Antwerp researchers measure “carbon flux” for European project


A new research station in Flanders’ only national park will help governments around Europe verify that efforts to control climate change are working

Monitoring Belgium’s climate

The climate change agreement concluded in Paris earlier this month was headline news around the world. Much less will be written about the construction of a small tower in the Hoge Kempen National Park in Limburg, but it is part of the same story.

The tower belongs to a new research station designed to collect data on how the gases that cause climate change move between the atmosphere and the plants and soil in the ecosystem. It is one of 35 such stations across Europe in the Integrated Carbon Observation System (Icos), which was formally launched in November.

Icos will provide long-term data on how greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide circulate in Europe’s environment. It will also assess exchanges with the oceans and the air over adjacent land masses, giving a picture for Europe as a whole.

This information on the “carbon flux” in Europe will inform predictions about climate change and help governments check that efforts to control it, such as those agreed in Paris, are working.

“These people need reliable data, and that is what we are going to provide,” says Reinhart Ceulemans, professor of ecology at Antwerp University (UAntwerp) and the national co-ordinator for Icos in Belgium.

Different year, different flux

Icos is a European research project that brings together monitoring stations and scientists in Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Finland, with Switzerland participating as an observer. Other countries are expected to join in due course.

A hot and dry year will result in different fluxes than, for example, a more humid year

- Professor Reinhart Ceulemans

The system will operate for at least 20 years, long enough to pick up natural variations in the carbon flux. “An extremely hot and dry year will result in different fluxes than, for example, a wetter or more humid year,” Ceulemans explains. “If you monitor over the longer term, you can see patterns in changes over this period.”

It’s also important that everyone measure carbon flux in the same way. “We use the same instruments, the same technology, the same analysis.”

The 35 monitoring stations have been selected so that all of Europe’s ecosystems are represented. The new station in Hoge Kempen, for example, is being built to provide data on heathland, which otherwise would not have been covered.

Care has been taken not to disturb the wildlife in the park. The monitoring equipment is housed in a cabin built partly underground, and the tower has been limited to two to three metres in height. The station should be operational by February.

“We measure wind speed in three directions, we sample and analyse gases, and from these we calculate the flux,” Ceulemans explains. Meanwhile, the growth of vegetation near the station will be measured and plant and soil samples taken for laboratory analysis. There will also be a connection to the University of Hasselt’s Ecotron, an experimental facility being built on the fringes of the park.

A strong track record

Flanders has two other ecosystem monitoring stations in Icos, also run by UAntwerp. At Lochristi, near Ghent, the station monitors a short rotation plantation of poplars, with measurements going back to 2010. And at Brasschaat, near Antwerp, monitoring takes place in a Scots pine wood. “We started measuring in 1996, so we have one of longest track records of flux measurements in Europe,” says Ceulemans.

The university also plays a role in the thematic hub that collects and analyses data from all the Icos ecosystem monitoring stations. It takes charge of vegetation data, while flux data goes to the University of Tuscia in Viterbo, Italy, and samples for laboratory analysis go to the French National Institute for Agricultural Research in Bordeaux.

Some 10 people are working on Icos at UAntwerp, with another 20 people directly involved elsewhere in Flanders. This includes staff at the Flanders Marine Institute, who are taking part in the ocean monitoring side of the project, using the research ship Simon Stevin and a research buoy moored at the Thornton Bank offshore wind farm. Belgium has a further three ecosystem monitoring sites in Wallonia, run by the University of Liège at Gembloux.

Being a founder member of Icos is important for the Antwerp group, both as a networking opportunity and for future research. “First of all, we have access to a huge database,” Ceulemans says. “This opens a lot of new avenues for research. Secondly, we can rely on these long-term sites. We can have more PhD and Masters’ students on them, and we can involve people that do other research because they will be complementing the flux measurements.”

Photo courtesy Icos Belgium

University of Antwerp

The University of Antwerp is Flanders’ youngest university, but it has quickly made a name for itself in natural and biomedical science research. It is the region’s third-largest university.
Merger - The university was born from the merger of three institutions with roots dating back to 1852.
Ranking - The university placed 13th in the World University Ranking “Top 50 Universities Under 50 years”.
Epidemiology - It was the first university in Flanders to offer a Master’s degree in epidemiology.
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