Environmental change

Research within the Environmental change theme is drawn from the sub-fields of geomorphology, climatology and biogeography. Its tools include direct observations, remote sensing, modelling and geographic information systems (GIS). Core areas of research include:

  1. Palaeoenvironmental reconstruction and landscape evolution: controls and responses of geomorphic systems and process environments in Ireland from the Late Quaternary.
  2. Applied river science: field investigations and modelling of sediment (SILTFLUX) and contaminant (Source2Sink) dynamics, and longitudinal connectivity (ReConnect).
  3. The geomorphology of Mars: understanding landscapes on Mars using a remote sensing, topographic and spectroscopic data, allied to the application of terrestrial landform analogues as proxies for climate and environmental change.
  4. Microclimates, especially as applied to urban areas: this includes understanding the urban landscape and its effects on the overlying atmosphere including the impact of cities on global climate change. 

Staff associated with this research theme include: Dr Michael Brennan, Dr Colman Gallagher, Dr Gerald Mills, and Dr Jonathan Turner.

Recent publications and research projects

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Alexander, Paul J., Mills, Gerald and Fealy, R. (2015) 'Using LCZ data to run an urban energy balance model'. Urban Climate, 13 :14-37.

Bechtel, B., Alexander, Paul J., Böhner J., Ching, J., Conrad, O., Feddema J, Mills, Gerald, See, L. and Stewart, I. (2015) 'Mapping Local Climate Zones for a Worldwide Database of the Form and Function of Cities'. ISPRS International Journal of Geo-Information, 4 (1):199-219

Conroy, E., Turner, J.N., Rymszewicz, A., Bruen, M., O'Sullivan, J.J., Kelly-Quinn, M. (2016). An evaluation of visual and measurement-based methods for estimating deposited fine sediment. International Journal of Sediment Research, Available online 7 April 2016.

Conroy E., Turner J.N., Rymszewicz A., O'Sullivan J.J., Bruen M., Lawler D., Lally H., M. Kelly-Quinn M. (2016). The impact of cattle access on ecological water quality in streams: examples from agricultural catchments within Ireland. Science of the Total Environment 547, 17-29.

Gallagher, Colman and Balme, M.R (2015) 'New insights on the roles of ice, water and climate change in recent landscape development on Mars'. Geography, 100 (2):84-93

Gallagher, Colman and Balme, M. (2015) 'Eskers in a complete, wet-based glacial system in the Phlegra Montes region, Mars'. Earth and Planetary Science Letters, 431 :96-109.

O'Sullivan, J.J., Mwalwiba, G.L., Purcell, P.J., Turner, Jonathan N., Mtalo, F. (2015, in press) 'Assessing sediment and water quality issues in expanding African wetlands: the case of the Mara River, Tanzania'. International Journal of Environmental Studies.

Soare, R. J., Conway, S. J., Gallagher, C., & Dohm, J. M. (2016). Sorted (clastic) polygons in the Argyre region, Mars, and possible evidence of pre-and post-glacial periglaciation in the Late Amazonian Epoch. Icarus264, 184-197.

Turner, Jonathan N.; Holmes, N; Davis, SR; Leng, MJ; Langdon, C and Scaif RG (2015) 'A multiproxy (micro-XRF, pollen, chironomid and stable isotope) lake sediment record for the Lateglacial to Holocene transition from Thomastown Bog, Ireland'. Journal of Quaternary Science, 30 (6):514-528


In this study, we are investigating the urban forestry cover of the urban areas in Dublin. This exciting project is being conducted in partnership with the four Dublin councils (FingalDublin CityDun Laoghaire-Rathdown and South Dublin) and the Office of Public Works. Over the coming months, we’ll quantify the canopy cover area and assess its spatial distribution, identify the proportion of canopy in public ownership and estimate the environmental services provided by the current canopy cover. 

