Using isotope fingerprints to improve protection of the environment
In the first post of this interview, Dr. Andi Smith and Dr. Jack Lacey from the National Environmental Isotope Facility, Nottingham, UK (NEIF) explained how isotope fingerprints can aid environmental investigations.
They gave a comprehensive overview of what kind of answers we can expect when using isotope fingerprints from environmental samples, how important it is to trace their history and to understand past and future climates, as well as how human pollution may affect the environment.
It was very interesting to learn more about their investigations in helping trace life in one of the most inhospitable places on Earth — the Atacama Desert in Chile — and the impacts of aquaculture on the Winam Gulf of Lake Victoria, Kenya.
In this post, Dr. Andi Smith and Dr. Jack Lacey will continue to explain their work as “Isotope Hunters” for environmental investigations and we will see how the answers provided by isotope fingerprints are powerful tools supporting academics and policymakers in their fight against high levels of pollution in air, water and soil and delivering them information on past climate. Also, they will mention the extended “Isotope Hunter” community and how they are working together to extend the know-how further.
Are you an Isotope Hunter, too? Share your investigations in the comments!
Let’s start by sharing a few more words on environmental change research. What is the main trigger for changes?
Environmental change research encompasses a vast array of topics, but these can be divided broadly into 1) natural and 2) anthropogenic (human-driven) components.
Today it is almost impossible to find a truly natural environment anywhere on earth, as all components of our climate and environmental systems have been impacted by humans to some extent. Geoscientists are able to overcome this problem by looking back into the past (pre-major human development) using natural archives, such as ice cores, ocean and lake sediments, or cave speleothems. These sensitive environmental recorders provide information about the scale of baseline changes in the natural world and, in doing so, provide a benchmark for assessing the timing and magnitude of human impact. It is very easy, however, to consider natural changes as slow and often inevitable — for example, alternations in Earth’s climate-related to variations in our orbit around the sun — which modulate our planet’s ice ages. However, natural environmental change can impact rapid processes at the submicroscopic scale. Consider the uptake of key nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, into a cell. The elements may be utilized within nanoseconds, but these reactions are the driving force behind ecosystem development. These natural changes in the availability of nutrients can have far-reaching impacts on biological productivity, food resources, and health.
Anthropogenic environmental change encompasses the additional pressures that humans, as a species, impart on our environment. Some of these are large scale and visually obvious, for example, flooding a valley when constructing a dam to provide drinking water. But also consider all the knock-on environmental impacts which may not be as obvious at first glance. How does damming a river change the downstream chemistry and health of the river system? How will ecosystems develop in the stagnant reservoir and could these make drinking this water unsafe? Will the extra water be used for irrigation and, if so, how will additional crop productivity change natural nutrient cycles and soil health? Will fertilisers also be added and what impact will these have on ecosystems and water quality?
As researchers we must consider these questions (and many more) and use the analytical tools we have, including stable isotopes, to investigate environmental change and contribute to this significant global challenge. We can help to provide a better understanding of our environment, the processes that govern it, the pressures it faces, and predict future changes. Our science can help to inform environmental policy, support sustainable development, and contribute solutions to key geo-environmental problems.
Let’s move to a laboratory perspective: What are the needs of labs using isotopes for environmental studies?
At the BGS, there is a range of different laboratory facilities, such as wet chemistry and gas clean-up labs, dedicated to the preparation of different materials for isotope analysis. We have plenty of laboratory space for training, typically involving Ph.D. students and postdocs, which is a critical part of the NEIF remit and normally tailored to the specific project. There is also a range of high-precision mass spectrometers for undertaking stable isotope analysis. This is where NEIF differs from many university labs. Where universities may have one or two instruments, NEIF has 12 dedicated mass spectrometers run by a team of highly-experienced lab technicians and scientists. This means the NEIF staff can undertake tens of thousands of sample analyses per year, work on a broad range of sample sizes, and ensure a world-leading level of precision and accuracy across all the materials analyzed. Alongside this day-to-day work, the staff at NEIF also focuses on new and cutting-edge stable isotope techniques and development methods to help researchers advance their science with stable isotopes.
Like what you are learning?
Do your analyses contribute to global efforts to improve environmental protection? If yes, can you explain to us how?
Yes! As mentioned before (read here), our research contributes to environmental understanding and enhanced protection. This work helps us to better understand baseline conditions and characterize environments in the recent and deep past. This enables academics and policymakers to assess how a “pristine” landscape may have looked and identify how and why this may have changed over time in response to natural processes. With this knowledge, we can then assess the extent of human influence at a site, including environmental pollution and exploitation. A good example of this is the Lake Victoria aquaculture project, where Jack and the team are looking to provide firm evidence of modern pollution in a lake system and what form this pollution takes. We will use the data to assess the impacts of pollution and what changes have taken place. This information can then be used in management strategies and remediation efforts.
