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Sustainable futures

Sediments reveal climate clues

Freshwater ecosystems support a vast proportion of the world’s population – but they are under threat from human exploitation, environmental degradation and climate change. By studying lake sediments, I am helping to build a picture of environmental change over time to allow a precise measurement of human impact.

My research links to silicon cycling, because of the role silicon plays in regulating carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere. In aquatic systems silicon is a key element, essential for primary productivity of the siliceous micro-organisms called diatoms. The availability and utilisation of silicon is intertwined with the stock of CO2 in the atmosphere, via the oceanic (and freshwater) biogenic pump. 

In recent years we have focused on southeast Asian lake and river systems – in Vietnam, Malaysia, and now also India and Bangladesh – where urbanisation, deforestation and agricultural practices have rapidly expanded, concomitant with changes in monsoonal seasonality. This has altered the biogeochemical cycling of silicon and other key nutrients.

"Studying sediments in water systems such as the Ganges-Brahmaputra delta builds a picture of environmental change."
Dr Virginia Panizzo

Our Global Challenges Research Fund project, Living Deltas, is the first of its kind and scale to comprehensively assess the aquatic health of delta systems in southeast Asia. The Living Deltas project aims to measure how nutrient pollution levels have changed in the Ganges-Brahmaputra, Mekong and Red River deltas, working closely with key ministries and policymakers to feed directly into regional activity, so as to conserve these ecosystems for future generations. 

I am fascinated by the ability to trace the impacts that humans and recent climate change are having on aquatic ecosystems around the world. Our work will contribute to the development of mechanisms and policies that will protect them from future anthropogenic and climate change pressures. 

Virginia Panizzo

Dr Virginia is an Assistant Professor in the School of Geography.

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