From Research to Action

From Research to Action

In the Caribbean, the increasing frequency and severity of storms due to climate change has greatly impacted coastal areas. The 2017 hurricane season in particular saw massive destruction of coastal infrastructure and habitats. There is now wide recognition of the importance of natural coastlines, with healthy habitats including mangrove and coral reefs. These provide a frontline defence to protect local communities against the effects of storm surge, wind and wave action. The mangroves that grow in or near the water’s edge provide multiple benefits to nature and human communities. They provide habitat and nursery areas for fish (supporting 80% of the global fish catch) and also act as significant carbon sinks as well as a buffer against storms, wind and waves.

Samuel Pike, one of our Remote Sensing consultants, and Katie Medcalf, our Environment Director, worked with Louise Soanes (Roehampton University) and colleagues in the British Virgin Islands (BVI) to produce a research paper recently published in the Journal of Ocean and Coastal Management. The research used remote sensing to identify mangrove extents before the 2017 hurricane and the ongoing recovery. The research showed all sites had some form of recovery from the hurricane, but none had recovered to pre-hurricane Irma levels by 2019. In addition, ground surveys in 2020 identified a high presence of the fast-growing seaside mahoe, an invasive tree which does not have the coastal protection benefit of mangroves. The paper also presents how scientific rules were used together with our SENCE tool to model storm surge vulnerability and to identify those coastal regions at most risk, from future hurricane seasons and areas best for mitigation. This work has provided robust evidence for mangrove restoration and provides an important tool for further studies in the wider Caribbean region to help inform coastal restoration and resilience building activities.

We recently carried out work in Anguilla funded under the UK Government’s Darwin initiative. In our part of the project, we took 100 years of hurricane data detailing their direction, frequency and strength and then used SENCE and the key factors that influence storm surge to provide maps. These show areas at risk from storm surge, where there are opportunities to enhance, restore and recreate natural defences such as planting mangrove and restoring dunes and how these measures will impact on the vulnerability of communities.

Mangroves which grow in or near the water’s edge provide multiple benefits to nature and human communities
Using the results of this work the Government of Anguilla identified seven priority coastal sites for habitat restoration, including beaches, dunes, and wetlands. Priority action plans for each site have been developed, outlining potential habitat restoration measures. Together with hundreds of community members, project partners have been working to implement the action plans by collecting and germinating seeds, air-layering woody coastal vegetation and planting over 1,000 buttonwood, seagrape, red, black and white mangrove seedlings in some of Anguilla’s most vulnerable and storm-affected coastal areas. Over seven acres of coastal habitat have been restored in the last few months and this is just the start.

This is a great example of our work moving from research to policy and action. With coastal wetlands being the richest source of carbon in the Caribbean, these cost-effective nature-based solutions will help tackle the negative effects of climate change and biodiversity.

On the back of this work, we will be leading a significant new project in the Turks & Caicos Islands funded under the Darwin initiative. The project will provide evidence of the dynamic resilience of Caicos Islands’ wetlands, and how they support biodiversity, coastal protection, and natural capital. It will evaluate historic change, show how future climate could impact the wetlands, and provide evidence to review the Ramsar Nature Reserve which covers the majority of the southern wetlands of North and Middle Caicos, and a small region on East Caicos. It will develop a monitoring framework and dashboard to view project and ongoing monitoring data, build technical and scientific capacity in local staff, in order to help sustain wetland management in the long term.

Sequestering Carbon through Tree Planting

Sequestering Carbon Through Tree Planting

Following the declaration of a Climate Emergency by Welsh Government in April 2019 and committing to achieve a carbon neutral public sector by 2030, Bridgend County Borough Council (BCBC) have started to develop a Climate Emergency Response Programme which will work to mitigate the impacts of climate change. BCBC has acknowledged the crucial role they can play through the management of its own assets. One of the key ways to sequester carbon (removing it from the atmosphere and helping to slow climate change) is to plant trees. Environment Systems has been involved in a project that considers the land in BCBC ownership and its management in terms of its suitability for tree planting. In addition, we have looked at the importance of biodiversity which underpins the environment and ultimately our health, wealth and wellbeing as outlined in the Environment Act Wales 2016 and in the recent Dasgupta Review (Dasgupta, 2021). BCBC recognises that increasing the coverage of native tree species will help safeguard biodiversity and add to environmental resilience.

