Using seaweed to assess nitrogen pollution levels around the coast of northern England and Scotland

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About This Project

Coastal ecosystems are under environmental strain caused by nitrogen (N) loading by human activities such as agricultural waste. There are limited studies on marine N pollution around the UK. Fieldwork during the summer will collect tips of seaweed along the coast of northern England and Scotland. Nitrogen isotope analysis of the tips will be used to create a map of N sources. This will be first detailed study of its kind in the North Atlantic.

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What is the context of this research?

Coastal regions are one of the most important environmental ecosystems on Earth, both biologically and economically (e.g. fishing, tourism). Continued human activity has lead to coastal ecosystem strain through N loading, some of which are serious and, probably, irreversible. As a conscious society monitoring programmes need to be initiated, especially in the UK. Monitoring N pollution in the coastal environment relies on time-consuming and expensive analytical methods and analysis. N isotopes in macroalgae (seaweed) has been successfully used as a biomonitoring tool for detecting and quantifying N sources into the coastal region in Europe and North America. Only one major study exists for the UK, which looks at specific locations, and not regionally, in southeast UK.

What is the significance of this project?

Most marine ecosystems are N-limited, hence minimising algae and plant growth. Elevated N loading caused eutrophication, and a dynamic shift in the coastal ecosystem. Understanding N loading to the ocean is therefore very important in terms of understanding marine health. Macroalgae expansion has a dynamic impact on seagrass and hence, the fish nursery and feeding grounds. Determining the sources of N into coastal waters will help put in place action plans to limit or reduce N-related activities. An isoscape map of N isotopes around northern England and Scotland will be the first step towards the generation of a detailed UK coastal map of N loading and sources. Currently, there is coastal pollution monitoring programme in the UK, hence the timely nature of this research.

What are the goals of the project?

Traditional techniques for monitoring N loading is costly, time consuming and often inconclusive, whereas N-isotope analysis of the non-fertile tips of macroalgae is rapid, at low cost and can detect source changes accurately. Previous research of N loading has focused mainly on large rivers and estuaries in Europe. Sampling the non-fertile tips of macroalgae only requires a pair of scissors and a plastic vial or sample bag. After this study is complete, the next aim will be to enhance public interest and involvement, through the use of volunteers and local environmental groups to collect and send macroalgae samples to SIBL for analysis. This will hopefully cover all the UK. Community involvement is a key long-term goal to better understand N loading, seasonally and annually.


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Fieldwork will be completed over a 4-week period in the summer of 2018. Many coastal sites will be sampled based on accessibility and presence of macroalgae (i.e. Fucus species) in coastal regions (Fig. 1). A camper van (e.g. motorhome) has been chosen as it reduces the costs associated with accommodation, and enables the samples to be refrigerated/frozen immediately after collection. All non-fertile tips of macroalgae (Fig. 2) will be recorded (e.g. photography and GPS) and seawater samples will also be collected and refrigerated - for future research with collaborators. Back in SIBL, macroalgae samples will be rinsed with de-ionised water, air dried at room temperature and sub-sampled for N-isotope analysis. It is anticipated that over 1000 individual macroalgae tips will be collected for isotopic analysis, and the remaining cost associated with the project will be covered by SIBL.

Endorsed by

This is a very cost effective way to monitor marine pollution, but the approach has received little attention to date in the UK. I fully endorse the aims of the project. It is feasible cost effective and timely.
Results of this project will significantly increase our knowledge of the amount and sources of anthropogenic nitrogen pollution in coastal settings around the UK, and it will set the standards for subsequent nitrogen biomonitoring efforts elsewhere. Darren has as strong scientific background to lead this study.
This is a great project that will address some challenging issues in using seaweed as an environmental monitoring tool. Darren has an excellent background to address this challenge.

Flag iconProject Timeline

This project will be completed within a year of being funded. It is hoped that the initial fieldwork will take place during the summer of 2018. It would be ideal to do a winter sampling trip and other funding sources will be considered for this expansion to the project. The most time consuming aspect of the project will be associated with the cleaning, drying and archiving of macroalgae samples for isotopic analysis.

Feb 26, 2018

Project Launched

Aug 03, 2018

Complete the four-week fieldwork season to collect macroalgae from northern England and Scotland

Nov 16, 2018

Preparation of macroalgae samples for N-isotope analysis, weighing out samples for isotopic analysis and archiving remaining material

Dec 20, 2018

Isotopic analysis of macroalgae samples

Jan 31, 2019

Data analysis and construction of isoscape map of nitrogen isotopes

Meet the Team

Dr Darren R. Grocke
Dr Darren R. Grocke
Associate Professor of Stable Isotope Geochemistry


Durham University
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Dr Darren R. Grocke

Dr Darren Gröcke is the Director of the Stable Isotope Biogeochemistry Laboratory (SIBL) at Durham University. SIBL has state-of-the-art gas source isotope mass spectrometers that are used for the investigation of archaeological, geological, biological and environmental samples. Darren has worked on a diverse array of subjects from modern kangaroo bones, mammoth diets, black shale formation and plant fertilisation. Darren has written many publications on modern, archaeological and geological studies. Darren has over 20 years of isotope experience and over 110 peer-reviewed international publications. SIBL has helped train many PhD, MSc and undergraduate students in isotope geochemistry – many of them continuing an academic career or in environmental consultancy. Over the past four years Darren has become very interested in macroalgae with respect to biofuels, agriculture and environmental studies. He learnt very quickly that the latter has received very little attention in the UK, and hence Darren aims to develop this by producing a base map of nitrogen isotopes in macroalgae around the UK in order highlight the application and to identify coastal regions polluted with nitrogen loading. Recent work in SIBL has confirmed that nitrogen isotopes in macroalgae in the UK can be used to distinguish between polluted and non-polluted regions. This Experiment project aims to expand on this preliminary research to a wider region of the UK that has a range of environments (e.g., agricultural, industrial and ?natural): the findings of this project will help Darren to publicise the usefulness of macroalgae as a biomonitoring tool and increase the awareness of the general public of the threat to our coastal environments.

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  • 12Backers
  • 38%Funded
  • $1,646Total Donations
  • $137.17Average Donation
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