Research to probe impact of climate change and nitrogen pollution on soil

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The Alps
The Alps, where Dr Broadbent will carry out experiments.

A major new research project led by the University of Stirling will investigate how the combined effects of climate warming, shifts in vegetation, and nitrogen pollution affect mountain soil biodiversity and the release of carbon from soil, further warming the planet.

The current understanding of the problem is based on studies of single factors, but it is feared a combination, known as synergistic effects, could lead to sudden and unexpected losses in biodiversity and carbon.

Soil is one of the most complex and important resources on earth because it harbours vast biodiversity and stores more carbon than the Earth's atmosphere and vegetation combined.

Dr Arthur Broadbent
Dr Arthur Broadbent

This new knowledge will help to build environmental resilience by informing land managers and policy makers on how best to preserve soil biodiversity and improve natural C storage in the face of rapid climate change.

Dr Arthur Broadbent, who is joining the University of Stirling in January, will lead the study which is funded by a grant of almost £700,000 awarded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).

Dr Broadbent said: “Mountain ecosystems are hotspots of biodiversity and store significant amounts of soil carbon. However, they are very vulnerable to global environmental change.

“They are warming twice as fast as the global average, leading to upward shifts in vegetation, and increased extremes of drought and flooding. At the same time, agricultural and industrial pollution are overloading fragile mountain ecosystems with too much nitrogen, which can have negative effects on ecosystem processes.

“Synergistic effects are a particularly pressing knowledge gap in mountain ecosystems, where even fundamental data on soil microbial diversity, functioning, and carbon stocks are lacking.

“During this fellowship, I will address the knowledge gap on belowground biodiversity in mountain soils and how this critically underpins C-cycling processes. I will also determine how soil biodiversity and functioning respond to multiple drivers of global change, establish if there are synergistic effects, and what the consequences of these synergistic effects are for soil carbon stocks in mountain ecosystems worldwide.

“This new knowledge will help to build environmental resilience by informing land managers and policy makers on how best to preserve soil biodiversity and improve natural C storage in the face of rapid climate change.”

The Alps

The Alps 

During the five-year study, Dr Broadbent will carry out experiments in arctic and alpine mountain ranges, collaborate with globally leading mountain researchers in Switzerland, and utilise state-of-the-art facilities at the University of Stirling.

Dr Broadbent said: “The University of Stirling is the ideal place for me to carry out this fellowship. It has an excellent track record in attracting and supporting independent research fellows thanks to its approach to professional development, excellent facilities, and a collegial research culture.

“I will have access to state-of-the-art Controlled Environment Facilities, a Mid-to-Near InfraRed Spectrometer and CN elemental analyser, allowing me to conduct tightly controlled mechanistic experiments and measure key carbon cycling parameters central to my Independent Research Fellowship (IRF).”

Critical challenges

The NERC IRF scheme is designed to develop scientific leadership among the most promising early-career environmental scientists. Dr Broadbent is one of twelve early career researchers awarded a NERC IRF.

Professor Peter Liss, Interim Executive Chair of NERC, said: “NERC Independent Research Fellowships support talented early career researchers to work independently and deliver cutting-edge environmental science. I’d like to offer my congratulations to all those who have been awarded a fellowship this year.

“Environmental research advances our understanding of the planet and is the key to tackling and adapting to critical challenges such as climate change. By investing in these fellowships, NERC is supporting innovation and sustainability in environmental science and developing leading researchers of the future.”

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