Tree planting schemes must ensure that the right species are planted in the right places and also deliver on a number of the key benefits which take into account the wider role of trees in the green infrastructure such as:

  • Quantifying the possible carbon stored in BCBC land and how much could be sequestered
  • Showing where planting community woodlands will help reconnect local people to their environment and ensure their health and wellbeing
  • Supporting and enhancing biodiversity
  • Slowing surface water run-off to help prevent flooding
  • Helping to prevent pollution from the land reaching watercourses
  • Enhancing landscape quality
  • Enhancing air quality
  • Reducing noise pollution
Bringing about change will be reliant on carbon pricing schemes and systems to administer and monitor them
One of the most interesting parts of the project was estimating the current amount of carbon stored in BCBC land and the potential for further sequestration as a direct result of any tree planting scheme. Using established research, which tells us how much carbon is stored in different types of vegetation and soils, and then taking into account factors such as slope and site hydrology, we used our SENCE natural capital evaluation tool to come up with some interesting figures summarised in the table below.
Carbon sequestration
tCO2e = tonnes (t) of carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent (e)
Pricing based on DEFRA estimates per tCO2e

When the government and businesses start to put a price on carbon pollution as a means of bringing down emissions and driving investment into cleaner options things start to get interesting. Clearly bringing about change will be reliant on carbon pricing schemes and systems to administer and monitor them. If the trees establish well in the areas outlined in this project, they will not only sequester carbon, but aid biodiversity and provide many other benefits to the communities involved.

Mapping Risk to Water Quality from Space

Mapping Risk to Water Quality from Space

A large amount of the water we drink comes from rivers and reservoirs. Although this water passes through complex treatment processes to make it safe to drink, the time, effort and cost of these processes depends on the quality of the raw water.

Human activities, in particular farming, can affect water quality by increasing the risk of soil mobilisation. For example, when arable land is tilled, soil is exposed. These bare soil fields present a higher risk of both erosion and diffuse pollution when compared to land which has vegetation cover.

We have been working with Anglian Water to identify areas of bare soil and model the risk they present to water quality. This negates the need for extensive and costly ground surveys supporting better management of resources and providing evidence for mitigation activities at farm scale such as planting buffer strips, growing cover crops or moving gateways.

Heigham catchment
Fields measured and modelled track well over time
A large portion of the region Anglian Water manages is used for large scale commercial agriculture. As a result, fields of bare soil
are common throughout the year. However, some bare fields will present more of a risk to water quality than others. The factors that influence risk include:

  • Distance/proximity to river network:Bare fields in close proximity to a river network present a higher risk than fields further away because the soil has less distance to travel before it reaches the river.
  • Slope: Bare fields that drain more steeply present a greater risk of soil erosion since they have a higher risk of soil mobilisation.
  • Soil type: Fields found in areas where the soil type is more vulnerable to mobilisation will present a higher risk of soil erosion if bare.
  • Vegetation: The vegetation found both within a field and between a field and the river network will affect the risk to water quality. Vegetation protects soil from erosion by preventing direct impact from rainfall, slowing down overland flow (reducing its erosive power), trapping sediment and stabilising the soil profile via the root network. Fields that have lots of vegetation between them and the river network are of a lower risk.

We are using Environment Systems Data Services and our Earth observation analytics to model water quality risk in near real-time for the Heigham catchment in Norfolk. This information is delivered to Anglian Water in the form of an interactive Business Intelligence Dashboard, which supports analysis via the visual representation of often very complex data. The dashboard has proved a success and we are currently working with Anglian Water to roll it out to other catchments.

East End Pond – Anguilla

East End Pond is a conservation area in Anguilla, the island’s only protected salt pond and an internationally recognised reserve for wetland bird species. Fed from a large catchment and supplemented by natural springs, the pond intermittently dries out in the summer, exposing mudflats attractive to shore birds. However, during heavy rainfall events, such as those associated with hurricanes, major flooding can take place. These damage the ecological balance of the pond, the surrounding vegetation, and inundate the main road and buildings within the local community. The pond has also been subject to siltation, decreasing the volume of water the pond can hold which can increase flood risk.

East End Pond - Anguilla
East End Pond – present day erosion risk
Working with the RSPB and Anguilla National Trust, Environment Systems has carried out a study to investigate the potential for flooding, and identify where and how nature-based solutions might mitigate the issue. Planting native vegetation throughout the wider catchment can help to reduce the infill of East End Pond caused by soil erosion. Reducing sediment infill will help maintain the water volume the pond can contain during flood events.

Using a variety of datasets, including digital surface models, hydrological data and rainfall data, Environment Systems created a number of different models such as flood extents and risk from erosion under different scenarios. In addition, we created a series of maps to illustrate how habitat management interventions (natural solutions such as increasing the capacity of vegetation) could improve ecological functioning with regard to flood prevention and mitigation of erosion. This work will inform wider wetland conservation action plans, and planting proposals in partnership with local experts and community organisations. This will help to improve the ecological status and climate-resilience of these important habitats. They will also be a useful tool for policy makers when new housing is proposed.

