Behind the scenes at the UK's Environmental Change Network

Ahead of an anniversary symposium taking place in mid-May, Dr Andy Sier, ECN’s science liaison officer, looks back on the contribution of 20 years of observation and research by the Environmental Change Network.Dr Andy Sier, science liaison officer with the Environmental Change Network

"The only thing constant in life is change," wrote French author François de la Rochefoucauld. This is certainly true of the environment, which is in a continual state of flux. But that change may be so slow as to be almost undetectable, so we need long-term monitoring and research programmes to gather rigorous data on our ecosystems. This is exactly what the UK’s Environmental Change Network (ECN) has been doing for the last 20 years.

ECN was established in 1992 in response to calls for more long-term, quantitative information about the state of the environment and how it was changing. Initially set up with 12 terrestrial sites, ranging from lowland farms and woodlands to upland moors and mountains, since 1994 we have also taken data from a network of lakes, rivers and streams.

At each site, scientists make a wide range of high frequency, closely located environmental measurements, using standard protocols that let us compare trends at different sites. These data are a unique resource for understanding patterns and causes of environmental change. They support a wealth of environmental research and policy decisions in areas such as climate change adaptation, air and water quality and biodiversity loss.

All these data are stored in a central database at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology containing millions of records. Since the earliest days of ECN, the data have been freely available for non-commercial use including research and teaching, with a helpful data portal that enables users to explore and plot summary data or access datasets.

What ECN monitoring has told us 

So what have we learned from ECN about how the environment has changed in the last two decades? Perhaps the most significant change has been a marked reduction in the deposition of sulphur compounds – so-called "acid rain" – primarily because of changes in energy policy and greater international regulation of emissions from power stations. This is reflected in large reductions in sulphate concentrations in rainfall at ECN sites and corresponding reductions in the acidity of water in our soils, although so far we’ve not seen any clear responses in vegetation.

These aren’t just interesting observations – they have real-world impact through their contribution to policy and regulation. Acid rain observations from ECN, for example, were used in the recent Defra-funded UK Review of Transboundary Air Pollution, which was led by CEH and informs the development of UK air quality strategies.

Defra has long used ECN data on populations of invertebrates like beetles, moths and butterflies as indicators of how ecosystems are responding to climate change. For example, we’ve seen large changes in the abundance of ground beetles at ECN sites. These changes may be linked to the climate but differ in strength and direction between habitats. So we’re doing more work to understand why species respond differently to environmental change, which could benefit local habitat management practices.Terrestrial monitoring activity at the ECN upland site at Cairngorm (c) Chris Andrews

Although ECN’s 20-year datasets support a wide range of research, we need to be pragmatic. To continuously monitor environmental change at a single place in detail is a major commitment. If we had more sites, took more types of measurement, or made measurements more frequently, we would undoubtedly improve our understanding of these environments, but this is unrealistic in the present economic climate.

The answer is greater integration, and for ECN this means linking up more effectively with other environmental recording programmes, including amateur enthusiasts, citizen science initiatives and socio-ecological studies.

We are therefore looking for better ways to integrate with other national datasets and to share new measurement technologies. It is critical that we work together to develop shared tools so users can easily find, combine and use the data they need. One session of our 20th Anniversary symposium is devoted to the future of long-term ecological observation and research, including coming up with ideas for these shared tools.

ECN has come a long way in the last two decades and is making significant contributions to our understanding of how and why our ecosystems are changing. Our challenge now is to ensure we get as much scientific benefit as possible from all this information in the decades to come.

Andy Sier 

More information

Register for ECN’s 20th Anniversary Symposium (12/13 May, Lancaster)

ECN is coordinated by the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology. It is supported by a consortium of partners responsible for site-based monitoring, research and analysis.

For full details and to access data see the ECN website.

Related links

CEH Blog: The Moor House Archive

Issues: