Project highlights

  • Addressing water pollution as one of the most pressing environmental risks globally 
  • Interdisciplinary supervisory team, linking biogeochemical expertise and involvement in a large, international research network 
  • Advanced isotope tracing and smart sensor network technologies 
  • Access to CEH’s unique, experimental mesocosm facility, GRODOME 


Increases in freshwater nutrient pollution and rising temperatures are driving a water quality crisis with consequences for environmental and public health. Unsustainable agricultural fertilizer use and uncontrolled wastewater release have caused a hidden water crisis. One of the consequences of excess nutrient inputs into freshwater bodies is eutrophication, resulting in the uncontrolled growth of algae that can lead to habitat loss, low stream oxygen concentrations and mass fish death. 

This study will explore the specific mechanisms of nutrient uptake and cycling leading to critical algal blooms and consequences for greenhouse gas production and consumptive use of dissolved oxygen. The project will tackle pressing environmental issues by advancing and using novel isotope tracer techniques including phosphate oxygen isotopes. The project will therefore analyse algal bloom formation and community growth rates, and subsequent rates of nutrient releases following the breakdown of algal blooms. This includes establishing how the timing of these blooms and nutrient uptake / release (and the resultant ecological impacts) could be very sensitive to climate change as well as alteration of catchment-wide land use and management. Greenhouse gas production and fluxes will also be monitored to determine further consequences of poor water quality and potential positive climate feedbacks. 

The project will utilise unique experimental infrastructure within the UKCEH GRODOME facility, for undertaking well controlled mesocosm experiments to further environmental process understanding.  

A schematic showing an experimental design for determining algal growth rates and a photograph of an algal growth facility within the UKCEH Grodome.

Figure 1: Mesocosm experimental design for determining algal growth ratesAbove. Algal growth facility within the UKCEH Grodome.

CENTA Flagship

This is a CENTA Flagship Project


UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology


  • Climate and Environmental Sustainability
  • Organisms and Ecosystems


Project investigator

Mike Bowes, UKCEH


Stefan Krause, University of Birmingham

Sophie Comer-Warner, University of Birmingham

Daren Gooddy, BGS

Isabelle Fournier, UKCEH

How to apply


The project will deploy controlled manipulation experiments in the UKCEH GRODOME facilities to establish how concentration ranges and timing of pollutant and nutrient interactions, at different light and temperature conditions, result in the exceedance of critical thresholds triggering the formation of algal blooms. Innovative isotope tracer technologies will be advanced and applied to quantify nutrient processing and oxygen consumption rates with in-situ measurements of resulting greenhouse gas emissions quantifying the potential for further driving climate change. Impacts of changing nutrient loadings, light and water temperatures on algal bloom risk and greenhouse gas release will be modelled using the latest climate change scenarios. 

Training and skills

Students will be awarded CENTA2 Training Credits (CTC) for participation in CENTA2-provided and ‘free choice’ external training. One CTC equates to 1⁄2 day session and students must accrue 100 CTCs across the three years of their PhD.  

The student will receive hands-on training in field and laboratory biogeochemical analytical techniques via all three Institutions, including the development, application and interpretation of in-situ water quality sensor data. GRODOME access will provide additional training in designing and performing mesocosm experiments, plus the opportunity to experience management and maintenance of large, experimental infrastructure. The link to SmartWater will provide opportunities to apply new skillsets across freshwater ecosystems in the UK and internationally. 

Partners and collaboration

UKCEH are an independent environmental research institute, providing the data and insights that researchers, governments and businesses need to create a productive, resilient and healthy environment. The British Geological Survey is a world-leading geological survey and global geoscience organisation, focused on public-good science for government and research to understand earth and environmental processes. Both organisations are based at Wallingford, Oxfordshire, and are collaborating with Birmingham on the SMARTWATER Large NERC Grant.  

The BGS will be able to offer up to £7000 to supplement the student RTSG via its BGS University Funding Initiative (BUFI).  

Further details

Further details on how to contact the supervisor for this project and how to apply for this project can be found here: 

For any enquiries related to this project please contact Dr Mike Bowes ([email protected]) .

The successful applicant would be registered at the University of Birmingham. 

To apply to this project: 

  • You must include a CENTA studentship application form, downloadable from: CENTA Studentship Application Form 2024. 
  • You must include a CV with the names of at least two referees (preferably three) who can comment on your academic abilities. 
  • Please submit your application and complete the host institution application process via:   Please select the PhD Geography and Environmental Science (CENTA) 2024/25 Apply Now button. The CENTA application form 2024 and CV can be uploaded to the Application Information section of the online form.  Please quote CENTA 2024-UKCEH1  when completing the application form. 

Applications must be submitted by 23:59 GMT on Wednesday 10th January 2024. 

Possible timeline

Year 1

Development of mesocosm setup and design at UKCEH GRODOME and implementation of different nutrient load scenarios. Advancement of innovative isotope tracer and in-situ water quality and greenhouse gas sensor network technologies for real-time monitoring of biogeochemical turnover.

Year 2

GRODOME scenario simulations and quantification of nutrient flux dependent algal growth and oxygen consumption rates and consequences for greenhouse gas emissions.

Year 3

Application of experimental data to climate change models to predict future impacts on algal bloom risk and greenhouse gas fluxes.

Further reading

Bowes, M. J., M. Loewenthal, D. S. Read, M. G. Hutchins, C. Prudhomme, L. K. Armstrong, S. A. Harman, H. D. Wickham, E. Gozzard & L. Carvalho, 2016. Identifying multiple stressor controls on phytoplankton dynamics in the River Thames (UK) using high-frequency water quality data. Science of the Total Environment 569:1489-1499 doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2016.06.239. 

Comer-Warner SA, Romeijn P, Gooddy DC, Ullah S, Kettridge N, Marchant B, Hannah DM, Krause S. 2018. Thermal sensitivity of CO2 and CH4 emissions varies with streambed sediment properties. Nature Communications 9, 2803, DOI: 10.1038/s41467-018-04756-x. 

Gooddy DC, Bowes MJ, Lapworth DJ, Lamb AL, Williams PJ, Newton RJ, Davies CL and Surridge BWJ. 2018. Evaluating the stable isotope composition of phosphate oxygen as a tracer of phosphorus from waste water treatment works. Applied Geochemistry 95, 139-146. 

Gooddy DC, Lapworth DJ, Bennett, SA, Heaton THE, Williams PJ and Surridge BWJ. 2016. A multi-stable isotope framework to understand eutrophication in aquatic ecosystems. Water Research 88, 623-633. DOI 10.1016/j.watres.2015.10.046 

Moorhouse, H. L., D. S. Read, S. McGowan, M. Wagner, C. Roberts, L. K. Armstrong, D. J. E. Nicholls, H. D. Wickham, M. G. Hutchins & M. J. Bowes, 2018. Characterisation of a major phytoplankton bloom in the River Thames (UK) using flow cytometry and high performance liquid chromatography. Science of the Total Environment 624:366-376 doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2017.12.128. 

Venkiteswaran JJ, Boeckx P and Gooddy DC. 2019. Towards a global interpretation of dual nitrate isotopes in surface waters. Journal of Hydrology X, 4, 100037, doi: 

Wu W., X. Niu, Z. Yan, S. Li, SA. Comer-Warner, H. Tian, S. Li, J. Zou, G. Yu & C. Liu. 2023. Agricultural ditches are hotspots of greenhouse gas emissions controlled by nutrient input. Water Research, 242, 120271, doi: