Changing Environments and Infrastructure Global Challenge
Against a backdrop of population growth, migration and urbanisation, our work tackles the challenges to global economies and ecosystems presented by climate, land use and hydrological change.
We have joined together our understanding and expertise of environmental processes and their impacts on land, water and the atmosphere to provide the scientific evidence base, practical skills and experience needed to identify and implement sustainable solutions.
The global reach of our research means that we work closely with policy-makers, including national and international government agencies and NGOs, such as the World Bank, the United Nations and the Environment Agency, as well as a broad spectrum of industry partners.
Our research priorities
Understanding environmental processes and change
Terrestrial and aquatic environmental systems in polar, mid-latitudes and tropical regions face significant challenges at a range of spatial and temporal scales due to the effects of climate and environmental change related to anthropogenic and biological disturbance combined with natural forcing. In order to fully appreciate the scale, complexity and impact of environmental change, we need to improve our understanding of the operation and controls on physical, chemical and biological processes in a range of contemporary to palaeo environments in the northern and southern hemispheres. We also need to improve our understanding of process interactions between and within specific environments, and to observe, charaterise, predict or reconstruct process-response of natural systems particularly in the context of changing climate and environment and other forms of disturbance.
Our research is addressing these challenges by:
- Developing smarter approaches to climate and environment risk assessment and decision making given uncertainty about the future climate.
- Improving understanding of the natural processes and changing nature of these processes associated with a range of environmental threats or forcing. For example, we are reconstructing long records of process and environmental change of lakes in Africa, Europe and Greenland, and polar ice sheets and meltwater delivery to the ocean in order to contextualise and better understand the recent and present operation and change of these systems.
- Leading research into the processes of wind-driven sediment transport in the earth-atmosphere-ocean system, particularly dust loading of the atmosphere and its impact on natural and anthropogenic activities and climate system. This is partly achieved by characterising dust sources and quantifying the fluxes of dust between them and the atmosphere in polar and dryland regions.
- Leading research developments in river and pond zoogeomorphology and ecology by examining the role of fauna on sediment transport, water quality and disturbance of water bodies in the UK. Research focuses on the role of invasive species within UK aquatic systems and to provide strategic support and advice to government and non-governmental agencies with regards to managing and remediating UK water bodies.
Resilience of infrastructure to environmental change
Much of the critical infrastructure on which society depends is surprisingly vulnerable to environmental hazards such as floods, droughts and storms. For example, a recent UK Government report estimated that over 500 assets are currently inadequately or undefended against floods. These locally and nationally significant infrastructures provide energy, water, transport, telecommunications and health services. Measures to improve their resilience include physically protecting the assets, relocating critical equipment, increasing the connectedness of systems, or making provision for back-up.
Our research is addressing these challenges by:
- Improving understanding of the changing nature of the environmental threats. For example, we are reconstructing long records of extreme UK weather events to better understand the present. We are also looking at very severe phenomena such as ‘superfloods’ and ‘mega droughts’ that can affect large areas of Europe and overwhelm key infrastructure.
- Strengthening the design and operation of critical infrastructure such as power stations, hospitals and water supply networks. We are working closely with partners in the energy and water sectors in the UK, North America and Central Asia. Some designs need to be resilient to more than a century of environmental change – such as nuclear power plants on the coast.
- Supporting decision-makers who have to manage equipment and sites before, during and after extreme events. This work includes helping authorities to cope with urban water supply and sanitation challenges in East Africa, or creating tools to guide emergency responders through flooded road networks in UK cities.
- Providing advice to government agencies about how critical infrastructure could be impacted by future environmental change. Previous projects have contributed to the development of strategies for upgrading the Thames barrier, or guided investments made by the Department for International Development in climate-resilient, low-carbon energy and water supply systems.
Global water and resource management
Water is a primary requirement for life and securing access to a clean supply of drinking water, sanitation and hygiene are essential to reduce the risk on disease. Whilst this is taken for granted in most developed economies many people living in low and middle income countries face a daily challenge secure the clean water they require and basic sanitation.
Our research promotes the integration of social, technical, economic, institutional and environmental activities as foundations for sustainable development. We work collectively with many development sector partners around the world to develop the underlying analysis of evidence to influence policy and practice, and enhance our collective impact. We are committed to the provision of effective, evidence-based and appropriate solutions for the improvement of basic infrastructure and essential services for people across the globe, with ongoing and past projects in countries like Myanmar, Bangladesh, India, Democratic Republic of Congo, Senegal, Uganda, Kenya and Ghana.
Our research is addressing these challenges by:
- Developing a methodology for the Rapid Assessment of Drinking-Water Quality (RADWQ) for those living in low and middle-income countries .This involved intensive field work to collect one-off water quality and sanitary inspection data from representative water supplies. This information can then be utilised to improve the knowledge and understanding of which technologies deliver safe drinking-water.
- Designing, developing and deploying technology to produce clean drinking water. This includes the development of application of portable water purification systems for use in low and middle income countries and for emergency relief.
- The development and engineering of nano and micro-materials for use in the treatment of water, especially through the use of membrane technology. This research also involves the simulation and modelling of filtration processes through porous media to determine the behaviour of fluids and potential pollutants.
Natural Hazards and Human-landscape interactions
Flooding and landslides rank among the most significant examples of natural hazards affecting contemporary societies. Periods of heavy and persistent rainfall in 2012-13, and in the winters of 2014-15 and 2015-16 saw the occurrence of high magnitude floods affecting our towns and cities, and landslides disrupting transport services across the UK. Natural hazards are a global problem that particularly affect social groups in low and middle-income countries meaning that the research has an important social dimension.
We need to improve our understanding of the conditions and trigger mechanisms that control physical processes, but we also need to improve our understanding of the human-landscape interaction and characterise the complex hierarchies of relevant process-response systems in a context of a changing and uncertain climate and environment.
Our research is addressing the challenges by:
- Leading developments in the field of high-resolution urban flood now-casting at the city-scale, a technology of flood forecasting into short time horizons (less than 48 hours), based on precipitation forecasts and numerical flood modelling.
- Modelling the effects of flooding on urban infrastructure by combining high-performance computational servers, live precipitation forecasts and a high-resolution flood modelling package (FloodMap).
- Providing strategic and operational support during flooding for urban planners, emergency responders, utility owners and infrastructure managers. Recent research has focused on modelling of the impacts of infrastructure failures during flooding on emergency responders. Our research has been demonstrated in Leicester City, coordinated by the Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland Resilience Forum and we work closely with local partners and emergency services.
- Developing landslide early warning systems. Slope ALARMS is a novel landslide detection system developed at Loughborough University and in collaboration with the British Geological Survey. Its patented, award-winning technology measures acoustic emissions caused by soil movement. A new sensor, Community SLope SAFE, has been developed offering life-saving, real-time monitoring of unstable hillsides for communities in low and middle-income countries.
For the theme of Resilience of infrastructure to environmental change:
- Leading research into the charactersiation of the deterioration of transport infrastructure earthworks assets under a range of current and future environmental conditions based on a fundamental understanding of earthwork material and system behaviour. This collaborative work is essential to achieve a more reliable, cost-effective, safer and more sustainable transport system.