It is largely agreed that the results of scientific research should be made available to public audiences in ways that are as clear and accessible as possible. This is a big challenge for scientists and science communicators. There are many convincing arguments that making scientific research available to the public – and particularly in engaging in dialogue about it – is a valuable step in fostering democratic and transparent political decision-making about big issues.
However, scientific research is often structured and carried out using key terms and phrases that aren’t regularly used in most of our daily lives. This can sometimes make it difficult to understand (and even communicate) why and how scientific research is undertaken and the outcomes it might have for public and political life.
This is why the Freshwater Glossary has been established on the Freshwater Information Platform website. The Freshwater Glossary collects a large set of key terms and phrases that underpin freshwater science, and gives short descriptions of what they mean.
Collected from a number of previous European Union projects, the Glossary is designed to help anyone – whether an interested layperson, student, researcher or policy maker – get to grips with some of the most important terms and concepts in freshwater science.
Over the coming weeks, we’ll be sharing the Freshwater Glossary through our Twitter account @freshwaterblog. We encourage you to follow us on Twitter (if you’re not signed up, there’s a large and vibrant community of water professionals, managers, researchers and policy makers on the site, making it potentially very rewarding) and to share the Glossary tweets if you’re so inclined.
Similarly, if there are any key terms or phrases that you feel are missing from the Glossary, then please leave a comment here or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Last week we wrote about the new MARS factsheets, which are designed to give brief, accessible and engaging introductions to some of the key freshwater topics covered by the project. This week, we introduce the first factsheet (pdf), which outlines the new ‘cookbook’ methodology for understanding how multiple stressors on freshwaters affect the ecosystem services they can provide to humans.
The cascade model: quantifying the capacity, flow and benefits of ecosystem services
Building on the expertise of project partners and insights from wider scientific and economic research, the MARS cookbook uses a cascade model methodology (Figure 1) that links the structure and function of an ecosystem to its service provision. This methodology includes the capacity of an ecosystem to provide a service (assessed using biophysical data), the actual flow of the services used by humans (assessed using socio-economic data), and finally the benefits that ecosystem services provide.
By assessing both the capacity of an ecosystem to provide services, and the actual use of these services, the MARS cookbook methodology allows assessments on the sustainability of ecosystem use to be made. The unsustainable use of ecosystem services may become an additional stressor the ecosystem’s health and status.
The MARS cookbook: four steps
The MARS cookbook methodology is split into four steps. The first is scoping, the process by which the aquatic ecosystem and ecosystem services of interest are selected and mapped, and the spatial and temporal scale of analysis are defined. The second step is to develop the assessment framework, through which multiple stressors and ecosystem services are linked in a stressor-ecological status-ecosystem service series. A key step here is to check whether the ecological indicators used (e.g. biodiversity, ecological status) capture the effects of the stressors, and can be linked to the ecosystem services of interest.
The third step is assessment, where biophysical indicators are organised according to the ecosystem’s capacity to deliver a service, its actual use, and the resulting human benefits provided. Indicators are organised in three categories: capacity (e.g. biomass of commercial fish species); flow (e.g. fish catch); and sustainability (e.g. % of catch within sustainable limits). Their ability to indicate ecosystem stress and / or service provision is quantified through the computer modelling of existing ecological data.
The fourth step is valuation, to identify the benefits provided by ecosystem services and aggregate them at three scales: water body, catchment and European continent. The valuations are undertaken at appropriate scales to support decision making in Integrated River Basin Management Plans and the Water Framework Directive. In the valuation process, the ecosystem service, benefit and value are separated, because a service (e.g. water purification) can provide numerous societal benefits depending on the location (e.g. drinking water; swimming areas). The economic value of the ecosystem services provided can then be valued through revealed and stated preference methodologies, and cost-based and benefit transfer approaches.
Case study: applying the MARS cookbook to Welsh river catchments
To give an example of the methodology in action, we can apply it to water purification ecosystem services provided by rivers in Wales studied by MARS led by Steve Ormerod and Isabelle Durance at Cardiff University. The first analysis step defines the geographical area, the ecosystem service and the scale of analysis (amount of purification in the catchment per year). The second framework step links the pressures faced by the catchment (e.g nutrient pollution) to the ecosystem status and service provision.
The third biophysical assessment step analyses the ecological structure and processes (e.g. an analysis of the nutrient cycle) and selects ecosystem service indicators (e.g. nutrient retention levels). In step four, the economic benefits of the service are identified (e.g. free, clean water), and appropriately valued (e.g. unit cost of purification by alternative process). This value is then aggregated to the scale of interest (e.g. the catchment) to give an overall economic value of the water purification service provided by the ecosystem.
You can read and download all the MARS factsheets on the project website here.
The MARS project has announced the publication of a set of factsheets designed to give brief, accessible introductions to some of the project’s key research areas and topics. Much like this blog, the factsheets are intended to help make the project’s research and findings available to interested people and organisations.
The factsheets cover a range of topics, and can be accessed through the links below.
Factsheet 1: Multiple stresses and freshwater ecosystem service provision: the MARS ‘cookbook’ methodology
The MARS project assesses the impacts of multiple stressors on the provision of ecosystem services from freshwater ecosystems, under different climatic and land-use scenarios. The European Union FP7 funded project has developed an innovative new assessment methodology – termed a ‘cookbook’ – to allow scientists, environmental managers and policy makers to quantify the relationships between multiple stresses and ecosystem service provision and value. The cookbook provides an invaluable tool to support the implementation of the Water Framework Directive in Europe.
Factsheet 2: Freshwater Information Platform – http://www.freshwaterplatform.eu
Over recent years, many European Union funded research projects have investigated freshwaters – ranging from biodiversity related projects to others focusing on pressures and their effects on European inland waters, including appropriate rehabilitation strategies. However, the data generated by these projects is often difficult for water managers, policy makers, scientific communities and the general public to access and use. In order to make this detailed and wide-ranging knowledge of freshwater ecosystems accessible to all, the Freshwater Information Platform was launched: an interactive website integrating results and original data stemming from finished, on-going, and future freshwater research projects.
Factsheet 3: MARS scenarios and storylines
The multiple combinations of drivers and pressures for a given aquatic system for the current situation are shaped by its historical and present climatic, managerial and socio-economic conditions. The future combinations of drivers and pressures depend on the future climatic and socio-economic scenarios considered plausible for this system. Within MARS, scenarios and storylines are used to project the impacts of multiple stressors on aquatic ecosystems. They deliver a qualitative framework and, where possible, quantitative data for modellers to run simulations.
Factsheet 4: Multiple stresses on Europe’s freshwaters: emerging challenges for science, policy and management
The interactions and impacts of multiple stressors on aquatic ecosystems is one of the key challenges for freshwater science, policy and conservation. Whilst there are many success stories of pollution being reduced on rivers and lakes across the continent, Europe’s freshwaters are still subject to multiple stresses, many of which are complex and poorly understood. In order to safeguard the health and diversity of Europe’s freshwaters, and the ecosystem services that they provide to humans, we need to better understand and manage the challenge of multiple stressors.
We will explore some of the topics covered by the factsheets in coming weeks. Please feel free to email us on email@example.com if you have any questions, comments or any problems accessing the factsheets.
DESSIN is a European Union project (featured on the blog last year) which aims to specifically address water scarcity and water quality issues in urban areas, partnering scientists with water management organisations and technology companies to design new and innovative solutions for water management.
DESSIN has two broad aims: first to explore new technology and management approaches to address some of the world’s most pressing water issues; and second to use the ecosystem services concept to provide evidence of the benefit of new approaches in economic, social and environmental terms, in order to encourage their widespread adoption. DESSIN’s work is carried out at five urban study areas across Europe.
DESSIN has recently released details of their new Ecosystem Service Evaluation Framework designed to show how innovative technologies can help support and promote the services provided to humans by freshwater ecosystems.
The DESSIN Framework uses the Common International Classification of Ecosystem Services developed by the European Union to standardise assessments. It feeds the resulting classifications into the DPSIR adaptive management framework.
The DPSIR framework (Driving forces, Pressures, States, Impacts, Responses) has been adopted by the European Environment Agency to help understand society-environment interactions, and to assess related issues of governance and sustainability.
As this diagram shows, innovative technologies (Responses) are trialled in the framework to assess their impacts on ecosystem Drivers (human alterations to the environment), Pressures (the effects of human activity) and States (the conditions of the ecosystem under study).
