Monday 06 April 2020

Adapting to a changing planet

QuelccayaPicture credit: Dr Mark Smith, School of Geography

“When the iceberg broke off, it raised the level of the lake dramatically,” says Liam Taylor, second year Physical Geography PhD student. “Larger events would have much more serious consequences for downstream communities.”

Liam has recently returned from Peru where he is tracking the recession of the Quelccaya ice cap, the largest tropical ice cap on the planet. He is just one of a number of Leeds postgraduate students playing a crucial role in climate change research across the world. From the Kenyan savanna to Canadian Arctic, the breadth and quality of work has placed Leeds firmly on the map as leaders in the field.

It is thanks, in part, to the Climate Change Bursary. The alumni-supported fund provides postgraduate students like Liam with up to £2,000 in funding to pursue climate change research, giving them the opportunity to support those communities most effected, wherever they are on the planet.

Peru

“We’re based at a glacial lake – a lake that didn’t exist until 2016,” Liam explains. “And the water levels are only getting higher. In fact, following the iceberg calving, one of our monitoring cameras was flooded.” It is a clear warning sign of what could follow. That’s why Liam’s ultimate goal is to produce an early flood warning system, designed to help local residents – whose homes sit downstream – to cope with the changing climatic conditions, and the increased flood risk.

Picture credit: Dr Mark Smith, School of Geography

Bursary support meant that Liam was able to travel to the site itself, improving his understanding of the local challenges, and sharing his knowledge with resident students.

“Whilst I’ve been out here, I’ve presented to local MSc students. We’ve spoken about the public perception of hazard risk and climate change in Peru, the value of international collaboration, and the future direction of glacial research in the region.”

This knowledge sharing could prove invaluable in helping the country adapt to what may follow.

Seychelles

Of course, the impact of a changing climate might not always be as dramatic as the events witnessed by Liam, but for the local wildlife, it is no less damaging. Second year PhD Biology student, Ellie Chesterton, is looking at the impact of changing climatic conditions upon one such species – the Seychelles warbler.

"Being up close to this amazing variety of wildlife reaffirmed my passion for what I do."

Ellie Chesterton
PhD Biology

“As the Earth’s climate continues to change, and the number of extreme weather events increase, the fate of the warbler remains to be seen,” says Ellie. Like Liam, Ellie has been able to travel to the research site. Her findings have already proven insightful.

“During my visit, the island experienced heavier rainfall and more frequent storms than in previous years. Consequently, chicks didn’t begin to fledge until August – two months late.” As further data is collected, Ellie will be able to build a fuller picture of what this might mean for the reproductive success of the bird, playing a crucial role in the future of the species.

Seychelles

And for Ellie, the opportunities she’s been given made a personal impression beyond research alone: “I had the chance to handle a variety of other endemic species. Being up close to this amazing variety of wildlife reaffirmed my passion for what I do.”

Kenya

For second year PhD Earth and Environment student, Harry Wells, his pioneering research took him to the most extreme of hot climates. He visited the Kenyan savanna, where he studied the interaction between livestock, plants and the local wildlife – namely elephants, zebras, lions and hyenas.

“Thanks to the bursary, we’ve been able to purchase camera traps. Whereas previous studies out here have only been able to sample twice per year, this new equipment allows for continuous monitoring, which means more factors can be considered.” One of these factors is seasonality, allowing Harry to predict the impact of climate change.

His findings will be well-received by those who are going to feel the impact most keenly. “Our focus is upon local communities. We want to inform their land management decisions in order to promote both biodiversity conservation and human livelihoods.”

And although his work – like Liam’s and Ellie’s – has a local focus, the implications are much wider-reaching: “We presented our work at the Society for Ecological Restoration’s international conference in Cape Town,” says Harry, whose findings were shared with researchers from right across the world.

Canadian Arctic

For third year PhD Earth and Environment student Melanie Flynn, information sharing amongst experts was the linchpin of her entire research project. “The bursary was the catalyst for an email,” Melanie explains. “I told my northern research partners: I have the beginning of an idea...”

Within months her idea had blossomed into an innovative two-day workshop in the Nunatsiavut arctic community, Canada, with a focus upon climate change adaptation. “We opted for no PowerPoint presentations, no internet, no interviews. Instead, we assembled researchers from a range of disciplinary backgrounds out on traditional hunting grounds.”

The idea was to encourage participants to connect their work to the research of others. “Researchers, presumed experts in the field, were able to learn from local community members about survival out in the natural environment – which berries to pick for a snack, for example – while wider discussions covered crucial topics such as global currents and their impact on climate systems. We created a food security plan for the region, voting on what the key priorities of that action plan should be.”

Canadian Arctic

Initial reports suggest the new format was a success, having caught the eye of the regional government. “They are interested in running similar events more frequently.” If the format rolls out on a larger scale, Melanie and the team will provide further support by creating a guide on how to host similar workshops. It is, they believe, the start of something very exciting for both Nunatsiavut’s local community and researchers – something that will make a difference.

It is a common theme for Leeds researchers. With bursary support, our students are seeing climate change first-hand and they are offering their Leeds learning to communities around the globe.

If you would be interested in donating to expand the intellectual horizons of our students, visit https://alumni.leeds.ac.uk/making-a-world-of-difference