future droughts, which climate models suggest will become more severe, as rainforests across the globe may temporarily pause in their roles as carbon sinks.” 

The study also highlights concerns about the carbon uptake in fragmented patches of forests – sections of forest that are isolated from the larger forest. Monitored forest areas close to the edge of a patch, which may be adjacent to burnt land, oil palm plantations or farmers’ fields, tended to lose carbon to the atmosphere. Trees were more likely to die if they were closer to the edge, and the tree species that replace them tended to be those that store less carbon.

Green tree tops of Borneo forests 

Dr Lan Qie, who is now at Imperial College London, added: “Our calculations indicate a minimum size that a patch of forest must be in order for it to be a carbon sink - where its interior is absorbing enough carbon to outweigh its edges, which may be losing carbon. A forest reserve of 300 hectares, a little over one square mile, is just about big enough. 

“We must aim to preserve larger areas of continuous forest, and protect against further fragmentation, in order to maintain its ability to uptake carbon emitted by human activity. 

“Effective buffer zone management can also reduce carbon loss along forest edges and very small forest fragments can still help protect carbon. Preserving existing fragments of forest of any size remains important, for both carbon storage and biodiversity conservation.”

Professor Simon Lewis, from the University of Leeds, added: “This study can provide a foundation for future long-term observations of Asia’s tropical forests, delivering essential baseline information on how these globally important ecosystems are responding to rapid global environmental change.”

The research paper Long-term carbon sink in Borneo’s forests halted by drought and vulnerable to edge effects is published 19 December 2017 in the journal Nature Communications and is available online.

Further information 

For additional information and to request interviews please contact Simon Moore in the University of Leeds press office on +44 (0)113 34 34031 or 

This research was conducted by a global team of over 50 scientists, drawing on work dating back to the 1960s. This work was supported by a European Research Council grant awarded to Professor Oliver Phillips and Professor Simon Lewis, both at the University of Leeds. 

Christmas trees calculations: 

Borneo’s average increase in forest biomass carbon is 430kg per hectare (100 metre by 100 metre) per year. A ~2.6m tall Norway spruce (Picea abies) with a diameter of 2-3 cm at breast height is used for a reference ‘Christmas tree.’ Typically a Norway spruce of this size contains ~1.2kg dry biomass (which contains about 0.6 kg carbon) therefore 430kg carbon per hectare is approximately 700 Christmas trees added to each forest plot.

Ecdyonurus larva moult
Credit Liam Marsh
Credit Liam Marsh

Mapping the global impact of shrinking glaciers on river invertebrates

River invertebrates react the same way to decreasing glacier cover wherever in the world they are, say scientists who have evaluated more than one million of them in diverse regions with shrinking glaciers, to determine the impact of global environmental change. 

Their findings, published today in Nature Ecology & Evolution, indicate that there is a globally consistent pattern in the way river invertebrates respond to decreasing glacier cover. It highlights the possibility of applying a similar method to track environmental impacts on invertebrate groups in other types of ecosystems. 

Lead author Professor Lee Brown, from the School of Geography and water@leeds at the University of Leeds, said: “By combining river invertebrate records from all over the world, we are able to map functional traits shared by species, such as body size, movement, life cycle length and eating habits. 

“So while New Zealand does not have the exact same river invertebrate species as the USA, those species that are present in each location possess similar functional traits. 

“Because traits determine how species respond to changes in the environment, we can chart the effect of environmental change on functional traits and thus understand the impact on river invertebrate communities worldwide.” 

The team combined data on river invertebrates collected from over 170 sites in nine different mountain ranges — spanning across three continents and both hemispheres. By examining invertebrates from glacier-fed rivers the researchers were able to ensure that the effects on functional traits would be due largely to environmental change caused by glacier shrinking as opposed to human-made impacts, because these study regions are often more pristine than other river ecosystems. 

Co-author Dr Martin Wilkes, from Coventry University, explained: “This study allows us to see how functional traits influence species adaption to the changing environment. For example, as glaciers shrink we see that invertebrate responses are strongly influenced by whether they can easily migrate to and thrive in a new location. 

“Under scenarios of rapid future environmental change such as global glacier retreat, organisms which are only able to migrate short-distances might not keep pace with habitat shifts — leading to major changes in these aquatic ecosystems.” 

Professor Brown added: “Invertebrates account for nearly 95% of the animal species on Earth. They perform important key ecological roles such as maintaining soil fertility, carbon cycling and water purification. Understanding invertebrate functional responses to environmental change is of urgent importance to reduce the threat of extinctions and changes to major ecosystem functions. 

“Our results highlight the potential to use trait-based approaches to predict the impact of environmental change on invertebrates such as those that live in other ecosystems, such as the oceans, soils or even in cities.” 

Further information

Images available to download: 

The research paper Functional diversity and community assembly of river invertebrates show globally consistent responses to decreasing glacier cover will appear on Nature Ecology & Evolution's website on 18 December 2017 (DOI: 10.1038/s41559-017-0426-x) 

For additional information and to request interviews please contact Anna Harrison, Press Officer at the University of Leeds, on +44 (0)113 34 34196 or a.harrison(at) 

This work was funded by the following organizations: the UK Natural Environment Research Council grants and studentships GR9/2913, NE/E003729/1, NE/E004539/1, NE/E004148/1, NE/G523963/1, NER/S/A/2003/11192 and NE/L002574/1; the European Union Environment and Climate Programme Arctic and Alpine Stream Ecosystem Research (AASER) project (ENV-CT95-0164); EU-FP7 Assessing Climate impacts on the Quality and quantity of WAter (ACQWA) project (212250); the Icelandic Research Council (954890095, 954890096); the University of Iceland Research Fund (GMG96, GMG97, GMG98), Wyoming Center for Environmental Hydrology and Geophysics-National Science Foundation (1208909); USA-Wyoming NASA Space Grant Faculty Research Initiation (NNX10A095H); USA-NSF Wyoming Epscor; Nationalpark Hohe Tauern, Austria; the Royal Society (International Outgoing Grant 2006/R4); the Leverhulme Trust; the Universities of Leeds, Birmingham, Iceland and Innsbruck; the European Centre for Arctic Environmental Research (ARCFAC): a Research Infrastructures Action of the European Community FP6 (026129-2008-72); the Stelvio National Park (2000–2001); the Autonomous Province of Trento (HIGHEST project, 2001–2004, del. PAT no. 1060/2001; VETTA project, 2003–2006, del. PAT no. 3402/2002); MUSE-Museo delle Scienze 

University of Leeds

The University of Leeds is one of the largest higher education institutions in the UK, with more than 33,000 students from more than 150 different countries, and a member of the Russell Group of research-intensive universities. 