Considering you are closely working with these powerful tools, how do you see the future of using isotope analysis for environmental studies?
Stable isotopes have been employed in environmental studies since the 1950s (still a relatively young science!), however, from a technical point of view, there are still numerous improvements to be made in mass spectrometry. Analytical advances will open new avenues of research and expand the range and size of materials we can analyse, as well as for which isotopes. These improvements are often focused on allowing smaller sample sizes, improving analytical precision, streamlining or automating preparation techniques, and producing new standard materials that better reflect the nature of sample materials.
In terms of the science, climate and environmental change are at the centre of international research and innovation programmes, including the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the United Nations Climate Change Conference. It is clear that stable isotopes will continue to play a vital role in addressing key global challenges relating to future climate change and environmental impacts as humans continue to expand their footprint on the planet through population growth, increasing agriculture, and worsening environmental pollution. There are also strong linkages between NEIF with colleagues working at the BGS. At the national and international levels, there is an ever-increasing demand to reach net-zero carbon emission targets. This will include reducing our populations dependence on fossil fuels and expanding green energy solutions, which will incorporate an increasing demand for us to capture and store the CO2 we produce. Many CO2 storage solutions are subsurface and these need testing at the national level. The level of success of these projects can often be ascertained, at least in part, by carbon isotope investigations.
What activities do you undertake to engage with the isotope community and educate new generations of Isotope Hunters?
NEIF is an open-access facility to UK researchers. This means that anyone working in academia can come and talk to the staff about their stable isotope requirements and apply to work collaboratively with the team. Applications are directly funded by the Natural Environmental Research Council and benefit the academic community in terms of providing access to funding, analytical systems, and expertise, but also to the facility by driving NEIF scientists to be dynamic and support a broad range of science. There is also a great emphasis on student training at NEIF. This bespoke training gives the next generation of scientists exposure to a range of sample preparation and mass spectrometry techniques in a real lab setting. This kind of hands-on training is critical if students are to be prepared for the full scope of science-based jobs available to them, many of which are lab-focussed. Most PhD students are associated with a university, however, on occasion, NEIF staff will have a student who is undertaking their doctoral project with one of our scientists and they will be based full-time at the BGS. Again, these projects give a novel student experience and a vast amount of hands-on learning, these kinds of studentships come highly recommend! Finally, NEIF offers a number of shorter-term training courses. Each year in the autumn, staff run an isotope training course aimed primarily at Ph.D. students, which introduces a wide range of isotope science in the form of a mini-conference. This includes several invited speakers and a range of NEIF staff who talk about their areas of expertise and active research projects. This course is open to any UK Ph.D. students and constitutes a two-day crash course on everything isotopes — for example, past climate, modern environmental tracing, geological applications, and science-based archaeology. It’s a really great couple of days! If you are interested in attending this course, further details can be found here.
Thank you for following us in our interview with the Isotope Hunters at National Environmental Isotope Facility, and thanks to Dr. Andi Smith and Dr. Jack Lacey for introducing us to their investigations and their work.
Keep reading on the subject of isotope fingerprints analyses of environmental samples with the resources below:
- How can stable isotopes be used to trace pollution sources and environmental change?
- Isotope Fingerprints and their applications
- Watch the webinar presented by Dr. Andi Smith on “Fingerprinting Sources of Environmental Pollution Using Stable Isotopes: A Focus on Nitrogen”
- Attend the Isotope Fingerprints e-learning: Discover where isotope fingerprints originate and their applications discovering the origin of food, forensic materials and environmental pollution
Follow the adventure of the Isotope Hunter as he investigates the origin and authenticity of samples with isotope fingerprints. By using isotope ratio mass spectrometry (IRMS), the Isotope Hunter gains access to information on geographic region, botanical processes, soil and fertilization processes, and fraudulent practices. Are you an Isotope Hunter? Investigate here.
Dr. Andi Smith uses stable isotopes in tracing key nutrients, nutrient cycling, pollution assessment, and tracing isotopes in the atmosphere, soil, and surface and groundwaters, and specialises in C and H isotopes in gas and dissolved CH4.
Dr. Jack Lacey uses stable isotopes in human impact, biogeochemical cycling, environmental and climate change research, and specialises in the extraction and analysis of O & Si isotopes by stepwise fluorination and mass spectrometry.