Research Round Up – May 2021

Welcome to the latest instalment of our monthly feature series throwing the spotlight on our research success stories.

Northern peatlands

The strength of our research is in making a real and telling difference to the world around us, by working across traditional boundaries to find innovative solutions to some of the greatest challenges facing society today. 

Here we highlight some of latest projects being pioneered by the expertise and efforts of the highly talented research community at Leeds. 

From grant awards to examples of outstanding interdisciplinary work and best practice, we’re keen to showcase your research achievements. See the foot of this article for details of how you can get involved. 

Featured in this month's round-up: 

Researchers in Greenland installing fibre-optic cables

Fibre-optics help create most detailed picture of Greenland Ice Sheet

Leeds scientists have used a fibre-optic sensor passed deep into a borehole to obtain the most detailed measurements of ice properties ever taken on the Greenland Ice Sheet. Their findings will be used to make more accurate models of the future movement of the world’s second-largest ice sheet, as the effects of climate change continue to accelerate.

The research team, led by Dr Adam Booth from the School of Earth and Environment, used a new technique in which laser pulses are transmitted in a fibre-optic cable to obtain highly detailed measurements of ice properties from the surface of the ice sheet all the way to its base, more than 1,000 metres below.

In contrast to previous studies, which used separate sensors located tens or even hundreds of metres apart, the new approach allows the temperature and structure of the ice to be measured along the entire length of a fibre-optic cable installed in a deep borehole.

Dr Booth used the cable to record the structural properties of the glacier, and said: 

“Fibre-optic technologies are revolutionising our ability to sense ice properties,” he said. “I’ve worked with geophysical data from various sites around the world, but I’ve never worked with such detailed images.

“This new technique is offering unprecedented capacity to monitor ice deformation and predict how it might evolve.

“The power of the technique is in its ability to measure temperature and seismic vibrations together. When you combine this information, you get a very comprehensive picture of the structure of the glacier.”

Read the full story

Prisoners of War at Skipton's POW camp in WWI

Lost story of POW camp uncovered in new book

The forgotten story of a WWI prisoner-of-war camp in North Yorkshire has been brought to life through new research. German prisoners compiled accounts of their experiences in Skipton’s Raikeswood Camp in a book, Kriegsgefangen in Skipton, which was published in Munich in 1920 following the prisoners’ repatriation.

An original copy found its way to Skipton Library, and had been gathering dust in a shoebox for many years.

The book provides an account of life in the camp through anecdotes, sketches and poems, and bears witness to a rarely explored perspective on the war and its immediate aftermath through the eyes of the German POWs.

Now, thanks to a research project led by Anne Buckley, from the School of Languages, Cultures and Societies, it has been translated into English.

German Prisoners of the Great War: Life in a Yorkshire Camp brings the fascinating account to life for new audiences a century after it was first published.

Anne said: “It has been a privilege to re-tell these men's stories a century later. The resilience and innovation of the men within the confines of captivity was remarkable.

“Some of the accounts are humorous, while others are solemn, and some of their messages about nationalism and conflict are still highly relevant today.”

Staff, students and local volunteers spent five years painstakingly translating the prisoners’ stories and accounts. These included descriptions of the conditions in the camp, the daily routines, their activities, relationships with the guards and their thoughts of their homeland.

Read the full story

Man measuring a tree trunk in African rainforest

African rainforests can resist severe heat and drought

Scientists at Leeds have been studying the impact of record heat and drought on intact African tropical rainforests were surprised by how resilient they were to extreme conditions during the last major El Niño event.

The Leeds-led international study found that intact rainforests across tropical Africa continued to remove carbon from the atmosphere before and during the 2015-2016 El Niño, despite the extreme heat and drought.

Tracking trees in 100 different tropical rainforests across six African countries, the researchers found that intact forests across the continent still removed 1.1 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide per year from the atmosphere during the El Niño monitoring period. This rate is equivalent to three times the carbon dioxide emissions of the UK in 2019.

During 2015-2016 African rainforests experienced warming of 0.92 degrees Celsius above the 1980-2010 average, and the strongest drought on record, both driven by the El Niño conditions on top of ongoing climate change. This event gave the scientists a unique opportunity to investigate how Africa’s vast tropical rainforests could react to heat and drought.

