Robert Mills is a biogeochemist, with research interests focusing on mountain ecosystems and their response to environmental change. In particular, Rob is interested in how soil organisms cycle carbon and nutrients, and how changing snow cover exerts an effect on energy in mountain ecosystems. Rob’s work uses a range of techniques to probe microbial functions, and take advantage of environmental gradients to explore how natural variance in ecosystem processes can shed light on future resilience to change. Field studies are central to Rob’s work, and he has established research sites in European mountain ranges, and has created a global network of alpine study sites exploring the state of soil organic matter.
Current role – Lecturer in environmental science, Department of Environment and Geography, University of York, UK
2016-2019 – NERC soil security fellow, Lancaster Environment Centre, Lancaster University
2012-2015 – Post doc in soil functional ecology, Swiss federal research inst for forest, snow and landscape (WSL), Lausanne.
PhD in Biogeochemistry, Bangor University
Chair of the board of postgraduate research
Rob’s research falls under a number of main lines:
- Long-term monitoring and manipulation in the Scottish highlands
Rob has three research locations in the Scottish highlands: Torridon, Kintail, and the Cairngorms, where he uses high-resolution microclimate monitoring to describe the environmental conditions across complex alpine terrain. In Torridon, these sites go from sea-level to over 800m, allowing sea-summit comparison of ecological functions. Soil monoliths are transplanted across elevational and environmental gradients (e.g. snow cover) to simulate future change. There are many routes for student research here – so get in touch.
- Using natural gradients in alpine systems from cm-km
In the European and global alpine, Rob has accumulated a number of study sites under the FEAST project, which looks at elevation and small-scale spatial variance in the accumulation of soil organic matter and the quality of C in alpine soils. This challenges our assumptions about generalisation in alpine ecosystems, and explores how we can use topographic features to describe the nature of alpine systems over varying spatial scales.
- What does extreme mean in an extreme environment?
The concept of extreme can be variously defined, and this is challenging for systems such as the alpine that exhibit a large (and often unquantified) variation in prevailing climatic conditions. To explore this, Rob is using data from his research sites to construct climatic ranges over temporal scales of hours to years, to then test the response of ecological processes to drivers such as temperature, snowmelt, storm events. This will help us understand how sensitive these systems may be to future change.
- Winter ecology – manipulations across snowmelt gradients
With potential reductions in winter snow cover, the insulator of soils during the winter, there are implications for hydrology and thermal regimes in alpine soils. To probe this, Rob and colleagues are transplanting cores across snow-cover gradients and exploring the impact of these changing winter conditions on soil functional ecology.
Rosanne Broyd (Lancaster) – Snowbed soil carbon ecology
James Edgerley (Lancaster) – Soil functional ecology under long-term climate manipulation
Lucy McMahon (York) – Controls on C accumulation and cycling in saltmarsh ecosystems
Alexandra Burkitt (York) – Photosynthetic microbes as indicators of peatland functions across disturbance gradients
Dave Appleton, MSc Research (Lancaster) – Elevation as a driver of soil function in the European alps
Bence Dienes , MSc (University of Lausanne) – soil functional ecology in alpine snowbeds
Dec 2018 – Nov 2020
NERC Global seedcorn grant ‘The functional ecology of alpine systems; a network’ (PI) £ 99,969
Oct 2018 – Sep 2019
NERC Urgency grant RECOUP-Moor (Co-I) £64,962
July 2016 – June 2019
NERC Soil Security fellowship (PI) resistance and resilience of mountain soils in the face of change £442,933.