Research reveals ice sheet stability in West Antarctica under threat

British Antarctic aerogeophysical survey aircraft at Patriot Hills, West Antarctica. Radar antennas used to measure the ice bed morphology visible beneath each wing (Credit: Neil Ross/University of Edinburgh).

Field accommodation, Patriot Hills, West Antarctica (Credit: Neil Ross/University of Edinburgh).An international team of researchers has warned that the stability of a part of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is potentially under threat following a survey of the Institute and Möller ice streams.

The team, which included Dr David Rippin, from the University of York’s Environment Department, surveyed the thickness of the ice streams which feed the Filchner-Ronne Ice Shelf to determine the underlying landscape.

Details of the research, which received support from the UK Natural Environment Research Council, are published in Nature Geoscience this week.

The research, which was led by the University of Edinburgh, involved carrying out an airborne geographical survey across a previously poorly understood region of West Antarctica – the Weddell Sea Embayment.

Until now, attention has been focussed on ice-sheet changes in the Siple Coast and the Amundsen Sea embayment sectors of West Antarctica.  Little attention has previously been given to this third sector.  However, the team’s work revealed a steep reverse slope and a large subglacial basin here (around the size of Wales) upstream of where the West Antarctic Ice Sheet meets the Weddell Sea.  This is significant because such a reverse slope facilitates accelerating ice-sheet decay as the grounding line retreats across a deepening bed. 

Dr Rippin played a significant role in processing and analysing the data. He said: “The reverse slope here is particularly steep and our measurements showed that the bed is fairly smooth, with little in the way of ‘pinning points’ that could delay retreat of the ice sheet. Taken together with projected increasing melt rates, this raises concerns about the future of the Weddell Sea Sector of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.” 

Sub-ice landscape beneath the Institute and Möller ice streams, West Antarctica. Deep valleys (coloured blue) and sub-ice mountains (coloured red) show the dynamic, rugged landscape that lies beneath the ice. The direction of present-day ice flow is shown by the black arrows (Credit: Neil Ross/University of Edinburgh).The article “Steep reverse bed slope at the grounding line of the Weddell Sea sector in West Antarctica” is published in Nature Geoscience at

The study involved researchers from the Environment Department, University of York; School of GeoSciences, University of Edinburgh; School of Geosciences, University of Aberdeen; British Antarctic Survey, Cambridge; Geography, College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter; Institute of Geophysics, University of Texas, USA.

Going wild for conservation

Photo: Jonathon Pow

A pioneering partnership is helping put conservation at the top of the agenda at a popular UK zoo.

Researchers from the University of York’s Environment Department have teamed up with Flamingo Land Theme Park and Zoo to form a unique research institute dedicated to conservation awareness and education.

The CIRCLE institute – Centre for the Integration of Research, Conservation and Learning – was launched at the North Yorkshire theme park in October 2010. Jointly funded by the University and Flamingo Land, it is playing an important role in protecting habitats and species both locally and internationally.

Its work so far includes helping to design and evaluate a new penguin pool, developing the conservation areas within the holiday park, and carrying out research on how best to protect Tanzanian rainforests.

The CIRCLE team is led by Dr Andy Marshall, Director of Conservation at Flamingo Land and Lecturer at the University of York, and is made up of four Research Interns and a Zoo Education Strategist.   

Dr Marshall says: “The role of the modern zoo is constantly changing and evolving. At Flamingo Land we are helping to put together a scientifically driven management strategy for all our animals – 20 per cent of which are endangered or extinct in the wild - allowing them to thrive both physically and emotionally.

“We are also playing a significant role in conserving global biodiversity through our Udzungwa Forest Project, which involves working with local people and researchers in Tanzania to conserve threatened species and local habitats.”

David BellamyThe team’s support in protecting the environment both at home and on a global stage has already resulted in Flamingo Land winning a Gold David Bellamy Conservation Award.

Ross Snipp, Zoo Manager at Flamingo Land, said: “Our partnership with a top ranking university through the CIRCLE institute makes us unique as there is no other holiday park in the UK with its own research facility of this kind. Its launch has been a significant step forward for us, putting our conservation and research work onto a new level.”

Animals at play

Photo: Jonathan PowPart of the CIRCLE team’s remit is to research animal behaviour. Wild schemes, such as giving big cats, chimpanzees and lemurs toys such as pumpkins to ‘carve’ at Halloween, have provided researchers with unique opportunities to study animal behaviour at close quarters. The activities have also proved a hit with animals and visitors alike. 



Bringing science to life

The team is improving conservation education at the zoo by modernising its range of programmes, incorporating scientific theory as well as aspects of the National Curriculum. Cat Hickey, the Zoo Education Strategist, is funded through a Knowledge Transfer Partnership grant – a scheme where the University works with a business to improve its competitiveness. Recently she has been busy advising on signage and children’s education for the theme park’s latest attraction – Children’s Planet.

The CIRCLE Interns are also evaluating education programmes within zoo settings and researching zoo usage, for example, visitor numbers and aspects of the visitor experience such as sign usage. 

Protecting the biodiversity of the Udzungwa Mountains

UdzungwaFlamingo Land’s Udzungwa Forest Project based in Tanzania aims to break new ground for zoo-funded conservation by bridging the gap between research and conservation. CIRCLE is looking at how tropical forest animals and plants in the Udzungwa Mountains can be best conserved. The project aims to train Tanzanian villagers and graduates in ecological monitoring, improve resources and income in rural areas, and promote and advertise the exceptional beauty and biodiversity of the Udzungwa Mountains.



Local wildlife conservation

VolunteersAn important part of CIRCLE’s role is to involve the local community in native wildlife conservation. Earlier this year, an army of local residents and University volunteers spent a weekend helping park staff plant 2,000 native trees as part of a conservation partnership between the Woodland Trust and Flamingo Land. The woods will form part of the park’s conservation areas, which the CIRCLE team is helping to develop. An important initiative has involved planting cornfield flowers to help maintain seed stocks. Local birdlife is also being encouraged onto the site by putting up 45 bird nest boxes, including an owl box.




Further information

Flamingo Land Theme Park and Zoo

For further information on education at Flamingo Land contact 

2020 - Environment students look to the future to safeguard the City of York from flooding risk

On a balmy afternoon at the end of June, an eagle-eyed observer might have spotted a band of suit-wearing students making their way across campus. This was a gaggle of the Environment department’s first year students on their way to the final session of ‘2020’, an experimental short course themed around the issue of flooding in York, developed by David Rippin and Paul Ayris, and supported by the Careers Service.

The winning group of ‘environmental engineers’, flanked by the course conveners, David Rippin (left) and Paul Ayris (right).

The five-day course began with a seminar of invited talks from representatives from York City Council, the Environment Agency and York Archaeological Trust, which gave the students a taste of what was to come. For the rest of the week, they took on the roles of employees of an environmental engineering company, challenged to protect the city from extreme post-climate change flooding. The students worked within groups, getting to grips not only with the complexities of flooding in the city, but also with the issues associated with being in a more corporate environment where things don’t always go according to plan.

On Friday afternoon, the groups gathered together to face down the company’s senior management  team and their increasingly-competitive peers, each trying to promote their plan to save the beleaguered city. Although competition was tight, the winning proposal put forward to ‘tender’ was the brainchild of Sam Montague-Fuller, Tamsin French, Rachael Racle, Jordan Walters, Radheeka Jirasinha and Jess Taylor. After a week of hard work, inventive solutions and impassioned debate, each of the groups involved had earned a chance to unwind at the end-of-course reception.  Relaxing over a glass of wine, the exhausted ‘environmental engineers’ all agreed that the week had been a great success, and wondered what 2021 might bring.

York research highlights potential benefits of off-road cycle routes

Research suggests that using off-road cycle routes in York significantly reduces cyclists' exposure to air pollution compared with on-road cycle lanes.

Scientists from the University of York’s Environment Department, working in collaboration with City of York Council, monitored exposure to the air pollutant nitrogen dioxide (NO2) on both on and off-road cycle routes in the city over a two-month period.

Cyclist in traffic by psd on Flickr

The study, published in the Journal of Environmental Monitoring, shows the mean concentration was reduced by 29 to 41 per cent, while the total dose of NO2, (taking into account the duration of the cycle journeys), was reduced by seven to 35 per cent when cycling on off-road routes in York.