Crop Suitability Monitoring in Wales

According to the latest Met Office UK Climate Projections (UKCP18), the UK is going to experience wetter winters, warmer and drier summers, increased incidence of storms and extreme weather, and rising sea levels. Soil is a complex medium, and different soil types, in different landscape contexts, are expected to respond to climatic changes to different extents. This creates a great deal of uncertainty in how climate change could impact on agricultural production in Wales. Environment Systems has completed a two-year project led by Welsh Government, using new climate projection and Agricultural Land Classification (ALC) data to unravel this uncertainty. The project used soil and climate information to model land suitability for 118 different crop types, including some novel crops such as tea and almonds, under current conditions and nine projected climate change scenarios.

Potato crop suitability
Overall suitability for potato grown on a commercial basis across nine climate change scenarios
During the project, the partners developed and improved the existing soil mapping for Wales, updating the ALC dataset. Environment Systems carried out additional biophysical modelling of wind, frost, salt spray, and flood risk, combining the data to consider how all factors affect our ability to grow different crops in different parts of Wales. Different climate change scenarios were explored – low, medium and high emissions scenarios, up to 2080.

A variety of crops common to Wales and the UK were considered, including cereals, row crops, horticultural crops, orchard crops, timber crops and specialist crops. The outputs from the project take the form of GIS data files which contain the models for all 118 crops. The suitability modelling shows how the spatial extent of suitable ground for each crop changes with the climate in the different scenarios. The models tell us that the agricultural sector in Wales will be required to change in a relatively short period of time but not all parts of Wales will be affected in the same way, or to the same extent. The models provide an important source of evidence for policy makers, landowners and the agricultural industry as they prepare and plan for the future.

This project was led by Welsh Government Land, Nature and Forestry Division with partners Environment Systems Limited, RSK ADAS Limited and Cranfield University.

Afforestation – Tree Suitability Modelling

The UK Government has set a target to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. The target requires all sectors of the UK economy, including agriculture and forestry, to make contributions. In 2019, the Committee for Climate Change (CCC) commissioned a study to investigate the application of spatial modelling to tree species and site selection in Wales to see if its ambition of planting 152,000 ha in Wales was feasible.

The project focused on one coniferous (Sitka Spruce) and one broadleaved (Sessile Oak) tree species. The project built on draft modelling outputs from the Welsh Government Capability, Suitability and Climate Programme, where Environment Systems worked in collaboration with Cranfield University and ADAS to spatially model differences in land suitability for growing 118 crops.

The afforestation case study evaluated land suitability for Sessile Oak and Sitka Spruce based on biophysical properties alone, and in combination with legal and policy constraints to tree planting. Spatial modelling and statistical analysis were undertaken for the present day, and for four future climate change scenarios; 2050 and 2080, under medium and high greenhouse gas emissions.

Oak planting suitability in Wales
Suitability of planting oak today and under a medium emissions scenario by 2050
This project utilised Agricultural Land Classification data, which considers different aspects of climate and soil properties, and assigns grades for each environmental factor. This ranks the quality of the land in terms of soil wetness, droughtiness, stoniness and rockiness, in addition to steepness of slope and overall climate of a location. This dataset was supplemented by additional modelling carried out by Environment Systems to include frost risk, wind exposure and salt spray effects. Natural Resources Wales flood risk data were also incorporated into the models.

Biophysical factors are clearly vital for understanding where it is possible to grow crops. However, legal and policy decisions also exert a very real effect on the land available for growing crops. The project considered significant constraints to tree planting, such as areas of deep peat and priority habitats where tree planting is not currently possible (or desirable). It also considered ‘sensitivities’ such as historic and open access land, where tree planting may be possible, however, additional planning and consultation may be required.

The modelling revealed that the CCC tree-planting ambition for Wales is achievable however, it is likely to require the use of land that is less than biophysically ideal, and which is likely to be under pressure from competing land uses such as agriculture and energy generation. Significantly, it questions whether the target is sufficient to achieve the level of climate mitigation required, given the likely slower growth rates of trees on limited suitability land.

The full report can be accessed here.

Woodland Trust Data Portal

The Woods for People project, initiated by the Woodland Trust in 2002 in partnership with the Forestry Commission, with support from the Environment and Heritage Service provides access to accessible woodland data. The aim was to produce a comprehensive inventory of accessible woodland across the UK to improve public access and use. Since 2003 Environment Systems has been involved in the annual data collection and maintenance for this project. The process involves contacting woodland owners and managers by email, telephone and post to update the data held by the Trust.

Woodland Trust Data Portal
Woodland Trust Data portal with editable map polygons

In 2019, Environment Systems was commissioned to develop an online portal to enable woodland owners to manage their data themselves. The portal has been set up to send out automated reminders every year to request that woodland holdings and contact information are checked and updated if necessary. Since its launch, the portal has reduced the number of those needing to be contacted by half. Data collected through the portal is fed into the Trust’s central database which powers the ‘Find a wood’ section of the Trust’s website. Members of the public can enter a location and see all the woods with open access in that area.