We are a top ten university for research and impact power in the UK, according to the 2014 Research Excellence Framework, and are in the top 100 for academic reputation in the QS World University Rankings 2018. Additionally, the University was awarded a Gold rating by the Government’s Teaching Excellence Framework in 2017, recognising its ‘consistently outstanding’ teaching and learning provision. Twenty-four of our academics have been awarded National Teaching Fellowships – more than any other institution in England, Northern Ireland and Wales – reflecting the excellence of our teaching. 

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water@leeds is a world-leading water research and training organisation, producing high quality, highly cited papers with high levels of international collaborations. Since its establishment in 2009, water@leeds has grown to become the largest water-related research and training centre in the world. As of September 2017 our researcher numbers are 329, and it is our internal diversity, reach, and vibrancy, together with established interdisciplinarity which are our core strengths.  

University of Birmingham

The University of Birmingham is ranked amongst the world’s top 100 institutions. Its work brings people from across the world to Birmingham, including researchers, teachers and more than 5,000 international students from over 150 countries. 

Coventry University

Coventry University is a dynamic, global and transformational ‘modern university’ whose roots can be traced back to 1843 to the Coventry School of Design. With a proud tradition as a provider of innovative teaching and learning and a focus on impactful research, the University has established a robust reputation for pushing the boundaries of higher education regionally, nationally and across the world. 

The University’s Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience (CAWR) drives the development and implementation of resilient food and water systems around the world. The centre is internationally renowned for its work supporting communities throughout the globe to achieve and sustain food and water sovereignty. A key part of this is the incorporation of citizen-generated knowledge - the participation of farmers, water users and other people affected by the issues explored in this transdisciplinary research. 

University of Innsbruck

The University of Innsbruck was founded in 1669 and is the biggest and most important research and educational institution in western Austria. Today it is comprised of 28,000 students and 4,500 staff and faculty members. 16 faculties provide a broad spectrum of programs in all fields of study. Academics teach and research in the diverse scientific fields of humanities, science, economic and social sciences, theology, law, architecture, engineering, and teachers' training. 

The Norwegian Institute for Water Research

The Norwegian Institute for Water Research (NIVA) is Norway’s leading institute for fundamental and applied research on marine and freshwaters. The institute’s research comprises a wide array of environmental, climatic and resource-related fields. NIVA’s world-class expertise is multidisciplinary with a broad scientific scope and we combine research, monitoring, evaluation, problem-solving and advisory services at international, national and local levels. 

University of Iceland

The University of Iceland is the leading university in Iceland and plays an active role in society and in the international scientific community. Currently some 13,000 students are enrolled at the University, including almost 1,400 international students. The University of Iceland comprises five schools and 25 faculties offering over four hundred different programmes of study. Dynamic and extensive collaboration with key research institutions and industry is an important factor in the University’s operations. Furthermore, working with leading universities all over the world provides the foundation for an international network of knowledge. 


Eawag is the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology. Eawag is Swiss-based and internationally linked and committed to an ecological, economical and socially responsible management of water – the primary source of all life.

Marriage ceremony

Number of gay marriages in churches remains very small

The majority of places of worship that permit same-sex marriage only carry out a small number of ceremonies, with roughly half having actually married a gay couple, a new study shows.

A report by the University of Leeds and the University of York highlights the disadvantage faced by same-sex couples seeking a religious marriage ceremony.

Same-sex couples are prohibited from marrying in approximately 40,000 places of worship that permit different-sex couples to marry, and there are only 182 places of worship registered for same-sex marriage.

The researchers found that registering a place of worship for same-sex marriage can sometimes create tensions between it and the broader religious group of which it is a part, and can attract opposition and antagonism from other religious groups in their local areas.

Registering a place of worship can also produce conflict within a congregation and some members of a church may decide to leave.

During debates over the enactment of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013, considerable attention was given to the need for protections for individuals who do not want to participate in same-sex weddings — as ministers, or choristers, for example.

However, the report shows that very few people refuse to participate and therefore require these legal protections.

Study co-author, Robert Vanderbeck, Professor of Human Geography at the University of Leeds said: “Although many claims have been made about how the introduction of same-sex marriage would affect religious groups that offer it, this study provides the first systematic glimpse of what is actually happening on the ground in churches and other places of worship.

“For instance, despite worries to the contrary, in ninety percent of places of worship no person has refused to participate in a same-sex marriage ceremony”.

The report also found that many places of worship say that registering for same-sex marriage has produced positive benefits within a congregation. These include strengthening the solidarity of existing members, supporting existing LGBT members, and attracting new members.

The research report shows that among places of worship that have performed a same-sex marriage, three-quarters have provided a religious marriage ceremony to a same-sex couple that has not previously worshiped there, indicating that they welcome couples who are excluded from marrying in their own place of worship.

Study co-author, Professor Paul Johnson, Head of the University of York’s Department of Sociology, said: “Some places of worship regard their commitment to same-sex marriage as a positive way of advertising and marketing their faith and practice.”

However, despite many positive findings, the report emphasis that many same-sex couples still face obstacles in seeking religious marriage ceremonies.

Study co-author, Dr Silvia Falcetta, from the University of York’s Department of Sociology, said: “This report shows that same-sex couples are at a significant disadvantage to different-sex couples, because same-sex couples are more likely to live in an area where there is no scope to be married in a place of worship according to a desired religious ceremony.” 

Notes to editors

The research presented in the report focuses on those religious organizations in England and Wales that are legally required, if they wish to solemnize the marriage of same-sex couples, to register a certified place of worship for this purpose, and have chosen to do so. 

To carry out the research, the researchers designed an online survey for distribution to places of worship that had opted in to solemnizing same-sex marriage between 2014 and 2016.  These places of worship are affiliated to a number of religious groups, including Baptists, Buddhists, Christian Spiritualists, Congregationalists, Lutherans, Protestant Dissenters, Reformed Church of the Netherlands, Spiritualists, Unitarians, the United Reformed Church, and other designated religions.

Of the 139 places of worship registered for the solemnization of same-sex marriage at the time of the research, the researchers were able to establish contact with and distribute the survey to 113 of these in early September 2017. By early November they had received responses from 71 places of worship, representing a response rate of 63%.

Additional information

The report Religious marriage of same-sex couples is available: 

For additional information and to request interviews please contact Anna Harrison, Press Officer at the University of Leeds, on +44 (0)113 34 34196 or a.harrison(at) 

University of Leeds 

The University of Leeds is one of the largest higher education institutions in the UK, with more than 33,000 students from more than 150 different countries, and a member of the Russell Group of research-intensive universities. 

