Overview

Project Highlights:

  • Offers the opportunity to conduct innovative new flow experiments in state of the art mesocosm facilities.
  • Project co-created with CASE partner Wessex Water, who will also offer a placement opportunity and end-user supervision (early career collaborator).
  • Links with major EU Innovative Training Network (15 PhD students) focused on environmental flows, and with vibrant postgraduate communities in Birmingham and Loughborough.

Overview:

Water scarcity and drought are among the most pressing environmental issues of the century. River ecosystems, already degraded by excessive water use associated with growing populations, will be further affected by widespread shifts in rainfall patterns where climate change alters natural flow regimes. Across Europe, droughts have increased dramatically in frequency and intensity over the past 30 years, and where water availability declines the timing, frequency and intensity of low flow periods will occur. In some regions, river flows may shift from perennial to intermittent, with profound consequences for the ecological connectivity and functioning of these systems. Where low river flows persist, connections to riparian ecosystems are likely to be enhanced as terrestrial flora and fauna colonise the riverscape, with unknown consequences for ecosystem functioning and food webs. Despite its growing prevalence, research on the ecology of low flow regime change in streams and rivers lags far behind that of other stressors (e.g. acid pulses or pesticides) and has focused on in-stream responses at the community level. Far less is known about impacts on functioning, or how aquatic-terrestrial linkages may change in response to altered hydrological connectivity.

                The successful candidate will undertake research to address these research gaps, and conduct flow manipulation experiments in a new state of the art mesocosm facility at the University of Birmingham. These will be combined with sampling and analysis of long-term records of flow and biodiversity in streams monitored by CASE partner Wessex Water. Specifically, the project will test the effect of modification of low flow regimes on ecosystem functioning and food webs, including aquatic-terrestrial links. The doctoral researcher will: (1) Use artificial streams in the Birmingham ECOLAB facility (see Fig. 1 below) to replicate elements of natural flow regimes and simulate natural and modified flow regimes; (2) Determine the mechanistic basis of flow change effects, via factorial manipulation of habitat connectivity, habitat/sediment area, temperature and water quality; and (3) Monitor effects on water quality and ecosystem processes using state of the art sensor networks. The results of the research will reveal how key ecosystem processes are affected by flow modification, identify tipping points and non-linear responses along gradients of low flow stress as well as key environmental stressors that modify ecosystem processes when flows are modified, to form the basis of mitigation strategies

Figure 1: Artificial stream channels in the Ecolab facility on the University of Birmingham campus.

Methodology

This project will determine the effect of hydrologic alteration on community structure and functioning (studying aquatic and terrestrial biota) and offers the flexibility to combine new environmental flow experiments conducted by the student in replicate freshwater mesocosms in our new facility at the University of Birmingham (see Fig. above) in conjunction with analysis of long-term data collected by Wessex Water (the CASE partner). This project also benefits from being closely linked with an EU Innovative Training Network called EUROFLOW which seeks to develop environmental flow science across Europe. The successful candidate will also gain from being part of a large, interdisciplinary, research teams based at the University of Birmingham and Loughborough.

Training and Skills

The successful candidate will receive inter-disciplinary training in hydroecology and hydrochemistry from staff and students within the School of Geography Earth an Environmental Sciences (GEES), University of Birmingham and the School of Geography at Loughborough. The school supports a large, vibrant and well-resourced community of postgraduate researchers.

 

Timeline

Year 1: Establishment of experimental mesocosms and communities; refining methodologies and design of experiments; implementation of experiments.

Year 2: Further experimentation; sampling and data processing. Placement with Wessex Water (Bath, UK) to analyse long-term data.

Year 3: Data analysis, reporting and write-up.

Partners and collaboration (including CASE)

The project will benefit from links with Wessex Water who will provide CASE support, as well as access to long-term data records of flow and biodiversity in lowland rivers in their region, and a study placement.

 

Further Details

Dr Mark Ledger - http://www.birmingham.ac.uk/schools/gees/people/profile.aspx?ReferenceId=10622

Prof Alexander Milner - http://www.birmingham.ac.uk/staff/profiles/gees/milner-alexander.aspx

Prof Paul Wood - http://www.lboro.ac.uk/departments/geography/staff/paul-wood/