Lead author Dr Amy Bennett, from the School of Geography, said: “We saw no sharp slowdown of tree growth, nor a big rise in tree deaths, as a result of the extreme climatic conditions. Overall, the uptake of carbon dioxide by these intact rainforests reduced by 36%, but they continued to function as a carbon sink, slowing the rate of climate change.”

Tree measurements in long-term inventory plots in intact forest — unaffected by logging or fire — were completed just before the 2015-2016 El Niño struck. Emergency re-measurements of 46,000 trees across 100 of the plots in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Gabon, Cameroon, Ghana, Liberia and the Republic of the Congo then allowed the researchers the first-ever opportunity to directly investigate how African tropical forests would react to the hotter, drier conditions.

Read the full story

Woman with pacemaker exercising

Personalised pacemakers could help heart patients keep fit

People living with heart failure could benefit from personalised pacemakers to help them exercise safely, thanks to a trial being carried out by a team in the School of Medicine.

About 920,000 people across the UK suffer from the condition, which prevents the heart from pumping blood around the body effectively. It can be debilitating and leads to breathlessness and fatigue – making everyday activities and exercise more difficult.

Pacemakers are often implanted in patients to help retune the heart's pumping function, and are programmed using a default algorithm to increase heart rate during exercise.

But the researchers have shown that this "one size fits all" algorithm does not always improve a person’s ability to exercise. They believe this could be because the algorithm is based on the heart rates of healthy individuals.

Now the British Heart Foundation has awarded the team almost £260,000 for a new trial to assess how this approach improves the function of the heart and exercise capacity.

The trial, which launches this month from the National Institute for Health Research Cardiovascular Clinical Research Facility at Leeds General Infirmary, will involve about 100 patients

Read the full story

Managing peatlands to cut greenhouse gas emissions

Substantial cuts in global greenhouse gas emissions could be achieved by raising water levels in agricultural peatlands, according to a new research at Leeds. Peatlands occupy just three per cent of the world’s land surface area but store a similar amount of carbon to all terrestrial vegetation, as well as supporting unique biodiversity.

In their natural state, they can mitigate climate change by continuously removing carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere and storing it securely under waterlogged conditions for thousands of years. But many peatland areas have been substantially modified by human activity, including drainage for agriculture and forest plantations

This results in the release of the equivalent of around 1.5 billion tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere each year – which equates to three per cent of all global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions caused by human activities.

A research team, including scientists from Leeds, studied CO2 emissions in 16 peatland areas and methane emissions in 41 peatland areas across the British Isles, along with data from other countries and estimated the potential reduction in emissions by restoring all global agricultural peatlands.

However, because large populations rely on these areas for their livelihoods, it may not be realistic to expect all agricultural peatlands to be fully rewetted and returned to their natural condition in the near future.

The team therefore also analysed the impact of halving current drainage depths in croplands and grasslands on peat – which cover over 250,000 km2 globally – and showed that this could still bring significant benefits for climate change mitigation. The study estimates this could cut emissions by around 500 million tonnes of CO2 a year, which equates to one per cent of all global GHG emissions caused by human activities.

Read the full story

Crowd of people wearing face coverings

Leeds chosen by WHO to help create global health strategy

Leeds has partnered with the World Health Organisation (WHO) to create a global strategy to protect populations against future threats such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

Leeds has been tasked with developing and implementing the WHO's Health Systems for Health Security (HSforHS) framework, with the aim of building resilient systems and healthier populations. As a result of this work, Leeds is in the process of becoming an official WHO Collaboration Centre.

The framework is the WHO’s response to the worldwide weaknesses in health security exposed by COVID-19. Developed by an interdisciplinary team of experts in medicine, public health, political science and law at Leeds, it will provide evidence-led guidance to help close gaps in health systems – organisations that deliver healthcare to populations – and enable countries to improve health security by preparing for events such as pandemics and other health risks including antimicrobial resistance.

It will be presented next week at the Workshop on Health Systems for Health Security (HSforHS) – an online event hosted by Leeds and featuring talks from international experts and WHO member states on their experiences of managing public health during the virus outbreak.

Leeds was invited by WHO to develop the framework following work by Professor Garrett W. Brown, Chair of Global Health Policy in POLIS. A paper by Professor Brown highlighted the need for transformation in how pandemics and global health are tackled, with a focus on health system strengthening and better preventative policies.

He said: “COVID-19 has demonstrated that building, strengthening, and maintaining responsive and resilient health systems is critical in preventing, preparing and responding to public health emergencies, which promotes overall health security and long-term wellbeing.

“The new HSforHS framework aims to provide policy and technical responses to current global health challenges exposed by COVID-19 as well as future risks.”

Professor Simone Buitendijk, Vice-Chancellor, said: “Experts at Leeds have been working tirelessly to deepen our collective understanding of the pandemic's impact on society, from our health to our finances, and how it exacerbates inequalities.

“The WHO’s recognition of the work by Professor Brown and colleagues, and Leeds’ selection as its Collaboration Centre on Health Systems for Health Security is a great honour. It will help us to build on our vision of Universal Values, Global Change. 

“Together we can work to protect people around the world from health crises in years to come.”

Read the full story

Young children playing with building blocks

Call for extra funding for early years care

Extra funding should be made available for early years care in the wake of the pandemic say Leeds researchers in collaboration with experts at Oxford and Oxford Brookes. Researchers have made the call after assessing the benefits of early childhood education and care (ECEC) for children under three during COVID-19.

They found that children who attended childcare outside the home throughout the first UK lockdown made greater gains in language and thinking skills, particularly if they were from less advantaged backgrounds.

Now they are making several policy recommendations, including: 

  • a sustainable funding model for nursery provision
  • promotion of funded places in target areas where take-up is low
  • removal of administrative barriers to the take-up of places.

Co-author of the study, Dr Catherine Davies from School of Languages, Cultures and Societies, said: “Our data clearly show that children from all backgrounds benefit from attending childcare for all or part of the week. Their cognitive skills become stronger, which will help them in their later learning and development, too. Government investment in sustainable, high-quality early years education and care is crucial so that all families can access this support.”

Read the full story

Air-conditioning pipes on the roof of a building.

Boost air quality in buildings to reduce respiratory infections

Experts in the transmission of airborne pathogens are calling for tighter regulations to control air quality in buildings – as a way of reducing the spread of COVID-19 and other illnesses.

Writing in the journal Science, the 40 scientists said: “A paradigm shift is needed on the scale that occurred when Chadwick’s Sanitary Report in 1842 led the British government to encourage cities to organise clean water supplies and centralised sewage systems. 

“In the 21st century we need to establish the foundations to ensure that the air in our buildings is clean, with a significantly reduced pathogen count, contributing to the building occupants’ health – just as we expect for the water coming out of our taps.”  

The scientists who have contributed to the analysis include Professor Cath Noakes based in the School of Civil Engineering, and a member of SAGE, the body that advises the UK Government on scientific emergencies.  

Professor Noakes said: “Over the years, we have neglected the role that the air circulating inside a building plays in the way germs and viruses may spread between people. The pandemic has exposed that deficiency in our understanding and the way we seek to make buildings safer to use.    

“We need to introduce new mechanisms that keep pathogen levels in the air-flow in buildings and other enclosed spaces to a minimum. That approach can be achieved with technology backed-up with a requirement to meet new standards.”  

Read the full story

Fruit fly on a leaf.

Infertility poses major threat to biodiversity during climate change

Heat-induced male infertility will see some species succumb to the effects of climate change earlier than thought, new research warns.

A study of 43 fruit fly (Drosophila) species by a team including Leeds ecologists showed that in almost half of the species, males became sterile at lower than lethal temperatures. 

Currently, scientists are trying to predict where species will be lost due to climate change so they can plan effective conservation strategies. However, research on temperature tolerance has generally focused on the temperatures that are lethal to organisms, rather than the temperatures at which organisms can no longer breed.

Importantly, the worldwide distribution of the fruit fly species could be predicted much more accurately by including the temperature at which they become sterile, rather than just using their lethal temperature. To give an example, Drosophila lummei males are sterile four degrees below their lethal limit. To put that in context, four degrees is the temperature difference between summer in northern England and the south of France.

