Sussex wins funding to bring environmental research back down to earth

A landslide path caused by thawing soil sliding downslope across the underlying permafrost in Yukon Territory, Canada

The in-filled lake site of Marcacocha in the Peruvian Andes, from which the mite remains were recovered. Llama trains up to 1000-strong were pastured here on their journey from the highland trading centres to the rainforest

Enlarged head view of one of the mite specimens found at Marcacocha

Geographers at Sussex have been awarded funding by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) for two separate projects that look to the soil for a better understanding of climate change and the impact of human activity on our environment.

Dr Julian Murton, Reader in Physical Geography and head of Geography at the University of Sussex, has been awarded funding from NERC’s Arctic Research Programme to work with the universities of Edinburgh, Exeter and Sheffield and a group of North American scientists on a project about Carbon Cycling Linkages of Permafrost Systems (CYCLOPS).

Dr Murton studies permafrost thaw, one of the key indicators of climate change.

Permafrost is defined as soil or bedrock that has been continuously frozen for at least two years and often as long as tens of thousands of years. Permafrost can be as deep as 1500m or more and covers about one fifth of the Earth’s surface. The rate of thaw could tell us much about climate change and the effects of permafrost thaw on other, diverse ecosystems.

Currently, predictive models fail to take into account many of the key biological processes influencing the rates and consequences of permafrost thaw. CYCLOPS will therefore develop a model that takes into account vegetation, soil and permafrost interactions using data collected from the permafrost zones of western Canada and from Alaskan tundra.

The project brings together a team of UK, Canadian and US plant ecologists, soil and permafrost scientists and wetland ecologists with modellers to build new permafrost feedbacks into models, and thus improve predictions of greenhouse gas emissions from high latitudes.

Dr Murton says: “Sussex’s role in the project is to monitor the permafrost temperature under different types of vegetation near Whitehorse and Yellowknife in NW Canada.

“With climate warming amplified in such boreal regions, the permafrost is starting to warm and thaw, potentially releasing the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide or methane into the atmosphere. The questions from our fieldwork are: how much, how quickly and from where exactly?”

Dr Mick Frogley, Senior Lecturer in Physical Geography at the University of Sussex, has won funding for a collaborative project with the Natural History Museum in London.

The aim of the project is to develop a new technique to track livestock densities across a landscape through time and builds on previous work that looked at the impact of human activity on highland landscapes.

The work will involve studying the remains of soil-dwelling mites retrieved from a 4,200-year-old segment of lake sediment from the Andes in Peru. The mites feed on animal dung, so the presence of high or low numbers of mites in the different layers of sediment indicate high or low livestock numbers at different periods. Experts at the Natural History Museum will help to identify the different species of mite, thereby providing information that will highlight changes in the environment and help to distinguish between the different types of animal present. The results of the mite study will then be compared with detailed pollen, geochemical and other environmental data from the same site in order to build up a comprehensive picture of how the environment changed through time and what the indigenous peoples on the landscape were doing in response to those changes.

Dr Frogley says: “Early Andean societies were hugely reliant on their livestock. Animals such as llamas and alpacas were not only hardy pack animals, but were also able to provide meat, wool and (by drying their dung) a ready supply of fuel. However, one of the difficulties of working in the Andes is that the ancient cultures from the region never developed any form of writing, so we have to use a combination of environmental and archaeological techniques to piece together how people were living in the past – a bit like trying to solve a detective story”.

The project will explore the potential of this technique for broader application across other settings where cultures had a heavy reliance on their livestock (for example, the Greenland Norse) .

Professor Richard Black, head of the School of Global Studies, welcomed news of the funding awards. He said: “Both of these NERC awards will develop interesting new funded areas of research in relation to climate change, complementing our existing funded work on climate science and climate-human interactions.”


Notes for Editors

University of Sussex Press office contacts: Maggie Clune and Jacqui Bealing. Tel: 01273 678 888. Email:

View press releases

Last updated: Tuesday, 12 June 2012