From conserving ladybirds to tackling marine aliens: Five Irish researchers working on Earth Day-related themes

Our #LoveIrishResearch theme this month is ‘Spring’ into Research, which seems very fitting this week as the sun is shining and there’s a definite sense of the summer approaching!

Today, it’s International Earth Day, so we felt it was a good time to celebrate researchers working on climate change, sustainable development, biodiversity and nature.

About Earth Day

Earth Day was first celebrated in the United States in 1970 and is organised by the Earth Day Network. Its aims are to strengthen and mobilise the environmental movement worldwide, and to protect the Earth for future generations.

This year, the Earth Day theme is ‘Trees for the Earth’, and the Earth Day Network has set a goal of planting 7.8 billion trees over the next five years.

In Ireland, lots of researchers are doing fascinating work on topics of relevance to Earth Day, and here we profile just five of them.

Conserving Ireland’s native ladybirds

Did you know ladybirds are highly sensitive to environmental conditions and often used as an indicator species by scientists studying climate change and ecosystem health?

Gillian Weyman at University College Cork is working on research exploring the status, threats, protection and conservation of ladybirds in Ireland. Her work was prompted by the arrival in Ireland of the “Harlequin” ladybird (Harmonia axyridis), which was introduced into Europe in 1982 to help control the spread of green-flies.

Because ladybirds play a hugely important role in maintaining healthy ecosystems, the spread of the Harlequin ladybird is of concern. If it becomes the dominant ladybird species in Ireland, the impact on the agricultural economy and ecology could be devastating.

Gillian’s research will develop conservation-breeding programmes for rare and threatened ladybird species in Ireland for the first time. Her work is making an important contribution to our knowledge of native ladybird species and the effects of newly-arrived invasive species.

Tackling marine aliens

Another researcher looking at the impact of invasive species is James Murphy in NUI Galway. His research focuses on marine ecosystems.

Alien seaweeds are one of the largest groups of marine aliens in Europe, comprising between 20 and 29 per cent of all marine alien species. One such species is Asian kelp (Undaria pinnatifida), one of the 100 worst invasive species in the world.

For his research, James is using computational modelling to study the impact of Asian kelp on native biodiversity. He will also develop tools for assessing the potential risk of invasion by alien species under different environmental conditions, and for choosing the best way to minimise future control costs.

Ultimately, his work will contribute to the development of coherent strategies for controlling and maintaining biodiversity in costal / marine habitats.

Can Erris, Co. Mayo become a sustainable energy community?

In her research, Orla Nic Suibhne from University College Dublin is exploring how a Sustainable Energy Community (SEC) can solve future energy.

This changing energy environment is lessening the traditionally high degree of separation between the typical consumer and energy generation. This creates potential for a higher level of local energy autonomy, i.e. the ability of a community to function (and even prosper) with less need for imported and centrally-generated energy.

An SEC is a defined community, where sustainable energy targets are set, measured and monitored. Progress towards energy efficiency is achieved through a partnership approach between the local community and State agencies.

Orla’s research is looking, in particular, at the establishment of Erris, Co. Mayo as an SEC. With its abundant natural resources, Mayo is destined to play a significant role in the proposed new energy revolution.

Rethinking resource management through the Irish and European fisheries

For his research, Patrick Bresnihan from NUI Maynooth spent 18 months undertaking ethnographic fieldwork in the commercial fishing port of Castletownbere.

He is exploring the concept of the ‘commons’, which – in the 1980s – emerged as a new perspective on resource management in the field of environmental economics. The ‘commons’ concept posits that communities around the world develop complex systems of formal and informal rules to govern natural resources, and that the institutionalisation of community-managed resources can offer a sustainable alternative to state-managed or market-orientated approaches.

However, the ‘commons’ concept has been criticised for emphasising the commons as a set of economic resources, failing to adequately account for the knowledge and value produced within and between communities and the environments in which they live.

Patrick’s research draws on critical insights from geography, anthropology and feminist studies to conceptualise the commons as an ongoing activity, rather than as a natural resource. He is examining how fishermen interact with each other and the unpredictable marine environment, and how these interactions require and generate forms of situated knowledge and use-value vital to sustaining and reproducing human and non-human life in their communities.

Mapping pollution at Dublin Bay

Through his research, Alan Lee from Dublin City University is aiming to map and assess the source, concentration and potential impact of incomplete combustion and sewage discharge on sedimentary microbial populations in Dublin Bay.

The project will enable companies involved in marine sediment and water remediation, petrochemical exploration, and related legal / insurance activities to better assess marine contamination and hydrocarbon distribution levels.

Alan’s work will also contribute to a larger project exploring the nature of pollutant biodegradation in marine environments using a combination of geochemical and meta-genomic approaches.

By determining the effect of environmental pressures on microbes, his research will help us understand how they alter the removal of pollutants and how this process can be used to diagnose and repair polluted areas.