Annual Review 2020: Sustainable Earth

Future rainfall could far outweigh current climate predictions

The UK’s uplands could in future see significantly more annual rainfall than is currently being predicted in national climate models. This was the conclusion of new research by the University after scientists analysed rainfall records from the 1870s to the present day and compared them against those featured in the Met Office’s UK Climate Projections 2018 (UKCP18) report. 

The study, published in Climate Research, showed that there has been a significant increase in spring, autumn and winter precipitation, greatest in upland windward areas of the region, with winter increases broadly consistent with UKCP18 projections. However, their results show – for spring, summer and autumn precipitation – there could be large divergence by the mid- to late-21st century, with the observed mismatch greatest in upland areas.

Our study helps to contextualise the latest UK climate change projections, and suggest caution is required when making assumptions on climate impacts based on climate models. Current models predict that by 2050, summer rainfall on Dartmoor will fall by as much as 20%, but our results from past records show that in the uplands it is on an upward trajectory. This research highlights the complex challenges facing those trying to predict the effects of climate change.

Dr Paul Lunt, Associate Professor in Environmental Science, School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences.


'Fossil earthquakes' offer new insight into seismic activity deep below Earth's surface

A major international study published in Nature Communications has shed new light on the mechanisms through which earthquakes are triggered up to 40km beneath the Earth’s surface. 

Funded by NERC, the research was led by Plymouth geologists and colleagues at the University of Oslo (Norway), who conducted geological observations of seismic structures in exhumed lower crustal rocks on the Lofoten Islands, Norway. They also analysed samples at the University’s Plymouth Electron Microscopy Centre. 

The results showed that earthquake ruptures may be encouraged by the interaction of different shear zones that are creeping slowly and aseismically. This interaction loads the adjacent blocks of stiff rocks into the deep crust, until they cannot sustain the rising stress anymore and snap – generating earthquakes. As part of the study, scientists also worked with University of Plymouth filmmaker Heidi Morstang, Associate Professor in Photography in the School of Art, Design and Architecture, to produce a 60-minute documentary about their work.

The model we have now developed provides a novel explanation of the causes and effects of such earthquakes that could be applied at many locations where they occur.

Dr Lucy Campbell, Post-Doctoral Research Fellow, School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences.


Fossil reveals evidence of 200 million-year-old 'squid' attack

Palaeontologists at the University have discovered the world’s oldest known example of a squid-like creature attacking its prey, in a fossil dating back almost 200 million years. The fossil was found on the Jurassic coast of southern England in the 19th century and is currently housed within the collections of the British Geological Survey in Nottingham.

In a new analysis, researchers at the University, working with the University of Kansas and Dorset-based company The Forge Fossils, have found that it appears to show a creature – which they have identified as Clarkeiteuthis montefiorei – with a herring-like fish (Dorsetichthys bechei) in its jaws. They say the position of the arms, alongside the body of the fish, suggests this is not a fortuitous quirk of fossilisation but that it is recording an actual palaeobiological event. It has also been dated from the Sinemurian period (between 190 and 199 million years ago), pre-dating any previously recorded similar sample by more than 10 million years



This is a most unusual, if not extraordinary, fossil as predation events are only very occasionally found in the geological record. It points to a particularly violent attack which ultimately appears to have caused the death, and subsequent preservation, of both animals.

Malcolm Hart, Emeritus Professor.

Study identifies way to enhance the sustainability of manufactured soils

With soil degradation and erosion posing a global threat to food security, scientists at the University have found that a combination of waste materials supplemented with a product of biomass can improve the quality of manufactured soils. Adding biochar – a solid, carbon-rich material derived from biomass – to soil constructed from waste materials helps reduce the loss of essential nutrients such as carbon and nitrogen. In a paper, published in Science of the Total Environment, academics on the FABsoil project said this could not only improve the sustainability of manufactured soils but also lower the soil’s dependence on intensive fertiliser applications.

FABsoil is a partnership between the University, the Eden Project and businesses in Cornwall, such as the Green Waste Company. It has received financial support from Agri-Tech Cornwall, a three-year £9.6 million initiative part-funded by the European Regional Development Fund, with match-funding from Cornwall Council.

The manufacture of high value soils from waste materials offers international opportunities in terms of food security, carbon sequestration and achieving a circular economy. However, it is crucial that whatever soil we create is sustainable in the long term and that is one of the key ongoing challenges our research aims to meet.

Mark Fitzsimons, Professor of Environmental Chemistry, School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences.



Research and Enterprise

The University has a proud reputation for conducting world-leading, impactful research across a broad range of fields. From health technologies to heritage; marine sciences to medicine; psychology to sustainability. And alongside these sustained peaks of excellence, the University is fast developing a critical mass of expertise in emerging, exciting areas such as agritechnology, antimicrobial resistance, cybersecurity and creative economies.

Our University draws upon its location to maximise these research strengths. Across marine sciences and maritime, we’re able to take advantage of the breathtaking natural environment of Plymouth Sound (the first National Marine Park), as well as the many marine-related companies that are based here. To this natural laboratory we have added a waterfront Marine Station, home to our expanding fleet of research and teaching vessels, and a nationally leading Marine Building, with its wave tanks and navigation centre, and we are developing a cutting-edge Cyber-SHIP Lab to tackle the issue of cybersecurity in the maritime sector.

In health and care research, we take advantage of our co-location and partnership with the University Hospitals Plymouth NHS Trust. Our Derriford Research Facility, located adjacent to the hospital, is home to medical and biomedical experts conducting research into areas such as infection and immunity, neurodegenerative diseases, brain tumours and antimicrobial resistance.

We are leading the development of potentially the first new antibiotic in 30 years and the first vaccines for the animal population against COVID-19. And adding to our first-class facilities, a new Brain Research and Imaging Centre is due to open, which will include the most advanced MRI scanner in the region.

Finally, our Sustainable Earth Institute (SEI) – our third overarching strategic research institute – continues to build innovative partnerships with industry and government, not just here in the South West, but also overseas. Operating from the new Sustainability Hub on campus, the SEI acts as a catalyst whereby University expertise can be applied to a range of challenges, from the low carbon agenda to water quality and food security in the developing world. Over the following pages, we present some of the developments and successes that have defined the year, including the publication of groundbreaking work in high-impact journals, the winning of major funding grants, our partnerships with industry, and the recognition of our staff in identifying and solving problems of global significance. The University’s research community is flourishing, ready to respond to global challenges and opportunities.

Professor Jerry Roberts
Deputy Vice-Chancellor – Research and Enterprise