As a result, the changes to ecosystem service provision (Impact I) can be estimated, and valued (Impact II). This estimated change in ecosystem service availability and value, and the resulting effects on human well-being, can then feedback into policy and decision making, as further Responses.
The above diagram shows a case study example of the DESSIN Framework applied to the River Emscher in Northern Germany. Responding to decades of urban alteration and pollution of the river, the DESSIN team are trialling three innovative approaches in the catchment: sewer networks, waste-water free streams and ecological restoration.
Each response aims to address the pressures from different drivers which result in changes to the ecosystem’s state, with the intention of promoting ecosystem services such as water purification, flood protection and biodiversity conservation (Impact I). The economic value of such services is calculated on the basis of factors such as avoided costs for technological water treatment and ecological restoration, compensated instead by the functioning of the ecosystem (Impact II).
You can keep up to date with the progress of the DESSIN project on their website.
Every two years, the European Federation for Freshwater Sciences organises a symposium to bring together more than 500 people including aquatic researchers, water managers and policy makers from across Europe and the world.
Earlier this month, the 9th Symposium for European Freshwater Sciences was held in Geneva, Switzerland on the banks of Lake Geneva. The symposium provided a platform for researchers to present and discuss key issues and new research on freshwater science and management.
This year, the theme of the symposium was ‘Water for a thirsty planet in the 21st century‘, which reflects a growing awareness about the impacts of multiple stressors on freshwater ecosystems in an increasingly developed and pressured world. As such, the symposium was attended by a number of scientists from the MARS project, many of whom presented their work.
We spoke to two MARS scientists, Sebastian Birk and Stephen Thackeray, to get their reflections and responses to this intensive, but obviously inspiring, week of presentations and discussions in Geneva. The Centre for Hydrology and Ecology also compiled a Storify timeline of tweets from the symposium using the #SEFS9 hashtag, through which you can follow the week’s workshops and talks.
Sebastian Birk, University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany (website)
A key strength of the symposium is that you meet the people around Europe working on similar issues. This is great for maintaining and enchanting the contacts in your research network, and for fostering common spirit for the topics that we’re all working on. There were a lot of young scientists – PhDs and postdocs – presenting their work at the symposium, and it was great to see a new generation of researchers with new ideas.
In addition to networking with other researchers, I predominantly attended to listen to talks related to the MARS topics on aquatic multiple stresses, and I particularly wanted to see what other work on the topic is going on in Europe. Many talks addressed the effects (and even the mitigation) of multiple stressors, and this was related to satellite topics like ecosystem services.
One fascinating body of research was presented by a working group on multiple stressors from the University of Otago in New Zealand. Their work has been going on for more than a decade, and it was inspiring to see how far they have already got in researching the impacts of multiple stressors at different spatial scales, and their research may well be useful for us in MARS.
There was a special session on aquatic multiple stressors, and the MARS project was represented and discussed in three different talks. I gave an overview of the status of our project; our colleagues from Cardiff University talked about multiple stress modelling in the Welsh catchments; and then our Danish colleagues presented on the river channel experiments where they carry out work on the effects on multiple stress.
Multiple stressors pose new challenges for environmental management. Instead of stressor effects being only additive, we are increasingly seeing synergistic and antagonistic interactions between stressors, which means that you cannot simply ‘add up’ the effects of individual stressors on the environment to understand their total effect.
Synergism and antagonism are key terms in multiple stressor discussions. Synergism means that the interaction of multiple stressors produces an effect stronger than just adding up the single stressor effects. On the other hand, antagonism produces an effect that is weaker than the additive sum of individual stressors. Both of these interactions are challenging our predictive capacity for understanding the effects of anthropogenic stress which is so relevant for successful water body management.
Multiple stresses are increasingly being seen as an important issue by policy makers and environmental managers, and we have a huge opportunity with the MARS project to contribute valuable work to understanding and managing their effects. It was great to present this work to a community of like-minded researchers at the symposium.
