Microplastics in Freshwater Environments

Over the summer, second year undergraduate student Pieter Fourier will be working alongside Dr Annie Ockelford and Dr James Ebdon as part of the Santander University Research Scheme.  Thanks to generous funding provided by Santander Universities and the Centre for Aquatic Environments, the scheme provides an opportunity for undergraduate students in the middle years of their degree to contribute to real research projects alongside academic researchers at the university.

Rivers are key vectors in the transportation of microplastics from terrestrial environments into marine environments.  As such, it is important to understand what factors are actively altering the behaviour and subsequent movement of microplastics within freshwater systems. Previous work has shown that growth of bacteria called biofilms alter river dynamics since they grow over sediments forming a cohesive, organic mat that binds sediments together. This posed the question as to whether or not the exact same processes will alter microplastic dynamics within river systems. Pieter’s project will run for six weeks and will quantify the extent to which biological factors in rivers influence the behaviour of sediment and microplastics.


The first phase of the project will focus on collecting naturally occurring biofilms by placing a series of bricks in a river for the biofilms to grow on. Once the bricks have been colonized they will be extracted and placed into an incubation flume to grow over different grain sizes of sediment which Pieter will then test. The biofilms will be allowed to grow for up to four weeks.  After defined growth periods they will be transported to an experimenting flume in which they will be subjected to different flow rates to test how strong they are and assess how they affect sediment transport rates and microplastic movement.

Summer Fieldwork

Our PhD students will be busy over the next few months collecting data during their summer fieldwork campaigns.  You can read a little bit about the summer plans of one of our students, Conor Strong below.

Invasive species cause ecological or economic harm when introduced to new environments. To limit these effects, novel management and control techniques must be developed. My project is focused upon the application of small-Unmanned Aircraft Systems (sUAS) to detect and monitor the invasive aquatic plant species Australian swamp stonecrop (Crassula helmsii) in wetlands.

My fieldwork this year will involve undertaking aerial surveys using a SenseFly eBee fixed-wing sUAS equipped with a multispectral sensor. These flights will be carried out on the Pevensey Levels in East Sussex, UK. The study location is a 4,300-hectare grazing marsh habitat that is both a protected Ramsar site and Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). C.helmsii is present within the extensive ditch networks that occur on the Levels, threatening the aquatic plant and invertebrate communities they support.

I will be undertaking sUAS surveys on a monthly basis over the summer as part of a temporal study investigating the optimum time of year to survey for C. helmsii. I will also be using sUAS to monitor the recovery rate of C. helmsii following mechanical treatment. After removal from ditches by the Environment Agency in November 2018, aerial imagery is being analysed to determine subsequent regrowth through estimation of percentage cover. In addition to utilising sUAS, my fieldwork this year will also involve carrying out ground surveys of aquatic plant communities within the ditches. The results of these surveys will help to both validate aerial imagery and investigate the effects of C. helmsii colonisation on native aquatic plant communities.

The fieldwork that is being undertaken over the summer will contribute towards my final thesis. In addition, it is anticipated that the outcomes will help to inform land owners and managers of the most effective management approach for invasive C. helmsii in wetland environments.


Spotlight On Our New Staff

Over the past few months we have had a number of new staff start at the university  and whom have become members of the Centre.  So to get to know them we asked them to tell us a little a bit about their background – you can read all about them below!

Dr Georgios Maniatis

I am Greek and was raised in Moshato, a south suburb of Athens close to the Piraeus harbour. I did my 5-year diploma in Environmental Engineering at the Technical University of Chania (Crete) and, after finishing, I moved quite north for my MSc in Freshwater Systems Science (University of Glasgow). PhD started in 2012 (University of Glasgow) and I gradually became the “smart-pebble guy”: my goal was to put micro-sensors in stones and measure the forces they experience in rivers. After finishing my PhD, I worked as Research Associate for the University of Glasgow and then as Senior Hydro-morphologist for the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency. In November (2018), I joined the University of Brighton as Lecturer of Physical Geography taking the opportunity to continue my research on river sediment transport across scales. My primary focus is still on individual pebbles and how the sensors I develop lead to new insights regarding their motion.  In parallel, I work on reach-scale projects where I attempt to quantify the effects of river management interventions using advanced sensing techniques (a great excuse to play with drones). The newest problem I work on relates to river classification; I want to quantify the error in applied hydro-morphological scores using Deep Learning techniques.

Dr Laura Evenstar

I grew up loving visiting other countries and took every opportunity to work and travel abroad. After my undergraduate degree in Geology from the University of Leeds, I jumped at the chance to study for a PhD in the University of Aberdeen based on extensive fieldwork in South America. This lead me to one of the loves of my life, the Atacama Desert, the driest and highest desert in the world. My PhD involved deciphering whether the Andean mountain chain formed the Atacama Desert or the other way round and involved extensive study of the sedimentary geology and geomorphology of Northern Chile. After graduate in 2007, I stayed at the University of Aberdeen to research how ancient river systems and lakes interact with salt bodies looking at modern and ancient analogues in Cordillera de la Sal, Chile and Moab, Utah, U.S.A.  I then took a long career break to live in remote parts of Scotland and raise small children before returning to academia in 2012 as a post doctoral researcher in the University of Bristol. In Bristol, I worked with BHP, a mining company, to understand long term climate change and uplift in the Atacama Desert effected the formation of weathered deposits of copper. In 2015, I was awarded the Cabot Institute funding to work on geomorphology of Afghanistan looking at the drying up of mega lakes in the Helmand Region since the Pleistocene. In 2019, I moved to the University of Brighton and now work on a variety of research interests from lakes generated by mega landslides, Desert geomorphology, outburst floods, Martian geomorphology, uplift of large mountain belts and formation of volcanoes in places all over the world.

Dr Aggeliki Georgiopoulou

I grew up in Patras, in SW Greece, on the Gulf of Corinth, where earthquakes are a daily occurrence. As a very curious and inquisitive child, fascinated by nature and its forces it made sense that I studied Geology. Through Geology and Jacques Cousteau’s documentaries I discovered Oceanography and I went on to complete a MSc in Oceanography at the University of Southampton and the National Oceanography Centre (then SOC, now NOC). I decided Science was my calling so I also did a PhD in Marine Geology and specifically on underwater landslides and the movement of sediments in the deep sea. I did my first post-doc at the 3DLab of Cardiff University, working as part of CAPROCKS, a consortium with partners from the Hydrocarbon Industry, interested in the sealing capacity and safety of reservoir caprocks. Following that I moved to Dublin, where at first I was a Griffith Research Fellow and then a Lecturer in Sedimentology at University College Dublin. Since then, and continuing today at SET in Brighton, I have developed an extensive range of marine-focused projects, on different aspects of underwater landslides, their timing, their triggers, the factors that make underwater slopes unstable, the frequency, the magnitude and their tsunami generation potential. I also explore the offshore record glacial processes, such as the advance and retreat of the British Irish Ice Sheet. I like to collaborate with people across disciplines, such as deep sea ecologists, geophysicists, climatologists, etc, as the ocean is a complex system that requires cross-disciplinary collaboration. My research takes me on research vessels all over the world to most of the oceans; my study areas are in the North Atlantic (both margins and the Mid-Atlantic Ridge), the Mediterranean Sea, the SW Indian Ocean offshore South Africa and the SW Pacific Ocean, offshore New Zealand. My life goal is to visit and work in all the oceans!