New studies will explore how the latest digital technology, including the use of artificial intelligence (AI), can improve environmental monitoring and the accessibility of data.

The UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (UKCEH) is involved in four pilot projects funded by the Natural Environment Research Council’s Constructing a Digital Environment programme. These separate two-year studies will:

  • develop a AI-based alert system to encourage volunteers to fill gaps in species records
  • aim to provide an early warning of decline in tree health
  • make data and models relating to UK greenhouse gases easily accessible in near real time
  • enable farmers to estimate the impact of different land management practices on carbon emissions

The first of these projects is being led by UKCEH and also involves the University of York, University of Warwick and the Open University. Using real-time data from volunteers, weather systems and satellites, this project will identify gaps in our understanding of the distribution of insects across the UK and develop a system that provides volunteers with automated, customised advice on when and where to look out for these species, based on a combination of each person’s particular recording interests and their local places where data is most needed.

UKCEH ecologist Dr Michael Pocock, principal investigator of the £989,000 study, says: “Volunteers will receive recommendations on when and where to go to record species so as to provide the best possible information for regional planning and decision making. Thanks to the use of AI, these recommendations will be tailored for each volunteer because the software will take into account the species and geographic areas they are interested in, plus ‘learn’ which prompts the individuals respond to or not.”

The project will cover around 1,000 different species of butterflies, moths and grasshoppers as these insects are popular among volunteers who regularly submit records. Scientists and computer experts will work with biological recording groups in London and Yorkshire to co-design a pilot system for these areas over the next two years.

The project team hopes that if it is successful, the system could be rolled out to other parts of the country and eventually include other species, subject to funding.

Dr Pocock is also involved in another pilot project, led by Fera Science Ltd, which will investigate the potential of state-of-the-art wireless sensors to provide an accurate early warning of decline in tree health. Sensors monitor tree growth and leaf fall rates, trunk stability, plus soil and climatic conditions. Dr Pocock will work with volunteer tree wardens at a trial site in Norfolk, to agree a set of methods to assess tree health, as part of the overall project.

UKCEH’s success in this round of funding shows our leadership and innovation in environmental data science and monitoring systems - Dr Tom August

The two other new pilot projects funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) which involve UKCEH will use digital technology to improve access to data on greenhouse gas emissions.

Funding is being given to scientists to further develop a cloud-based digital platform for data measurements, models and analysis relating to UK greenhouse gas emissions and ozone-depleting substances. HUGS (A hub for greenhouse gas data science), which was set up by a previous NERC-funded feasibility study, will bring together information on local sources of greenhouse gases across the UK with national data and models to provide estimates of emissions in near real time. Up-to-date data will be processed automatically and available on demand, thanks to the use of machine learning.

Dr Peter Levy of UKCEH, who is involved in the University of Bristol-led project, says: “The platform, which is open and free to use, will support research, better inform decision-making by government agencies and businesses, plus make information about the UK’s emissions more transparent to the public. There will be a comprehensive range of data and models on emissions across the UK in near real time, while new online tools will enable users to estimate the impact of potential pollution mitigation measures.”

Another NERC-funded pilot project will carry out trials of Digital RGB photography to analyse soils’ properties in order to estimate their carbon stocks, plus deploy sensors in fields to measure soil temperature and moisture. All this data will be incorporated in cloud-based models, with the aim to provide a new app for farmers that will predict the impact of land management practices on carbon storage, removal and emissions. Dr David Cameron of UKCEH will be working on carbon sequestration modelling as part of the overall project, which is led by the James Hutton Institute.

Dr Tom August of UKCEH is part of a new network of experts that will, on behalf of NERC, identify best practices in the ‘digital environment’ and help influence UK environmental policy thinking. Dr August, a computational ecologist who is co-lead of the new species recording pilot project, says: “UKCEH’s success in this round of funding shows our leadership and innovation in environmental data science and monitoring systems, which is also supported through NERC’s investment in UKCEH through National Capability funding.”

Further information

The grants awarded to UKCEH are part of the Constructing a Digital Environment programme in the Strategic Priorities Fund (SPF), led by NERC and supported by the Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra). The value to UKCEH of the four projects are: DECIDE (Delivering Enhanced Biodiversity Information with Adaptive Citizen Science and Intelligent Digital Engagements), £653,310; Sentinel Treescapes for Plant Biosecurity and Risk Management - Multiple Threats, £23,800; OpenGHG: A community platform for greenhouse gas data science, £116,298; and Dynamic monitoring, reporting and verification for implementing negative emission strategies in managed ecosystems (RETINA), £57,605.

All the projects that received funding are listed on the NERC website.