Ongoing projects

Twinning for research excellence in sustainable development (TWIN2SUSTAIN). 01/10/2024 - 30/09/2027

Abstract

Cyprus is a hotspot of the climate crisis with the effects being more intense and difficult to cope; to that end, climate change in the Eastern Mediterranean, Middle East and North Africa (EMMENA) region has been an object of extensive research. However, this research did not address to a satisfactory extent the societal aspects of climate change in the EMMENA region that fall under the Sustainable Development (SD) field. Although being very active in relevant research areas of Sustainable Development and in particular, water, renewable energy and oceanography, UCY has not achieved to address the socioeconomic aspects of Sustainable Development research. It is rather positioned in a fragmented fashion in the SD research field by having research teams involved in relevant projects and undertakings but not in a concerted way, thus currently tackling important research topics sporadically and without coherence. This gap is not limited to climate change-related fields but on other aspects of SD such as gender equality, innovation law, science diplomacy and economic development, poverty reduction and income inequalities. The TWIN2SUSTAIN project aims to address this gap in this crucial research area by facilitating a partnership with two advanced partners in the SD field, UNU-MERIT and UANTWERP, in order to advance and consolidate in a multidisciplinary context all related research activities at the University of Cyprus (UCY), with main focus on the socioeconomic aspects of SD. This vision will be realised by applying for a Horizon Europe/Twinning grant, in conjunction and under the aegis of the Research and Innovation Service of UCY and with many different UCY academic departments and research units engaged. By linking UCY with these internationally leading partners in SD, TWIN2SUSTAIN will stimulate research excellence and international visibility of UCY, while improving the networking efficiency and innovation in this growing and very important field

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  • Research Project

Effects of nitrogen pollution on host plant food quality. 01/08/2024 - 31/07/2028

Abstract

Insects are keystone species as they provide vital pollination services. Among the most cited drivers of insect decline worldwide are landscape homogenization, spread of introduced pathogens, use of pesticides, ongoing climate change and, most importantly, the loss of floral resources. Therefore, current environmental strategies to mitigate insect loss mainly advocate enhancing the floral resource abundance. However, whereas the primary focus now lays on increasing the quantity of food provisioning, maintaining sufficient food quality may be equally, or perhaps even more important for conservation. The quality of floral resources is primarily contingent upon the composition and relative abundance of nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus and base cations, sugars (mainly sucrose, fructose and glucose) and proteins and amino acids in both plant tissue and nectar and pollen. One of the primary environmental factors that can affect the nutritional quality of floral resources is plant nutrient availability, as it strongly affects plant physiological processes. However, nutrient pollution of natural and semi-natural ecosystems currently constitutes one of the most important components of global change worldwide, which is reflected by an approximate respective 100% and 400% increase of reactive nitrogen and phosphorus fluxes in global nutrient cycles. In an era of ever increasing nutrient pollution, this research proposal will focus on the specific contribution of different types of nitrogen pollution on the current biodiversity crisis. This research proposal is original in its focus on the link between nitrogen pollution and host plant quality, studying the underexplored hypothesis that degradation of plant resource quality may contribute to the widely observed insect decline. Further unique novelties include experimentally disentangling direct and indirect effects of nitrogen pollution and its common mitigation strategies in nature restoration and disentangling effects of pollution with reduced (mainly originating from agriculture) versus oxidized (mainly originating from combustion processes) nitrogen compounds via experiments and large-scale observational evidence across Europe (>25 000 standardized observations in >10 countries). We also aim to identify, for the first time, species-specific critical thresholds of pollution with oxidized and reduced nitrogen across taxonomic groups. This novel evidence may have far reaching ramifications for environmental policy regarding nitrogen that currently does not discriminate among reduced versus oxidized compounds for biodiversity conservation. To obtain these goals, we will use host plants and butterflies as model species as they have been proven to be very sensitive to environmental changes and relatively easy to use in experimental designs. The general objectives of this research proposal are to quantify the effects of nitrogen pollution on plant resource quality on the one hand, and to evaluate the subsequent effects on the behavior and fitness of phytophagous butterflies, on the other. Furthermore this proposal aims to disentangle the primary effects of nitrogen pollution from secondary, potentially confounding effects of nature restoration methods to mitigate nitrogen pollution. The general expectation is that the nutritional quality of plant resources is affected by nitrogen pollution and, in turn, negatively affects butterfly fitness and behavior. We also expect that current nitrogen pollution mitigation strategies also negatively affect butterflies, potentially compounding the general decline of insects. Finally, we expect that the experimentally determined relative contribution of both drivers will be reflected in large-scale observations of species decline and that these insights will lead to novel environmental policies and nature restoration strategies to mitigate biodiversity loss.

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  • Research Project

Assessing effects of changes in sediment supply across time and space on tidal marsh adaptability to sea level rise. 01/08/2024 - 31/07/2028

Abstract

Tidal marshes are highly valuable coastal wetlands ecosystems, but at the same time they are seriously threatened by sea level rise (SLR). Marshes need sufficient supply of suspended sediment (or SPM) to build up their land and avoid being submerged by the rising seas. However, understanding the complex patterns of SPM concentration, composition, among other properties, is extremely difficult and remains largely under-explored. Because of this complexity, current models of marsh evolution only consider simplified representations of sediment supply, leading to significant uncertainties as to predicting how these tidal marshes will cope with future SLR. Our goal is to deepen our understanding on the dynamics of SPM and its properties across different spatial and temporal scales. To achieve this, we will employ a multidisciplinary approach that combines field studies with computer modelling. By collecting new data in the field, we will conduct a comprehensive characterization of SPM quantities, qualities and pathways, considering spatial variations (from the estuarine channel to the marsh interior) and temporal variations (from tidal cycles to multiple years). These findings will then be integrated into a sophisticated numerical model of tidal marsh morphological evolution, allowing us to explore how different sediment supply scenarios may affect marsh survival to SLR. Therefore, this project aims to push the boundaries of our knowledge about sediment supply to tidal marshes and, as such, improve future model assessments of marsh survival to SLR. Ultimately, this will contribute to better-informed decisions about how to protect and manage these crucial ecosystems in the future.

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Coastal climate adaptation and mitigation services of newly created marshes and mangroves (WETCOAST). 01/05/2024 - 30/04/2027

Abstract

Tidal marshes and mangroves are highly valued ecosystems for nature-based climate mitigation (through carbon sequestration) and climate adaptation (through coastal protection). Their dense vegetation protects shorelines from waves, currents and erosion risks, and traps carbon, which is subsequently buried in the wetland sediments. It remains to be proven how efficiently these services are delivered when marshes and mangroves are intentionally created for these purposes. We will therefore develop innovative methodologies (based on a combination of in situ measurements, remote sensing and computer modelling) to quantify and assess the efficiency of carbon sequestration and shore stabilization in new wetland creation projects. This will be developed in two pilot cases: (1) in temperate-climate marshes (Hedwige-Prosperpolder, Scheldt estuary, Belgium & Netherlands) and (2) in tropical mangroves (AquaForest project, Guayas estuary, Ecuador). This project will deliver an innovative knowledge base for future up-scaled implementation of marsh and mangrove creation projects for nature-based climate mitigation and adaptation. Potential follow-up projects are the development of plug-and-play monitoring, reporting and verification methods that can be applied in future nature-based tidal wetland restoration projects. As such we develop a unique knowledge base allowing to couple new wetland creation to the carbon credit market.

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Academic research on habitat conservation and restoration 01/05/2024 - 31/12/2026

Abstract

"De Zegge" in Geel, the oldest nature reserve in Flanders, is a groundwater-fed peatland that harbours unique but highly threatened flora and fauna. The aim of this project is to map the current habitat quality through permanent quadrats ("PQs") in order to contribute to the conservation and restoration of the reserve. The project consists of vegetation, biogeochemical, hydrochemical and microbial surveys.

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  • Research Project

PFAS analysis of 316 dried samples of invertebrate tissues, fish muscles and seabird feathers. 01/04/2024 - 31/12/2025

Abstract

Some studies of a specific class of chemicals known as per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) have shown they constitute a threat to health and ecosystems. These organic substances have been industrially used over the past 40 years, but are now considered top priority pollutants, due to their chemical persistence, and their pervasive presence in water, food products, animals and even humans. The widespread use of PFAS and their ability to remain intact in the environment means that over time PFAS levels from past and current uses can result in increasing levels of environmental contamination. While the science surrounding potential health effects of bioaccumulation is developing, exposure to some types of PFAS have been associated with serious health effects, thus the possible PFAs impacts on cold and remote environments needs to be further studied. The cold regions (such as the Antarctic Peninsula) are places which are experiencing a continuous increasing pressure caused by different anthropogenic activities. Antarctic animals are key organisms of these ecosystems as potential bio-indicators for the presence of contaminants within this region. To our knowledge, no studies have assessed PFAs bioaccumulation with trophic position through natural aquatic food webs in Antarctica. Particularly, there is a knowledge gap about how certain contaminants may affect Antarctic fauna and associated marine environments, particularly those emerging highly dispersible organic contaminants, such as PFAs, which are highly toxic substances, very persistent, can bioaccumulate in the body and can reach the polar regions by oceanic and/or atmospheric currents: For that reason, they have attracted the attention of the scientific community and regulatory agencies. To fill this knowledge gap, this pioneering study aims to assess the degree of exposure to PFAS in fauna from the Antarctic Peninsula. For this purpose, concentrations of 29 analytes of PFAS will be determined in mammals, seabirds, fishes, and macroinvertebrates. Also, stable isotopes of C and N will be measured to see how spatial and ecological factors influence the bioaccumulation of PFAS, and whether possible interspecific differences are due to habitat contamination or differences in trophic positions. There is an urgent need to develop this project as PFAs levels continue to increase in ecosystems, and little is known about their effects on wildlife and health, especially in Antarctica. The present work may help future research to understand the factors that influence the exposure of Antarctic fauna, and to identify routes of PFAS exposure. Also, it may help to clarify questions about the sources and fate of PFAS in Antarctic ecosystems.

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Measuring stress in heartbeat (sharks). 01/03/2024 - 28/02/2025

Abstract

Since 1970, the global abundance of oceanic sharks and rays has declined by 71% and 59% of the reef-associated shark and ray species are now threatened with extinction. Indeed, 19% of the reefs have been depleted of sharks and the most common reef shark species have experienced global declines of 60 to 73%. Because sharks encounter so many human and environmental stressors throughout their lives, a detailed investigation into their physiological response to stress is crucial, especially considering that many of these stressors will increase both in frequency and severity over the coming decades. However, directed studies on the physiological stress response in sharks are rare, even though a profound knowledge of the stress response in sharks is pivotal to inform and refine future conservation efforts. Although the hypothalamus-pituitary-interrenal (HPI) axis, the pathway that mediates the chronic phase of the stress response across the fishes in general, appears to be an evolutionary conserved neuroendocrine system, key physiological differences between sharks and the well-studied teleost fishes preclude directly applying teleost stress theory to sharks. Sharks are characterised by a unique dominant stress hormone 1α-hydroxycorticosterone or 1α-OHB (as opposed to cortisol and corticosterone widely understood across vertebrates) and a high reliance on ketone bodies and amino acids as oxidative fuels in cardiac and skeletal muscle tissues. A clear understanding of the primary (endocrine) response to stress is currently lacking due to the difficulty to synthesise their unique dominant corticosteroid 1α-OHB for use as standard in measurements. Finding alternative indicators of stress are of utmost importance to underpin management decisions and conservation strategies. Therefore, we plan to measure heartrates and analyse heartbeat patterns by electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG) through small implanted heartrate monitors before and during a chasing and/or confinement stress. This would give us a unique insight in the cardio-respiratory stress response of shark, which we found is only possible through measurements in undisturbed free ranging shark. Indeed, as in humans we expect increasing heartbeats and possible arrythmias. As the effects of the holding stress were underestimated before the start of my PhD research, this is a new line of research, which could validate the use of the promising biochemical amino acid stress indicators.

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  • Research Project

Monitoring WFD chemicals in biota Waterschap De Dommel. 27/02/2024 - 31/12/2024

Abstract

So-called biota standards have been derived for a number of WFD substances because of the risk of secondary poisoning. These are the maximum concentrations of a chemical substance that may be present in living aquatic organisms. These are often substances that are very difficult to measure in the water phase, which is why there have not been any reliable WFD assessments for these substances for a long time. In this study, WFD chemicals will be measured in fish and in shellfish. The results will be processed and reported.

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Monitoring of the WFD chemical compounds for the "Waterschap Brabantse Delta" 27/02/2024 - 31/12/2024

Abstract

So-called biota standards have been derived for a number of WFD substances because of the risk of secondary poisoning. These are the maximum concentrations of a chemical substance that may be present in living aquatic organisms. These are often substances that are very difficult to measure in the water phase, which is why there have not been any reliable WFD assessments for these substances for a long time. In this study, WFD chemicals will be measured in fish and in shellfish. The results will be processed and reported.

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  • Research Project

Monitoring WFD chemicals in biota Waterschap Limburg 12/02/2024 - 31/12/2024

Abstract

So-called biota standards have been derived for a number of WFD substances because of the risk of secondary poisoning. These are the maximum concentrations of a chemical substance that may be present in living aquatic organisms. These are often substances that are very difficult to measure in the water phase, which is why there have not been any reliable WFD assessments for these substances for a long time. In this study, WFD chemicals will be measured in fish and in shellfish. The results will be processed and reported.

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  • Research Project

European Duckweed Association 01/01/2024 - 31/12/2028

Abstract

The common denominator of the European Duckweed Network is duckweed or Lemnaceae. These small aquatic plants are not only the world's fastest growing flowering plants, they can produce a substantial amount of protein per hectare, considerably in excess of conventional protein crops. Furthermore, they take up nutrients, heavy metals, and nuclear contaminations from heavy polluted wastewater. These are all traits that make duckweed highly suitable to tackle European and global challenges such as food and feed production, bioremediation, or even combinations of both. Thus, duckweed can be a key part of a circular solution to the current sustainability crisis, for example by growing duckweed on pig manure waste, and subsequently using it as pig feed. The European Duckweed Network brings together key research experts from diverse fields such as agriculture, genomics, physiology, space research and nuclear science, and allows knowledge transfer on pilot and large-scale research on duckweed cultivation. Despite the differences in background, all network partners share a common aim, to develop duckweed cultivation for a more sustainable future. It is also recognized by the partners that open communication and knowledge exchange is necessary to achieve this. This way, common challenges such as optimizing harvesting techniques, improved crop protection (against algae, black water lily aphids, and pythium), and reduced plant stress (nutrient imbalances, and climatic conditions) can be systematically tackled, optimally using the multidisciplinary expertise that is present in the network.

