Meeting society's needs
NERC-funded research is helping deliver solutions to the problem of plastic pollution. Plastic is present in nearly every aspect of our lives. Around eight million tonnes of plastic waste enters the oceans each year and there is mounting concern over its environmental impact.
NERC's support for world-class science, research infrastructure, innovation and training has uncovered the presence of plastic waste throughout the environment and revealed the hazard posed to both wildlife and people. Our science provided key input for two important pieces of UK policy that aim to address the issue.
Resilience to environmental hazards
Informing Effective Risk Management
Environmental hazards such as extreme temperatures, floods and volcanic eruptions can threaten human life, infrastructure and wildlife. These events are unavoidable, but better scientific understanding can help minimise their harmful effects.
NERC scientists provide information that lets government and business manage these risks more effectively. This has improved public health and increased private-sector activity while reducing costs for the UK government, companies and individuals.
NERC-commissioned analysis by Deloitte estimates that NERC-funded research into environmental hazards has saved the UK millions of pounds per year, reduced flood damage by up to 10% and helped prevent the loss of 23 lives a year.
Keeping UK airspace open for business
Ash clouds from an Icelandic volcano closed UK and European airspace for six days in 2010. NERC and the Met Office rapidly mobilised their specialist research aircraft to help the UK Civil Aviation Authority establish safe flying limits and reopen airspace - avoiding £300 million of economic losses for each day commercial flights were grounded.
The joint NERC-Met Office aircraft, supported by a £40 million NERC investment since 2000, provides world-leading capability to study the physics and chemistry of air and clouds. NERC science also helps us understand how volcanoes erupt and the effects of ash deposits. Working closely with UK and Icelandic agencies, the research aircraft was used to assess the ash cloud, verify Met Office predictions for ash dispersion and lead a British Airways test flight.
Following the emergency, NERC technologists helped develop new ash sensors and safety protocols. When another volcano erupted in 2011, this capability kept Icelandic airports open and avoided more economic losses.
Now a web tool based on NERC science is being used worldwide to estimate more accurately the amount of ash released by erupting volcanoes.
Reducing the costs of flooding
Image: Phil Noble/Reuters
NERC data and risk models are used by UK and local governments to predict flood events and to plan major infrastructure investments - saving lives and minimising disruption for people, business and the economy.
Rising sea levels and more frequent storms increase the risk of destructive coastal floods. NERC scientists have analysed UK sea level, tide and storm surges for more than 50 years, and used the data to build a computer model that predicts coastal flooding. In 2007 their model accurately forecast the worst storm surge in 20 years, enabling authorities to protect people and infrastructure at proportionate cost.
The same model feeds directly into the Thames Barrier control centre. Closing the Barrier protects thousands of lives, safeguards £4 billion of property and business, and avoids £94 million costs per flood day in London.
Predicting sea-level rise, storm surges and river flows over the coming decades now enables us to delay replacing the Thames Barrier until 2070 - avoiding billions of pounds in premature infrastructure costs.
Benefiting from natural resources
Boosting UK growth through reduced marine pollution
The UK's seas are an important source of food, with families spending £6·3 billion on seafood in 2015. Yet the seas face many pressures.
One case is the use of anti-fouling agents by the shipping and boating industry. These agents prevent organisms such as barnacles and algae attaching to vessel hulls, so improving fuel efficiency and cutting maintenance costs. Before 1987, the use of tributyltin (TBT) and similar anti-fouling chemicals caused severe harm to shellfish and other marine life.
Decades of NERC-funded research made a fundamental contribution to the UK successfully banning these harmful pollutants. NERC-commissioned analysis by Deloitte shows that the recovery of marine life following the ban generated UK benefits worth over £900 million, including a surge in the UK shellfish industry and huge environmental benefits.
Safeguarding our water supply
Water is an invaluable resource. It is also big business: the water industry contributed over £9·8 billion to the UK economy in 2014.
Regulations such as the European Union (EU) Water Framework Directive (WFD) are crucial to protecting and enhancing the quality of the UK's water resources – benefiting consumers, businesses and the environment.
NERC science has played a key role in setting WFD water quality standards before and after the directive was introduced, ensuring that every revision of the standards was based on robust, reliable science. Our scientists enabled government regulators to balance the compliance burden on water companies with the wider non-monetary benefits we derive from natural ecosystems.
NERC-commissioned analysis by Deloitte estimates that NERC's yearly investment of £65 million in freshwater-related research has contributed up to £5·5bn in net UK benefits from cleaner water and £7 billion in savings for the UK water industry.
Enabling energy industry growth
Energy generation and resource extraction make an important contribution to the UK, adding almost £35 billion to the economy in 2013.
NERC research creates enormous benefits for the energy sector; over its 50-year lifetime it's helped the UK keep the lights on while developing new, cleaner power options.
A NERC-commissioned analysis by Deloitte estimates that the country's sustainable energy generation and resource extraction industries have all been fuelled by NERC's £6·6 million yearly investment in science relevant to the field.
It stimulates private investment, develops new technology and increases competition by lowering barriers to entry. It also enables more efficient regulation for safe, secure, cheaper and more sustainable resource use.
Feeding a growing population
The UK agri-food industry is worth £96 billion a year and 3.8 million jobs. NERC annually invests £9 million in research that helps industry produce more food whilst reducing inputs (such as energy, water, nutrients and chemicals) and adverse environmental impacts - from farm to supermarket.