Stephen Thackeray, Centre for Hydrology and Ecology, UK (website)
Along with four colleagues I recently joined hundreds of researchers from around the world at the Symposium for European Freshwater Sciences (SEFS9) in Geneva, as a representative of the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH). As always, we found SEFS to be an interesting and fun meeting, with many opportunities to make new contacts, catch up with colleagues, and learn something new. I presented on the subject of seasonality within lake ecosystems, and future directions for freshwater phenology, using material from my recently completed shifting seasons project, and from the current GloboLakes project
Overall, SEFS9 was an outlet for a great diversity of freshwater science but, for me, some of the strongest emerging themes were the ecology of urban freshwaters, methane cycling within lakes, the use of environmental DNA (eDNA) as a biodiversity monitoring tool and the assessment of impacts of multiple environmental stressors. It is this last topic that is most relevant to work being conducted within the MARS project.
However, one of my other lasting impressions from the meeting was that there was a thriving young researcher community (and I do mean community) present, all of whom are already making excellent contributions to their fields. We were also privileged to see a series of excellent plenaries, demonstrating how theory, experimentation and observation can be blended in order to provide new insights. For me, the talks given by Jef Huisman, Elena Litchman and Núria Bonada were all exceptional in this respect.
Based upon the SEFS9 experience, I am also left with the definite impression that scientific communication has itself evolved. There was a whole other dialogue on the presentations occurring throughout the meeting via Twitter, and blog posts such as this one only add to the expanding reach of the research community.
The thought of taking a dip in an outdoor swimming pool on a construction site in the middle of London isn’t necessarily everyone’s idea of a good time. However, a new initiative called “Of Soil and Water: King’s Cross Pond Club” has recently opened just such a pool on the site of one of London’s most extensive redevelopment schemes. And the most innovative part of this scheme? The new pool is filtered entirely by natural processes, using an array of planted vegetation both above and below the waterline to keep the pool clean enough to safely swim.
Part-public amenity, part-land art and part-open air natural experiment, Of Soil and Water is a small, self-enclosed ecosystem in a new 40 metre pool, which is designed to be self-purifying, despite the multiple stresses and pollutants emitted from the urban environment. The pool is the result of a collaboration between the Ooze architects (Eva Pfannes and Sylvain Hartenberg) and artist/architect Marjetica Potrč, as part of a series of art events commissioned by King’s Cross Central Limited Partnership. Recently opened, the pool provides a small beacon of urban freshwater nature, nestled amongst cranes and concrete footprints of high-rise buildings in construction close to Kings Cross station, and will remain open to the public until 2017.
Describing the project’s concept, artist Marjetica Potrč said of the work “We have to rethink how we live with the city and with nature. Here, we are collaborating with nature, and the artwork encourages the viewer to participate in that experience. Water is a source of life but it is also a metaphor for regeneration. We want to understand people’s influence upon nature but also our balance with nature.”
Speaking recently to the Guardian, the Ooze architects suggest that visitors can swim in “a living laboratory where they are aware of their relationship with nature, and about consequences of their interactions with nature”. This emphasis on a ‘living landscape’ (however small in scale), is designed to allow the natural features of the pool to change over time. This relatively open process-based ecology that underpins the design was chosen the architects to “show a micro-landscape in the becoming; the succession of the different stages of natures related to different soils and waters. The experience of visitors will change continuously within the 18 months.”
Whilst this idea is laudable in many ways (and chimes with many of the non-linear and process-based approaches currently dominating ecology and restoration), there will doubtless be a tension between allowing for the trajectories the pool ecosystem can take over time, whilst ensuring the ecosystem services it provides, namely the naturally purified water. It’ll also be interesting to watch how the biodiversity of the pool changes over time.
Located close to a network of canals, and within a few miles of a number of lakes, ponds and rivers, the pool will likely be colonised by mobile invertebrates like damselflies and water boatmen before too long. One question might be: if outside plants and animals begin to colonise the pool – lets say even birds and small mammals start to nest (and feed, and leave faeces etc) there – how far does this ‘living landscape’ allow for their presence, whilst still maintaining water quality?
In all probability, given the pool’s short lifespan, this is unlikely to be a major issue, but it does flag up the idea that whilst we might undertake environmental management that emphasises natural processes and uncertainty, there is still the need for managers to choose which processes to prioritise, and to what ends. In this way, we see further parallels with the pool and wider questions that environmental restorationists are asking in their work.
Plant filtration systems for freshwaters are not new (indeed, you could argue that they’re the original water treatment works…), but are being increasingly adopted in environmental management which tackles multiple stressors. Put simply, many aquatic and marshland plants can take up excess nutrients, chemicals and toxins from the water in which they grow, removing these dissolved pollutants from being available in (and harming) the wider ecosystem.
For example, in 2009 Alan Berger, a landscape architect at MIT in the USA, proposed an initiative to use vegetation planting to help improve water quality in 2600km of polluted canals and waterways that thread through the Pontine Marshes, south of Rome in Italy. Using a large grant from the European Union’s LIFE+ project, Berger and colleagues designed a landscape-scale ‘Wetland Machine’, filtering all the water in the marshes through a 2.3 km² area of wetland built-in winding channels and planted with vegetation that is particularly efficient at taking up and storing pollutants and toxins such as marsh grass.
Berger’s winding design ensures that the water flows through the wetland at a sufficiently low-speed for the pollutants and toxins to be taken up by the plants. Berger’s work in Italy is still ongoing, but represents one of the largest and most ambitious examples of natural water filtration management in the world (see more information here).
To loop back to the (comparatively small) Of Soil and Water pool at Kings Cross: how have the designers used natural processes to filter the pool’s water, so that it is safe to swim in? The pool is split into three zones: a swimming zone; a regeneration zone; and a filter zone. In the regeneration zone, largely free-floating plants including water lilies and mare’s tail absorb nutrients from the water, and pondweeds oxygenate the pool. Algal growth is limited by allowing microorganisms and zooplankton to flourish, which in turn graze on the algae.
In the filter zone, a layer of gravel collects a growing biofilm of microorganisms, fed by nutrients brought into the pool by the bathers and the urban environment and oxygen in the water. The biofilm mineralises any organic matter in the pool, and helps reduce pathogenic germs, whilst the limestone gravel releases calcium into the water which binds to dissolved phosphates. Here too, plants which filter nutrients and toxins from the water are grown, including flag irises, water mint, marsh marigold and various rush species.
On close inspection, whilst Kings Cross pool does not rely entirely on natural processes to filter the bathing water. Instead, a series of pumps and water skimmers circulate the water and help remove floating impurities, and a phosphate filter keeps phosphorous concentrations low in the pool, preventing algal growth.
Despite this, when viewed as a whole, the Of Soil and Water pool is clearly ambitious, environmentally minded, and perhaps above all, fun. Engaging people with urban nature and ecosystems that are otherwise unnoticed or taken for granted is an important step in helping foster responsibility and care for the environment. And here, at a small pool of water amongst the high-rises, bulldozers and cranes, is an example of natural processes being able to thrive, both for the enjoyment and appreciation of people, and – hopefully – for the health and biodiversity of the wider urban environment.
Freshwater ecosystems are incredibly diverse yet increasingly threatened environments. A study by David Dudgeon and colleagues in 2006 found that freshwater ecosystems were far richer in species than land or marine ecosystems, when compared to the respective areas of the Earth’s surface that they cover.
However, Dudgeon also suggested that freshwater biodiversity was decreasing at a faster rate than land or marine based biodiversity, as a result of a multitude of freshwater stressors such as pollution, overexploitation, habitat destruction, invasive species and the impacts of climate change. The interactions and cumulative effects of this ‘cocktail’ of multiple and emerging freshwater stressors is far from clear, which is why multiple stressors are the key focus for research in the MARS project.
In recent years, numerous European environmental policies have been implemented to protect, conserve and restore the continent’s freshwater ecosystems. Two key pieces of European legislation, the Habitats Directive and the Water Framework Directive, have a strong focus on biodiversity. In the Water Framework Directive (first implemented in 2000), analyses of different “biological quality elements” are used to assess the ecological health and status of water bodies (predominantly using data on biological traits and ecological preferences of freshwater species), which in turn guides funding for conservation and restoration work.
As a result, to properly implement such environmental policy requires comprehensive and detailed information on freshwater species. However, until now, such data has largely been scattered, incomplete and not comprehensive: varying widely in quality and precision. To address this shortfall, the freshwaterecology.info database has been set up to provide comprehensive and harmonised data on the ecological characteristics of European freshwater species, which can be used by scientists, policy makers, environmental managers, students and the public.