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Research on ecosystem modelling using OMES data. 01/12/2023 - 30/11/2027

Abstract

For more than 20 years, special attention is paid to the study of the Schelde estuary and the scientific support of necessary management actions to meet both human use as the ecological functioning of the system. To gain more insight and to support decision making in the Schelde estuary, an ecosystem model was developed at UAntwerpen. This model builds on the MOSES model that was developed in the 1990s by Karline Soetaert and Peter Herman, affiliated with the then NIOO-CEME, now NIOZ-Yerseke. At UAntwerpen, the model has been expanded and refined in various ways. In the current version, the Boven-Zeeschelde and the Rupel also belong to the model domain and boundary conditions are defined at the lock complex in Merelbeke and at the confluence of the Dijle and the Nete. Based on Tom Cox's research into primary production and its influence on oxygen dynamics in the Scheldt, the dynamics of phytoplankton became more realistic modeled. Interest in pelagic primary production (the build-up of biomass by phytoplankton) has increased in recent years. An important reason for this is the changes in dynamics of suspended material that have been observed in different estuaries in response to changes in the geometry of estuaries (deepening, channelization, depoldering, etc.). Abrupt changes (so-called critical transitions) have also been observed in the Scheldt in recent decades. In light-limited systems, the amount of sludge in suspension is one of the most important determinants of primary production. Given the many observational and theoretical indications that human interventions influence the dynamics of suspended material, in light-limited systems the influence on primary production is one of the most closely examined ecological impacts of interventions that change geometry. With climate change, further expansion of harbors and the need for new measures to protect against floodings, the estuary faces new challenges. This creates also new challenges for modelling the Schelde ecosystem, that will be tackled in this PhD. The existing model tools offer a solid foundation for further development of the model where it seems most useful. A better approach to lateral areas is an option, where ways to explicitly include the lateral systems can be implemented as a separate model box where processes can take place under changed conditions (e.g. more light availability). Processes in the soil can also be included.

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Award of the Research Board 2023 - Award Verbeure: Applied and Exact Sciences. 01/12/2023 - 31/12/2024

Abstract

The Research Council Prizes of the University of Antwerp are awarded every two years at the expense of the Special Research Fund University of Antwerp. They aim to honor a successful young postdoctoral researcher for a special contribution to his/her scientific field. T. Groffen is a laureate in the exact and applied sciences (Prize Frans Verbeure).

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Understanding and predicting the bio-geomorphological development of new mangrove forests in a tropical river delta. 01/11/2023 - 31/10/2025

Abstract

The restoration of previously degrading mangrove forests is increasingly demanded, among others to provide nature-based solutions for climate change. However, effective mangrove restoration is hindered by knowledge-gaps on the mechanisms driving the development of new mangrove forests over bare intertidal mudflats within a tropical river delta. This study aims to develop innovative knowledge on where, when and how fast new mangrove forests can develop on the large scale of a tropical river delta (~10-100 km²), in response to long-term (decades) variability in sea level and sediment availability. This will be achieved through an integrated combination of remote sensing analyses, field measurements and bio-geomorphic modelling. This is studied in the Guayas delta (Ecuador) as an ideal case study, where large mangroves are expanding, where long-term sea level variability is driven by the El Niño climate fluctuation and climate warming, and where sediment supply to mangroves may potentially change through anthropogenic disturbance. The results will be of key relevance to improve the long-term success of mangrove restoration programs.

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Sharks in distress: a comparative, ecophysiological, and behavioural approach toward quantifying the effects of chronic stress in sharks. 01/11/2023 - 31/10/2025

Abstract

Decades of overexploitation and habitat degradation have profoundly impacted sharks, leaving a third of all species threatened with extinction. To effectively guide and improve conservation efforts, a profound knowledge on the physiology, ecology and behaviour of sharks is urgently needed. A key research gap that requires particular attention are the effects of anthropogenic and environmental stressors on these ancient fishes. However, finding biomarkers of chronic stress in sharks has proven to be a challenging task due to their unique stress hormone, 1?-hydroxycorticosterone (1?-OHB). In the proposed research project, because the role of 1?-OHB in sharks remains equivocal, I will experimentally determine the utility of 1?-OHB as an indicator for chronic stress and unravel the metabolic action of 1?-OHB and its metabolites. Using state-of-the-art metabolomics, I intend to map the complete metabolic profile of sharks for the first time to identify novel biomarkers to be added to the physiology toolbox for shark conservation. A special emphasis will be put on ketone bodies and amino acids (on which sharks rely heavily for as oxidative fuels) and thyroid hormones, as well as the fitness cost of chronic stress. By studying the stress response from a cellular and molecular level (e.g., blood chemistry, metabolites) up to the whole-organism level (e.g., aerobic performance, behaviour) this project will provide a novel and broad view of the effects of chronic stress in sharks.

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Nature-inclusive design of energy islands: an integrated ecosystem services assessment model; 01/11/2023 - 31/10/2024

Abstract

The rapid growth of offshore wind energy in Europe necessitates the construction of energy islands, which will put additional pressure on the marine environment. To mitigate this pressure, the implementation of nature-inclusive design for the construction of these islands is being considered. Research in coastal and offshore marine environments has demonstrated the benefits of nature-inclusive design, but these have yet to be translated into human well-being (i.e. ecosystem services). The construction of energy islands is the ideal opportunity to establish the latter, as the potential of nature-inclusive design can be evaluated for the subtidal, intertidal and supratidal zone all together. The objective of this research is to develop an integrated model to assess and predict the impact of the construction of an energy island with a nature-inclusive design on the delivery of ecosystem services. A system dynamics model will be constructed using a combination of experimental data on nature-inclusive design collected in the offshore marine environment and literature data to map the evolution and interactions among ecosystem services in the construction of a nature-inclusive designed energy island. The integration of this model in the environmental impact assessment aims to improve the procedure to take into account the creation of benefits for the environment and human well-being in addition to the negative environmental impacts.

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  • Research Project

Effects of the chemical structure of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) on the bioaccumulation and toxicity to terrestrial and aquatic plants and invertebrates. 01/10/2023 - 30/09/2026

Abstract

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are synthetic organic compounds that have unique properties which have led to a widespread industrial and commercial use, and subsequent contamination of the environment. The partitioning of PFAS to the abiotic matrices, which are important exposure routes for PFAS in the food chain, depends on chemical-, media- and site-specific characteristics. Organisms residing in polluted ecosystems may accumulate different PFAS depending on their physiological and structural characteristics, and on the bioavailability of PFAS (affected by among others their chemical structure). Quantitative measurements of bioaccumulation are well known for legacy PFAS, but not for the vast majority. Similarly, the relative lack of toxicological data for most PFAS is an uncertainty factor in ecological risk assessment (ERA). The objective of this study is to investigate how the chemical structure of PFAS affect their bioaccumulation and toxicity in aquatic and terrestrial organisms. We will use a focused comparative testing (i.e. including PFOS and PFOA, for which such information on bioaccumulation and toxicity is present), in a phylogenetically broad range of organisms to provide baseline data for ERA. A probabilistic risk assessment approach using species sensitivity distributions will be used to investigate the chronic and acute toxicity of fifteen PFAS and to estimate toxicity benchmark concentrations for soil, sediment, and freshwater.

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Research on PFAS contamination in the food chain (PFASFORWARD 1). 01/09/2023 - 31/08/2027

Abstract

The main objective of PFASFORWARD is to gain insights concerning the presence, prevalence, behaviour, and distribution of various per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) throughout the entire food chain, including the impact of processing. The pathways by which PFAS can enter the feed and food chain will also be investigated. PFASFORWARD will focus on the PFAS listed by Commission Recommendation (EU) 2022/14311, mainly 4-EFSA-PFAS, carboxylate-PFAS (C5-C14), sulfonate-PFAS (C4-C13), and PFAS substitutes (DONA, F53B minor and major and HFPO-DA). Furthermore, untargeted analyses will also be performed for a limited number of samples to extend the analyte scope and envisage a broader range of fluorinated contaminants. Firstly, the monitoring data obtained within FLUOREX will be further complemented by adding matrices from the market. Afterwards, PFAS behaviour and distribution will be investigated by analyzing different highly contaminated edible fractions of the same animal (including fish, pig, cattle and chicken) or plant (including apples, potatoes, carrots, and cauliflower). Since the concentrations of PFAS can vary between the different parts, the impact of processing (e.g. grain milling, juice pressing, production of meat and dairy products) will be investigated. It should also be taken into account that this might be influenced by the type of PFAS (e.g. long-chain versus short-chain compounds). Additionally, more knowledge on the origin and transfer of PFAS throughout the food chain will be obtained through literature review, experiments or simulations in order to be able to reduce or prevent possible contamination and, as such, guarantee consumers' food safety. Information on possible PFAS transfer from compost, sewage sludge, irrigation water, well water, soil, feed and feed materials will be gathered. PFASFORWARD will not only give an overview of the presence of PFAS on the Belgian market but also respond to issues highlighted in the Commission Recommendation (EU) 2022/1431 on PFAS monitoring in food.

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Community-based biodiversity conservation in the Rusizi plain Burundi (RUBICOM). 01/09/2023 - 31/08/2025

Abstract

National parks in Africa are essential to protect megafauna, associated biodiversity and landscape. Park authorities hence restrict the use of natural resources by local communities, to avoid illegal land encroachment, poaching and ecosystem degradation. Yet, the persistent poverty, and the need for natural resources for their livelihood results in conflicts 1) between local communities and park authorities, and 2) between humans and wildlife. The RUBICOM project aims to provide the basis for a knowledge driven, sustainable human-bioversity coexistence in the River Rusizi plain of Burundi, focusing on aquatic and wetland ecosystems. Community based biodiversity conservation requires a stronger focus on optimizing conservation efforts that maximize synergies between biodiversity and ecosystem functioning, and local communities being able to benefit from the ecosystem services the wetlands provide (e.g. for drinking water, fish, medicinal plants, drought resilience, flood protection). The project will focus on wetland biodiversity, and more specifically targets the hippopotamus (in short hippo) as a key or 'flagship' species for conservation. The hippo is a key species determining the ecosystem's primary production, water quality and plant biodiversity, but is also involved most directly in human-biodiversity conflicts, often leading to direct confrontations and injuries. The project aims to set a baseline for biodiversity status in the region, as well as improve understanding of people's perception on human-wildlife conflicts and potential for community-supported biodiversity conservation. This can serve as basis for developing solutions for a more community-based biodiversity management, and creation of locally embedded knowledge hubs that further strengthen these community-based biodiversity strategies, which is also key to developing future climate change adaptation strategies. Wetlands play a key role in developing a climate-resilient future for the community.

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ANWASO: Analysis of water and soil characteristics in ecosystems. 01/09/2023 - 31/08/2024

Abstract

The project aims to launch a service platform for soil and water characterization in aquatic ecosystems. The platform will provide technical services for water and soil characterization, as well as scientific support for private industry and governmental organizations. By integrating the new service platform in the existing ECOSPHERE Analytics concept, focused on aquatic ecotoxicology and risk assessment, we will develop the most versatile environmental lab in Flanders by offering a broad scope in ecosystem assessment tools, both from the ecology and ecotoxicology side. The project will align with the ISO 17025:2017 standard and integrate with the different platform components (soil and water characterization, ecotoxicology, chemical analysis, risk assessment and water treatment) to offer a unique selling proposition in the field of ecosystem monitoring, risk assessment, prevention, and remediation. Our customers will be diverse, ranging from academia, government and legislators to industrial stakeholders.

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Quantitative extrapolation in ecotoxicology (QTOX). 01/06/2023 - 28/02/2027

Abstract

Reliable assessment of the ecological risks posed by chemicals is a fundamental component of European policies concerned with safe use of chemicals e.g. REACh, The Green Deal, and protection of ecosystem functioning and ecosystem services (Water Framework Directive). Chemical risk assessment typically involves extrapolation of effects observed in-vitro and in-vivo under laboratory conditions to predictions of effects at the ecosystem level. This is a very challenging task and current extrapolation models have limitations, notably due to a number of ecological processes that are disregarded by the models and the paucity of data for parameterisation and validation. QTOX will develop mechanistic knowledge and data efficient modelling tools to bridge the gap between standard toxicity data (typically acute effects of single chemicals) and ecologically relevant end points arising from chronic, time variable exposures to chemical mixtures. The results will be achieved through an interdisciplinary and intersectoral research and training program in which 10 doctoral candidates will characterise the mechanistic processes describing the successive events from exposure to ecosystem-level effects and develop models for extrapolation of adverse effects across levels of biological organisation under environmentally realistic conditions. Notably, the effects of chemical mixtures, dynamic exposure conditions and their interaction with climate change scenarios will be characterised in a series of mesocosm experiments at three sites in central and southern Europe. The mesocosm work will serve as a uniting training element and a rich source of data for testing and validating the modelling framework. QTOX will produce an open access toolbox for quantitative extrapolations in ecotoxicology and a cohort of researchers equipped with the knowledge and skills necessary to implement and develop rigorous approaches for predicting adverse effects of chemicals. The SEP funds are provided as a contribution towards the appointment of a project manager and to leverage the central management budget for the coordinator (UAntwerpen).

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Ecosystem recovery after wildfire in Landschap de Liereman, Belgium 03/05/2023 - 01/03/2025

Abstract

A sudden wildfire in nature reserve "Landschap De Liereman," Belgium, burned down 30 hectares of wet heathlands and peatland. The affected area consists of highly threatened Natura 2000 habitats including dry and wet heathlands (4030 and 4010) and transition mires (7140). The fire destroyed most of the vegetation and soil fauna. A key question is whether (and if so, which) changes occurred in biotic and abiotic conditions, and whether these changes may hamper the recovery of the affected ecosystems and their endangered species. Moreover, it is unknown whether the wildfire led to dramatic changes in ecosystem functioning. In this study, we examine the multi-year effects of wildfire on soil biogeochemistry, vegetation communities, greenhouse gas emissions, mesofauna and soil microbial communities. Finally, we evaluate the ecosystem recovery process, and we provide feedback to the local site manager (Natuurpunt).

