Project Description

A full project description can be found on Find a PhD. Please see below for additional information about this project:

The project will involve a significant amount of coastal fieldwork; with Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) used to collect habitat data for both habitats1; field surveys to ground truth and collect samples for Zostera DNA extraction; and to collect Zostera seed for restoration work. Hence a standard driving licence is required. The fieldwork will take place primarily in Northern Ireland, although it is anticipated that there will be some additional sampling in Republic of Ireland, Scotland and Wales to establish population connectivity. The fieldwork will take place primarily in the first year, though additional field trips/restoration work will be undertaken later in the project in collaboration with Ulster Wildlife. Genetic work will be carried out in QUB, focusing primarily on Zostera sp., as genomic resources are already available2,3. It is anticipated that a panel of SNPs will be used to screen both neutral makers (for population genetic analyses, and determining spatial structuring) and selected markers associated with areas under selection such heat shock proteins. Both institutions provide extensive state-of-the-art facilities for novel sensing (https://www.abdn.ac.uk/geosciences/departments/geography-environment/uavuas-centre-for-environmental-monitoring-and-mapping-ucemm-1012.php4-6 and https://www.qub.ac.uk/research-centres/GIS/DroneLabatTheCentreforGISGeomatics/) molecular/bioinformatics (https://www.qub.ac.uk/sites/core-technology-units/Genomics/), and marine mesocosm research (https://www.qub.ac.uk/research-centres/QueensUniversityMarineLaboratory/).

Further work will be carried out in collaboration with Ulster Wildlife: determining key sites for potential restoration projects, identifying and involving local stakeholders, landowners and volunteers, planning restoration work including seagrass propagation (at the Marine Laboratories in Portaferry) and saltmarsh land management, obtaining relevant licenses, writing funding applications to support restoration work, providing technical expertise and leading on the submission of relevant policy consultation responses and position statements concerning blue carbon and marine and coastal habitat restoration. There will also be opportunity to gain skills in developing and delivering education programmes and citizen science training, and designing communications plans and content.

Essential skills

• Background in evolution, genetics and marine ecology
• Clean driving license for fieldwork
• Experience in molecular laboratory techniques (e.g., DNA/RNA extraction, PCR)

Desirable skills

• Experience in fieldwork
• Experience in statistical data analysis in R or similar
• Experience with UAVs
• Experience with stakeholder engagement (e.g. community reps, senior civil servants, local businesses, third sector organisations etc.)

 

Photo by Tim Bastable from Pixabay

Supervisors

Sarah Helyar

Primary Supervisor:

Profile: Sarah Helyar
Email: s.helyar@qub.ac.uk
Institution: Queen's University, Belfast
Department/School: School of Biological Sciences

David R. Green

Secondary Supervisor:

Profile: David R. Green
Email: d.r.green@abdn.ac.uk
Institution: University of Aberdeen
Department/School: School of Geosciences

Jennifer McKinley

Additional Supervisor:

Profile: Jennifer McKinley
Email: j.mckinley@qub.ac.uk
Institution: Queen's University, Belfast
Department/School: School of Natural and Built Environment

Kara Layton

Additional Supervisor:

Profile: Kara Layton
Email: kara.layton@abdn.ac.uk
Institution: University of Aberdeen
Department/School: School of Biological Sciences

References

  1. Doughty, C.L., Ambrose, R.F., Okin, G.S. and Cavanaugh, K.C. (2021), Characterizing spatial variability in coastal wetland biomass across multiple scales using UAV and satellite imagery. Remote Sens Ecol Conserv.
  2. Olsen JL, Rouzé P, Verhelst B, … Van de Peer Y. (2016) The genome of the seagrass Zostera marina reveals angiosperm adaptation to the sea. Nature: 530 7590 331-5.
  3. Ma X, Olsen JL, Reusch TBH … Van de Peer Y. (2021) Improved chromosome-level genome assembly and annotation of the seagrass, Zostera marina (eelgrass). F1000Research: 10:289.
  4. Green, D.R., Gregory, B.J., and Karachok, A.R., 2020. Unmanned Aerial Remote Sensing: UAS for Environmental Applications – CRC Press. April 2020. 344p.
  5. Biggs, H.J., Nikora, V.I., Gibbins, C.N., Fraser, S. Green, D.R., Papadopoulos, K., and Hicks, D.M., 2018. Coupling Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) and Hydraulic Surveys to Study the Geometry and Spatial Distribution of Aquatic Macrophytes. Journal of Ecohydraulics.Vol.3(1):45-58.
  6. Marteau, B., Vericat, D., Gibbins, C., Batalla, R.J., and Green, D.R., 2016. Application of Structure-from-Motion Photogrammetry to River Restoration. Earth Surface Processes and Landforms. Vol. 42(3):503–515.

Research Methods

The project will involve a significant amount of coastal fieldwork; with Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) used to collect habitat data for both habitats1; field surveys to ground truth and collect samples for Zostera DNA extraction; and to collect Zostera seed for restoration work. Hence a standard driving licence is required. The fieldwork will take place primarily in Northern Ireland, although it is anticipated that there will be some additional sampling in Republic of Ireland, Scotland and Wales to establish population connectivity. The fieldwork will take place primarily in the first year, though additional field trips/restoration work will be undertaken later in the project in collaboration with Ulster Wildlife. Genetic work will be carried out in QUB, focusing primarily on Zostera sp., as genomic resources are already available2,3. It is anticipated that a panel of SNPs will be used to screen both neutral makers (for population genetic analyses, and determining spatial structuring) and selected markers associated with areas under selection such heat shock proteins. Both institutions provide extensive state-of-the-art facilities for novel sensing (https://www.abdn.ac.uk/geosciences/departments/geography-environment/uavuas-centre-for-environmental-monitoring-and-mapping-ucemm-1012.php4-6 and https://www.qub.ac.uk/research-centres/GIS/DroneLabatTheCentreforGISGeomatics/) molecular/bioinformatics (https://www.qub.ac.uk/sites/core-technology-units/Genomics/), and marine mesocosm research (https://www.qub.ac.uk/research-centres/QueensUniversityMarineLaboratory/).

