Global Change and Environmental Processes

The ClimGrass experimental facility, which simulates drought and future climate conditions. © Agricultural Research and Education Centre Raumberg-Gumpenstein.

Understanding Environmental Systems in a changing World

Environmental systems are in a state of constant change, especially due to human activities. At CeMESS, our aim is to identify, elucidate and model processes in terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems to understand how they are impacted by anthropogenic influence. More specifically, we explore questions concerning changes in biogeochemical cycles, their feedback to the climate, and the dynamics of pollutants. This allows a comprehensive understanding of complex environmental processes and the human influence on them, which is crucial for future societal decisions.

Selected topics, microbes and climate change

  • Soil warming, microbial acclimation and soil-climate feedbacks
  • Impact of sulfur-cycling microorganisms on wetland methane emission
  • Interactive effects of elevated atmospheric CO2, warming and drought on soil processes
  • Nitrogen fertilisation/eutrophication and nutrient imbalances

Selected topics,environmental pollutants

  • Impact of engineered and incidental nanoparticles
  • Micro- and nanoplastics in the environment
  • Biotransformation of anthropogenic chemicals
  • Behaviour of emerging environmental pollutants and innovative remediation strategies

Selected topics, environmental interfaces

  • Mineral surfaces as information archives for past biomes
  • Biological processes at environmental interfaces
  • Interfacial processes mobilising or immobilising pollutants
  • Natural nanoparticles, their (bio-)synthesis and their role in pollutant transport

Microbes and Climate

Microorganisms have shaped the climate throughout Earth’s history, but conversely, microbial communities are also affected by climate change. Microorganisms may acclimate or adapt in response to changing environmental conditions, leading to shifts in the composition and function of microbial communities, with potential cascading alterations to biogeochemical cycles. The functional plasticity and diversity of microbes in the environment and their complex interplay with other organisms make the prediction of future effects of climate change on microbially-mediated ecosystem functions and services one of the most challenging frontiers of today’s ecological research. Research at CeMESS explores which microorganisms will respond to climate change in the coming decades and how. This includes how warming-induced changes to soil organic matter breakdown can alter microbial greenhouse gas production, leading to positive soil-climate feedbacks. We identify genetic and metabolic properties of key microbial players of biogeochemical cycles, and unravel their complex metabolic interactions, to understand the effects of changing microbiome composition on ecosystem process

Environmental Interfaces

Vegetable crops protected by plastic mulch, a source of micro- and nanoplastics in soils. © Maciej Bledowski

Interfaces between the geosphere, biosphere, hydrosphere, and atmosphere are locations of intense biological activity, where pollutants are transformed, mobilised or immobilised, and where information about current or ancient biomes is archived. Environmental interfaces span a range of scales, from vast global phenomena to the minute boundaries of nanoparticles. But to understand interfacial processes, we must focus on an even smaller scale: the molecular domain. Our goal is to develop quantitative models that can ultimately inform costly decisions regarding environmental remediation or protection. This requires investigation of processes on a range of spatiotemporal-scales –a challenge we are well equipped to tackle. In order to trace and elucidate interfacial processes, we develop novel analytical methods for nanoparticle investigation, utilise advanced spectroscopic methods, probe radiation from X-ray to IR, and use mass spectrometry, including non-traditional isotope geochemistry.

Emerging Environmental Pollutants

Chemical pollution is among the nine planetary boundaries that define Earth’s stress limits. Pollutants have the potential to irreversibly affect all ecosystems and are a threat to human and environmental health. Anthropogenic and naturally occurring chemicals are linked to complex sources and reactions in the environment, including their formation, transport, transformation, and degradation. Our overall goal is to understand the complexity of environmental systems and to apply those fundamental insights to solving the most pressing environmental problems of tomorrow. We investigate threats of global concern like micro- and nanoplastics, manufactured and incidental nanoparticles, or freshwater contamination. Equally important to us are pollutants of natural origin. For instance, redox-driven uranium pollution, asbestos in road construction, or persistent free radicals formed in wildfires. Our research aims to elucidate the occurrence, fate and (bio-)transformation of these substances from the molecular scale to a systems’ understanding – fundamental prerequisites for accurate risk management. This knowledge is essential for safe use of existing and future products, and is required to design competitive remediation strategies and environmentally benign chemicals.

In situ flumes field study: CeMESS researchers measure changes in microbial biofilm functioning following pulsed inputs to investigate post-fire changes to river functioning.