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CLANCY - Monitoring and Management of the Chinese Mittencrab 12/04/2023 - 30/04/2028

Abstract

The Chinese mitten crab is listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as one of the "World's 100 Worst Invasive Alien Species". Eight institutions from four countries (FR, BE, DE, SE) joined forces to find a strategy on a European level for a lasting and efficient reduction of this invasive species. Juvenile crabs migrate up almost all coastal river systems in Western Europe where they spend part of their adult life before their migration back towards the North Sea for reproduction. Therefore, the mitten crabs can be caught at two different life stages and be removed in large quantities from the river systems at suitable locations using an innovative trap concept. This will significantly reduce the negative ecological impact of the mitten crabs in the river systems. The University of Antwerp and the Flanders Environment Agency, have collaboratively developed a trap concept and successfully tested it in the "Kleine Nete River" close to Antwerp. Now, we will set up 5 new traps in Belgium and 5 traps in Germany to test the concept under different conditions and in different river sizes. We will also use common crab traps in different locations in Sweden and Northern France to identify spots of migration and/or migration patterns. Overall, these traps will reveal the most suitable modifications and locations in terms of total catch and lowest maintenance costs. Over the course of five years, we will monitor the effect of the traps/crab reduction on the river ecosystems and develop concepts for a sensible use of the crab biomass. Clancy seeks to demonstrate how invasive species can successfully and efficiently be controlled at a European level. As such it is intended to help national authorities implement the EU's requirements for combating invasive species.

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  • Research Project

ADMIRE 01/04/2023 - 31/03/2026

Abstract

The main objective of the ADMIRE (''adding mire'') project is to reassess the importance of peat in the Flanders-Netherlands border region in the light of its ecosystem services and to improve the condition of these important peatlands in the region. The ecosystem service 'biodiversity' is central to this project, together with the service 'climate mitigation'. The ADMIRE project aims to address the selected project areas (see below) and apply appropriate restoration and management, as well as going broader by establishing and sustaining a collaboration with stakeholders in the various transition areas (areas adjacent to the project areas but not managed and owned by the project partners). The approach to research, restoration and management from both the project areas and the transition areas ensures a landscape approach. The focus areas for research in the Flemish Region are "de Laakvalleien", "Vallei van de Zwarte Beek", "Kleine Netevallei (deelgebieden De Zegge, Groot-Schupleer en Zwarte Vos)". The UAntwerpen team will focus on WP3 - Inventory, monitoring and landscape ecological system analysis. The ADMIRE project aims to address the selected project areas (e.g. in the Kleine Nete basin) and apply appropriate restoration and management, as well as going broader by establishing and sustaining a collaboration with stakeholders in the various transition areas (areas adjacent to the project areas but not managed and owned by the project partners). The approach to research, restoration and management from both the project areas and the transition areas provides a landscape approach. Other special ecosystem services such as water supply, water purification and water buffering are also currently under pressure as water becomes an increasingly scarce commodity. Moreover, in case of drought, the risk of irreversible damage is high. At the same time, peatlands themselves offer an important part of the solution against the prevailing drought and flood problems. After all, non-dewatered peatlands show a strong sponge effect, delaying peak discharges during extreme rainfall and reducing the risk of flooding.

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  • Research Project

Quantitative extrapolation in ecotoxicology (QTOX). 01/02/2023 - 31/01/2027

Abstract

Reliable assessment of the ecological risks posed by chemicals is a fundamental component of European policies concerned with safe use of chemicals e.g. REACh, The Green Deal, and protection of ecosystem functioning and ecosystem services (Water Framework Directive). Chemical risk assessment typically involves extrapolation of effects observed in-vitro and in-vivo under laboratory conditions to predictions of effects at the ecosystem level. This is a very challenging task and current extrapolation models have limitations, notably due to a number of ecological processes that are disregarded by the models and the paucity of data for parameterisation and validation. QTOX will develop mechanistic knowledge and data efficient modelling tools to bridge the gap between standard toxicity data (typically acute effects ofsingle chemicals) and ecologically relevant end points arising from chronic, time variable exposuresto chemical mixtures. The results will be achieved through an interdisciplinary and intersectoral research and training program in which 10 doctoral candidates will characterise the mechanistic processes describing the successive eventsfrom exposure to ecosystem-level effects and develop models for extrapolation of adverse effects acrosslevels of biological organisation under environmentally realistic conditions. Notably, the effects of chemical mixtures, dynamic exposure conditions and their interaction with climate change scenarios will be characterised in a series of mesocosm experiments at three sites in central and southern Europe. The mesocosm work will serve as a uniting training element and a rich source of data for testing and validating the modelling framework. QTOX will produce an open access toolbox for quantitative extrapolations in ecotoxicology and a cohort of researchers equipped with the knowledge and skills necessary to implement and develop rigorous approaches for predicting adverse effects of chemicals.

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Sustainable use of sand in nature-based solutions (SUSANA). 01/02/2023 - 31/01/2026

Abstract

SUSANA is an interdisciplinary research project on the use of sand in nature-based solutions for coastal safety. Rising sea levels are drawing increasing attention to nature-based solutions, such as the construction of dunes in front of dykes. The intention is that these solutions not only protect us from flooding, but also provide other ecosystem services, such as a pleasant environment for recreation, increased biodiversity, reduced sand nuisance behind the dunes, etc. However, these solutions also require a lot of sand, while sand resources in the North Sea are rapidly depleting. Moreover, sand extraction also has an impact on the marine ecosystem. The SUSANA project (Sustainable use of sand in nature-based solutions) aims to develop a coupled model to weigh the pros and cons of such solutions. This model can help develop a long-term strategy for sustainable use of sand in nature-based solutions. The project thereby focuses on two aspects of sustainability: (re)using sandy material with lower quality; and minimising the effects of sand extraction. The specific research questions within this project are: > To what extent can alternative sand sources also provide the necessary ecosystem functions and services within a dune-for-dike? > What is the impact of different sand extraction regimes on the ecosystem functions and services of the soil ecosystem on the different sandbanks, both at the extraction site, and on the more distant valuable gravel beds? On this basis, a coupled ecosystem services model will be developed, allowing us to weigh up the advantages and disadvantages of, on the one hand, the construction of a dune-by-dike, and, on the other hand, the sand extraction associated with it.

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HAbitat Restoration in the WINgevalley: ecological restoration and endangered species recovery in a fragmented landscape (HARWIN). 01/01/2023 - 31/12/2028

Abstract

LIFE HARWIN is part of the LIFE sub-programme "Nature and Biodiversity". The project region suffers from several threats like habitat fragmentation and too small populations of key species. In this project we aim for the ecological restoration and quality improvement of 350 ha qualifying habitats along the entire gradient of the Winge Valley: aquatic habitats 3130 (annex species Luronium natans), 3140, 3150; heathland habitats 6230*, 4030, 4010; grassland habitats 6410, 6510; fen habitats 7140, 7230 and forest habitats 9120, 91E0*, 9160. Target locations for the restoration of habitats are consistently chosen adjacent to restore habitat connectivity and attain a favorable habitat size. This is crucial because remaining habitats are mostly small and isolated, characterized by a lot of species loss and not part of a sustainable natural ecosystem anymore. This restoration will also benefit the expansion or (re)colonization of several Annex I species of the Birds Directive and Annex II species of the Habitat Directive. For achieving this goal, Natuurpunt and ANB, two professional nature conservation managers and the main landowners of the project area will implement the restoration actions. This cooperation is reinforced by the academic input of APM and Antwerp University , both with experience within the project area, who will bring in their expertise in studying populations confronted with environmental pollution and habitat fragmentation and with restoration of remnant populations through ex-situ cultivation and reintroduction . The partnership thus ensures the valorization in practical applications of environmental science, in defiance of any gap that can exist between academic scientists and professionals and volunteers. Therefore, the expertise of the Dutch umbrella foundation LA, that was founded precisely to bridge the gap between academic institutions and professionals and volunteers, will be indispensable for the goals of this project.

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Chemical emissions from offshore wind farms: assessing impacts, gaps and opportunities (ANEMOI). 01/01/2023 - 31/12/2026

Abstract

The primary aim of offshore wind farms (OWFs) is to produce renewable energy. OWFs contribute to UN sustainable development goals on clean energy and climate action and offer opportunities for spatial multi-use with nature conservation and aquaculture. The type and environmental impact of chemical emissions from OWFs have been largely overlooked to date, although the first investigations indicate that OWFs represent a source of chemical emissions. As the North Sea is a highly dynamic system, these emissions can have a transboundary impact. Given the large increase in the number of OWFs, transnational cooperation is required to minimise contaminant emissions and ensure a healthy ecosystem. The Anemoi project, named after the Greek wind gods, aims to characterise chemical emissions from OWFs in the North Sea basin, assess their impact on the marine ecosystem, evaluate opportunities for aquaculture at OWFs and propose effective monitoring tools and reduction measures to ensure sustainable multi-use of the marine environment. Anemoi will increase our knowledge of the sources of chemical emissions and their potential risks, which is essential information for OWF industry and for policy development. The project will propose regulatory adaptations needed to reach internationally harmonised environmental egislon OWF emissions within the North Sea area. Anemoi will bring forward solutions to reduce chemical emissions from corrosion protection systems and applied coatings, and will provide necessary elements for its sound management. To achieve the project objectives a strong participatory stakeholder framework will be established. Here, project partners and stakeholders from industry, policy and the public sector will participate in bi-directional knowledge exchange. This knowledge will be used to guide the project activities and proposed reduction measures, as well as to create new findings on the societal landscape that drives OWF development.

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Bioavailability and toxicity of legacy and emerging per- and polyfluoralkylated substances (PFAS) in a terrestrial food chain: effects at different levels of biological organisation (BIOTOX-Terra) 01/01/2023 - 31/12/2026

Abstract

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are chemicals globally present in the environment and biota, as a result of their massive production and use in numerous applications, such as food contact paper, fire-fighting foams, textiles, construction and cleaning products. Their bioaccumulative and persistent properties have led to global regulatory measures for PFOS and PFOA. These are the most frequently detected legacy PFAS and their concentrations are still very high in the environment and biota. In addition, there are many emerging PFAS alternatives developed, with similar structures and chemical properties, not yet regulated and hence used unrestrictedly. However, very little or no information is available on the bioavailability, biomagnification and toxic effects of these emerging compounds, particularly for the terrestrial environment. PFAS may thus accumulate in the environment, posing risks to organisms. There are also many uncertainties on which factors might influence the bioavailability and biomagnification, especially of emerging PFAS. The identification of emerging PFAS, which have largely replaced the legacy PFAS, would allow us to investigate the environmental relevance of currently-used PFAS, as well as to characterize possible point sources. Detailed field studies on soil, plants, invertebrates (e.g. earthworms, woodlice, caterpillars, snails, slugs, and spiders), and great tits (Parus major; a songbird model species) planned in this project will provide us with: 1) an overview of the distribution of legacy and emerging PFAS present in the terrestrial environment near a fluorochemical polluting hotspot in Antwerp, 2) how the concentrations in the food chain are influenced by soil properties, and 3) their potential toxicity in key model species. In addition, experimental lab studies with PFAS and elevated temperature (T) as stressors on terrestrial invertebrates and plants will be performed to: 4) disentangle causal links from confounding effects regarding the soil properties, 5) verify whether or not increased T and PFAS have an additive toxic effect when combined, and 6) create a mechanistic framework explaining the underlying subcellular basis of root growth responses towards PFAS/increased T in the plant model species Arabidopsis thaliana. This project will allow us to understand the bioavailability and mechanism of the toxicity of emerging and legacy PFAS in plants, invertebrates, and birds and will offer instruments for regulators to assess the environmental risk and potential effects on human health.

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AquaForest. 01/01/2023 - 31/12/2024

Abstract

The AquaForest demonstration project is a pilot for a new nature-based solution targeting climate actions for mitigation and adaptation in the Guayas River delta in Ecuador. The project focuses on an innovative approach of restoring mangrove forests by using dredged sediment in a circular and sustainable way to remove carbon from the atmosphere, increase resilience to climate change impacts such as flooding and enable sustainable socio-economic development in the project area. Mangrove forests are an important carbon sink and consequently this project will enhance the local climate policies and targets related to mangrove restoration efforts. This will be realised through an unprecedented approach that seeks to cultivate mangrove habitats on a new land mass which will be created using dredged sediment that would otherwise be discarded in the open ocean. Importantly, the delta region also experiences heightened risks of flooding particularly during strong El Niño events. The demonstration project integrates the specific local context and conditions and builds on existing activities and acute needs in the Gulf of Guayaquil, such as the existing long-term dredging activities necessary for the maritime transport. The project will be implemented on a 50-ha area and generate carbon sequestration by planting the most common mangrove species (rhizophora mangle) and by enabling favourable hydrological and sediment supply conditions for 2-3 additional common species to populate the new land mass. This assisted natural regeneration approach will enable a higher species diversity, improving both the resilience of the ecosystem and the local biodiversity. A vital component of the project is to establish a sustainable local ecological and socio-economic system by integrating key stakeholders into all project phases. Communities in the area include a variety of groups that act as custodians of mangroves and whose livelihoods largely depend on local fisheries. The planting and longterm management of the mangrove ecosystem offers an opportunity to diversify their income and decrease dependency on fisheries affected by climate change impacts such as flooding. Therefore, the project also focusses on locally relevant capacity building for members of local communities by providing them with relevant technical skills and training for planting and maintaining mangrove habitats. Additionally, the capacity building efforts will include a comprehensive training and education programme for local community members to strengthen their skills and knowledge relating to diversified income opportunities. Overall, local authorities, researchers and communities will play a key role in ensuring the sustainability of the project's activities through a long-term collaboration in monitoring of impacts, continued dissemination of results through stakeholder and research networks and integration of climate impacts from the project into local climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies.

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Developing a spatial planning policy based on ecosystem services 24/11/2022 - 23/11/2024

Abstract

In open space, nature, agriculture, water and recreation together form a whole that emphasizes the usefulness and necessity of open space. The open, unpaved space provides (breathing) space, peace and quiet in our highly built-up province, enhances the qualities of the landscape and can be responsible for providing numerous ecosystem services: biodiversity, food production, water storage, pollination, recreation, CO2 capture, ... The 'offensive open space' strategy is twofold. The first pillar is to focus on safeguarding the core areas of agriculture, nature and water. Within these core areas there is a need for cohesion and well-structured space in which the various sectors can function and grow optimally. The second pillar is the interweaving of nature, agricultural production, sustainable water management and recreation, from very limited to very extensive. After all, nature, agriculture, water and recreation have much in common. Moreover, open space today is too scarce to continue seeing the various managers as separate worlds. Integrated, they are in a much stronger position to counterbalance urbanization pressures and raise awareness of the importance of open, unpaved space. As a more conscious use of leisure time gains importance, recreation becomes an important partner within this strategy. Overall goal: The overall goal of this assignment is to provide a spatial translation of the "offensive open space" strategy. We will look for a way to value/valorize open space so that open space players can take a stronger position and be on a par with players within the built environment. Through an integrated approach, the managers of open space (nature, water, agriculture, recreation) want to push their interests forward and, as a robust space, provide sufficient counter pressure to urbanization pressures. Because of the more separate and sectoral approach in the past, the achievement of certain goals and the need for (sufficient) space for water, nature, agriculture and recreation, the managers of open space sometimes have contradictory nuances and it is high time to look for a way to jointly put forward the importance of preserving and strengthening open space. In addition, the brief should also give us insight into the diverse appearance of open space so that we can preserve and enhance the uniqueness and character of open space and approach it in a differentiated way. Not every location in open space has the same characteristics and thus they must be approached in a specific way. In addition, the assignment should also give us insight into the diverse appearance of open space so that we can preserve and enhance the uniqueness and character of open space and approach it in a differentiated way. Not every location in open space has the same characteristics and thus they must be approached in a specific way. In addition, we are looking for answers about the possibilities of interweaving (nature, water, agriculture and recreation) within the open space. Where is interweaving possible, where can open space managers get their own space? Can we determine possibilities or degrees/grades of interweaving, linked to a type of environment within diverse open space? The research should look from the ecosystem services for an appreciation of open space, for a possible visualization of the differentiated occurrence and different possibilities of interweaving in open space.

