Project Description

OVERVIEW: The proliferation of harmful cyanobacteria algal blooms (cyanoHABs) is recognised as a global environmental problem threatening the quality of surface waters.  These can have devastating effects on aquatic biota, fisheries and human health via the contamination of drinking water supplies.  In spite of advances in cyanoHAB monitoring and detection, the mechanisms of toxic bloom development still remain poorly understood, although nutrient enrichment driven by land use change (e.g. agricultural intensification) and climate change are major factors driving their proliferation (Benayache et al., 2019).  As well as promoting algal growth via temperature change, climate change can significantly alter the runoff of nutrients into waterbodies, leading to cyanoHAB formation.  Re-suspension of surficial, nutrient-rich sediments during heavy rains can have a similar effect, particularly in shallow lakes.  There is a pressing need to better understand these and other controls on cyanoHAB formation in the light of future predicted climate change, and to consider how the combined effects of nutrients and climatic stressors will impact biotic communities in lakes and other sensitive water bodies. 

This project will use a combination of palaeolimnological (geochemistry, fossil pigments, microfossils), water quality monitoring and climate data to examine the controls on cyanoHAB development in a series of vulnerable lakes in Northern Ireland, UK.  Palaeolimnological approaches, which utilise the rich archive of environmental information preserved in sediment cores, have great potential for understanding the development and impacts of harmful bloom events, and can greatly extend the inferences that can be drawn from water quality monitoring data alone.  Sediment cores for ultra-high resolution (mm-scale) analysis will be collected from lakes with a known history of cyanoHAB proliferation.  The palaeolimnological work, which will focus especially on multiproxy records from the last ca. 50-300 years, will be supplemented by statistical and GIS analysis of physicochemical monitoring data and select landscape limnological variables in the study catchments (e.g. lake connectivity) to further elucidate the drivers of bloom events.  The results are likely to inform long-term lake monitoring protocols as well as future management and remedial efforts.    

Essential & desirable candidate skills

Essential: a strong grounding in environmental or biological science, ecology/palaeoecology, physical geography or a related subject at undergraduate and/or Masters level; some UG-level knowledge of statistics 

Desirable: some prior experience in micro or macrofossil analysis (e.g. pollen, diatoms; macrophytes); field sampling (e.g. core collection), geochemical or sedimentary analysis; data handling, geostatistics/R or GIS  




Helen Roe

Primary Supervisor:

Profile: Helen Roe
Institution: Queen's University, Belfast
Department/School: School of Natural and Built Environment

Vasilis Louca

Secondary Supervisor:

Profile: Vasilis Louca
Institution: University of Aberdeen
Department/School: School of Biological Sciences

Maarten Blaauw

Additional Supervisor:

Profile: Maarten Blaauw
Institution: Queen's University, Belfast
Department/School: School of Natural and Built Environment

Additional Supervisor:

Professor Peter Leavitt – Honorary Professor at QUB Biol. Sci. and Canada Research Chair in Environmental Change and Society, University of Regina, Canada.  Peter is an internationally regarded limnologist who will provide specialist training in algal pigment analysis.  He spends several months in NI each year.

Professor Tim Patterson – former Hon Research Fellow, GAP, QUB and Lead, Carleton Climate and Environment Research Group, Global Water Institute, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada.

Professor David McMullan, Dept of Chemistry, Carleton University, Ottawa.  Tim and David will provide training in sediment-based microcystin analysis and End Member Mixing analysis – specialist techniques that have great potential in cyano-impacted lakes.  We have budgeted for a 3-4 wk visit to Canada/Carleton in Year 1 where the student will learn these techniques.  Further support will be provided remotely.


Benayache et al. (2019) An Overview of Cyanobacteria Harmful Algal Bloom (CyanoHAB) Issues in Freshwater Ecosystems. In: Limnology-Some New Aspects of Inland Water Ecology. DOI:10.5772/intechopen.84155

Expected Training Provision

The successful applicant will receive training in relevant analytical techniques (including diatoms and other microalgae, pigments, geochemistry, stable isotopes and geochronology), field sampling and statistical approaches from the supervisors in QUB and the wider advisory team.  Geochronological analysis will be undertaken in the QUB 14CHRONO Centre for Climate, the Environment and Chronology.  The student will visit the Global Water Institute, Ottawa to receive training in advanced geochemical and sedimentological techniques (e.g. cyanotoxin metabolite detection) under the guidance of external project supervisors Tim Patterson and David McMullin.  The student will join a vibrant and diverse interdisciplinary research community in QUB’s School of Natural and Built Environment and will have the opportunity for regular interaction with biologists and environmental chemists in QUB, Aberdeen and beyond through the supervisors, external advisory team and the wider QUADRAT network.  Prospective applicants should have a strong grounding in environmental or biological science, ecology/palaeoecology, physical geography or a related subject at undergraduate and/or Masters level and some experience in (geo)statistics or GIS. 


1) new insights into the timing, character and impacts of cyanoHAB formation in lakes, which will be important for management and future remedial efforts;

2) enhanced understanding of the resistance and resilience of lakes to environmental stressors, including climate change, nutrient loading and other pressures associated with catchment disturbance;  

3) refined understanding of the protocols for the detection of cyanoHABs in sedimentary archives. 

Proposed Timetable

Year 1 

Literature appraisal; sampling design; core and surface sample collection (2-3 lake sites) 

Training in high-resolution lake core analysis, microfossil preparation and analysis, algal pigment analysis and geochemical proxies.  Initial submission of samples for dating  

Visit to Canada for training in microcystin extraction and other analyses (3-4 wks approx). 

Preparation for 3 month review and Differentiation. 

Preliminary analysis of water quality monitoring and climate datasets 

Year 2 

Ongoing training and analysis of lake proxy and climate and water quality monitoring data (as above) 

Collection of additional field samples. Submission of further samples for dating. 

Preparation of Yr 2 APR report.   

Training in statistical analysis (EMMA; other) 

Review and write up of data from site 1. 

Year 3 (plus an additional 6 months) 

Data collection and analysis of results.  Final revision of age models.  Submission of Yr 3 APR report. 

Dissemination of results to research community via an appropriate conference/seminars. 

Write up of results and submission of thesis. 


Regular meetings (weekly to fortnightly) with supervisory team members throughout duration of project; participation in 

cohort-based training opportunities and other organised QUADRAT activities and events. 


  • biodiversity
  • earth-systems
  • environmental-management


Not applicable at this time.

View All Projects