Paving the way for a satellite to monitor climate change by weighing the Earth's forests. Shedding light on the scale of microplastics in our oceans. Finding solutions to the threats to biodiversity in forests across the globe. Inventing an algorithm to predict - and help avoid - turbulence on flights. And uncovering a new type of energy reserve for the UK.
These are just some of the positive real-world impacts generated by UK environmental scientists on NERC's 2018 Impact Awards shortlist.
To celebrate these amazing scientists and the work they have done, we have created a series of videos showing their research and why they do what they do.
Early Career Impact Award
Saving the forest on a shoestring
Dr Cristina Banks-Leite of Imperial College London has devoted herself to saving the forests of her homeland in São Paulo, where one of the most biodiverse areas in the world, the Atlantic Forest, has suffered great losses due to deforestation for agriculture in recent years. Cristina's research identified the minimum forest cover required to maintain biodiversity (30%), a threshold that has now been employed as the official target for restoration in the Atlantic Forest by the Brazilian Government.
Her research showed this could be achieved at an expected cost of just 0·01% of Brazilian GDP. Cristina's work has provided the Brazilian government with evidence of the economic feasibility of a compensation programme for farmers to both enhance biodiversity and reduce poverty.
Dr Jennifer Lucey of the University of Oxford has dedicated her career so far to reducing the devastating impact that commodities such as palm oil - an ingredient used in more than half of supermarket products in the UK - can have on biodiversity in the tropics, as rich ecosystems are deforested to make way for crops. Jen's research has informed action by industry, farmers and regulators by determining minimum forest patch size needed to be set aside on agricultural land in order to maintain biodiversity.
These set aside thresholds demonstrated by her research have been used to develop new industry standards which have been adopted by many of the largest oil palm growers and applied across millions of hectares of land, and continue to be influential for decision-making on sustainable palm oil production.
Uncovering the impact of microplastics in the ocean
Professor Tamara Galloway at Exeter University and her team, including colleagues at the University of Plymouth and the Plymouth Marine Laboratory, started investigating the impact that microplastics - tiny pieces of plastic from sources including visible plastic pollution and microfibers from clothing - could be having on marine life in 2004. Her team was the first to predict that microplastics could be widespread in the marine food chain and went on to prove this.
Professor Galloway's pioneering discovery has directly informed policy, such as the UK microbeads ban, and fed into the rising public consciousness of the impact of plastic pollution on our environment, including advising on the game-changing BBC series Blue Planet II. She is now investigating how we can make the plastic economy more sustainable.
Making flying smoother and safer by predicting turbulence
Professor Paul Williams of the University of Reading has worked with US scientists to develop an algorithm to predict in-flight turbulence. Following breakthroughs in 2008 and 2012, their algorithm has been used by the US National Weather Service to create turbulence forecasts since 2015, improving the safety of air travel for up to 2·5 billion passenger journeys so far, and also helping to make flying greener by reducing carbon dioxide emissions.
Turbulence is increasing, as global temperatures rise due to climate change, and Professor Williams has been working with aircraft engineers to make sure that the next generation of planes is fit for a warmer, bumpier airspace.
Professor Bob Holdsworth of the University of Durham was funded by NERC between 1998 and 2009, with a knowledge exchange fellowship funded until 2012. Like some of the UK's finest science, Bob's research was curiosity-driven. As a passionate geologist, Bob noticed an unexplained sediment in geological cores taken many years ago off the coast of Shetland, and his persistence to investigate led to the discovery of petroleum deposits stored in fractures in bedrock under the sea.
Subsequent NERC funding facilitated Bob's work with industry to research technologies to extract these resources, as well as the creation of a spin-out company, opening-up the potential for new reserves to be used as part of the UK energy mix.
Professor Shaun Quegan, of the NERC National Centre for Earth Observation and the University of Sheffield, was instrumental in the selection of BIOMASS for the European Space Agency's seventh Earth Explorer satellite. This paved the way for Airbus UK to win the £192 million engineering contract to build the first ever satellite able to map the amount of biomass locked in the world's forests. Research grants from NERC facilitated both the environmental science that underpins how the satellite is able to work, as well as oversight of the research team involved in the bid for the contract.
Using radically new technology, the BIOMASS satellite will create 3D maps of the forests, measure their biomass and height, and make an accurate map of the terrain they are standing on. Crucially, it will allow us to understand how much carbon is held in forests, providing information vital to help us monitor climate change in the decades to come.