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Nature-based climate adaptation in the coastal zone: demonstrating the key role of spatial self-organization of coupled plant species zonation and wave attenuation in tidal marshes. 01/10/2022 - 30/09/2026

Abstract

Tidal marshes are increasingly proposed as nature-based shoreline protection against climate change induced sea level rise and increasing storminess. In this project I address the following key knowledge gaps on the effectiveness of this nature-based climate adaptation function: how do two-way interactions between plants and waves lead to spatial self-organization of species zonation and wave attenuation, and how does this self-organization determines the resilience (i.e. persistence) of the wave attenuation function under changing climate conditions. A mesocosm experiment in the new UAntwerpen tidal flume will demonstrate the specific growth response of three dominant tidal marsh species to interactive stresses from waves, tidal inundation and sediment salinity. A novel coupled model of plant species distribution and wave transformation will be calibrated and evaluated against field data to demonstrate that the plant-wave interactions lead to spatial self-organization of both species zonation and wave attenuation rate. The model will be applied to future scenarios of changed climate conditions (i.e. sea level rise, increased wave exposure) to show the impact of the self-organization on the persistence of the wave attenuation function. As such my project will make a major advancement to the field of nature-based climate adaptation in the coastal zone.

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Climate neutral agriculture through sustainable carbon farming (C-Farms). 01/10/2022 - 30/09/2026

Abstract

C-Farms will develop a new innovation concept to transform agricultural land into a sustainable carbon sink, through the pioneer joint application of multiple soil-based negative emission techniques (NETs): enhanced silicate weathering, biochar application and soil organic carbon stabilization, re-valorizing silicate-containing- and organic waste streams. The focus on these particular NETs is motivated by the potential win-win situation in agro-based enhanced weathering systems: a.o. crop yield and quality can be improved, while CO2 is actively captured from the atmosphere. C-Farms will investigate how current agricultural practices can be adapted to increase soil C sequestration, while maximizing ecosystem services to society, and will engage with relevant stakeholders to co-create a first pioneer field pilot for large scale deployment. To achieve its ambition, C-Farms will implement an unprecedented experimental investigation of combined soil-based NET techniques, and conduct a coupled environmental, techno-economic and social impact assessment of the different NETs used. This will be complemented with specific research on the potential of activating silicates to enhance and accelerate C sequestration, while reducing CO2 emissions from a point source. C-Farms' ambition to perform strategic research to develop climate solutions in agriculture, fits perfectly within the Flemish ambition to invest in techno-economical solutions to climate change. For the stakeholder transfer of the results, rather than waiting until the project is finalized, we propose a pro-active approach, in order to identify opportunities for follow-up R&D&I at a very early stage (horizon scanning). To this end, multiple workshops and a joint field pilot will be initiated, always with a prime implementation aim and focusing on post-project valorisation and implementation. A key outcome of C-Farms is the development of a policy implementation roadmap for NETs in agriculture.

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Sampling and analyses of priority compounds to assess the compliance with biota quality standards in Flanders 29/09/2022 - 01/07/2024

Abstract

Aquatic ecosystems and waterbodies are under persistent stress of chemical pollutants, mainly of anthropogenic origin. High concentrations can harm entire ecosystems and be potentially toxic to humans. The European Water Framework Directive (WFD) obliges member states to monitor chemical compounds in surface waters and to set quality standards that protect against detrimental effects of toxic compounds. Generally, most of the target chemical compounds are able to be measured in water or sediment samples. However, the low water solubility of highly hydrophobic compounds precludes direct measurement in water. Accordingly, the WFD has formulated biota quality standards (BQS), for 11 priority compounds and their derivatives, which refer to concentrations of compounds that have to be monitored in fish and bivalves (biota). In the present study, bioaccumulation of hexachlorobenzene (HCBz), hexachlorobutadiene (HCBd), mercury (Hg), polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE), hexabromo-cyclododecane (HBCD), perfluoro-octaansulphonate (PFOS) and its derivatives, dicofol, heptachlor and heptachlor epoxide, and dioxins and dioxin-like compounds were measured in muscle tissue of perch (Perca fluviatilis) and European eel (Anguilla anguilla) originating from different Flemish water bodies. Fluoranthene and benzo(a)pyrene were measured in zebra mussel (Dreissena polymorpha) and quagga mussel (Dreissena bugensis), using active biomonitoring. In every sampling point at least one of both selected fish species could be collected. For fluoranthene an exceedance of the standard was observed in some sampling locations in zebra mussel, for benzo(a)pyrene there were some exceedances for both zebra and quagga mussel. Dioxin concentrations exceeded the standard in 4 sampling locations in eel muscle tissue. For PFOS, an exceedance of the standard was detected at almost every location for both fish species. The biota quality standard for Hg and PBDE was exceeded in every sampling location and for both fish species. One sample had PBDE concentrations below the quantification limit, which is more than 10 times higher than the BQS. Concentrations of HCBd and dicofol were below the quantification limit. Furthermore no exceedances of the standard were found for HCBz and HBCD. For heptachlor all measurements where below the quantification limits (40 times higher than the standard), cis-heptachlor epoxide exceeded the quantification limit in all except one location in eel muscle tissue and in 3 locations in perch muscle tissue. An overall trend of higher concentrations per wet weight in eel than in perch was detected. Nonetheless, after correction for lipid content, this trend was no longer present or even reversed with higher concentrations in perch muscle tissue, indicating the lipophilic properties of these compounds. This was true for all compounds – except for PFOS: in fact, this compound showed the exact opposite trend. Concentrations of PAHs were always higher in zebra mussel than in quagga mussel. This is possibly caused by the higher trophic position of the first. For both fish species, however, we could not find clear differences in trophic level. Finally, calculated concentrations using the passive samplers, compared to existing literature, show promising applicability and incites further development of this tool. Based on the results of the present study and – where possible – a comparison to data present in literature, it is evident that the existing biota quality standards for Hg, PBDE and PFOS are exceeded in all fish species from Flemish and European water bodies

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Eringing nature back — biodiversity-friendly nature-based solutions in cities (BiNatUr). 01/04/2022 - 31/03/2025

Abstract

The BiNatUr project will explore the role of biodiversity and its linkages with regulating ecosystem services (ES) in urban aquatic nature-based solutions (aquaNBS), and its overall aim is to improve the planning, building, restoration, and management of aquaNBS, supporting the transformation to climate-smart, biodiversity-friendly, and sustainable cities. BiNatUr will explicitly focus on four main research questions: • How are biodiversity and ES of aquaNBS mediated by social, ecological, and technological factors? • Does this vary among cities in different regions of Europe? • How does biodiversity influence the regulating ES provided by aquaNBS? • How can urban planning effectively design, manage, and monitor the biodiversity and regulating ES of aquaNBS?

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Abiotic and biotic sediment dynamics along estuarine-marine gradients in times of global change (ABioGrad). 01/01/2022 - 31/12/2031

Abstract

Within the framework of the FED-tWIN program for sustainable research cooperation between the federal scientific institutes and the universities, supported by the Belgian Institute for Science Policy (BELSPO), the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (Operational Directorate Natural Environment) and the University of Antwerp (Department of Biology, ecosystem management research group) wish to develop new research for the interactions of estuarine and marine ecosystems. The project AbioGrad focuses on the interaction and feedback between biological, biogeochemical and sedimentological processes using in situ data and numerical modelling, more specifically on the behaviour of suspended particulate matter (SPM) and associated organic matter and biota. A steady supply of sediments and associated organic matter is needed for mud flats, tidal marshes and banks to cope with sea level rise and maintain their spatial extent, while it also determines the rate of carbon sequestration through precipitation in estuarine and marine sediments. Human interventions largely determine the SPM concentrations, either directly through dredging and dumping, or indirectly through influencing the hydrodynamics. SPM determines the light penetration in the water column and thus photosynthesis. Changes in SPM concentration and composition are therefore among the most important effects of human intervention on the functioning of ecosystems. A good understanding of particle dynamics, of the interaction with biogeochemistry and possibly with biota, of past changes in SPM dynamics and the existence of well adapted monitoring and observation strategies are crucial to successfully ensure further coastal and estuarine developments.

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Zoogeochemistry: Alchemists of the wild. 01/01/2022 - 31/12/2026

Abstract

Large wildlife, as a sort of "wild alchemists", redistribute and mobilize nutrients across and beyond the boundaries of ecosystems, turning dung into gold & engineering landscapes in ways that keep surprising scientists. These fascinating influences of wildlife on biogeochemical cycles are studied by Zoogeochemistry, an exciting new branch of biogeochemistry research. It is anchored in the premise that animals do not necessarily eat, defecate and die in the same place. As such they can deplete, replenish and transport chemical elements that are essential for life, such as carbon and nutrients, and thereby modify resource landscapes and entire ecosystems. The influence of wildlife on shaping nutrient landscapes is only just starting to attract attention, with recent case-studies revealing intriguing new patterns and insights. We aim to create the momentum necessary to bring zoogeochemistry into mainstream ecological research, and achieve a knowledge build-up that creates energy for the emergence of a critical mass of researchers in zoogeochemistry. Our overarching vision for this network is to create a platform for collaboration that will promote coordinated, multi-site research projects that will allow for student exchange between systems and participants, cross-disciplinary knowledge exchange and joint funding application development to scale up the impact and reach of zoogeochemistry research.

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Zoogeochemistry: Alchemists of the wild. 01/01/2022 - 31/12/2026

Abstract

Large wildlife, as a sort of "wild alchemists", redistribute and mobilize nutrients across and beyond the boundaries of ecosystems, turning dung into gold & engineering landscapes in ways that keep surprising scientists. These fascinating influences of wildlife on biogeochemical cycles are studied by Zoogeochemistry, an exciting new branch of biogeochemistry research. It is anchored in the premise that animals do not necessarily eat, defecate and die in the same place. As such they can deplete, replenish and transport chemical elements that are essential for life, such as carbon and nutrients, and thereby modify resource landscapes and entire ecosystems. The influence of wildlife on shaping nutrient landscapes is only just starting to attract attention, with recent case-studies revealing intriguing new patterns and insights. We aim to create the momentum necessary to bring zoogeochemistry into mainstream ecological research, and achieve a knowledge build-up that creates energy for the emergence of a critical mass of researchers in zoogeochemistry. Our overarching vision for this network is to create a platform for collaboration that will promote coordinated, multi-site research projects that will allow for student exchange between systems and participants, cross-disciplinary knowledge exchange and joint funding application development to scale up the impact and reach of zoogeochemistry research.

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Local to global variability in organic carbon dynamics in coastal marsh sediments subject to submergence by sea level rise. 01/01/2022 - 31/12/2025

Abstract

Coastal marshes are among the most effective ecosystems that can mitigate climate warming by sequestration of carbon into their soils. But the climate warming in itself is impacting coastal marshes through sea level rise and there is much uncertainty about the impact on soil carbon accumulation and preservation. Our objective is to advance understanding of the global and local variability in the accumulation and preservation of different sources of soil organic carbon in response to coastal marsh submergence by sea level rise. We want to gain knowledge on how this response differs (1) on a global scale from highly organic-rich to highly mineral-rich marsh soils, and (2) on local scales in response to gradients from stable marsh zones, where sediment accretion and vegetation are in balance with sea level rise, to unstable marsh zones, where vegetation is increasingly stressed due to submergence by the rising sea level. This project will combine (1) the analyses of innovative global datasets, (2) a detailed field study in marshes with clear spatial gradients in submergence by sea level rise, and (3) applications of a new integrated model of carbon accumulation in marsh soils in response to sea level rise. The results will enable, for the first, to estimate the changes in carbon accumulation in coastal marshes in response to future scenarios of sea level rise, on local to global scales.

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A mass spectromic approach to identify novel components of a key complex involved in auditory hair cell function, analysis of their interactions and functional characterisation. 01/01/2022 - 31/12/2025

Abstract

This project will identify previously unknown proteins in auditory hair cells and characterize their function. The outcomes will provide useful knowledge for the development of therapeutic approaches for hearing impairment. The auditory hair cells are found in the organ of Corti (in the inner ear). These cells are specialized sensory cells that transduce auditory signals into an electrical signal that is sent to the brain. Some of the proteins involved in auditory hair cell functioning are already identified by classical genetic approaches - via identification of causative genes in patients with hearing impairment or via mouse models. However, the majority of proteins involved in critical complexes for hearing remains unidentified. This project will identify new components of the lower tip-link complex in the organ of Corti with affinity purification (AP) followed by mass spectrometry (MS). The latest evolutions in proteomic techniques resulting in a gain in MS sensitivity now make this possible for the first time. Our preliminary data confirms the feasibility of this AP-MS approach for the hair cell complexes. New components will be identified and for a selection of these the molecular interactions with other proteins of the complex will be analysed in-depth. Additionally, we will identify the location of these proteins in the hair cells and their effect of ablation on hearing.

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Support maintenance scientific equipment (ECOSPHERE). 01/01/2022 - 31/12/2024

Abstract

Financial support from BOF for the maintenance of the scientific infrastructure of research group ECOSPHERE, including a high resolution ICP-MS, a mesocosm greenhouse, a mesocosm aquaculture installation and automated and controlled tanks for housing fish stocks.

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Towards an analytical strategies toolbox to detect and characterize small microplastics and nanoplastics particles in aquatic environments. 01/11/2021 - 31/10/2025

Abstract

Plastic pollution is defined as ubiquitous in the aquatic environment which has induced a strong research effort the past decade notably on methods development to analyse items within the size range smaller than 5mm known as microplastics (MPs). However, small microplastic (< 10 µm) and nanoplastics (NPs; < 1 µm) which are also found in the environment are less investigated notably because of sampling and analytical limitations. It thus induced a knowledge gap in the plastic research as well to assess their concentration and distribution in the environment as to describe their effect in the estuarine and marine ecosystems. Nevertheless, this lack of relevant and standardized method(s) determination is associated to a difficulty to build environmental risk assessment. The main objectives of this project is to develop an innovative methodological strategies toolbox for small MPs and NPs analysis in complex environmental matrices including information on physical and chemical characteristics as well as their fate in the environment such as aggregation features, degradation kinetics and additives release kinetics that might be thus integrated in a biochemodynamical model to increase knowledge on plastic particles with size < 10 µm.

