Aquatic Environments Research Centre

The Aquatic Environments Research Centre (AERC) was founded in to undertake research into catchment biogeochemical cycling and hydrological flux behaviours with a focus on combining model development with monitoring to directly address the needs of water managers for science evidence and management tools. Its research is funded by NERC, EPSRC, the EU, Government departments and agencies (Defra, Environment Agency, and the conservation agencies) as well as the water and energy industries.

Its initial research focused on improving our understanding of the key environmental variables controlling water, nutrient and sediment fluxes from land to adjacent waters. This involved the development of numerical simulation models to predict water, nutrient and sediment fluxes, and hence water quality, at field to catchment scales, and showed that the models were most effectively developed and calibrated when confronted with high frequency (daily or sub-daily) observations at multiple field stations. This research demonstrated that hydrological and nutrient flux behaviours varied from year to year, depending on inter-annual climate variability. The behaviour also varied between catchments of different geological and climatic character, and between sites within catchments depending on the distribution and connectivity of the key source areas in the catchment upstream from each sampling point. Our research has also demonstrated the importance of both biotic controls and abiotic controls on the rate and timing of nutrient flux within catchments, the importance of organic and particulate nutrient fractions as components of the total nutrient load transported to inland and coastal waters, and the importance of instream processes in regulating the timing, chemical character and ecosystem impacts of nutrient flux from source to sea.

Current Projects

Andrew Wade is leading the integrated biophysical modelling component of the on-going EU FP7 project REFRESH - adaptive strategies to mitigate the impacts of climate change on European freshwater ecosystems, working with 25 partner institutions across Europe (2010-2014). Other AERC staff also involved in that programme include Richard Skeffington and Sarah Halliday. Catchment flow and nutrient models have been applied by the partners at eight demonstration sites across the climate gradient in Europe to assess the likely impacts of land use, climate, water use and atmospheric deposition change by 2031-60. In addition, a range of pollution control measures have been investigated to see their efficiencies to reduce nutrient delivery to freshwaters is maintained against a background of environmental change.

The NERC FUSE programme, led by Anne Verhoef, aims to advance the knowledge on the interaction between the hydrological regime and the functioning of plant communities in floodplain meadows, at a variety of scales. A better understanding of these vulnerable ecosystems will ultimately allow improved environmental management, under current and future conditions. It offers an exciting opportunity to demonstrate the potential of combining a high-density underground sensor network with high resolution remote sensing, via a detailed modelling framework, to advance knowledge in terrestrial ecosystems research.

The NERC Macronutrients project, Turf2Surf is jointly led by Andrew Wade, Bridget Emmett from CEH and Colin Jago from Bangor University. The focus of the project, which started in 2013, is coupled nutrient cycling in terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems linked to water quality, carbon sequestration and biodiversity.

New staff who have recently joined AERC staff are also involved in the following projects:

The SINATRA programme on Susceptibility of catchments to INTense RAinfall and flooding, funded for the period 2013-2017 under the NERC Flooding From Intense Rainfall (FFIR) Programme. This is a consortium grant led by Hannah Cloke, with 7 institutions, 15 partners. The research was designed to advance general scientific understanding of the processes determining the probability, incidence, and impacts of FFIR.

The NWP water cycle verification with river discharge observations programme, funded for the period 2011-2014. This involves Hannah Cloke in collaboration with the European Centre for Medium-range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF).

The NERC DEMON programme on Developing Enhanced Impact Models for integration with Next generation NWP and climate outputs, which has started in 2010 and runs until 2014. This was funded under the NERC Storm Risk Mitigation Programme and involves Hannah Cloke, David Mason, Sarah Dance at University of Reading together with researchers from the University of Bristol, NOC, and the UK Met Office.

The programme Towards Improving Global Flood Humanitarian Relief Effort: Evaluating Forecast Reliability to Inform Decision-making Under Uncertainty, has provided funding for a Leverhulme Fellowship for Elisabeth Stephens, and involves Hannah Cloke, ECMWF and the EU Joint Research Centre.

Recently Completed Projects

Andrew Wade, working with David Lavers and David Brayshaw led the Reading component of the NERC CWC project looking at the Hydrological extremes and feedbacks in the changing water cycle (2010-2013). Working with colleagues from Imperial, UCL and the British Geological Survey, the project aims to better integrate climate and hydrological modelling for climate change impact assessment. The Reading-based component of the work resulted in the identification of so-called 'Atmospheric Rivers' as the cause of much of winter flooding in upland UK and provided a methodology to determine how future climate change can effect flood frequency without recourse to hydrological modelling.

Here are links to the relevant publications:

The UKWIR WW20 programme on Phosphorus contributions from WwTW discharges to watercourses and their long term environmental impacts relative to other sources also involved Penny Johnes and Steve Robinson, collaborating with staff from WS Atkins, Bowburn Consultancy and the University of Oxford. This collected and analysed evidence on the ecological impacts of phosphorus discharges from Wastewater Treatment Works, to phosphorus delivered from diffuse sources in catchments in light of the need to meet EU Water Framework Directive targets for ecosystem health. Outputs from this study have been used to inform discussion on the future control of phosphorus releases from WwTW with regard to setting of the UK phosphorus standards for EU WFD compliance. Further details on the project outcomes can be found here.

The Novel Technologies for Environmental Monitoring and Modelling project was funded by EPSRC and completed in 2012. The project was a collaborative effort between AERC (Andrew Wade, Richard Skeffington), Hull University, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology and the Environment Agency and nutrient data at an hourly resolution for two years at two sites representing a rural setting and a river more impacted by sewage effluent. In addition, colleagues at Hull University are moving towards a novel, miniaturised sensor that can measure a range of ion concentrations in a single sample. Dr Sarah Halliday gained her PhD as part of this project, and two papers are available (An analysis of long-term trends, seasonality and short-term dynamics in water quality data from Plynlimon, Wales, Hydrochemical Processing in lowland rivers) with a further two submitted.

Water, Life and Civilisation project was funded by the Leverhulme Trust and involved staff from across the School of Archaeology, Geography and Environmental Science (SAGES) at the University of Reading including Paul Whitehead and Andrew Wade from AERC, together with collaborators from the NERC National Centre for Atmospheric Science (NCAS) and the Council for British Research in the Levant. The project has been designed to assess how changes in hydrology and climate have impacted human activities in the past, present and future within the semi-arid regions of the Middle East and North Africa. The project was completed in 2009.

Euro-limpacs was a €20m Integrated Project funded by the EU designed to assess the effects of future global change on Europe's freshwater ecosystems. The project was co-ordinated by the Environment Change Research Centre, University College London, and consisted of 36 partners including AERC staff (Whitehead, Skeffington, Wade) who led the Work Package 6: Integrated Catchment Analysis and Modelling. Euro-limpacs ran from February 2004 through to January 2009.

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