Deciphering harmful algal blooms in UK inland waters

Biogeochemical Cycles



This research project will develop and use an innovative approach to measure nutrient uptake within harmful algal blooms, with an emphasis on nitrogen fixation as a supplementary source of nitrogen. Inland waters increasingly suffer from harmful blooms of cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) during the summer months due to the discharge of wastewater and nitrogen and phosphorus-containing fertilizers. The hands-on approach will conduct continual measurements in the field to deliver data on nitrogen fixation in real-time. The datasets will help determine the ratios of nutrient availability that facilitate blooms of certain cyanobacteria and whether nitrogen limitation is overcome by nitrogen fixing cyanobacteria. The project will thereby inform land management practices to mitigate bloom formation.


The project will use novel techniques for measuring dissolved gases and apply the methods to lakes and reservoirs which suffer from harmful algal blooms. Therefore, the project has a strong fieldwork component which will predominantly occur in Year 2. The student will have hands-on experience with adaptation of sampling equipment to ensure that it is sufficiently robust to work outside of the laboratory in remote locations.

Project Timeline

Year 1

Objective: Optimize the analytical technology for sampling inland waterways. The first year will consist of hands-on training to operate the analytical instrumentation which will tested locally during the summer months of June-September. The first year will also establish the protocols for handling data in real-time including the quality control and archiving practices. A target objective for the end of Year One is the submission of a methods manuscript detailing the instrumentation with preliminary field data. Because the analytical method represents a novel approach, this manuscript would be very appropriate.

Year 2

Objective: Field based measurements of nitrogen fixation. In the second year, a concerted field campaign will be conducted at Loch Leven, Scotland. This field location is part of the UK Lake Ecological Observatory Network and has ongoing physical and biogeochemical time-series observations including meteorological conditions, oxygen, and photosynthetic pigments. This suite of measurements provides essential contextual ecosystem information for the analysis of algal blooms. The student will also be trained in additional measurements including nutrient concentrations (ammonium, nitrate, and phosphate) and cell identification/enumeration via microscopy. The fieldwork campaign will coordinate closely with the co-supervisor Professor Laurence who overseas observations at Loch Leven. The key outcome from Year 2 will be a published report of the findings

Year 3

Objective: Completion of field observations. The third year activity will depend upon the outcomes of the second year. If necessary, the Loch Leven fieldwork will be repeated to provide a more comprehensive set of measurements. If no additional validation is required for the Loch Leven fieldwork then the IATEPUS student will be encouraged to apply the analytical instrumentation to other locations which suffer from algal blooms e.g. the Cumbrian Lake District (in association with UKCEH long-term monitoring sites). This will demonstrate the versatility of the analyses and also increase the students capabilities of working in the field. The key outcome from Year 3 will be submission for scientific publication of the Loch Leven fieldwork and the identification of future applications of the technology.

Year 3.5

The emphasis of the final 6 months is completion of the PhD and to ensure that all of the datasets comply with the FAIR principles associated with data management. This is a critical component of all scientific projects and the student will be trained in the relevant procedures during Year 1-3, so at this stage, the emphasis will be increasing the visibility of the data by developing publicly accessible datasets with the appropriate visualisation and archiving.

& Skills

The hard and soft skills that the student will learn are listed below. Overall, the IATEPUS student will be trained so that they can operate as an independent scientist with strong working practices in all relevant areas. This includes working in the laboratory environment, responsible working in the field, analytical skills, and ownership of scientific data that conforms to FAIR principles. Upon completion of the PhD, the student will be equipped with the skills and confidence to pursue a scientific career.

Hard skills: Basic programming using Python; Data handling and presentation using R; Specialized analysis of trace gases. Analysis of nutrients and other water quality parameters; Microalgae identification

Soft skills: Project management; Organization for fieldwork; Health and Safety in laboratory and the field; Teamwork; Science Communication; Data Transparency

References & further reading

Richardson J., Feuchtmayr H., Miller C., Hunter P.D., Maberly S.C. and Carvalho L., 2019. The response of cyanobacteria and phytoplankton abundance to warming, extreme rainfall events and nutrient enrichment. Global Change Biology, 25: 3365–3380.
Carvalho L, McDonald C, et al., 2013. Sustaining recreational quality of European lakes: minimising the health risks from algal blooms through phosphorus control. Journal of Applied Ecology, 50, 315-323.
Wilson, S.T., M. Caffin, A.E. White, and D.M. Karl (2021) Evaluation of argon induced hydrogen production as a method to measure nitrogen fixation by cyanobacteria. Journal of Phycology 57, 863-873.

Further Information

Prof. Laurence Carvalho, Freshwater Restoration & Sustainability Group, UKCEH Edinburgh, Email:; Tel: 0131 445 8540

Prof. Sam Wilson, School of Natural & Environmental Sciences, Newcastle University, Email:; Tel: 0191 208 5931

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