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  • Research Project

Development of active-passive sampling (APS) strategies for dynamic speciation analysis and ecotoxicity evaluation of psychoactive substances and their metabolites in wastewater. 01/11/2021 - 31/10/2025

Abstract

Wastewater analysis of drugs and their metabolites can provide information on drug use and abuse in general populations. Conventionally, 24 h composite samples are analyzed and the chemical reactivity of the compounds within the wastewater matrix is ignored. In practice, these compounds are likely to associate with the diverse particles present in the wastewater matrix. Negligence of such interactions will lead to erroneous estimations of analyte concentrations. To address this issue, this project employs innovative active-passive sampling (APS) strategies to quantify psychoactive substances in wastewater, taking into account their chemodynamic behaviour. The interpretation framework will be supported by determination of analyte-particle interactions with a range of particles. The APS device incorporates a controlled hydrodynamic flow of the sample matrix across selective sorbents which accumulate the target compounds. APS can be used in equilibrium mode to estimate the equilibrium analyte concentrations, e.g., the freely dissolved form; and in non-equilibrium mode to provide information on the kinetic features of their chemical forms in wastewater matrices. The performance of the APS will be compared with conventional 24 h composite sampling in both influent and effluent flows of wastewater treatment plants. A novel passive dosing strategy will also be explored for the ecotoxicological risk assessment of the drugs and their metabolites via a battery of toxicological tests.

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  • Research Project

Vital crop growth through usage of microalgaebased biostimulants (VIGOROUS). 01/10/2021 - 30/09/2025

Abstract

The ongoing population and consumption growth is rapidly increasing the demand for agricultural food production. At the same time, increasing environmental awareness raises concerns about the choice of agricultural practices in terms of their impact on ecosystem functioning and biodiversity. As the need to satisfy these demands is further exacerbated by the interrelated impact of climate change, the agriculture sector is left with the challenge to meet the growing demand for food through climate-adapted methods that alleviate the environmental impact of agriculture and increase the resilience to climate change. Dealing with this challenge requires a multifaceted global approach, including an optimized use of nutrient input and an increased crop tolerance to environmental stress. To this end, innovative technologies based on bioresources include the use of microalgal biostimulants to improve crop yield while lowering the environmental footprint of agriculture. However, the limited amount of scientific evidence that 1) microalgal biostimulants effectively improve agronomic efficiency, including a lack of understanding on the underlying mode of action, and that 2) microalgal biostimulants do not present a risk to the natural environment hampers the further development and establishment of this technology. Moreover, market success of microalgal biostimulants hinges on an optimized cultivation process to ensure a high yield and a standardized content of microalgal products. The VIGOROUS research consortium will address these knowledge gaps to facilitate evidence-based application of microalgal biostimulants and to support a science-based biostimulants industry to sustainably intensify agricultural production with an enhanced resilience to climate change.

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  • Research Project

Blue-Green strategies for climate change adaptation (TURQUOISE). 01/10/2021 - 30/09/2025

Abstract

TURQUOISE is an interdisciplinary research project on the potential of blue-green strategies for climate adaptation. To properly plan, implement and scale up blue-green solutions, more knowledge is needed on the one hand about the effectiveness (or side-effects) of measures both at local and larger scales and on the other hand how much is needed to reduce drought risk to an acceptable level. In the period between 2017 and 2020, the Flemish Region has experienced prolonged periods of drought. These droughts have led to serious problems, which made it clear that we are insufficiently prepared for water scarcity and drought. A proactive, ecosystem-based approach to increase water availability is needed. In practice, it has proved to be challenging to understand how to best plan, implement and scale blue-green solutions. Little is known about 1) the effectiveness (or side-effects) of these measures on a larger scale and 2) how much is needed to reduce the drought risk to an acceptable level. Most initiatives are driven from a sectoral viewpoint, leading to missed synergies and opportunities. This results in fragmented visions and implementations, and ultimately a non-resilient water landscape. TURQUOISE therefore aims to co-create and field test a decision-support framework to facilitate planning and increase the implementation rate of blue-green adaptation strategies. The decision-support framework is composed of an indicator set, target values, design guidelines, a technoeconomic impact assessment and identification of governance processes and implementation levers. The decision-support framework allows to quantify how robust a geographic area is to drought, how much the robustness has to be improved to lower the risk of water scarcity to an acceptable level and what blue-green investments are needed to achieve the robustness targets. The four blue-green solutions addressed in TURQUOISE are the restoration of (former) depressional wetlands, controlled hydraulic (drainage) systems, field infiltration ponds and infiltration reservoirs with active intake from rivers for irrigation and groundwater recharge. The decision-support framework is codeveloped and validated in four pilot sites where the implementation of blue-green strategies is ongoing.

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  • Research Project

City-centered approach to catalyze nature-based solutions through the EU Regenerative Urban Lighthouse for pollution alleviation and regenerative development (UPSURGE). 01/09/2021 - 31/08/2025

Abstract

Climate change is one of the most important worldwide challenge that humanity face, especially concerns to cities. Urban areas play a critical role, concentrating 80% of world production, consuming 70% of the available energy, and representing the largest polluting emitters, however they are also the main scenarios for social innovation (Seto et al., 2017). Major international initiatives, such as Horizon Europe and the European Green Deal, have set their objective to promote a systemic change and transformation of cities in order to achieve climate neutrality by 2030 (EC, 2020). UPSURGE provides a new development model for cities centred on Nature Based Solutions for renaturing urban spaces to address the challenge of carbon footprint and cities air pollution. UPSURGE bridges the gap between the existing knowledge based on Nature Based Solutions and their step-by-step practical implementation for regenerative development of cities focusing on air pollution alleviation and climate neutrality. To help European cities in this process, USURGE will provide an EU Urban Regenerative Lighthouse to serve as a reference framework and a reference network to accelerate, transfer and upscale the use of NBS and mainstream them into the agenda of urban policies through co-creation and co-design processes with citizens and other stakeholders. UPSURGE will provide fit-for-problem NBS together with supportive digital, and governance solutions for urban space regeneration deployed and tested in five real life demo cities in Europe (Belfast, Breda, Budapest, Katowice and Maribor). The role of UAntwerpen in UPSURGE focuses on quantifying and modelling urban ecosystem services provided by green and blue infrastructure in cities. Through the application of different modelling approaches on real case studies, the main ecosystem services produced by these implementations will be identified and quantified, as well as their relevance and impact to meet local needs and face climate challenges will be recognized. Based on these results, efficient and small-scale urban NBS interventions will be explored to enrich gray infrastructures in the provision of ecosystem services for addressing existing local needs and demands.

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  • Research Project

Research on the effects of re-meandering pilot project in the Demer valley 01/06/2021 - 31/05/2025

Abstract

In many valleys in Flanders, rivers have been straightened to improve drainage, rapid evacuation of rainwater and optimize land use for agriculture. Doing so, the ecology of these rivers declined and hence the delivery of important ecosystem services. With climate change, the demand for certain ecosystem services is steadily increasing. River valleys are already now often suffering periods of drought during summer, and climate change scenarios predict more problems in the future. In this project, we will investigate if and how reconnecting former meanders in the Demer valley (Flanders, Belgium) can mitigate climate change problems and restore ecosystem functioning, with focus on drought prevention, nutrient cycling and carbon sequestration. Research and monitoring of the first phase of this restoration project should give more insight in the efficiency of these measures, and result in advice to improve future projects.

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  • Research Project

Research of the impact of the Sigma plan (OMES), dredging activities and port expansion on the environment in the zeeschelde 01/02/2021 - 31/01/2028

Abstract

This study project includes research into the effects of human interventions in the Sea Scheldt on the environment. More specifically, the effects of the Sigma plan, dredging activities and port expansion in the Zeeschelde are monitored.

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  • Research Project

Enviromics - Integrated Technologies in EcoSystems 01/01/2021 - 31/12/2026

Abstract

Enviromics is a multidisciplinary consortium of UAntwerpen researchers across the board of environmental sciences and technologies. Through impactful fundamental advances and interdisciplinary approaches across biology, (bio)chemistry and (bio)engineering, the consortium offers bio based solutions to ecosystem challenges by a strong interaction between three pillars (i) Environmental applications and nature based solutions, (ii) Sensing and analysis of chemicals and environments and (iii) Microbial technology and biomaterials, supported by sustainable product development and technology assessment. Through a renewed and tighter focus the ENVIROMICS consortium now signs for a leaner and more dynamic shape. Through intensified collaborations with different stakeholders, both national and international, the leverage for creating enhanced business and societal impact is reinforced. The consortium is strongly managed by a team of two highly profiled researchers partnered by an IOF manager and a project manager with clearly defined tasks and in close contact with the consortium members and the central Valorisation Unit of the university. The consortium has a strong and growing IP position, mainly on environmental/electrochemical sensing and microbial probiotics, two key points of the research and applications program. One spinoff was created in 2017 and two more will be setup in the coming three years. The direct interaction with product developers ensures delivering high TRL products. Next to a growing portfolio of industrial contracts, we create tangible societal impact, when relevant including citizen science approaches. Through the stronger leverage created by the new structure and partnerships we will develop both intertwined branches significantly.

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  • Research Project

Unravelling the effects of individual coping style and long-term glucocorticoid up-regulation on cardiac remodelling in Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar). 01/11/2020 - 31/10/2024

Abstract

Chronic stress in fish due to the intensification in aquaculture can lead to reduced performance (metabolism, growth, reproduction) and a compromised immune system, resulting in a decline in fish production yield and fish welfare. In this framework, quantification and subsequent mitigation of chronic stress was shown to be pivotal in a more sustainable aquaculture. Non-specific mortality of salmonids in the seawater-rearing phase is one of the major recurring problems in the aquaculture industry and especially the sudden stress-related mortality of fish ready for slaughter and subsequent economic losses. However, knowledge on the underlying factors causing this mortality are lacking, though it is attributed in large part to cardiac disease which could be linked to chronic stress. Indeed, it was demonstrated that cortisol responsiveness in salmonids is associated with pathological remodelling of the heart and that this stress hormone directly induces such remodelling. The main objective of this study is to unravel the effects of individual coping style and long-term cortisol up-regulation on cardiac remodelling in one of the most important aquaculture species, the Atlantic salmon, Salmo salar, look at the consequences for fish performance and test a potential mitigation strategy.

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  • Research Project

Optimization of functional ecological management of estuarine ecosystems through periodic, continuous and remote sensed satellite data. 01/11/2020 - 31/10/2024

Abstract

Conservation of ecosystem functioning in estuaries is vital for ecological and social sustainability as they connect the marine and terrestrial environments and are one of the most productive habitats on earth. Primary production by phytoplankton is the base to the food web and thus is an extremely important function. In hyper-turbid light-limited estuaries, it is mainly influenced by light, resident time and temperature. Waterway maintenance (dredging) has the potential to negatively affect primary production by increasing turbidity, thus reducing light-climate. Scientific understanding and good monitoring are necessary for science-based adaptive-management. Knowledge of short-term fluctuation's effects on primary production is lacking, due to traditional water-quality monitoring missing these events with periodic monthly sampling frequencies. To minimize their impact on primary production, an understanding of short-term dynamics is necessary for waterway managers to regulate the locations and timings of their interventions. I will for the first time combine the use of high-frequency continuous sampled, periodic long-term sampled and satellite remote-sensed water quality data to understand the short-term dynamics between primary production, turbidity, flow and temperature in the Scheldt Estuary. This will be used to develop best management practices for mitigation of negative effects on primary production from waterway maintenance.

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  • Research Project

Effects of El Niño and mangrove deforestation on extreme high water level dynamics in a tropical delta. 01/11/2020 - 31/10/2024

Abstract

River deltas are hotspots of human activity, but their vulnerability to flood risks is increasing due to climate warming and worldwide conversion of natural floodplains into human land use (LU). Although previous studies have demonstrated that natural wetlands can play a key role in reducing extreme high water levels on small to intermediate scales (~1 – 10 km²), limited knowledge exists on how wetland conversion to human LU affects amplification of high water levels at the scale of whole deltas (~10² - 10³ km²). This particularly holds true for tropical deltas, where mangrove conversion to aquaculture is widespread and where extreme high water levels are caused by specific climate fluctuations such as El Niño. This project aims to yield a fundamental understanding on how the spatial configuration of mangrove versus aquaculture areas impacts the distribution of high water levels in the Guayas delta (Ecuador), where El Niño is the main driver of extreme high water level events. A combination of field measurements, analysis of existing data and hydrodynamic modelling will be used to reach novel scientific insights on the effects of El Niño and mangrove deforestation on high water levels in a tropical delta. Such knowledge is relevant to support sustainable development of delta societies.

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  • Research Project

Aquatic ecosystem functioning and global change. 01/10/2020 - 30/09/2025

Abstract

It is common knowledge that natural ecosystems are globally under threat. This is largely because of human activities. By misusing the land, polluting rivers and lakes with chemicals and agricultural fertilizers, releasing alien species from around the world, and altering climatic conditions, we are changing the world we live in. Scientific research to find ways to respond to these challenges can provide solutions to halt the deterioration, and restore the functioning of our valuable freshwater ecosystems. In my research I will endeavour to better understand how ecosystems work with the aim of discovering what we can do to relieve them from the pressures they are under. Rather than studying each pressure source independently, I intend to focus on the combination of different pressure elements working together, which is closer to the reality of the situation.

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  • Research Project

River ecosystem impact of the invasive Chinese mitten crab (Eriocheir sinensis) 01/10/2020 - 30/09/2024

Abstract

The impact of invasive species on ecosystems can cause habitat alteration or even habitat loss. This could ultimately lead to fundamental effects on ecosystem functioning. This project is focused on the case of the Chinese mitten crab (CMC). This is a new species and the only freshwater crab species in Flanders. Being the largest representative of the macroinvertebrates, it probably takes a prominent role in the processing of organic matter. This could have a profound effect on nutrient cycling and water quality in general. Through bioturbation, burrowing behaviour and their destructive impact on macrophytes, the CMC potentially impacts also the stability of river ecosystems, which may lead to enhanced erodibility. By investigating these different effects, this project will give fundamental insight in the impact of freshwater crab species on aquatic habitats along the river continuum.

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  • Research Project

Freshwater ecosystems with a burn-out: extra stress caused by heatwaves? 01/10/2020 - 30/09/2024

Abstract

In this project, our specific focus will be directed towards understanding the interaction between climate warming and two prominent stressors in freshwater habitats: eutrophication (as nitrate pollution) and low dissolved oxygen (hypoxia). Freshwater habitats often receive excessive inputs of nitrates from urban and agricultural sources, and nitrogen is considered the main limiting nutrient for primary production. Nitrate pollution is closely linked to a second stressor - hypoxia. Because of the nitrate pollution, rapid, uncontrolled growth of algal blooms is often triggered, and the unnatural density of algal blooms causes light reduction for macrophytes during the day and nightly hypoxia when photosynthesis is not occurring. In the past it has been postulated that many small fish deplete the zooplanktonic grazers such as daphnids under warm and eutrophic conditions, inducing the turbid waters with algal blooms. However, climate change does not only induce steady increases in temperature but is also causing more frequent and severe heatwaves. In this project we postulate that these heatwaves will seriously negatively affect performance and survival of the fish, which in turn will affect shifts in the aquatic food web towards more zooplankton and hence potential less severe algal blooms.

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Past projects

Analysis of a series of Crab samples from Ecuador for PFAS content. 17/11/2023 - 31/12/2023

Abstract

Extraction and analysis of muscle tissue of crabs, coming from the Guayas estuary in Ecuador, for the determination of concentrations of 29 PFAS. The extraction consists of solvent extraction, followed by clean-up with activated carbon powder and filtration. Hereafter samples were analyzed using UPLC-MS/MS.

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  • Research Project

Analysis of the impact of input of drainage water into the city pond. 01/05/2023 - 31/05/2024

Abstract

The pond in the Stadspark in Antwerp suffered particularly badly from the various drainage operations in the area over the past decade, and even dried up at certain times. Moreover, the park is very centrally located in a very densely populated neighbourhood, and is one of the few green areas in the wider area. Both the attractiveness of the park, the health of fauna and flora, and its cooling effect on the immediate surroundings are largely dependent on the presence of water features. So using the drainage water from the Den Bel buildings would be a good solution to combat the desiccation of the city park pond. However, from the summer of 2021, the re-infiltration project became severely hypothecated by the finding that PFAS were present in the Den Bell drainage water. PFAS or per- and polyfluoro alkyl substances are anthropogenic polymers based carbon-fluorine compounds that are particularly persistent, can accumulate strongly in biota and are potentially toxic. The aim of this study is to investigate the distribution and bioavailability of PFAS in the city pond before and after the discharge of the drainage water. In addition, the effects on biological water quality will be investigated. Finally, the potential of PFAS removal through phytoremediation will be investigated.

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  • Research Project

PFAS analysis in fish samples 01/12/2022 - 31/01/2023

Abstract

PFAS worden al sinds de jaren '60 van vorige eeuw geproduceerd; Doordat een aantal componenten, zoals PFOS en PFOA, niet meer geproduceerd worden, is er een verschuiving in de samenstelling van PFAS in visweefsel over de laatste 20 jaar te verwachten. in deze studie worden analyses uitgevoerd van PFAS in palingweefsel dat bewaard werd door het INBO. Op die manier moet het mogelijk zijn om trends in de accumulatie na te gaan.

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  • Research Project

Understanding and predicting the bio-geomorphological development of new mangrove forests in a tropical river delta. 01/11/2022 - 31/10/2023

Abstract

The restoration of previously degrading mangrove forests is increasingly demanded, among others to provide nature-based solutions for climate change. However, effective mangrove restoration is hindered by knowledge-gaps on the mechanisms driving the development of new mangrove forests over bare intertidal mudflats within a tropical river delta. This study aims to develop innovative knowledge on where, when and how fast new mangrove forests can develop on the large scale of a tropical river delta (~10-100 km²), in response to long-term (decades) variability in sea level and sediment availability. This will be achieved through an integrated combination of remote sensing analyses, field measurements and bio-geomorphic modelling. This is studied in the Guayas delta (Ecuador) as an ideal case study, where large mangroves are expanding, where long-term sea level variability is driven by the El Niño climate fluctuation and climate warming, and where sediment supply to mangroves may potentially change through anthropogenic disturbance. The results will be of key relevance to improve the long-term success of mangrove restoration programs.

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  • Research Project

Chronic stress in sharks and their relatives: a comparative and ecophysiological approach to finding a biomarker of long-term stress. 01/11/2022 - 31/10/2023

Abstract

Decades of overexploitation and habitat degradation have profoundly impacted sharks and their relatives, leaving 37.5% of all species threatened with extinction. In order to effectively guide and improve conservation efforts, a profound knowledge on the behaviour, ecology, and physiology of elasmobranchs is urgently needed. A key research gap that requires particular attention are the effects of anthropogenic and environmental stressors on these ancient fishes. However, finding biomarkers of chronic stress in sharks and their relatives has proven to be a challenging task due to their unique stress hormone, 1?-hydroxycorticosterone (1?-OHB). In the proposed research project, because the role of 1?-OHB in elasmobranch fishes remains equivocal, I will experimentally determine the utility of 1?-OHB as an indicator for chronic stress in sharks and their relatives, and I will investigate and physiologically and biologically validate the use of elasmobranch teeth as a unique and novel biomarker of long-term stress. Additionally, the metabolic action and energetic cost of chronic stress on these fishes will be evaluated, with a special emphasis on ketone bodies and amino acids, as these can lead to a suite of possible biomarkers to be added to the conservation physiology toolbox for elasmobranch physiology.

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  • Research Project

Analysis of open space vulnerability for landscape park "De Merode" 01/11/2022 - 31/12/2022

Abstract

Landscape park de Merode is invaluable to Flanders. There is high ecological value, with numerous biodiversity hotspots. In addition to a rich heritage value, the area also provides numerous ecosystem services. The area is important for drinking water supply, with several important groundwater abstractions. Numerous wetland projects must also ensure that Lier and Aarschot are protected from flooding by retaining as much water as possible in the upper reaches. Due to its exceptional landscapes and the recreational connections between them, the area is a hotspot for recreation and tourism. The many forests and fens are important for climate mitigation. The brand "De Merode" stands like a house and is a catalyst for numerous initiatives and projects. But on the other hand, the Merode remains a patchwork quilt. However, ecological and recreational cohesion is under pressure from urbanization, agricultural intensification and infrastructure projects. For many species (and ecosystem services) it is not only important what happens within the nature cores, but also what takes place in between. A good matrix of landscape connections results in resilient open space that gives us more opportunities against climate disruption and the biodiversity crisis. This study paper analyzes the main open space functions (nature, agriculture, water, experience) and their role as carriers of open space. From a series of map data, it will demonstrate, among other things, which landscape functions in which place offer opportunities to develop, or are at risk of fading away. We will make an analysis of vulnerability to open space degradation based on current land use, zoning as well as the positioning of different zones within the larger open space.

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  • Research Project

The analyser - Skalar. 01/06/2022 - 31/05/2024

Abstract

Nutrients are vital, not only for individual organisms but also for entire ecosystems. The SKALAR SAN++ Advanced System allows us to analyze a whole range of nutrients in continuous flow. It is essential for the research of the new research group ECOSPHERE on aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems, where nutrient analysis in water, plants and soil are essential, and for the research group DuEL, where nutrient analysis in wastewater streams and microbial growth media are indispensable. The equipment also delivers analysis services to other research groups and external parties.

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  • Research Project

Setting safe limits for two short-chained perfluoroalkyl substances for experimentally exposed soil organisms: perfluorobutane sulfonate (PFBS) and its by-product perfluorobutane sulfonamide (FBSA). 01/04/2022 - 31/03/2023

Abstract

The scientific and public attention to the group of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) has risen exponentially since the beginning of the 2000s. These chemicals have been produced since the 1940 in large quantities for numerous applications such as firefighting foams and fast-food packaging. Due to their production and use in several consumer products, PFAS have been distributed globally in the environment, in which they accumulate in organisms. Regulatory measures for legacy long-chained PFAS, such as perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) have led to a restriction in their production and use, with some exemptions. Nonetheless, these long-chained PFAS have often been replaced by short-chained homologues, such as perfluorobutane sulfonate (PFBS). This is also the case for 3M Zwijndrecht, Belgium, a known PFAS hotspot. As a byproduct in the production of PFBS, perfluorobutane sulfonamide (FBSA) is produced. Both chemicals are not regulated, due to the lack of data on their toxicity. As a consequence, both chemicals can be produced and used unrestrictedly, and both of them are discharged in the environment. Based on their persistency (they do not or merely break down in the environment), because they first adsorb to solid matrices after being discharged, and because it is assumed that they are equally toxic as their long-chained homologues, it is necessary to investigate the toxicity of these chemicals to soil organisms. This allows us to set safe limits to protect soil ecosystems. The objective of this study is to set such safe limits for soil ecosystems based on species sensitivity distributions.

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  • Research Project

Uncover and compare the human immunopeptidome of Leishmania across the clinical spectrum. 01/04/2022 - 31/12/2022

Abstract

Infection with the Leishmania parasite can lead to a wide spectrum of clinical presentations, ranging from diverse cutaneous presentations (localized, mucocutaneous, disseminated) to a deadly systemic disease (visceral leishmaniasis). Yet, the underlying factors driving this disease spectrum remain mostly unknown. Although Leishmania is an obligatory intracellular parasite surviving in the phagolysosome of key antigen presenting cells, it remains mostly unexplored whether the complex host-parasite interplay translates in an altered net effect on the MHC-presented peptidome to T cells (giving rise to a differential antigen-specific T cell repertoire), and whether and how this is associated with certain disease presentations that have distinct immunopathology patterns. Although attempts were made in murine models, discordant data has often been found between experimental in vivo models, in vitro settings and patients regarding the host immune response after Leishmania infection. By applying a new high-throughput MS-based method on an unique set of patient tissue samples, we aim to perform the first comprehensive screening of the antigenic repertoire and study whether and how this differs between in vitro and in vivo conditions, blood and tissue compartments, and across the clinical presentations.

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Unravelling the architecture of Chinese mitten crab burrows using non-intrusive techniques. 01/03/2022 - 28/02/2023

Abstract

The objective of this study is to map and measure the architecture of the burrow network in a non-intrusive manner using Structure-from-Motion (SfM) photogrammetry and ground-penetrating radar (GPR).

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Mangroves as a coastal defense strategy: using drones and smartphone LiDAR sensors to quantify mangrove-induced friction in flood models. 01/03/2022 - 28/02/2023

Abstract

Mangroves play an important role in coastal protection in tropical deltas by exerting friction on incoming water flow and as such attenuating incoming extreme sea levels (e.g. storm surges, tsunamis). In order for models to realistically predict this attenuation of flood propagation by mangroves, we need to drastically improve the quantification of mangrove-induced friction on the water flow. We will test the possibility to use drones and smartphone-carried LiDAR sensors to construct 3D models of mangrove trees in order to have a more accurate estimation of a mangrove tree's drag on incoming water flow, during a field campaign in Ecuador's largest coastal delta, the Guayas delta. This improved quantification of mangrove-induced friction will drastically increase hydrodynamic models their capacity to simulate extreme water level distribution in delta's.

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FWO sabbatical 2021-2022 (Prof. G. De Boeck). 01/08/2021 - 31/07/2022

Abstract

This sabbatical will be an excellent opportunity to explore old and new ideas, bounce these ideas off international peers, look for new collaborations and develop a research strategy for the next decade. Therefore, the focus of my sabbatical leave will revolve around three main action points: 1. Resolve the mystery around the mechanistic basis leading to the unusually high toxicity and bioaccumulation of silver in elasmobranchs and conduct a survey over different species. 2. Explore and familiarise myself with minimally-invasive and in vitro techniques that will not only become a powerful tool in my future research but also fit within the general effort to improve animal welfare following the 3R principle (replacement, reduction, refinement). These techniques are not limited to their use in elasmobranch research, but can be extended to teleosts and other aquatic organisms. 3. On the go, collect elasmobranch tissue samples and data, and explore new collaborations for a future research line which will be developed in the next years on chronic stress indicators in elasmobranchs and teleosts. With continuously ongoing climate change and habitat degradation, understanding the effects and consequences of chronic stress and evaluating stress responsiveness and environmental tolerances relative to environmental change is rapidly gaining importance. It is at the core of conservation physiology which aims to integrate physiological knowledge into ecosystem management and into tools to solve complex conservation problems. In addition, it is essential for assessing animal welfare in fast growing activities such as aquaculture.

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BOF Sabbatical 2021-2022 - Gudrun De Boeck. 01/08/2021 - 31/07/2022

Abstract

My sabbatical will focus on elasmobranch research. Firstly, I want to resolve the mystery around the mechanistic basis leading to the unusually high toxicity and bioaccumulation of silver (Ag) that has been observed in elasmobranchs (sharks and rays) and conduct a survey on baseline Ag bioaccumulation over different life stages and species. Doing so will also shed more light on the existence and involvement of putative urea back-transporters, and their characteristics and location in epithelial gill cells of elasmobranchs. Secondly, I want to explore and familiarise myself with minimally-invasive and in vitro techniques that will not only become a powerful tool in my present and future research but also fit within the general effort to improve animal welfare according to the 3R principle (replacement, reduction, refinement). These techniques are not limited to their use in elasmobranch research, but can be extended to teleosts and other aquatic organisms. And lastly, conduct some preliminary experiments and explore new collaborations for a future research line which will be developed in the next years on chronic stress indicators in elasmobranchs.

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remote sensing data for measuring suspended solid concentrations 01/06/2021 - 31/08/2023

Abstract

In principle, it is possible to determine SPM based on satellite images for a large part of the Scheldt estuary. Nevertheless, a number of challenges need to be tackled in the Zeeschelde and Boven-Zeeschelde in particular. There, the river is only 1 or a few pixels wide in places (Sentinel 2 spatial resolution: 10m-20m). Furthermore, the tidal action continuously ensures resuspension and settling. The SPM concentration at the surface therefore exhibits strong temporal variability, which complicates the interpretation of a snapshot based on satellite image. Drones offer a possible solution to both problems, but have their own difficulties (flight planning, weather conditions). In this study, methods are developed to determine SPM in the estuary from satellite and drone images, using continuous data for calibration.

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  • Research Project

From exposure to effects of pollutants: a dynamic mechanistic basis. 01/12/2020 - 30/11/2023

Abstract

Since we will be able to re-apply for a MSCA-ITN with the same scope as the unsuccessful application (QTOX: Quantitative extrapolation in ecotoxicology), the SEP funds will be used to obtain results that will strengthen the basis for our proposal. The particular strengths of the SPHERE group in this regard are measurement and modelling of chemical speciation dynamics in the exposure medium, development of novel active passive sampling devices, characterisation of biouptake rates and subcellular compartmentalisation of pollutants. Several ongoing PhD projects in SPHERE are dealing with aspects of these issues. Within the MSCA-ITN we have the ambition to go beyond current empirical ecotoxicological models to establish mechanistic knowledge of the underlying processes in the chain from exposure to effects of pollutants. Recent work in SPHERE has highlighted the physicochemically erroneous nature of widely used equilibrium-based chemical speciation codes, e.g. WHAM, NICA-Donnan, that are used as input to bioavailability and ecotoxicity models, e.g. BLM, Bio-met, PNEC-PRO. Despite the poor physicochemical basis of such models, they are being increasingly incorporated into environmental policy, e.g. water quality guidelines. The SEP will allow us to critically evaluate the results of ongoing SPHERE projects in the context of widely used bioavailability and ecotoxicity models, and thereby take steps towards development of a robust mechanistic foundation for describing the relationships between exposure and effects of pollutants. Beyond the research tasks, we will promote scientific activity in the subject area by chairing sessions on related topics at the SETAC Europe annual conference (ca. 2,000 participants), and will provide training for early stage researchers by running an intensive postgraduate course on Speciation and Bioavailability in 2021 and 2023 (pending possible SARS-CoV-2 restrictions). The course is part of SPHERE's contribution to the MSCA-ITN training programme. The SEP funds will be used to partly support a temporary academic staff member to be involved in supervision of ongoing PhD students in related topics, to perform modelling tasks, and to lead the preparation of the revised MSCA-ITN proposal; technical staff to support experimental tasks and to maintain and run instrumentation; as well as consumables and travel expenses that may arise in executing the research.

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  • Research Project

Versatility by processing: proprotein convertases and their role in expanding neuropeptidergic diversity. 01/11/2020 - 31/10/2023

Abstract

Neuropeptides are signaling molecules used by all Metazoan nervous systems to control physiology and behavior. They are produced by extensive processing from larger protein precursors. In mammals, examples are known where this processing can lead to distinct sets of neuropeptides in different tissues, due to differential expression of the proprotein convertases; a family of proteases responsible for cleavage of the protein precursors. However, apart from these few examples, little is known on how extensive differential processing is, and how proprotein convertases might be responsible for expanding signaling diversity in the nervous system. Via this project proposal, I am to address ignorance regarding this level of control, and provide detailed information on the prevalence and functional impact of differential processing. To unveil fundamental principles of differential neuropeptide processing, I intend to use peptidomics on the model organism Caenorhabditis elegans, an organism for which I can also map the differentially processed neuropeptides and their proprotein convertases precisely to the individual cells or tissues where these are produced. This information will guide functional studies, where I aim to unveil the physiological impact of differential neuropeptide processing. Overall, this work aims to provide insight into how differential processing can functionally diversify the neuropeptide arsenal, as generated from a fixed set of precursors.

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  • Research Project

Influence of soil properties on the sorption of per- and polyfluoroalkylated substances to soil and the bioavailability and bioaccumulation to terrestrial biota. 01/10/2020 - 30/09/2023

Abstract

Per- and polyfluoralkylated substances or PFAS, which have been used in large quantities since the 1940s because of their applications such as food packaging, are receiving increasing attention since the early 2000s. The production and use of PFAS have led to the global detection in the environment. Despite regulatory measures for perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoate (PFOA), the most frequently detected PFAS, there are concerns on many other PFAS that are similar in structure and properties and that are not regulated. Soils form the basis of the terrestrial food chain and PFAS uptake from contaminated soils is known to cause human exposure to PFAS. However, there are many uncertainties on the behaviour of PFAS in soils and the following bioavailability to and bioaccumulation in biota. The general objective of my project is to investigate the role of soil properties and temperature on the uptake and distribution of PFAS in the terrestrial food chain. Descriptive studies, close to a fluorochemical plant, will provide us with an overview of the concentrations of legacy, novel and unknown PFAS in the terrestrial food chain and how these concentrations are influenced by soil properties. In addition, experimental studies will be performed to disentangle causal links from confounding effects, but also to study the uptake and effects in terrestrial invertebrates and plants. This study will help policy makers to set new, or alter existing, PFAS criteria for soil.

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  • Research Project

How mutual interactions between tidal marsh plants, waves and sediments, determine nature-based shoreline protection capacity. 01/10/2020 - 30/09/2022

Abstract

Tidal marshes are vegetated areas situated along coasts and tidal rivers, which are regularly inundated by tides. Recent studies have highlighted the important role of tidal marshes in protecting the hinterland from the impact of waves, called 'nature-based shoreline protection'. Plants form a barrier for waves, because they are able to weaken the energy of the waves and they reduce erosion of the soil. During winter, this vegetation typically dies off. However, questions remain on how effective marsh vegetation is for shoreline protection, such as: (1) 'Is the effectiveness of wave and soil erosion reduction different in winter or summer?';(2) 'Are some plant species better than others in reducing waves and erosion?'; (3) 'Are some plant species better in coping with the stress they encounter from wave activity, and does that result in the spatial plant species distribution we see in the field, with some species growing close to the water channel, while others more landward?'. In this project I will address these questions in an integrated way: I will investigate the two-way interactions between waves and plants, how that results in the spatial plant species distribution, and how that spatial plant zonation affects the effectiveness of wave and erosion reduction, and hence the shoreline protection capacity of tidal marshes.

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  • Research Project

Sustainable marine ecosystem services (SUMES). 01/09/2020 - 31/08/2023

Abstract

The SUMES project aims to develop a comprehensive model to assess the impact of human-induced changes on the marine ecosystem and beyond. The model investigates the structure (e.g. biodiversity) and function (e.g. food chains, biogeochemistry) of the marine ecosystem, its capacity to provide goods and services (e.g. sequestration of carbon) and the effect of activities on the aforementioned aspects. The model integrates Ecosystem Services, Risk Assessment and Life Cycle Assessment methods and indicators, which will be aggregated at the level of U+2018endpointsU+2019 or U+2018Areas of ProtectionU+2019, and serves therefore as a decision support model. The objective is to gain improved knowledge of cause-effect chains, with human activities being the stressor or cause, and the effects are the impact on local (to a specific marine ecosystem), regional (e.g. the North Sea) and global (to humans and nature) scale. A thorough understanding and quantification of the mechanisms is currently lacking in scientific literature, especially for the marine environment. Validation of the model is based on case studies related to the Belgian Continental Shelf (BCS).

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  • Research Project

Ecotoxicity of industrial effluents in chemical industry 01/06/2020 - 31/05/2022

Abstract

The primary objective of the project is to develop a method for ecotoxicological evaluation of effluents in (industrial) water purification plants. A method that makes it possible to trace the origin of the ecotoxicological risk up to the level that remediation is possible. The underlying objective is to deliver a method manual that can be used on the floor by companies and other stakeholders. At the end of the project, the focus will be on about 30 committed companies, 20 of which are in implementation. This will expand rapidly upon acceptance of the method by VMM

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  • Research Project

Toward a risk-based assessment of microplastic pollution in marine ecosystems (RESPONSE). 01/04/2020 - 31/08/2023

Abstract

RESPONSE integrates expertise on oceanography, environmental chemistry, ecotoxicology, experimental ecology and modelling to answer key research questions on fate and biological effects of microplastics (MPs) and nanoplastics (NPs) in marine ecosystems. Hydrological transport dynamics will identify possible accumulation zones in European coastal ecosystems, while characterization of vertical distribution of MPs and NPs in the water column and sediments will optimise practical monitoring and sampling efforts. Links between oceanographic conditions, environmental distribution of MPs and NPs, trophic transfer and impact on pelagic food webs and benthic communities will be addressed by analysing their abundance and typologies in representative marine species, as well as relevant ecosystem functions and services. Innovative mesocosm and laboratory studies will validate weighting factors and toxicological thresholds for MPs and NPs. The approach will assess the role of size, shape and other polymer characteristics in modulating biological effects of particles, both alone and in combination with other environmental stressors. A technological Smart Hub, combining complementary instrumental facilities and expertise of some partners and external companies, will support analytical needs of the consortium and further methodological developments. The overall aim of RESPONSE is to develop a quantitative Weight Of Evidence (WOE) model for MPs and NPs in the marine environment. The model will be designed to integrate and differentially weight data from a suite of lines of evidence, including (1) the presence of MPs and NPs in water column and sediments, (2) their bioavailability and bioaccumulation in key indicator species from benthic and planktonic communities (3) sublethal effects measured via biomarkers, (3) the onset of chronic adverse effects at the organism level, and (4) ecological functioning. The results will provide support for development of MSFD monitoring strategies.

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  • Research Project

Towards ecological risk assessment of nanoplastics: dynamic considerations. 01/01/2020 - 31/12/2023

Abstract

Plastic particles are everywhere in the environment and there is concern about the adverse effects they may have on organisms, and subsequently on ecosystems. Much global attention has been directed towards so-called microplastics, i.e. plastic particles with dimensions in the millimeter to micrometer range. Microplastics slowly degrade in the environment, by physical and chemical processes, into smaller and smaller entities, eventually reaching the nano-size domain. Due to difficulties in sampling and characterisation, almost nothing is known about the amounts and behaviour of extremely small plastic particles with dimensions on the order of nanometers, i.e. nanoplastics. Our project addresses this knowledge gap. We will measure and model the chemical reactivity, biouptake, and bioaccumulation of nanoplastics and their adverse effects on aquatic organisms. The results will provide fundamental information which enable robust risk assessment strategies to be developed that inform environmental policies.

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  • Research Project

Dumpsites of munitions: integrated science approach to risk and management (DISARM). 01/01/2020 - 31/12/2023

Abstract

The Paardenmarkt is one of the many munition dumpsites in our oceans. A few m below the seafloor, ca. 35.000 tons of WW1 chemical munition are buried. The present scientific knowledge is insufficient to make any reliable judgement on the state of the site. The DISARM project aims to address the knowledge gaps, but will go an important step further to develop an integrated scientific approach to support risk assessment and management of marine chemical munition dumpsites worldwide, using the Paardenmarkt munition dumpsite as a challenging case study. A thorough characterisation of the present state of the dumpsite is the project start. Novel technologies will be used to determine the burial depth, take sediment samples close to the munition, and assess the freshwater flux at the site. Chemical warfare agents (CWA), explosives and their degradation products will be analysed with new methodologies, advancing detection limits. The physical state of the shells will be evaluated through an innovative ombination of experimental analyses and integrated modelling of different corrosion processes. Novel in-situ passive sampling devices will analyse a time-integrated spatial distribution of the waterexchangeable fraction of munition-related chemical compounds. This will be related to bioaccumulation and ecotoxicity of these compounds in laboratory bio-assays including passive dosing. Dynamic modelling of chemical fate and effects on humans and the environment (including mixture toxicity) will result in a chemical risk assessment. Dedicated experiments and models will evaluate the explosion risk of the aged compounds. Collaborating microbial communities will be constructed to break down key hazardous chemicals through smart inoculation. New technologies for monitoring and management will be evaluated together with key players in the field. Finally we will develop a scientific workflow for dumpsite research and provide a policy informing document.

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  • Research Project

Coastal marsh resilience to sea level rise: a field, flume and modelling study on the role of bio-geomo hic self-organization. 01/01/2020 - 31/12/2023

Abstract

Tidal marshes are valuable coastal ecosystems that are threatened by global climate warming and resulting sea level rise. Whether they drown or continue to exist while sea level rises, depends on the trapping of sediments (sand and mud) that builds up the land surface. The sediment trapping is locally determined by so-called bio-geomo hic interactions between plants, water flow, and landform changes. However, the larger landscape also self-organizes by developing a channel network between vegetation patches, and by transporting the sediment through the channels towards the marsh. We will investigate how the small-scale (m²) bio-geomo hic interactions determine the large-scale (km²) self-organization of tidal marsh landscapes and how this affects their adaptability to sea level rise. The aim of this project is to investigate, for the first time, the impact of specific traits of plant species on the self-organization and capacity of marshes to rise with sea level. We test the hypotheses that (1) different plant species lead to the formation of different self-organized tidal channel networks; and (2) the resulting channel networks determine the efficiency to distribute and trap sediments in response to sea level rise. This will be investigated based on a unique combination of field surveys, scaled lab experiments, and computer simulations.

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  • Research Project

Quantifying and modelling soil carbon accumulation in mangrove forests in response to sea level rise. 01/11/2019 - 30/04/2024

Abstract

Mangrove forests are coastal wetlands with highly valued functions, including climate regulation by capturing atmospheric CO2 and storing it into soil organic carbon (SOC). Mangroves and their SOC accumulation function are at risk to be lost by sea level rise (SLR) by the end of the 21st century. Mangroves are known to have a certain capacity to adapt to SLR by raising their elevation via sediment and SOC accumulation. But present insights and models, allowing to estimate changes in SOC accumulation rates in response to future SLR scenarios, are poorly developed. Here we will conduct for the first time an integrated field and modelling study on feedbacks between rates of SLR, sediment and SOC accumulation in mangroves. This will be studied in the Guayas river delta in Ecuador. We will test the hypotheses that: (1) the adaptability of mangroves to SLR is governed by the strength of feedbacks between increasing tidal flooding, sediment and SOC accumulation rates; (2) the strength of these feedbacks depends on the location along the land-to-sea gradient within a delta, with mangroves in river-dominated parts of a delta having more capacity to accrete sediments and SOC in balance with SLR; while marine-dominated parts of a delta will be more vulnerable to mangrove drowning by SLR. This project will generate novel scientific insights that will feed the development of an innovative model to simulate how SOC accumulation in mangroves will respond to future SLR.

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  • Research Project

The importance of microphytobenthos in sustainable ecosystem management: benthic primary production and sediment stability in estuaries. 01/11/2019 - 31/10/2023

Abstract

Microphytobenthos (MPB), the algae that inhabit the intertidal mudflats, are important for the functioning of estuarine ecosystems. Their high primary production is critical, producing oxygen and sustaining the highly biodiverse estuarine food web. MPB community also excrete sticky substances that decrease sediment resuspension in the water column and increase the light climate needed for primary production. Unfortunately, these mudflats are under thread of increased hydrodynamic stress due to, amongst others, increased tidal amplitude by sea level rise and management such as channel deepening. In the Scheldt estuary there has been a strong increase in turbidity of the water column, negatively affecting the primary production. Legislations enforce the maintenance of a healthy ecosystem and therefore we need good understanding of the role of biological components, such as MPB, in estuarine ecosystem functioning. The MPB community in estuaries varies over the salinity gradient, and of some algal groups their effect on ecosystem functioning remains hardly studied. Furthermore, the importance of small-scale variation in benthic primary production (BPP) on ecosystem scale needs to be identified. Therefore, this project will tackle the central knowledge gaps: 1) quantify the benthic primary production, 2) relate this sediment stabilization potential and 3) implement these functions in a calculation tool for ecosystem functioning.

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  • Research Project

Development of a biomonitoring tool to estimate risks of perfluoroalkyl acids (PFAAs) through consumption of self-cultivated food products. 01/11/2019 - 31/10/2023

Abstract

Perfluoroalkyl acids (PFAAs) are a diverse family of anthropogenic chemicals with unique physicochemical properties that have resulted in numerous industrial and commercial applications. Their broad application and bioaccumulation potential has led to their worldwide presence in the environment and detection in biota including humans. Over the last decade, consuming food products by humans from self-cultivation has become a remarkable trend in rural, urban and even industrial areas. Nevertheless, PFAAs can enter the food chain due to their widespread use and food intake has been identified as a major pathway for human exposure to PFAAs. Despite the ubiquitous presence and known bio accumulation potential of PFAAs, there is no overview of their spatial distribution pattern or degree of exposure via dietary intake. Nevertheless, it is crucial to solve these two major knowledge gaps to reveal the health risks associated with PFAA exposure. Therefore, the objectives of this proposal are (I) investigate the accumulation of PFAAs in important food items (chicken eggs and vegetables) from private gardens and the influence of soil characteristics, (II) develop a biomonitoring tool that estimates the risks associated with PFAA contamination in food, (III) deliver novel insights in the toxic properties and effects of PFAAs in chickens and (IV) investigate if PFAA concentrations in the food items exceed safety threshold values for human consumption.

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  • Research Project

Tidal marshes: bio-geomorphic self-organization and its implications for resilience to sea level rise and changing sediment supply (TIGER). 01/09/2019 - 31/08/2022

Abstract

Intertidal landscapes are complex environments located between the land and sea, and that are regularly flooded by tides. They provide highly valuable ecosystem services that are threatened by sea level rise and changing sediment supply. Previous studies showed that the small-scale (order of m2) interactions between vegetation dynamics, water flow and sediment transport (so-called bio-geomorphic feedbacks) have a great impact on channel network formation and evolution at the landscape-scale (order of km2). We call this process bio-geomorphic self-organization. The aim of this project is to investigate, for the first time, the impact of plant species traits on biogeomorphic self-organization of intertidal landscapes. More specifically, we hypothesize that (1) different plant species traits lead to the self-organization of different channel network patterns, and (2) the resulting self-organized landscape structures determine the efficiency to distribute and trap sediments on the intertidal floodplain, and hence the resilience (adaptability) of the landscape to sea level rise and decreasing sediment supply. By using a combination of computer model simulations and field observations, we aim at producing new fundamental knowledge on landscape selforganization by bio-geomorphic feedbacks, and its implications for the resilience of intertidal landscapes against environmental changes.

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  • Research Project

Sampling and analysis of micropolluatnts in Biota from aquatic systems in Flanders 13/08/2019 - 12/08/2022

Abstract

Aquatic ecosystems and waterbodies are under persistent stress of chemical pollutants, mainly of anthropogenic origin. High concentrations can harm entire ecosystems and be potentially toxic to humans. The European Water Framework Directive (WFD) obliges member states to monitor chemical compounds in surface waters and to set quality standards that protect against detrimental effects of toxic compounds. Generally, most of the target chemical compounds are able to be measured in water or sediment samples. However, the low water solubility of highly hydrophobic compounds precludes direct measurement in water. Accordingly, the WFD has formulated biota quality standards (BQS), for 11 priority compounds and their derivatives, which refer to concentrations of compounds that have to be monitored in fish and bivalves (biota). In the present study, bioaccumulation of hexachlorobenzene (HCBz), hexachlorobutadiene (HCBd), mercury (Hg), polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE), hexabromo-cyclododecane (HBCD), perfluoro-octaansulphonate (PFOS) and its derivatives, dicofol, heptachlor and heptachlor epoxide, and dioxins and dioxin-like compounds were measured in muscle tissue of perch (Perca fluviatilis) and European eel (Anguilla anguilla) originating from different Flemish water bodies. Fluoranthene and benzo(a)pyrene were measured in zebra mussel (Dreissena polymorpha) and quagga mussel (Dreissena bugensis), using active biomonitoring. In every sampling point at least one of both selected fish species could be collected. For fluoranthene an exceedance of the standard was observed in some sampling locations in zebra mussel, for benzo(a)pyrene there were some exceedances for both zebra and quagga mussel. Dioxin concentrations exceeded the standard in 4 sampling locations in eel muscle tissue. For PFOS, an exceedance of the standard was detected at almost every location for both fish species. The biota quality standard for Hg and PBDE was exceeded in every sampling location and for both fish species. One sample had PBDE concentrations below the quantification limit, which is more than 10 times higher than the BQS. Concentrations of HCBd and dicofol were below the quantification limit. Furthermore no exceedances of the standard were found for HCBz and HBCD. For heptachlor all measurements where below the quantification limits (40 times higher than the standard), cis-heptachlor epoxide exceeded the quantification limit in all except one location in eel muscle tissue and in 3 locations in perch muscle tissue. An overall trend of higher concentrations per wet weight in eel than in perch was detected. Nonetheless, after correction for lipid content, this trend was no longer present or even reversed with higher concentrations in perch muscle tissue, indicating the lipophilic properties of these compounds. This was true for all compounds – except for PFOS: in fact, this compound showed the exact opposite trend. Concentrations of PAHs were always higher in zebra mussel than in quagga mussel. This is possibly caused by the higher trophic position of the first. For both fish species, however, we could not find clear differences in trophic level. Finally, calculated concentrations using the passive samplers, compared to existing literature, show promising applicability and incites further development of this tool. Based on the results of the present study and – where possible – a comparison to data present in literature, it is evident that the existing biota quality standards for Hg, PBDE and PFOS are exceeded in all fish species from Flemish and European water bodies.

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  • Research Project

Application potential of autochthonous fish populations for biological control of dipteran nuisance species in flooding areas. 01/01/2019 - 31/12/2023

Abstract

In this project, the conditions for native fish to be used as biological control in restored tidal marshes is investigated. Using native fish may not only be extremely cost-effective, improving the conditions will also improve restored flooding areas as habitats for fish at the same time. Information will be collected on the current distribution and habitat preferences of nuisance species and native fish communities in three flooding areas along the Scheldt estuary. The first is a flooding area which had very recent serious outbreaks of midges. This area is connected to a second and neighboring a third flooding area, which both have a different design as the first and which have no issues with outbreaks. The collected field information will be combined with experiments that look at which factors can help fish to eat more nuisance species and to create habitat suitability models. These are models that can be used to predict the risk of nuisance species outbreaks. They will also show the conditions that are important for fish in flooding areas. These models can be used to evaluate and potentially improve any of the flooding areas in Flanders and abroad. They will be made public to policymakers and project managers and companies involved in the construction and restoration of flooding areas to be used as a tool for controlling nuisance species and improving flooding areas for fish.

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  • Research Project

Negative emissions through enhanced mineral weathering in the coastal zone. 01/01/2019 - 31/12/2022

Abstract

Negative emission technologies target the removal of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere, and are being actively investigated as a strategy to limit global warming to within a 2°C increase. Enhanced silicate weathering (ESW) is an approach that uses the natural process of silicate weathering for the removal of CO2 from the atmosphere. The geochemical basis is firmly established: during dissolution of silicate minerals in seawater, CO2 is consumed and sequestered into the ocean. Hence, by deliberately introducing fast-weathering silicate minerals into the coastal zone, one could create a coastal CO2 sink. A principal advantage of ESW over other negative emission technologies is that it also counteracts ocean acidification and that it can be directly integrated into existing coastal management programs with existing technology. Although model studies show its feasibility, there has been no rigorous assessment of its CO2-sequestration efficiency and environmental impacts, which are bottlenecks to its commercial implementation. In this project, we will conduct a set of large-scale experiments to investigate the rate of ESW and associated CO2 uptake under realistic natural settings (bioturbation, waves, currents) as well as potentially important influences on the biogeochemical cycling in coastal ecosystems (release of trace metals, alkalinity and dissolved silicate). The key scientific objective of this SBO project is to perform basic research into the economic viability and environmental safety of coastal ESW, to examine if and how it can be developed into a sustainable and cost-effective approach for creating negative emissions. To this end, three important research challenges will be tackled: [1] to determine the CO2 sequestration efficiency of coastal ESW in realistic coastal conditions [2] to determine the dissolution time scale of coastal ESW in realistic coastal conditions [3] to assess the impact of trace metal release (in particular Nickel and Chromium) by coastal ESW on marine biota To achieve these objectives, we will realize: • A large-scale pilot set-up that simulates olivine weathering under in situ conditions (first largescale demo set-up of coastal ESW worldwide), and • A numerical biogeochemical model ("virtual seafloor") that simulates the dissolution of olivine in the seafloor

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  • Research Project

Are internal concentrations of micro pollutants in aquatic organisms predictive of the ecological quality of water courses? 01/01/2019 - 31/12/2022

Abstract

For the monitoring of pollutants in the aquatic environment and the prediction of their ecological effects on aquatic organisms, most of the time only water, sediment or suspended matter is measured. However, with this approach the results only reflect the situation at the moment of sampling while concentrations might fluctuate with time. Moreover, this approach does not take into account the bio-availability, which is influenced by factors such as acidity, water hardness and temperature and that may differ substantially among sites. Therefore it makes more sense to measure toxic compounds in organisms that are resistant to pollution and that easily accumulate them. In this way fluctuations in time and differences in accumulation are integrated in the measurement. The aim of this study is to look for species (invertebrates and fish) that can be collected from natural waters (rivers, lakes, canals) or introduced in cages and in which accumulation of micro pollutants is assessed. The accumulated levels of pollutants and internal distribution will be related to the invertebrate and fish community structure. In order to confirm field results, also laboratory and mesocosm (artificial ponds) experiments will be performed in which invertebrates are exposed to the pollutants and effects on physiology, reproduction and behavior will be assessed. In this way we will investigate if this approach is suitable to derive biota quality standards that are protective of ecological damage. -

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  • Research Project

Citizen science for monitoring macroplastics in Kenya using mobile technology (C-Smart). 01/01/2019 - 31/08/2022

Abstract

Plastic pollution is arguably one of the most important and pervasive environmental problems today. Kenya wildlife, biodiversity and fish stocks are impacted by this plastic pollution with ecological and human conse-quences. From September 2017 Kenya implemented the world's toughest plastic bag ban whereas producing, selling and using plastic bags is prohibited. This is a strong commitment and a big step in the right direction. However, we believe that there are opportunities to increase the impact of the ban in order to further reduce plastic pollution in Kenya, and also in surrounding countries. By monitoring macroplastic pollution in Kenya with Citizen Science using a new developed phone application we believe we can (1) increase awareness, (2) advice policy makers and (3) inform and persuade surrounding countries to implement source mitigation efforts. This project will exert an influence on both, political decisions and individual behaviour related to the reduction of plastic pollution.

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  • Research Project

Restoring raw water resources through landscape restoration. 13/11/2018 - 12/11/2022

Abstract

Collaboration between PIDPA and UAntwerpen for supporting research that focuses on restoring raw water resources through landscape restoration. Such research is part of the central mission of PIDPA to protect future potential drinking water sites. The aim of the support is to enable research activities that are synergetic with the Interreg project PROWATER, which stands for 'protecting and restoring raw water sources through actions at the landscape scale', and contributes to climate adaptation by restoring the water storage of the landscape via 'ecosystem-based adaptation measures'. UAntwerpen fulfills a crucial role by taking on the substantive coordination and scientific underpinning of this project.

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Protecting and restoring raw water sources through actions at the landscape scale (PROWATER). 01/09/2018 - 28/02/2023

Abstract

The cross-border project PROWATER stands for 'protecting and restoring raw water sources through actions at the landscape scale', and contributes to climate adaptation by restoring the water storage of the landscape via 'ecosystem-based adaptation measures'. Examples of this are forest conversion, natural water retention or restoration of soil compaction. These interventions increase resilience against droughts and floods and benefit water quality and biodiversity. During the next years project partners in Flanders, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom will carry out various exemplary projects on site and will showcase them to the public. The benefits of the measures will be identified so that a 'Payment for Ecosystem Services' model can be developed. Based on this model, organizations that take measures to combat water scarcity can receive compensation. In return, they provide services to society by improving the quality of the living environment. Finally, the project wants to close the information gap with policy and the water user, by developing a vision to tackle water scarcity and drought risks in the long term.

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Quantification and characterization of the plastic flux in the Scheldt, with a view to an efficient remediation of this waste problem. 01/02/2018 - 31/01/2022

Abstract

his research initially aims to quantify the plastic flux on the scale of a complete basin, from the smaller tributaries, effluents from water purification stations, docks and canals to the estuary and the sea. Where are the largest sources of plastic waste? What is the residence time of this waste? Are there sinks, zones with long retention of plastic waste in the river system? Quantification of the plastic flux through the entire continuum from the basin to the mouth is essential for the elaboration of an efficient remediation strategy. This study is limited to the macroplastics. After all, relatively realistic removal strategies can still be designed for this fraction, the ultimate goal of this project. In addition, a large part of the microplastics is caused by disintegration of macroplastics. By macroplastics we mean pieces of plastic such as bottles, plastic bags, ropes, .... Plastic pellets will also receive extra attention, since these are sometimes prominently present in the water and on the bank in the Scheldt and the port area. The second objective of this research project is to look for an efficient remediation. Where can you intervene, and how? This project does not aim to develop technical constructions itself, but the effect of existing technologies can be estimated. For example: What effect does a limitation of overflow on the total plastic flux to the North Sea have? Which fraction can be caught with a floating position in the port? The Scheldt basin is selected as a case. To answer the research questions, a monitoring network is developed. Plastic waste is collected at dams, locks, water purification plants, etc. In this way, plastic fluxes from sub-basins, docks, ... can be calculated and an estimate is made of the total flux towards the estuary. In the estuary, the stock is determined by plastic (by means of a deviation) and point measurements (eg cooling water intake points) are used to estimate the flux.

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  • Research Project

Determination of physical system characteristics of the Scheldt estuary necessary for good ecological functioning. 01/12/2016 - 28/02/2024

Abstract

research in recent years has shown the complex interwovenness of hydrodynamics, morphodynamics and ecological functioning of the Scheldt estuary. This complexity together with the large-scale changes (both land and water management in the river basin and climate change) confront the manager with ever-increasing problems and challenges. That is why it is crucial to have the best possible insight into the functioning of the system so that these control measures can be taken to achieve the intended goal by maximizing the functioning of the system or in other words by using the natural as much as possible. making processes contribute to achieving the goals. This research focuses on both physical system characteristics and the estimation of the benthic primary production.

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Project type(s)

  • Research Project