We are a top ten university for research and impact power in the UK, according to the 2014 Research Excellence Framework, and are in the top 100 for academic reputation in the QS World University Rankings 2018. Additionally, the University was awarded a Gold rating by the Government’s Teaching Excellence Framework in 2017, recognising its ‘consistently outstanding’ teaching and learning provision. Twenty-four of our academics have been awarded National Teaching Fellowships – more than any other institution in England, Northern Ireland and Wales – reflecting the excellence of our teaching. 

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Climate change could increase volcano eruptions

Shrinking glacier cover could lead to increased volcanic activity in Iceland, warn scientists.

A new study, led by the University of Leeds, has found that there was less volcanic activity in Iceland when glacier cover was more extensive and as the glaciers melted volcanic eruptions increased due to subsequent changes in surface pressure.

Dr Graeme Swindles, from the School of Geography at Leeds, said: “Climate change caused by humans is creating rapid ice melt in volcanically active regions. In Iceland, this has put us on a path to more frequent volcanic eruptions.”

The study examined Icelandic volcanic ash preserved in peat deposits and lake sediments and identified a period of significantly reduced volcanic activity between 5,500 and 4,500 years ago. This period came after a major decrease in global temperature, which caused glacier growth in Iceland.

The findings, published today in the journal Geology, found there was a time lag of roughly 600 years between the climate event and a noticeable decrease in the number of volcanic eruptions. The study suggests that perhaps a similar time lag can be expected following the more recent shift to warmer temperatures.

Iceland’s volcanic system is in process of recovering from the ‘Little Ice Age’ — a recorded period of colder climate roughly between the years 1500 to 1850. Since the end of the Little Ice Age, a combination of natural and human caused climate warming is causing Icelandic glaciers to melt again.

Dr Swindles said: “The human effect on global warming makes it difficult to predict how long the time lag will be but the trends of the past show us more eruptions in Iceland can be expected in the future.

“These long term consequences of human effect on the climate is why summits like COP are so important. It is vital to understand how actions today can impact future generations in ways that have not been fully realised, such as more ash clouds over Europe, more particles in the atmosphere and problems for aviation. “

Icelandic volcanism is controlled by complex interactions between rifts in continental plate boundaries, underground gas and magma build-up and pressure on the volcano’s surface from glaciers and ice. Changes in surface pressure can alter the stress on shallow chambers where magma builds up.

Study co-author, Dr Ivan Savov, from the School of Earth & Environment at Leeds, explains: “When glaciers retreat there is less pressure on the Earth’s surface. This can increase the amount of mantle melt as well as affect magma flow and how much magma the crust can hold.

“Even small changes in surface pressure can alter the likelihood of eruptions at ice-covered volcanos.”

Further information 

The research paper, Climatic control on Icelandic volcanic activity during the mid?Holocene, was published in Geology 16 November 2017. 

For additional information and to request interviews please contact Anna Harrison, Press Officer at the University of Leeds, on +44 (0)113 34 34196 or a.harrison(at) 

University of Leeds 

The University of Leeds is one of the largest higher education institutions in the UK, with more than 33,000 students from more than 150 different countries, and a member of the Russell Group of research-intensive universities. 

We are a top ten university for research and impact power in the UK, according to the 2014 Research Excellence Framework, and are in the top 100 for academic reputation in the QS World University Rankings 2018. Additionally, the University was awarded a Gold rating by the Government’s Teaching Excellence Framework in 2017, recognising its ‘consistently outstanding’ teaching and learning provision. Twenty-four of our academics have been awarded National Teaching Fellowships – more than any other institution in England, Northern Ireland and Wales – reflecting the excellence of our teaching. 

Follow University of Leeds or tag us in to coverage

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Natural Environment Research Council

NERC is the UK's main agency for funding and managing research, training and knowledge exchange in the environmental sciences. Our work covers the full range of atmospheric, Earth, biological, terrestrial and aquatic science, from the deep oceans to the upper atmosphere and from the poles to the equator. We co-ordinate some of the world's most exciting research projects, tackling major issues such as climate change, environmental influences on human health, the genetic make-up of life on Earth, and much more. NERC is a non-departmental public body. We receive around £330m of annual funding from the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS).

People in floodwater

New research aims to protect communities at risk from flooding

An innovative project aims to demonstrate that landscape restoration could protect at-risk upland communities from flash flooding. 

Professor Joseph Holden, director of water@leeds at the University of Leeds, is co-investigator on the £1.2m project, which will investigate natural flood management methods as a low-cost way to reduce flooding in rural communities that are near steep upland streams and rivers. 

Because vulnerable rural communities are often small and spread out they are rarely targeted for expensive traditional flood defences. 

Previous research has shown that upland restoration can have a substantial impact on the flow of water during storms. Reintroducing vegetation to bare soils and damming up erosional channels increases the roughness of the land’s surface and slows the flow of water entering streams. This delays the release of water from the uplands and reduces peak stream flow during storms, alleviating the chance of flooding downstream. 

Professor Holden, from the School of Geography at Leeds, said: “It is vitally important that we understand how peatland restoration design can support downstream flood management. This new NERC-funded project builds upon a track record of peatland research undertaken by water@leeds and the School of Geography with our partners and will enable us to make a step change in supporting evidence-based investment decisions that benefit communities at risk of flooding. 

“It ensures that we can maximise the opportunities to obtain multiple benefits from protecting our peatlands, ranging from storing carbon in the landscape through to reducing flood risk.” 

The project will improve understanding of how to dam up erosional channels (gullies), assess the impact of restoring Sphagnum moss cover on moorlands, and determine how newly-planted upland woodlands affect storm flow. 

It will also assess the longer-term evolution of woodland and gully blocking approaches, which is important as investment in natural flood management requires confidence in the long-term impact of restoration and maintenance of the interventions. 

The project will develop user-friendly computer simulations to assess possible interventions and will work with partners to investigate how the project’s findings can be applied to elsewhere in the UK. 

Partners on this project include the University of Manchester, the Moors for the Future Partnership, Durham University and Greater Manchester, Merseyside and Cheshire Environment Agency, Natural Resources Wales, Scottish Environmental Protection Agency and International Union the Conservation for Nature. 

“Our previous work has suggested that moorland restoration has the potential to reduce flood peaks downstream,” said project lead Professor Martin Evans, Head of The University of Manchester’s School of Environment, Education and Development. “This funding from NERC will allow us to investigate the degree to which these approaches might offer useful flood risk protection to communities living in the headwaters of our rivers.” 

The project is one of only three to be granted funding by NERC (National Environmental Research Council), as part of their Understanding the Effectiveness of Natural Flood Management programme.