Impact

This research will provide a rigorous scientific evidence base that is crucial for policy and practice on nature-based solutions (NbS). It will inform target setting, planning, and governance to achieve blue carbon protection and restoration, including initiating the first pilot coastal habitat restoration project in Northern Ireland.

The carbon storage capacity of coastal habitats and the ocean is being increasingly recognised, with many of the scientific objectives in this project highlighted in the top-ten research priorities in Blue Carbon science1. A recent study2 demonstrated that 37% of the carbon emission reductions needed to meet the objective of the Paris Agreement (of which the UK is a signatory) by 2030 can be achieved by NbS. In order to achieve the objectives of the Paris Agreement, and as part of the strategy to reach net zero by 2050, it is highly likely that Blue Carbon will be a component of the nationally determined contributions (NDC: the targets, measures and policies which are the basis for national climate action plans) for the UK (and Northern Ireland) in the near future.

In Northern Ireland the potential of marine and coastal habitats to store and sequester carbon has been based on estimates from the scientific literature, this is then used to determine their significance in mitigating climate change impacts. However, an inventory of blue carbon habitats with locally adjusted values are needed, as due to differing environmental conditions may mean that this is not an accurate reflection of blue carbon habitats in NI.

Presently there are no active blue carbon habitat restoration/conservation projects underway in NI. This contrasts with the rest of the UK, where there are currently 11 active native oyster projects in operation, 5 seagrass restoration projects, 1 kelp conservation project, and multiple saltmarsh restoration operations.
This project will combine the acquisition of the essential base line knowledge to assess these habitats, with practical on the ground restoration efforts in collaboration with the CASE partner (UW) and other local stakeholders.

1 Macreadie, P.I., Anton, A., Raven, J.A. et al. The future of Blue Carbon science. Nat Commun 10, 3998 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-019-11693-w.
2 Natural climate solutions (2017) Bronson W. Griscom, et al. PNAS: 114 (44) 11645-11650; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1710465114

Proposed Supervision

Dr Sarah Helyar is a Senior Lecturer in Molecular Ecology at Queen’s University Belfast and has extensive experience in marine population genetics and conservation, with a strong focus on applying genomics to field populations. She will contribute her expertise in marine landscape-scale population genomics studies and conservation management. She will lead supervision on all aspects of the project, with a particular focus on the ecology, population genetics and biostatistics analyses.

Prof David R. Green is the Director of the Aberdeen Institute for Coastal Science and Management (AICSM) and Director of the UAV Centre for Environmental Monitoring and Mapping (UCEMM) at the University of Aberdeen. He is a specialist in the environmental applications of geospatial technologies with interests in geographical information systems, remote sensing (terrestrial and bathymetric), cartography/digital mapping, Internet and mobile GIS, coastal and marine resource management, hydrography, marine spatial planning (MSP), and UAV technology.

Prof Jennifer McKinley is Director of the Centre for GIS and Geomatics, at the School of Natural and Built Environment (SNBE) at Queen’s University Belfast, which includes the ‘DroneLab’, which has dedicated staff specialising in drone use applications in Geomatics and mapping. She will provide expertise in GI Science, spatial data analytics and geostatistics. She is an Executive Committee Councillor (2020-2024) for the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS), and has authored more than 100 scientific peer reviewed publications and numerous international conference contributions.

Proposed Timetable

The project is divided into 5 main scientific objectives:
SO1) Developing a baseline inventory of seagrass and salt marsh habitats in Northern Ireland using novel drone and sensor technology (M1-18). Field work and analysis utilising UAVs
SO2) Habitat ground-truthing, in situ-measurements of carbon sequestration rates (CSRs) and collection of DNA samples (M7-12). Field work and analysis
SO3) Population genetics (M12-24) DNA extraction, genotyping, analysis: Identify the population genetic structure to enable forecasting of the likely response to climate change, and to identify population structure and diversity for use in restoration work.
SO4) Skakeholder consultations (M6-36) Understand and evaluate the co-benefits of restoration, such as biodiversity gains, enhancement of other ecosystem services such as flood protection, water quality improvement, and community buy-in/ownership.
SO5) Initiating habitat restoration (M24-36) Based on site specific carbon sequestration, storage potential and practicality of restoration actions, creating locally appropriate and genetically diverse populations.
As this project is a CASE partnership, it is expected that the student will spend between 3 and 18 months embedded with the CASE partner (which will include the stakeholder engagement and practical restoration work). Completion of thesis chapters and publications will occur throughout the project, and at least the final 6 months will be dedicated to completing the thesis.

QUADRAT Themes

  • biodiversity
  • environmental-management

Partners

This is a CASE sponsored project in partnership with Ulster Wildlife. Dr. Annika Clements, Director of Nature, Environment, and Climate, will join the supervisory team.

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