Performing a canopy survey over an entire city is a big task, and to accomplish this quickly and accurately needs a suite of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) tools. Firstly, to locate the tree canopy we use image classification software to identify canopy from high-resolution satellite imagery. Then, to determine the proportion of canopy in public ownership we bring in other GIS data, such as the road and building locations. Finally, we use the i-Tree software to estimate the environmental services provided by the current canopy. Once the above tasks have been completed we’ll compare how Dublin compares to other major European cities in terms of canopy cover, and make recommendations for tree canopy expansion. 

As part of this project, a stakeholder workshop was held on 22 October 2015 at the Wood Quay venue, Civic Offices, Dublin. Dr David Nowak was the keynote speaker and you can watch his presentation below.

Welcome to the ReConnect research Project. Reconnect is an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-funded project being undertaken by a team of researchers from University College Dublin. The overall objective of the Reconnect project is to harness the knowledge base and develop a validated methodology for prioritising a selection of barriers for modification or removal to improve hydromorphology and connectivity in Irish freshwater systems. Specifically, the project focuses on ‘barriers’ which fragment and alter the hydromorphology of a river. Physical barriers include dams, weirs, culverts, bridge aprons, fords, barrages, sluices, as well as natural waterfalls and log jams. In the context of this project, a barrier is defined as a physical structure within the river channel, either natural or man-made, which has the potential to disrupt the continuity of a river by preventing or delaying the up- or down-stream movement of aquatic organisms, organic and inorganic material. This video shows footage at some of the barrier locations that the Inland Fisheries Ireland (IFI) will be targeting for modification or removal during the project.

A video providing a brief overview of the project is shown below.

Video produced by Waxwing Wildlife Productions Ltd

Environmental Sensitivity Mapping Webtool

In this project we have developed a Environmental Sensitivity Mapping (ESM) Webtool to support Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) processes in Ireland. SEA entails the assessment of environmental impacts resulting from the implementation of plans/programmes (e.g. land use planning) and is a mandatory requirement under European law (Directive 2001/42/EC). The ESM methodological approach is based on the premise that the environmental sensitivity of the plan/programme area needs to be examined to anticipate, identify and characterise potential impacts, as per SEA Directive requirement. Therefore, the purpose of the Webtool is to support practitioners (e.g. Local Authority planners, consultants) when undertaking SEA by enabling a rapid spatial examination of the main environmental considerations under the SEA Directive. In doing so, the Webtool facilitates identification of most sensitive areas to development or land-use change, informing planning and decision-making. To facilitate this, a centralised and dedicated interface has been created which avails of spatial data and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to provide an evidence-base that can be quantitatively and/or geographically examined.

Screenshot of the ESM Webtool.

The ESM Webtool includes a Widget which applies a participative weighted linear combination of selected environmental datasets (i.e. assessment criteria) and public perceptions (i.e. subjective weights) to produce "on the fly" context-specific environmental sensitivity maps. The simultaneous spatial assessment of multiple environmental considerations and their weights highlight sensitive environmental areas. The Widget enables adjusting criteria and weights to reflect differing concerns and values, in order to examine changes on the relative sensitivity of the different areas. The mapped outputs provide early warning of potential land-use conflicts to inform the scoping and impact assessment stages of SEA in particular, and contribute to cumulative effects assessments.

Sample ESM output maps.

The Webtool and Widget provide user-friendly means to enhance SEA transparency, consistency and effectiveness across planning hierarchies and sectors. The research project has been awarded a cost extension to test the applicability of the Webtool in a real-life setting. As a result, it is currently being applied to a number of SEAs of live land-use plans to test the performance of the geoprocessing capabilities and further refine the tool.

The research project is funded by the Environmental Protection Agency under the 2014 Research Programme. It is led by Dr Ainhoa González of the School of Geography at UCD and undertaken in collaboration with the All Ireland Research Observatory at Maynooth University.

For more information, visit:  http://airomaps.nuim.ie/id/ESM/