Excellent position for geography in world league table 

The ShanghaiRanking’s Global Ranking of Academic Subjects 2017 has placed Leeds at 14th in the world for geography.

This excellent position demonstrates the Faculty of Environment’s commitment to world-class teaching and research.

It is further backed by the School of Geography’s place within the top 5 in the UK for research power, according to the latest Research Excellence Framework 2014.

ShanghaiRanking measures research productivity and quality, the extent of international collaboration and the highest academic recognitions achieved.

The rankings were released on 15 August by ShanghaiRanking Consultancy.

Excellent student satisfaction results for the Faculty of Environment

The Faculty of Environment has achieved excellent student satisfaction results in the 2017 National Student Survey (NSS). The School of Geography achieved 94% overall student satisfaction.

Geology scored highly with 98% overall student satisfaction and Physical Geography and Environmental Science achieved 97%, with both areas ranked 1st out of all Russell Group universities.

There were other strong scores in the rest of the Faculty. Human and Social Geography achieved 92% overall student satisfaction.

The University of Leeds also performed well, scoring 89% for overall satisfaction. This is the highest score among the Russell Group institutions for which data is available. Three other universities in the group had the same score.

Leeds scored highly in the learning resources category, coming top in the Russell Group with a score of 91% across the category relating to library and IT resources.

In instances where universities did not return institution-level results this is likely to be because a 50% response rate was needed for publication.

Some institutions will not have met this threshold due to their student unions taking part in a boycott of the survey. In addition there have been extensive changes made to they survey, which may affect comparisons with previous years.

The 13th National Student Survey ran from January to April 2017, and is sponsored by the HEFCE. Final year students were asked to indicate their level of agreement with 27 statements regarding their experience of their course.

Great hall

University of Leeds awarded Gold in Teaching Excellence Framework

The University of Leeds has achieved the highest award in the pilot year of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), designed by the Government to assess the quality of teaching in higher education.

Gold means that the independent TEF panel judged that the University delivers “consistently outstanding teaching, learning and outcomes for our students, of the highest quality found in the UK”.

Sir Alan Langlands, Vice-Chancellor at the University of Leeds, said: “Leeds achieves sector-leading student education and an outstanding all-round experience, which has also been recognised by a top five position in the Times Higher Education Student Experience Survey 2017 and by being named University of the Year in The Times and The Sunday Times.

“We welcome the TEF panel’s focus on the excellent support we offer students from all backgrounds, which resonates with our ambitions to develop independent, critical thinkers who are determined to make their mark on the world. Higher education is dynamic and we will always strive to improve further.

“Above all, this Gold award is a tribute to the hard work, innovation and creativity of our staff and students.” 

The TEF feedback stated: 

  • The provider metrics supplemented by the submission indicate that students from all backgrounds achieve consistently outstanding outcomes.
  • There are very high levels of retention and progression to employment and to highly skilled employment or further study. Student satisfaction with teaching is notably above the University’s benchmark. 

Its judgement reflects, in particular, evidence of: 

  • An embedded ethos of the Leeds partnership with students that ensures that students take charge of their experiences with academic and co-curricular opportunities that can enhance their learning while preparing them for the world beyond the University;
  • A strong emphasis led from the most senior levels, placed on education that is inspired by discovery, global and cultural insight, ethics and responsibility, and employability;
  • Students as active contributors to their education through initiatives such as LeedsforLife, which ensures and enables them to become subject professionals with transferable skills;
  • Longstanding strategic interventions to facilitate widening participation for students from all backgrounds and modes of study, such as Access to Leeds, which is one of the largest contextualised schemes in the sector;
  • An embedded culture of reward and recognition that facilitates, recognises and rewards excellent teaching including through an annual event to celebrate excellent contributions to education by staff and students;
  • A creative approach to supporting students in their independent learning that typifies an embedded strategic approach to providing outstanding physical and digital resources.  

Going with the flow: Tackling the environmental management of river flow

Ensuring the economic, cultural and ecological value of rivers through more effective water flow management is the focus of a new research project led by the University of Leeds.

The new project is a ‘European training and research network for environmental flow management in river basins (Euro-flow)’, which will look beyond localised experiments and solutions and instead work collaboratively across disciplines, institutes and international boundaries.

Wildlife and human needs, such as water supplies and hydropower, depend on the healthy flow of rivers. Attempts to regulate the flow of rivers, either through dams, reservoirs or flood prevention, can often cause a major stress on ecosystems and water users. 

The Euro-flow project is an international network of universities and businesses which will develop new insights into river management through experiments, large scale surveys and cutting-edge models. There will be strong emphasis on training a new cohort of researchers to be the science, business and policy leaders in the field of river and stream management.

Project leader Dr Lee Brown, from the School of Geography, said: “Modifying and managing river flow causes ripple effects in ecosystems and human society which are still not well understood. We need to find ways of managing these flows to maintain important services such as flood prevention and hydropower while protecting and in some cases rejuvenating the aquatic environment

“River managers and scientists need to work together to develop this fundamental understanding to provide the best possible assistance with decision-making in the light of climate and environmental change.”

The £3 million Euro-flow project currently incorporates 10 universities and 12 business partners, including local business partner Yorkshire Water.

Same-sex couples denied religious marriage ceremonies

Discrimination against same-sex couples denied religious marriage is endemic, says a new study.

Research by academics at the Universities of Leeds and York highlights the prevailing extent of discrimination against same-sex couples wanting religious marriage ceremonies.

Professor Robert Vanderbeck from the School of Geography at Leeds and Professor Paul Johnson, from the Department of Sociology at York, examined the legal framework in England and Wales that allows religious organisations to refuse to marry same-sex couples. Professor Vanderbeck and Professor Johnson found that same-sex couples are excluded from approximately 40,200 places of worship in which opposite-sex couples can get married.

Same-sex couples are not permitted to marry in any of the 17,350 churches of the Church of England and the Church in Wales, or in nearly 23,000 other places of worship, such as Roman Catholic churches, Islamic mosques, and Hindu temples.

Although same-sex marriage has been legal in England and Wales since 2014, religious organisations are under no obligation to extend their marriage services to gay couples.

Only 139 places of worship are registered to perform same-sex marriage in England and Wales, meaning approximately 99.5 per cent do not offer it. Just 23 same-sex couples had a religious marriage ceremony in 2014, compared with over 68,000 opposite-sex couples. 

Discovery of 'hidden forests' adds at least 9% to global forest area

By using very high resolution satellite imagery available through the Google Earth platform, they found an additional 467 million hectares of forest in the world’s drylands – arid areas that cover 42% of the Earth’s land surface.