Government's 2011 UK National Ecosystem Assessment used NERC expertise to value nature's services. It estimated, for example, that the pollination of food crops by bees and other insects is worth £430 million to the UK each year
Decades of NERC research helped reveal the decline of insect pollinators and its causes - changing agricultural practices, reduced wildflower diversity, pesticides and disease. NERC researchers worked with Defra, BBSRC, ESRC and agriculture companies to help farmers restore pollinators through smarter government regulation and stewardship schemes, low-cost wild seed mixes for crop margins, and replacing chemical pesticides with bio-pesticides
NERC is stepping up its national partnership research - with government, business, BBSRC and charities - to support healthy pollinator populations and a sustainable agri-food sector
Fuelling the UK economy
Each year the oil and gas industry is worth £30 billion for the UK economy, supporting 440,000 jobs.
The distribution of these natural resources depends on geological processes that create the ocean floor and the continents. NERC investment since the 1970s, now £12 million each year, supports the science that developed new geophysical imaging tools to understand how tectonic forces shape the Earth's crust, how sedimentary rocks form in basins, and how fluids flow through underground faults and sediments.
This science helps us find and extract energy and minerals ever more safely and efficiently. Over the last 50 years it has fuelled enormous growth in the energy industry - no other sector has created more prosperity for the UK.
NERC geological science is paving the way for geothermal energy and shale gas to reduce our dependence on coal and oil, and for storing our carbon emissions in empty oil and gas reservoirs.
Managing environmental change
Restoring our protective ozone shield
The ozone layer naturally protects the planet from harmful ultraviolet (UV) light. NERC scientists were the first to discover that ozone was being depleted high in the Earth's atmosphere - a process that if left unchecked could cause serious harm to life on Earth.
NERC research was crucial to the ratification of the 1987 Montreal Protocol curbing the use of man-made ozone-depleting chemicals, now widely recognised as among the most successful international environmental agreements of all time.
Without our science, it would have taken an estimated five to ten years longer to discover the ozone hole, delaying the Montreal Protocol and increasing the negative effects of UV damage.
A NERC-commissioned analysis by Deloitte estimates that NERC's investment in ozone research from 1957 has saved thousands of lives from skin cancer and reduced UV damage to crops, saving the UK around £1·3 billion per year.
Cleaning up our air
Air pollution is a serious problem for the UK. It causes an average of 29,000 premature deaths each year, reduces agricultural yields and damages buildings and ecosystems.
NERC invests around £3 million a year in research that's relevant to air pollution.
NERC-commissioned analysis by Deloitte shows that this investment generates environmental evidence that informs air pollution policy both in the UK and around the world. This research has reduced the damage air pollution does to human health and the environment while supporting government and business, generating economic benefits worth at least £31 billion and perhaps as much as £82 billion.
Supporting biodiversity and nature's services
Image: Heather Lowther/CEH
The diversity of living species is essential for many services we depend on - such as pollinating our food crops, cleaning our water and regulating disease.
NERC has long invested in research on animal and plant populations, the rapid loss of biodiversity around the world, and how biodiversity supports vital natural services. £1 million from NERC enabled UK researchers to assemble a database of 5,000 long-term changes in the abundance of wild species. They discovered important relationships between population size and variability - and hence extinction risk.
This knowledge was used by conservation agencies to show, for example, that global vertebrate populations declined by 30% between 1970 and 2008, and that amphibians are going extinct faster than birds or mammals. The Convention on Biological Diversity 2010 used the same NERC science to set and monitor biodiversity targets for 2020, agreed by 193 member nations.
NERC science is now being used by the Natural Capital Committee to advise government on the value of the UK's natural assets for economic, public and environmental benefit.
Understanding Polar ice melt
NERC has invested £90 million since 2000 to exploit the unique capability of low-orbiting satellites to study changes in the Earth's environment.
A new community of UK environmental scientists discovered widespread thinning of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. They found that melting is due to warm ocean currents deep beneath the ice which cause the ice to flow into the sea faster than snow can accumulate. This discovery changed our understanding of how ocean circulation drives the future behaviour of great ice sheets.
More recent NERC investment enabled the UK to lead the European Space Agency's CryoSat-2 mission to understand rapid changes in the sea ice and circulation of the Arctic Ocean.
NERC is now investing £23 million in research programmes that bring together the best UK polar scientists and infrastructure to understand how such vast changes at the Earth's remote poles will impact our future sea level and climate.
Revealing wildlife secrets and crimes
Since DNA fingerprinting was invented in 1984, NERC has invested £40 million in using new genetic and genomic technologies to revolutionise environmental research and to develop innovative applications for our economy and society.
NERC scientists used these emerging methods to unlock the secrets of breeding behaviour and cooperation in wild animals. They also revealed the diversity of microscopic life in soil and the role of different soil organisms in providing essential services such as decomposition and nutrient cycling.
DNA fingerprinting funded by NERC has a range of forensic uses: to prosecute the persecution and illegal import of wildlife; to detect illegal fishing and incorrect food labelling; to identify trees responsible for subsidence in insurance claims.
New developments in these technologies may shed light on how TB infection is spread between badgers and cattle. They already offer faster and cheaper monitoring of biodiversity and endangered species.