Nitrogen dioxide is a major urban pollutant, mainly emitted from vehicles. High doses of the pollutant can inflame the lungs, while prolonged exposure to lower doses can reduce the ability of the lung to function, especially in people with weak respiratory immune systems, such as asthmatics and senior citizens.

The research, carried out with the City of York Council Environmental Protection Unit, provides a simple and cost effective method for other local authorities to quantify the exposure of cyclists to the air pollutant NO2. York researchers extended the authority’s existing diffusion tube network which is used to routinely monitor air pollution across the city.

Tom Bean of the University of York’s Environment Department said: “Our study aimed to develop and apply a simple monitoring method that could be routinely used by transport and air quality planners in local authorities to estimate the difference in exposure of cyclists to NO2 between on-road and off-road routes.

“Other local authorities could readily conduct similar studies by extending their existing diffusion tube networks. In York we found that using off-road cycle routes led to a significant reduction in the concentration and exposure to nitrogen dioxide compared to on-road routes, proving that the provision of additional off-road cycle routes has benefits beyond improved road safety.”

York is regarded as one of the best cycling cities in the UK and was recently awarded Cycling City status.

In York we found that using off-road cycle routes led to a significant reduction in the concentration and exposure to nitrogen dioxide compared to on-road routes

Tom Bean

Mike Southcombe, Environmental Protection Manager for City of York Council, said: “I welcome this report, but off road cycling may not be practical in all parts of the city, therefore the aim must be to reduce traffic pollution throughout York.  The Environmental Protection Unit of City of York Council is developing a Low Emission Strategy to reduce harmful emissions from traffic and other sources and carbon dioxide emissions.”

The University of York researchers cycled three typical commuter routes each morning. For each journey, an on-road and off-road route version of the journey was used, giving six routes in total. Measurements of NO2 concentrations were taken at regular intervals along all six routes.

York has an existing network of over 300 NO2 diffusion tubes in and around the city as part of the City of York Council’s air quality monitoring strategy. For the purposes of the study, 50 additional tubes were added to fill gaps along the six cycle routes.

Department explores links between chemical contamination of the environment and poverty levels in South Asia

At the end of November, members of the Department travelled to New Delhi and participated in an International Workshop on the links between chemical contaminants in the environment and poverty. This workshop, which was attended by scientists, policy makers and NGOs from Europe and Asia, is part of a UK Ecosystem Services and Poverty Alleviation Programme project which is led by Dr Alistair Boxall in the Department.

The workshop was hosted by The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) and involved a series of presentations and group discussion sessions. The workshop participants concluded that man-made and natural chemical contaminants in the S. Asian environment are contributing to the degradation of ecosystems in the region and this is probably contributing to health problems within the local population and exacerbating the level of poverty.

Over the coming months, the Department will be working with many of the workshop attendees to develop a large consortium project to urgently address this issue. A key component of this follow-on project will be the identification of potential mitigation and adaptation options to reduce chemical contamination of ecosystems in S. Asia and to help improve levels of poverty in the region in the future.

Piran White and Alistair Boxall at the TERI workshop

York ranked number 2 in the UK for ecological and environmental research

In a recent survey published in the Times Higher Education, the University of York has been ranked 2nd best in the UK and 17th in the world in the area of environmental and ecological sciences. 

A total of 52,900 institutions from across the world were included in the survey which was assessed based on the impact of scientific publications coming out of each institution. York was ranked above other leading ecological and environmental research institutes, including the Universities of East Anglia, Lancaster, Cambridge and Imperial College.

The survey analysed the average number of times research papers (in the areas of biodiversity, climate change as it affects the environment, environmental toxicology, fishery studies, hydrology and water resources, plant sciences and forestry studies, soil science and zoology) were cited by other scientists, during the period from January 2000 to February 2010.

The University of York published 441 journal in the environmental and ecology category and these papers were cited in other research papers on more than  9500 occasions; achieving an average of 22.06 citations per paper. The ranking by citation impact seeks to reveal heavy hitters based on per paper influence, not mere output.

This is a fantastic result for the University and the Environment Department and demonstrates that the environmental and ecological research performed at the University is some of the best in the world.