A group of researchers at the University of Leeds led by Dr Alan Grainger, was part of an international team headed by Dr Danilo Mollicone of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in Rome. Their findings are published today in Science.

Dr Grainger, from Leeds’ School of Geography, said: “According to our measurements, in 2015 there were 1,079 million hectares of forest in the world’s drylands. 
“This is more than 40% larger than estimated previously, and means the combined area of dry forest is very similar to the area of the more famous tropical moist forest found in such areas as Amazonia, Borneo and the Congo Basin.”

For a long time it was generally assumed that global forest area of all types was about 4,000 million hectares, though this figure was known to be uncertain. 
“By adding the 467 million hectares of these hidden forests to the 3,890 million hectares of forest found in a recent global forest map, we arrived at a new estimate of 4,357 million hectares,” said Dr Grainger. “This is 9% higher than the commonly accepted total of about 4,000 million hectares.”

“This research has major implications for our understanding of the role of forests in the global forest carbon cycle, which plays an important role in global climate change: first, because there is more forest than previously thought; and second, because almost two thirds of dry forest has a closed canopy, instead of consisting of trees scattered at low density over grasslands, as in the previous typical picture of dry forest.”

Top 15 in the Guardian University Guide 2018

The Faculty of Environment has achieved top 15 rankings in the Guardian University Guide 2018.

The Schools of Geography and Earth and Environment have seen improvements in this year’s rankings for Geography and Environmental Sciences, moving up by 5 places from 16th to 11th.

The Faculty also achieved success with a top 10 position for Earth and Marine Sciences.

The University of Leeds overall has also risen this year, moving up two places to become 14th in the UK.

The Guardian University Guide judges universities in areas such as students’ course, teaching and feedback satisfaction levels as well as student spend and employability.

Drilling down into the mysteries of the world’s highest glacier

Climate change scientists are heading to the Himalayas in a bid to become the first to successfully drill through the world’s highest glacier.

An international research team will spend up to six weeks working at an altitude of more than 5000 metres on the Khumbu glacier in Nepal and will be using a specially adapted car wash unit to drill up to 200 metres into the ice.

Once the drilling has been completed, the team, led by Dr Duncan Quincey from the University of Leeds, will be able to study the glacier’s internal structure, measure its temperature, how quickly it flows and how water drains through it.

Flood prevention measures need closer monitoring

Natural measures to manage river flooding can play a valuable role in flood prevention, but a lack of monitoring means their true potential remains unclear, researchers say.

A team of experts, including Professor Joseph Holden at the University of Leeds, has compiled the evidence on natural flood management in the UK, in order to better inform policy decisions and show where crucial gaps in knowledge lie.

The authors say natural measures have proved useful at preventing flooding after minor rainstorms, and can be a worthwhile component of a larger package of flood prevention measures. For measures such as tree planting which aim to change the way rainfall runs off the land, the evidence of the impact on flooding is mixed. Meanwhile, measures to restore natural floodplains by “making room for the river”, for example by removing flood walls and other obstacles, have been shown to reduce flood water levels.

Natural flood management is an area of increasing interest for policy makers, but its implementation can present a complex balancing act between the needs of different groups, including the public, farmers and land owners. Mixed messages about the efficacy and scalability of natural flood management measures add to the uncertainty surrounding their benefits.

Professor Holden, Director of water@leeds and leader of the Natural Environment Research Council’s Integrated Catchment Solutions Programme (iCASP) at the University’s School of Geography, said: “The 2015 Boxing Day floods proved yet again the cost and the danger of extreme floods in the UK. Reactionary measures to prevent flooding may not provide the defences needed as climate change continues to affect our weather and instances of extreme flooding increase.

“We need collaborative approaches to build knowledge and evidence to support the use of natural flood management as part of wider integrated solutions. Programmes like iCASP that involve joined-up thinking and planning across all aspects of river catchment systems will be invaluable in evaluating and establishing the best possible strategies for flood management.” 

The review and assessment of scientific evidence about natural flood monitoring came from a variety of sources, ranging from field data to model projections and expert opinion. The findings are published today in Proceedings of the Royal Society.

QS World University Rankings by Subject 2017

The School of Geography at the University of Leeds has had another successful year in the 2017 QS World University Rankings by Subject.

The annual survey evaluated 3,551 universities globally, on a range of subject areas and disciplines.

The rankings by subject are based on criteria such as academic reputation, employer reputation and research impact.

The School’s key acheivements include:

  • 11th in the UK and Top 25 in the World
  • Top 15 in the UK for Academic Reputation
  • Top 15 in the UK for Research Impact 

Further information

For a full breakdown of the University of Leeds results by subject, visit the QS World University Rankings by Subject 2017 website.

Carbon uptake by Amazon forests matches Amazon nations’ carbon emissions 

Carbon emissions across all nine Amazon nations have been fully matched by carbon absorption by mature Amazon forests since the 1980s, new research shows.

Study lead author Professor Oliver Phillips, from the University of Leeds, said: “Since 1980 roughly 430 million tonnes of carbon has been absorbed by pristine Amazon rainforest each year, which is almost four times the UK emissions for 2016. For the nations of the Amazon basin as a whole this means that since 1980 the carbon uptake has matched the entire combined emissions from deforestation and fossil fuels.”

Co-author Dr Roel Brienen, also from the Leeds School of Geography, said: “This reveals the sheer scale of the ecosystem service the Amazon forests are providing. We’ve known that the Amazon rainforest forest provides a ‘carbon sink’ but until now no one had looked at those absorption figures in the context of national boundaries. We found that in nearly every nation carbon uptake has outstripped emissions from fossil fuels.”

The Amazon rainforest’s carbon sink, also known as carbon sequestration, is the process by which the forest removes and stores carbon from the atmosphere. A study, published today in Carbon Balance and Management, compared estimates of the Amazon rainforest carbon sink to fossil fuel emissions data from the 9 countries where mature Amazon forests are found – Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Peru, Suriname and Venezuela, as well as emissions from forest loss and degradation.

Climate policies alone will not save Earth's most diverse tropical forests

A focus on policies to conserve tropical forests for their carbon storage value may imperil some of the world’s most biologically rich tropical forests, says new research. 

Many countries have climate-protection policies designed to conserve tropical forests to keep their carbon locked up in trees. But the new study suggests these policies could miss some of the most diverse forests because there is no clear connection between the number of tree species in a forest and how much carbon that forest stores. 

Lead author Dr Martin Sullivan, from the School of Geography at the University of Leeds, said: “International programmes often encourage the conservation of forests with high carbon stocks, because their focus is to try to slow climate change. Until now, we didn’t know whether these programmes would also automatically protect the most biodiverse forests. It turns out they probably won’t.” 

A team of scientists from 22 countries measured both tree diversity and the amount of carbon stored in 360 locations across the lowland rainforests of the Amazon, Africa and Asia. In each plot the carbon stored was calculated using the diameter and identity of every tree within a given hectare (2.5 acres). In total 200,000 trees were measured in the study. 

The results, published in Scientific Reports, show that African tropical forests, spanning the Congo and West Africa store high levels of carbon, but are the least species rich. Forests in the Amazon and Asia, mostly in Borneo, have the greatest diversity of tree species, yet the Amazon tends to store less carbon per hectare than forests in Africa and Asia. 

Co-author, Dr Joey Talbot, also from the University of Leeds, explained: “In many ecosystems, sites with more species tend to lock up more carbon. But this doesn’t work for tropical forests. Most tropical forests already have many species, and it may be that beyond a certain point adding even more species makes no difference to carbon stocks.” 

Researchers discover world’s largest tropical peatland in remote Congo swamps

A vast peatland in the Congo Basin has been mapped for the first time, revealing it to be the largest in the tropics.  

The new study found that the Cuvette Centrale peatlands in the central Congo Basin, which were unknown to exist five years ago, cover 145,500 square kilometres – an area larger than England. They lock in 30 billion tonnes of carbon making the region one of the most carbon-rich ecosystems on Earth.

The UK-Congolese research team spent three years exploring remote tropical swamp forests to find samples of peat for laboratory analysis. Their research, published today in Nature, combined the peat analysis with satellite data to estimate that the Congo Basin peatlands store the equivalent of three years of the world’s total fossil fuel emissions.

Co-leaders of the study, Professor Simon Lewis and Dr Greta Dargie, from University of Leeds and University College London first discovered the peatlands’, existence during fieldwork in 2012.

Professor Lewis said: “Our research shows that the peat in the central Congo Basin covers a colossal amount of land. It is 16 times larger than the previous estimate and is the single largest peatland complex found anywhere in the tropics. We have also found 30 billion tonnes of carbon that nobody knew existed. The peat covers only 4 per cent of the whole Congo Basin, but stores the same amount of carbon below ground as that stored above ground in the trees covering the other 96 per cent. 

Volcano erupting

New study estimates frequency of volcanic eruptions

Researchers from the School of Geography and School of Earth and Environment have published a paper in Earth and Planetary Science Letters: Estimating the frequency of volcanic ash clouds over northern Europe.

Lead author Dr Liz Watson, from the School of Geography, said: “Reliable estimates of the frequency of volcanic ash events could help airlines, insurance companies and the travelling public mitigate the economic losses and disruption caused by ash clouds in the future.”

The University of Leeds researchers, alongside academics from the universities of St Andrews and South Florida, used electron microscopy and chemical analysis on samples of volcanic ash fallout to pinpoint at what point volcanic ash clouds had spread across the continent.

The team found evidence of 84 ash clouds during the last 7,000 years, most of which could be traced to eruptions from Icelandic volcanoes.

Co-author Dr Graeme Swindles is Associate Professor of Earth System Dynamics in the School of Geography at Leeds. He said: “In 2010, when Eyjafjallajökull erupted, people were really shocked – it seemed to come completely out of the blue, but the eruption of Grímsvötn, the following year, was an extraordinary coincidence.

“Although it is possible that ash clouds can occur on an annual basis, the average return interval for the last 1,000 years is around 44 years.

“The last time volcanic ash clouds affected northern Europe before the recent event was in 1947, 69 years ago – but aviation was much less intense at that time and it simply didn’t have the same sort of impact.

“Our research shows that, over thousands of years, these sorts of incidents are not that rare – but people wondering how likely it is that the 2010 chaos will be repeated in the next few years can feel somewhat reassured.”

The researchers also looked at the intensity of the eruptions responsible for producing volcanic ash clouds. They found that volcanic activity likely to produce ashfall in northern Europe would typically measure four or above on the internationally-recognised Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI).

“Eruptions can’t always be indexed rapidly,” explained co-author Dr Ivan Savov, of Leeds’ School of Earth and Environment.

“But in cases where that calculation can be made early on, it will give a good indication of the likelihood of volcanic ash causing a major problem.

“The 2010 eruption cost billions in terms of lost revenues and there was an effect on the global economy, so the work we’ve been able to do to quantify the risk will be of interest to insurance companies trying to make sense of the potential for future air traffic disruptions.”


Leeds is top UK university environmental impact of research

Times Higher Education news story has  shown Leeds is the top UK university for the environmental impact  of its research and eighth in the world between 2011-2015, based on field weighted citation impact (from Elsevier’s Scopus database). Utrecht University in The Netherlands came top, followed by Stanford, Stockholm and Harvard. The University of Oxford came ninth.

Leeds’ score was boosted by having highly cited researchers on multi-author papers, such as Oliver Philips (School of Geography), whose paper A large and persistent sink in the world’s forests (Science, 2011) had 1733 citations; Andy Shepherd, Professor of Earth Observation and Director of the NERC Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling and lead author of A reconciled estimate of ice-sheet mass balance (Science, 2012), which had 557 citations, and Priestley International Centre for Climate director Piers Forster, one of four lead authors of Bounding the role of black carbon in the climate system: A Scientific Assessment, a multi-author paper by Bond et al (Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres 2013), which had 1269.

Cocktail of drugs polluting rivers

A study by scientists in the School of Geography suggests that pharmaceuticals are polluting our rivers more than pesticides. 

In a research paper on pharmaceutical pollution in the rivers Aire and Calder in West Yorkshire, published in the journal Environmental Pollution, the scientists highlight the lack of legislation to regulate the presence of drugs in rivers.

Dr Paul Kay, from the research centre water@leeds at the University of Leeds, said: “It’s worrying how little legislation exists for pharmaceuticals in our rivers. Pharmaceuticals are an important environmental pollutant and they should be added to and regulated under existing policies.”

Although the likelihood of human health impacts due to pharmaceuticals in the environment is low, their presence is a major ecological concern due to the potential for effects on aquatic organism behaviour, growth, reproduction and mortality at trace concentrations.

Previous studies of UK pharmaceutical pollution had focused on south-east England and parts of south Wales, with very few studies in central, western and northern England or Scotland.

In the new study, the researchers sampled water from the rivers Aire and Calder over an 18-month period, looking for five specific drugs: ibuprofen, erythromycin, diclofenac, mefanamic acid and propanolol.

Dr Lee Brown, also from water@leeds and a co-author of the paper, said: “Pharmaceutical pollution of rivers is not yet regulated, and in 46% of the samples we found the concentration of the anti-inflammatory drug diclofenac was more than double the limit proposed by the European Commission. The scale of the problem is clear when we compare with pesticides in the UK, which exceed the threshold for only 6% of samples monitored.” 

Major new water solutions programme to benefit the Yorkshire economy by £50 million

A new £6 million project led by the University of Leeds is predicted to bring a £50 million benefit to the Yorkshire economy by reducing the costs and impact of water-related threats to the region. 

Bringing together partners from across the region and using existing research funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), the team will look to join up ways of improving water quality, resilience to floods and droughts, carbon storage and biodiversity. In doing so, the project will make more efficient uses of resources and enable planning across the whole catchment area, bringing both economic and societal benefits.

Work on the project, called Yorkshire Integrated Catchment Solutions Programme (iCASP), will begin in March 2017.

Professor Joseph Holden, leader of Yorkshire iCASP and Director of the University’s research group water@leeds, said: "By creating a region that is better able to deal with a more variable climate, and develop integrated solutions to floods, droughts, water quality and carbon storage it will become an area that attracts investment as people and their businesses opt to live and work in an area that has adapted to the severe effects of environmental change, with improved quality of life."

People in boat

Dr Tim Baker will lead a new project to understand the resilience of the forests of the Peruvian Andes Amazon region to climate change

Dr Tim Baker will lead a new project funded by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation to understand the resilience of the forests of the Peruvian Andes Amazon region to climate change and incorporate this information into the management of the protected area network. 

The project, also involving Professor Oliver Phillips and the Instituto de Investigaciones de la Amazonia Peruana, the Jardin Botanico de Missouri, Wake Forest University, the Wildlife Conservation Society – Peru and the Servicio Nacional de Areas Naturales Protegidas, Peru (SERNANP; the Peruvian Protected Areas Authority), builds on the long-term RAINFOR forest plot network in Amazonia. 

The protected areas of the Andes Amazon region of Peru contain some of the world’s most diverse forests and are a natural laboratory for studying the effects of climate change in the tropics. 

This project will use permanent forest plots located along gradients of rainfall, elevation and flood duration to compare how different environmental drivers are affecting forest structure and composition. 

By working closely with SERNANP, a key component of the project is to inform management policies of the protected areas of the Peruvian Andes Amazon region. 

The $1.5 million project aims to integrate the permanent plot network with the protected area monitoring system of SERNANP, as well as ensuring that the results inform management plans for economically-important species and are used to design a protected area network that is resilient to climate change.

Modern Day Slavery – Dr Louise Waite talks to ITV Calendar News

Home Office figures suggest there are up to 13,000 people in the UK being held in modern-day slavery.

This month a new national campaign has been launched to not only raise awareness but also tackle the crime.

Dr Louise Waite, Associate Professor in Human Geography from the School of Geography, University of Leeds, appeared on ITV Calendar News on 6 Oct 2016 to talk about modern-day slavery and forced labour in the UK.

Uprooted – Brixton housing documentary at the Ritzy

A new documentary on the London housing crisis, partly based on research by Dr Stuart Hodkinson, is being screened on 5 June at the Ritzy, in Brixton. Uprooted, by award-winning director Ross Domoney, follows the last days of two residents on the Myatts Field North estate in Lambeth as it goes through a regeneration programme.

Dr Hodkinson's ESRC project explored residents' experiences of housing regeneration under the controversial Private Finance Initiative and will be talking about the Myatts Field North experience alongside residents.See a trailer here.

Cutting fuel costs and CO2 emissions

Cars of the future which advise how to drive more safely and economically could bring significant cuts in fuel consumption and emissions.

Eco-driving systems offer visual guidance to drivers, usually built in to satellite navigation systems or via smartphone apps.The systems are not yet widely available, but manufacturers are looking at installing them in their next generation of cars.

The ecoDriver project, led by the Institute for Transport Studies at Leeds with industry partners including BMW, Daimler, CRF (Fiat-Chrysler) and TomTom Telematics, showed that drivers of cars which had such systems installed saved an average of 4.2% in fuel and CO2 emissions, with an even higher saving of 5.8% on rural roads. Embedded systems – ones built in to vehicles – were more effective than apps, with fuel savings of up to 6% (against an average 2.5% for the smartphone app).

The findings are the aggregated results of on-road trials in 2014-2015, which involved nine separate trial locations in seven EU countries, including around 200 drivers, 61 vehicles, 11 different systems and a total of 340,000 km driven.   Professor Oliver Carsten, Professor of Transport Safety and ecoDriver co-ordinator, said: “The results from our trials with a large range of eco-driving systems indicate substantial fuel and energy savings can be gained when drivers are given precisely tailored advice on the best speed and gear for cutting fuel costs and emissions, as well as foresight of how to drive when approaching a particular road or traffic situation.

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Freddie Draper wins Leeds University Postgraduate Researcher of the Year

Many congratulations to Freddie Draper who won the Leeds University Postgraduate Researcher of the Year award on the 8th December. This year’s awards focussed on the actual and potential impact of research; Freddie’s work, focussed on mapping and understanding the distribution of peat and biodiversity in Amazonian swamps has been used as the science basis for a new $6 million conservation project in Peru. This new investment is the first project to be funded by the Green Climate Fund (GCF;, the major international funding mechanism that has been created to fund mitigation and adaptation to climate change in developing countries.

The project will promote and develop sustainable ‘bio-businesses’, including sustainable palm fruit harvesting, with indigenous communities along the Pastaza and Morona rivers of the northern Peruvian Amazon. The GCF funding for this initiative is justified on the basis that these activities will protect the high peatland carbon stocks of the region – which were calculated based on Freddie’s work. The potential impact of Freddie’s work is, however, even larger. The location of this successful GCF proposal is only on the fringes of mapped peat deposits and does not include the areas with the highest carbon stocks.

The overall aim of on-going work with supervisors Tim Baker, Katy Roucoux and Ian Lawson is to support the development of sustainable protected areas across the whole of this peatland complex - an area of currently largely undisturbed tropical rain forest that is equivalent to the size of England.

More than half of all tree species in the Amazon may be globally threatened

Professor Oliver Phillips, from the School of Geography at the University of Leeds, said: "To put the threat to Amazon diversity in context, this unprecedented analysis shows that for each tree species found in the British Isles there are now up to one hundred and seventy threatened in the Amazon."

Forests in the Amazon have been declining since the 1950s, but scientists still have a poor understanding of how this has affected populations of individual species.

The new study compared data from forest surveys across the Amazon with maps of current and projected deforestation to estimate how many tree species have been lost, and where.

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Peatland Code could significantly cut greenhouse gas emissions

A new Government-backed code has been launched that could slash UK carbon dioxide emissions by 220 million tonnes and protect rare wildlife by restoring moors, bogs and mires.

