School of GeoSciences

School of GeoSciences

Centre for the Study of
Environmental Change and Sustainability


The following are examples of current or recent research projects undertaken at the CECS. For more information on these, or any other research projects or opportunites, contact Patrizia Mencuccini.

A link to publications by CECS staff will be added here shortly. In the mean time please see publications listed under the personal Web pages on the People page.

Grassland management

Farming system sustainability and climate change

Farming systems evolve in response to climatic, social and economic drivers of change. The Macaulay Institute in partnership with CECS is modelling the effect of future weather scenarios on farming systems. However, it is not just the climate that is expected to change. There may be interactions with soil, new technologies and crop varieties may be introduced and altered rates of development may introduce a different range of weeds, pests and diseases. Some systems are more resilient than others and thus better able to cope with change. Seasonal change is particularly important. Thus increased autumn temperatures lengthen the growing season for grass.

Agricultural history shows the importance of the demand for farm products on the sustainability of farming systems. Future farm outputs are likely to include the provision of ecosystem services, such as conservation of biodiversity, and the production of biological fuels. At the same time, agricultural land plays an important role in the balance of greenhouse gases and the relative competitiveness of Scottish agriculture will be influenced by transport and thus energy costs.

See the Ecosystem Dynamics page for more information about research in this area.

Fire Behaviour and Management

Fire is a major factor in the ecology of many ecosystems around the world. Vegetation fires can cause considerable environmental damage, releasing large quantities of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, destroying biodiversity and initiating widespread erosion. On the other hand, when used with care in habitat management, fire can be used for environmental protection, to improve productivity and to enhance biodiversity.

The CECS is developing models to predict fire behaviour. Knowing fire characteristics in different fuel and weather conditions, we are able to predict fire risk and the ecological effects of fire. Research can help formulate practices that both minimise the impact from accidental fires and contribute to best practice in vegetation management. We are developing a Fire Danger Rating System for Scotland and are collaborating with colleagues throughout Europe to develop models for predicting fuel development following prescribed fire

See the FireBeaters web site or the Ecosystem Dynamics page for more information.

Forest management fire

Diving on coral reef

Coral Habitat Mapping and Conservation

An international team of 16 scientific researchers and fishermen were brought together to explore the coral reefs of the northern Galapagos islands of Marchena, Wolf and Darwin. Funded by the DEFRA Darwin Initiative over a three year period, the principal objective is to undertake a number of underwater surveys looking at the extent and health of the last remaining coral reef habitats. The isolated islands form a distinct biogeographic zone that supports a high level of biodiversity, including priority conservation endemic corals and associated species. However these marine habitats are subject to extreme climatic events in addition to anthropogenic pressures.

As well as anchor damage from fishing and tourist boats, this delicate environment is subject to climatic fluctuations under recent El Niņo events, which have been particularly damaging for local coral populations. Extensive coral reefs were reduced by 97% in 1982-83 and further compounded to 99% losses in 1997-98. The project will establish an ecological baseline of the reefs and install permanent mooring buoys.

Forest Modelling and Sustainable Management

CECS scientists are helping to develop forest management policies that recognise the balance between harvesting levels and the natural supply of forest products. All too often inappropriate practices, especially in tropical regions, lead to cycles of declining forest resources, increasing poverty and environmental degradation.

SYMFOR, a computer modelling framework based on objective scientific analyses, has been developed to support forest management decision making. The model incorporates a number of forest growth parameters for analysis of scenarios combining financial projections with natural productivity. The SYMFOR model has been successfully applied by Edinburgh’s partners to predict the effects of alternative management strategies on the yield and composition of tropical forests in Indonesia, Guyana and Brazil.

Forest management in the tropics

Land use in the Pentland Hills near Edinburgh

Land Use Policy in Rural Scotland

The shift from commodity-supported agriculture in the EU to market-driven systems producing ecosystem services as well as food, fibre and energy crops will have dramatic consequences for the way in which the Scottish countryside is managed and how it will appear in the future. The social, economic and environmental objectives of the governments’ land use policies have resulted in a wide range of management initiatives such as Land Management Contracts. CECS has been involved in the evaluations of past policy schemes, the design of the next wave of the Scottish Rural Development Programme and in the redesign of the Less Favoured Areas Support Scheme (LFASS).

The effect of previous support policies has differed across Scotland for a variety of social, economic and biophysical reasons. An understanding of past responses by land managers is essential for accurately predicting the consequences of new land use policies and other drivers of change in the countryside.

Succession and Species Diversity

Research of the vegetation on the oil-shale bings in West Lothian is being used to determine the ecological processes driving vegetation dynamics and the development of plant communities. Shale bings are of great ecological and scientific importance as examples of primary succession. The patterns of vegetation succession on the bings are comparable with those recorded on other primary succession sites both natural: sand dunes, glacier moraines and volcanoes and man-made: coal spoil, quarries and china clay pits.

The oil-shale bings are also valuable at both a national (UK) and local (West Lothian) scale for their contribution to biodiversity and are therefore important to conservation. This area of research has resulted in the raising of the profile of post-industrial sites as important ecological habitats and has led to a Local Biodiversity Action Plan* for the oil-shale bing habitat that additionally recognises their historical importance, education value, social significance and recreational function.

See the Biodiversity Action Plan for more information.

A shale bing near Edinburgh

A river in flood

Evaluating Flood Management Options

Flood risk management research is one of several studies carried out by the centre�s visiting research associates. Climate change and land use change has led to predictions of increased flooding in Scotland. EU and national legislation is being developed to tackle this and places particular emphasis on sustainable flood management techniques that work together with the natural environment. Research being carried out at CECS examines the impact that different flood risk management techniques have on the environment, social and community life, economics and flood risk.

The research uses a multi-criteria approach to identify and rank the impact of flood management techniques. This allows different impacts such as financial costs, water quality changes and peace of mind to be evaluated and considered together. Use of surveys and workshops, explore both expert and public opinion with the aim of understanding why some techniques are preferred and trusted over others.

See Wendy Kenyon's Web site for more information.

Renewable Energy Innovation Systems

As part of the ESRC’s ‘Sustainable Technologies Programme’, Mark Winskel at CECS, along with the University’s Research Centre for Social Sciences and Institute for Energy Systems, has been looking at the potential use of marine energy. Wave and tidal-stream power devices have attracted considerable attention from politicians, industrialists and others, but the Edinburgh University project has combined international research on renewable energy innovation with the Scottish and UK policy context to analyse the key factors influencing emerging technologies.

By examining the whole ‘innovation system’ involved in marine energy development, including device developers, universities, support groups and financiers, we have gained a better understanding of the interaction between technical potential and policy context. The research findings are now being fed into the wider review process for the energy policy of the UK.

Pelamis Sea-snake for wave energy generation being towed to testing grounds. Image courtesy of Ocean Power Delivery Ltd