Citizen science and sustainable development
Citizen scientists testing ecosystem health in the Mara Basin, Tanzania.
Access to fresh water is a human right, and is enshrined in the UN Sustainable Development Goals: Goal 6 is to ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all. It is increasingly recognized that sustainable management of water extends beyond potable water and sewerage infrastructure, and that an ecosystem approach is necessary to ensure that access to freshwater resources in their many forms is both sustainable and equitable. This means that multiple stakeholders will be required to work together on a catchment scale. I am interested in the ways in which communities can contribute to the way freshwater ecosystems are managed and protected. Current mechanisms to protect these ecosystems are heavily data driven and therefore favour top-down approaches – the reporting requirements of the EU Water Framework Directive and UN Sustainable Development Goal 6 are examples of this. Can citizen science fill gaps in statutory monitoring? In doing so, can it empower communities to act as stewards of the resources upon which they depend?
Diverse perspectives on wetland restoration
Aerial view of the South San Francisco Bay Salt Ponds Restoration Project, Californi
Conservation typically aims to restore wetlands to a “reference condition” based on either the condition of similar ecosystems that are perceived to be unaltered, or, in rare cases, on existing data that defines a fixed set of past conditions. Often, extensive data to support definition of reference conditions is lacking. Furthermore, future monitoring of the impacts of restoration efforts can be poorly planned and under-funded. Opportunities to improve our understanding of ecosystem restoration lie in unconventional data sources. Paleoecology and long-term monitoring, for example, offer opportunities to explore continuous ecological changes over multi-decadal timescales, allowing definitions of reference conditions to be refined. Citizen science can provide bespoke data throughout the restoration process, as well as fostering long-term community stewardship of projects. This may provide new avenues for monitoring the success of restoration long after the formal end of the restoration activity itself.
I am particularly interested in using multiple data sources to challenge the concept of stable/fixed reference conditions, exploring instead the notion that wetlands are naturally dynamic ecosystems. Should conservation targets aim to restore ecosystem structure or function? Perhaps a specific set of conditions that will support species reintroduction are more desirable (as demonstrated by Najas flexilis in my PhD research)? Is ecosystem resilience to future changes important? How do legacy effects impact the successional trajectories of restoring wetlands? How can these things be assessed and incorporated into quantitative and measurable restoration targets, and how can these targets be co-designed by the communities they are designed to benefit?
Landscape-scale ecology, biodiversity, and invasive species
Mosaic of interconnected lake habitats on South Uist, Outer Hebrides, Scotland.
It has long been known that large numbers of small waterbodies make a greater collective contribution to regional biodiversity than a small number of large waterbodies. The connections between these habitats are also important, facilitating the spread of native species, invasive species, and pollutants across the landscape. During independent study at both Bachelor’s and Master’s level, I investigated how increasing the numbers of small ponds in the landscape presents a trade-off between increasing biodiversity and reducing barriers to the spread of aquatic invasive species. I am now interested in adding a temporal context to these ideas. How do changing environmental pressures influence the link between regional biodiversity and habitat connectivity? How does the trade-off described above change through time under different levels of global, regional, and local stress? In particular, I would like to further explore the influence of human activity on connected systems, from small, independent, bottom-up actions (e.g. building and maintaining garden ponds) to large-scale environmental drivers (e.g. climate change).
Within freshwater systems I have particularly soft spot for aquatic plants. They are not only important primary producers in wetlands, but they have also been shown to have a vital role in structuring trophic food webs by providing habitat for zooplankton, invertebrates, and fish. Through photosynthesis, they also help to regulate carbon speciation and can act as a buffer against acidification. I am especially interested in how local and regional environmental changes influence species distributions and assemblages, and in the use of macrophytes as environmental indicators.
Improving scientific interpretations
Diatoms encrusted onto caddis case, from sediment core taken at Loch of Craiglush, Scotland.
Increasingly, environmental scientists have access to multiple data sources, including open access big data repositories, satellite observations, digitised historical data, and citizen science. I believe that the use of multiple data streams has the potential to strengthen our understanding of the natural world, provided they are interpreted and integrated correctly.
Recent insight into the use and abuse of transfer functions within paleolimnology highlights the need for improved understanding about what the data we work with truly reflects. For example, how are inter- and intra-specific interactions (e.g. competition, predation, succession) represented in different data streams? How do these interact with environmental pressures, and how can these interactions be explored using datasets recorded at different frequencies and resolutions, with different precisions and uncertainties? To what extent are natural fluctuations represented in data sources of different temporal resolutions? Are all variables represented equally through time and/or space? Once these questions have been answered, how can we best present and visualise the complexities of multiple data streams and their associated uncertainties to environmental managers and policymakers? I am very keen to pursue studies that link diverse data sources in order to address some of these questions.