The online database categorises organisms by their ‘ecological parameters’ – an amalgamation of biological information and ecological preferences in other categorisations – which include: 1) distribution (e.g., per ecoregion or per catchment); 2) spatial preferences (e.g., stream zonation or altitudinal preferences); 3) habitat preferences (e.g.,hydrological, temperature or salinity preferences); 4) pollution, trophy and saprobity (e.g., different saprobic and trophic indices); and 5) life history (e.g., life span, fecundity, feeding types).
The freshwaterecology.info online database currently holds data on around 20,000 freshwater species across five different organism groups: fish, macroinvertebrates (insects), macrophytes (plants), diatoms and phytoplankton. Much of the data brought together in the portal has been collected and classified by successive, complementary European Union projects, including Euro-limpacs, Refresh, WISER, FAME, EFI+ and BioFresh. The development of the freshwaterecology.info database has been led by Astrid Schmidt-Kloiber and Daniel Hering and now forms a key part of the integrated Freshwater Information Platform.
The integrated freshwaterecology.info database allows users to search by species and ecological parameters, giving comprehensive citations to the authors who supplied the data as well as to the literature references the classifications were based upon. Similarly, it includes taxa entry and validation tools, to allow users to enter and create standardised taxa lists using the database’s taxonomy. All the data accessed through the portal can be exported and downloaded to allow further quantitative analyses.
How might the freshwaterecology.info database be used to help further freshwater science, policy and conservation across Europe? In a recently published journal article in Ecological Indicators, Schmidt-Kloiber and Hering outline a number of examples of how the database could be (and already is) important for freshwater research.
First, presenting species data within ecoregions – an area of land and/or water with a geographically distinct assemblage of species, natural communities, and environmental conditions – rather than within national state boundaries, has allowed for targeted biodiversity analyses such as those of Conti et al 2014 and Hering et al 2009 at appropriate ecoregional scales, using data from freshwaterecology.info.
Second, knowledge on the ecological preferences of freshwater species is a key element of biomonitoring and assessment systems within European policies like the Water Framework Directive. Most ecological assessment strategies require numerically coded biological information on individual species: indeed in a 2012 paper, MARS scientist Sebastian Birk and colleagues found that two-thirds of European river assessment and almost half of lake assessment approaches required such data.
Third, ecological restoration is an increasingly common form of environmental management in a world subject to ongoing human alterations. A key question is how to evaluate the success (or failure) of restoration measures. A review by Verdonschot et al. 2012 on freshwater restoration evaluation highlights the value of biological indicators and ecological preferences in tracking the recovery of a degraded ecosystem following restoration work.
Finally, species traits are commonly used in computer models built by scientists to attempt to forecast how species and ecosystems might respond to climate change in the future. Here, a key focus for research is the ‘sensitivity’ of species to climate altered environmental factors such as water temperature, flow and quantity. Studies such as Hering et al. 2009, Sandin et al. 2014 and Conti et al. 2014 have used data on ecological preferences from the online database to reveal that freshwater species in Mediterranean and high mountain ecosystems are particularly vulnerable to projected changes in climate.
The formation of the freshwaterecology.info database provides a significant step forward in the comprehensiveness, accessibility and use of freshwater biodiversity data in Europe. As Schmidt-Kloiber and Hering write in their new paper, “A sound understanding of ecological functioning is a prerequisite for the implementation of biological approaches into European aquatic ecosystem management.”
Depending on funding, the database will continue to grow in both content and use in the future. Data is continually being added, filling species gaps, and providing new information for scientists to undertake new research and analysis to respond to both existing and emerging trends and threats in European freshwater ecology. As such, freshwaterecology.info is an invaluable tool.
Astrid Schmidt-Kloiber describes the potential and challenges offered by the freshwaterecology.info database, “We are grateful to all contributing experts and acknowledge the balancing act they had to manage when codifying their comprehensive ecological knowledge and translating it into numerical values. Finally, we have achieved a great and important goal and moved harmonised assessments throughout Europe a big step forward. Still, the database also shows us the knowledge gaps and the urgent need for more basic research, for example regarding the general distribution of some species or the temperature preferences and dispersal capacities often called for in global change modelling.”