The Peatland Code wass unveiled at the World Forum for Natural Capital in Edinburgh on 23 November following a successful two-year trial, which has seen businesses fund peatland restoration projects in southwest England, the Lake District and Wales.

The Code is based on research by academics at the University of Leeds and Birmingham City University, which revealed that sustainable business investment could reverse the degradation of peatlands and significantly cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Professor Joseph Holden, from the School of Geography, who led research, said: “The peatlands of the UK are our own version of the Amazon rainforest. They need to be protected. They are home to some of our rare and endangered wildlife.

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Air quality management leaves poor behind

Analysis of a decade of air quality change in Britain has revealed that deprived neighbourhoods have benefited least from improving air quality, and bear a growing share of the remaining poor and failing air quality.

Using air quality data produced for government’s compliance reporting to the EU, a national spatial analysis of air quality change from 2001 to 2011 related changes in concentrations of atmospheric nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and fine particulates (PM10) to area deprivation. Levels of NO2 fell substantially over the period, whilst PM10 levels rose marginally, probably due to the increasing popularity of diesel vehicles.

The study, by Gordon Mitchell, Paul Norman and Karen Mullin, shows that air quality improvement was fastest in the most affluent neighbourhoods, nearly all of which now comply with the NO2 annual average standard. Of the half a million people that still live in an area that does not comply with this standard, 85% are in the most deprived neighbourhoods, up from 66% in 2001. No areas exceed the annual average PM10 standard, but over 9 million people now reside in areas above the more stringent WHO guideline value, of which 59% are in the most deprived areas.

The results, published in Environmental Research Letters, imply that the substantial national burden of disease from air quality  (29,000 premature deaths/yr from particulates and 23,500 deaths/yr from NO2) is increasingly falling on the poor. The authors call on government to make equity analysis part of their clean air planning, to ensure that the most vulnerable populations are treated fairly and adequately protected.

Gordon Mitchell, Paul Norman and Karen Mullin (In press) Who benefits from environmental policy? An environmental justice analysis of air quality change in Britain, 2001-2011. Environmental Research Letters, 10 105009.

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Unlocking the secrets of consumer behaviour

The Consumer Data Research Centre (CDRC), directed by Professor Mark Birkin of the school of Geography, launches its data services today, offering new data for researchers to garner unprecedented insights into consumer behaviour.

The multi-million pound Consumer Data Research Centre (CDRC) initiative, commissioned by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), is a collaboration between the UK's leading universities and a growing list of industry partners to better understand the millions of data points we generate each day. 

Bringing together the universities of Leeds, Liverpool, Oxford and University College London, the CDRC has created a safe and secure data infrastructure which seeks to share these insights with academia, industry and the public at large.

Whilst protecting privacy, data will - for the first time - be routinely collected and shared with the CDRC by major retailers, local government organisations and businesses across the UK to improve understanding of these complex patterns of consumer behaviour.

The aim is to use these findings to inform efforts to tackle a wide range of social and environmental challenges, such as improving transport planning, studying the latest ethical consumer trends to help companies understand how people are making buying decisions, or identifying different ways of encouraging people to lead more healthy and active lifestyles.

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New species of testate amoeba discovered by Graeme Swindles in Amazonia

Diverse ecological communities of Amazonia play a crucial role in the maintenance of the biosphere. However, little is known about the microbial ecology of Amazonia. During an analysis of litter from an Amazonian wetland we discovered a new species of testate (‘shell-forming’) amoeba (TA) we have named Arcella peruviana (Reczuga et al., 2015). Probably many more new species of microbe remain undiscovered in Amazonia. TA occupy top positions in the microbial food web and have a wide range of feeding preferences including bacteria, algae, fungi and other protozoa.

Owing to this connection with abundance and community structure in the lower trophic levels, TA are highly important in terms of soil nutrient and carbon cycling. It has recently been discovered that deforestation leads to net loss of diversity of soil bacteria, which may also inhibit the recovery of tropical forest (Rodrigues et al., 2012). This would impact the higher microbial trophic levels – including TA. Soil microbes represent the largest component of biodiversity in terrestrial ecosystems and are important in terms of ecosystem functioning. Microbial biodiversity should not be ignored when considering the impacts of human activities and climate change in Amazonia.

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Climate change threatens precious UK ecosystem

An entire ecosystem is at risk from the effects of climate change on the UK’s blanket bogs, scientists at the University of Leeds have warned.

These wetland habitats provide important feeding and nesting grounds for bird species including the dunlin, red grouse and golden plover. Blanket bogs are also the source of most of our drinking water and vital carbon stores.

The scientists warn that the effects of climate change, such as altered rainfall patterns and summer droughts, could drastically affect bog hydrology, which in turn could affect insect and bird populations.

Study co-author Professor Joseph Holden is Director of water@leeds, one of the largest interdisciplinary centres for water research in the world. He said: “Our study shows the interconnectedness of our precious upland peatlands in the UK.

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Sir Peter Hendy awarded an honorary degree for services to transport

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Launch of the Leeds Institute for Data Analytics

A new institute set up to help public and private sector organisations meet the challenges and opportunities of the Big Data revolution opens its doors today.

The Leeds Institute for Data Analytics (LIDA) offers state-of-the-art facilities in data analytics and will partner with researchers and organisations to help them make the most of the rapidly growing fields of consumer and medical data analysis.

Professor Mark Birkin, Director of LIDA, explained more about today’s one-day event, the LIDA Research Forum. He said: “Today is all about making sure researchers and organisations know about LIDA and the expertise, support and resources we can offer. 

“Using large and complex data sets presents huge challenges for organisations. They may be combining different data with their own sales data, analysing and integrating data from various sources, or simply thinking about diverse data sets that can be pulled together to reveal new insights.

“With all these challenges, there is a constant need for new techniques and tools, and to ensure organisations have the right data analytics capabilities. That’s where LIDA comes in – we’re a trusted partner that has developed world-class facilities under one roof, so we’ve raised the bar in standards of secure data storage, access and analysis.”

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New e book launched by Jon Lovett: When Worlds Collide

Making decisions about managing  natural resources can be difficult; this interactive book explores why fairness needs to be part of policy. Policies about managing nature should be economically and environmentally sound, but they also need to be formulated with social fairness if they are to be sustainable. Inevitably, when there are so many different values, conflicts occur and worlds collide.

This book examines a number of basic principles and applies them to two case studies. These basic principles can be applied in many different contexts and the case studies used in this book are drawn from all over the world. There are no easy answers to many questions about the management of nature, but an understanding of the principles we discuss and learning how to apply them will help you make better decisions.

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