Dr Amanda Bretman from the School of Biology, said: “Our work highlights the importance of thinking about the impacts of climate change on biodiversity from multiple angles. 

“Whilst we predicted these thermal effects on fertility, our results are much more striking than I envisaged. 

“This emphasises an urgent need to uncover the breadth of the effects and the underlying biological processes. It also shows the value of applying knowledge about the fundamental biology of reproduction to this global problem. 

“It is a privilege to work on such important questions with a dedicated international team.”

Read the full story

A shot of Lucho Ramirez, taken from Wellbeing and Sleeplessness.

Commemorating victims of major earthquake in Peru

Leeds is supporting the production and filming of a contemporary play – Wandering and Sleeplessness – about the tragedies of the 1970 earthquake in Peru. One of the most catastrophic events in Peruvian history, the earthquake and the landslides it trigged killed approximately 70,000 people in the Andean region of Áncash.

The one-person play was created by Lucho Ramírez, a survivor of the disaster, who shares powerful memories of his brush with death.

Lucho was twelve when the earthquake struck. On the night before the disaster, he left his hometown in the mountains to visit relatives in Lima, the Peruvian capital. His uncle owned a television set, which at the time was a rare commodity enjoyed mostly by people in the city. He had invited Lucho to watch the World Cup match between Mexico and the USSR. Less than two hours after the beginning of the match, their lives changed forever. Lucho’s hometown was buried in a landslide. Miraculously, his parents and siblings survived, but Lucho lost his home, childhood and friends.

Dr Rebecca Jarman, from the School of Languages, Cultures and Societies, currently works on a project entitled ‘Moving Mountains’ that investigates the cultural history of urban landslides in the Andes, and interrogates the role of cultural production in recuperation after disaster. She is currently collaborating with Lucho to reproduce Wandering and Sleeplessness, which was first performed on a tour of Europe and the Americas in 1981.

Dr Jarman said: “The original play was not scripted or recorded. While Wandering and Sleeplessness is based on Lucho's recollections of the disaster, its reproduction has also become an act of memory. With the help of friends and archival materials, Lucho has gradually remembered the content of a play that he first produced four decades ago.

For this project, the play will be captured on video for the first time. This means that people across Peru, and around the world, will be able to appreciate the important story that Lucho tells on behalf of his generation."

A subtitled recording of the play will be premiered online on Thursday 24 June, followed by a discussion with the director.

See further details and register for the premier on Eventbrite. 

Find out more about the project.

A sun hangs low over a field.

Exploring the impact of soil and water resources on food production

Recent research led by Professor Steve Banwart, Director of the Global Food and Environment Institute (GFEI), has focused on global soil and water resources, and their impact on food production.

The work has seen GFEI researchers and partners building a picture through recent activity that shows how to protect and enhance soil fertility and water use efficiency for global food production.

Professor Banwart said: “Soil and water resources take a battering from agriculture in many regions.

“Technology advances that address capturing carbon in soil and tackle climate change can reduce the pressures on our natural resources that support food production."

Loss of soil organic matter is a widely understood indicator of decline in soil fertility.

In agricultural regions, around 60% of soil organic matter has been lost since the industrial revolution. Regenerative agriculture builds organic matter back into the soil.

The range of research highlights three key areas that can boost sustainable agriculture and farm profits – technological advances; regenerative farming practices; and recovery of nutrients from waste streams in cities to reduce use of mineral fertilisers on farms.

Professor Banwart recently led a Farm to Fork session, convened by the Priestley Centre, in which these three areas were discussed.

He added: “Agriculture is changing. Farm incomes are depending more and more on the brand value of food and clothing products.

Business value increasingly depends on achieving better environmental outcomes, such as helping prevent climate change, improving soil, decreasing water pollution and reducing the need for energy-intensive fertiliser manufacturing.”

The advances proposed by Professor Banwart and GFEI partners can help the long-term productivity of soil and improve water use efficiency in food production.

Both will help meet food demand, fight climate change and make sure that future generations have productive agricultural land.

How to feature in future research round ups

Please contact Internal Communications if you or one of your colleagues would like to appear in this monthly feature.

Posted in: