Imperial College London

National environment project to engage people with the natural world

OPAL

Imperial scientists encourage the public to unlock the secrets of their local environment<em> - News</em>

By Danielle Reeves
Tuesday 25 November 2008

A national project to involve the public in the first ever community led study of the natural world was launched today at the Natural History Museum.

Directed by Dr Linda Davies from Imperial's Centre for Environmental Policy, the OPAL (Open Air Laboratories) project will pioneer a wide range of events and initiatives across England that give people the tools and support to identify, monitor and record plants and wildlife in their local area, and the conditions in which they live.

OPAL will include five major national surveys investigating soil, air, biodiversity, water and climate which are scheduled to take place between now and 2012. OPAL activities across the country will be open to anyone who wants to take part.

Scientists from across Imperial's Faculty of Natural Sciences are involved in OPAL. Biologists at the College's Silwood Park campus, led by Dr Sally Power, are running the national OPAL Air and Climate Change Impacts projects. These two projects will focus on understanding the impact of air pollution on plants and how droughts, changing rainfall patterns and biodiversity loss affect the ability of ecosystems to carry out important processes.

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Working with specially appointed community scientists, Dr Power and her colleagues will host a number of open days, summer schools and other outreach activities which raise awareness of the environmental consequences of climate change, and enable people to learn about the effect pollution has on the natural world.

Researchers from the Centre for Environmental Policy, led by Dr Nick Voulvoulis and community scientist Dr Martin Head, are running the OPAL soil centre which will focus on soil quality and the biodiversity of earthworms.

In 2009 the project will lead a national soil survey, in which school children, community groups and other participants will take soil measurements and record data on earthworms in their local area. The data from this survey will then be compared with historical data to assess the extent of environmental change.

In addition, Professor Ralf Toumi from Imperial's Department of Physics and Dr Sally Power are running the OPAL London and OPAL South East regional projects respectively. These are two of nine projects being run by universities across the country to focus on local environmental issues.

Professor Toumi's OPAL London project aims to increase understanding of climate change and weather in London. His team, in collaboration with schools and the London Grid for Learning, will set up an extensive network of automatic weather stations - one in each London borough - and study the London heat island in detail.

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TV wildlife presenter Steve Leonard helped to launch the national OPAL project today

Dr Power's OPAL South East project will invite local communities to participate in an investigation of the effects of traffic emissions on urban green spaces and nature conservation sites alongside major roads. Areas of interest will include allotments, school grounds, parks and gardens as they are all valuable resources that contribute substantially to quality of life and urban biodiversity.

OPAL Director, Dr Linda Davies said: "OPAL will encourage more people to spend more of their time outside exploring, studying and enjoying their local environments. There is so much to discover and together we hope to gain a much greater understanding of the world around us and how to protect it, particularly the most disadvantaged parts of England."

The OPAL project has been awarded an £11.75 million grant from the Big Lottery Fund to encourage more people to spend time outside exploring their local environment.

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