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Vol. 16 No. 1 - January 2010

OPAL: A Unique National Public Participatory Environmental Monitoring Project

By: J. Nigel B. Bell*

In 2007 the Open Air Laboratories Project (OPAL) was established in England, as a unique 5 year programme involving the public in a wide range of environmental monitoring projects across the entire area of this part of the United Kingdom. While public participatory projects have been carried out in the UK previously, the scope, extent and duration of OPAL are on a scale far greater than any other exercise. Examples of past projects, which in some ways form a model for key parts of OPAL, are nation-wide surveys by school children of air and water pollution, using lichens and invertebrates, respectively, in the early 1970s, the results of which were published in the journal “Environmental Pollution.” Other more recent examples some 20 years ago were carried out by school children measuring the acidity of rain and biomonitoring tropospheric O3 with the sensitive tobacco cultivar, Bel – W3. In the early years of the present decade a major European Commission funded project, Eurobionet, performed a major biomonitoring programme for air pollutants, utilising a range of plant species in cities across a number of western and central European countries. While this did not involve direct public participation, it had a high profile in terms of raising the awareness of the general population of air pollution and its impacts.

The OPAL programme has extended massively the scope of these earlier projects but incorporating much of their underlying philosophy. It is funded by the Big Lottery Fund, which awards grants for community based projects, using the profits of the UK National Lottery, which was established in 1994. The total value of the award is around £12,000,000, supporting the work of 15 partners and a total of 31 projects. The main partners are Imperial College Centre for Environmental Policy (CEP) and its close neighbour in London, the Natural History Museum (NHM). The OPAL objectives are:

  • A change of lifestyle – a purpose to spend time outside observing and recording the world around us. The aim here is get over one million people more aware of their natural environment and how to protect it.

  • An exciting and innovative educational programme that can be accessed and enjoyed by all ages and abilities. Thus through a range of new approaches to learning, people will become involved in natural history activities with consequent enhancement of their knowledge and understanding.

  • A new generation of environmentalists. It is aimed to stimulate membership of natural history societies, including from under-represented sections of society.

  • A much greater understanding of the state of the natural environment. This will ensure that everybody will have the opportunity to monitor the state of the natural environment and generate important scientific data on a vast scale. ‘Some of the most disadvantaged communities will be helped to identify, quantify and highlight environmentally deprived spaces.’

  • Stronger partnerships between the community, voluntary and statutory sectors. Scientists at 10 universities in different English regions, with the aid of specialist national centres, will build connections with individuals and organisations, which wish to improve local environments, aiming to involve over 500,000 people.

Central to the activities of OPAL are 5 national surveys which are being carried out sequentially over the life of the programme and overseen by a Biomonitoring Committee, of which I am the Chair. The first of these, led by Imperial College, is on soil quality and earthworm populations. This utilises a workbook and recording guide, carefully designed, (as in all 5 surveys), by the Field Studies Council, for use by the non-specialist in a laminated form suitable for use under field conditions in the wet English climate! It contains a key to 12 common earthworm species, indicator papers for pH measurement and instructions for a simple set of soil quality tests, including porosity, compaction and particle size/distribution. After a number of pilot studies, with subsequent modification of the pack, the survey was launched in March 2009. Results are entered by the participants into a web-site (as for the other surveys), which is continuously updated and which can be interrogated by the public to determine the current distribution of records. The data are being analysed statistically, seeking relationships between worm populations and soil characteristics. At the same time they are being subjected to rigorous quality assurance procedures to ensure the validity of the data, which will be sufficiently robust for publication in international refereed journals.

The remaining 4 surveys follow essentially the same pattern as for the soil quality/earthworms. The second survey on air quality is also led by Imperial College and was launched in September 2009. This consists of two parts. Firstly the lichen flora of the trunks and twigs of free-standing trees is surveyed, concentrating on 9 species – 3 nitrogen-loving, 3 nitrogen-sensitive and 3 which are intermediate, which will be related to the air quality at the sites of investigation, thus following the long-established practice of lichen biomonitoring, but taking into account recent changes in air pollution characteristics. The second part is a survey of tarspot of sycamore, which is a fungal disease infecting the leaves that have been shown to be adversely affected by both SO2 and NO2. This involves counting the number of tarspots per leaf and calculating a tarspot index, based on leaf size, which can then be related to the prevailing air quality. The third survey on water quality is led by University College London and will be launched in May 2010. It involves estimates of invertebrate species and tests for water clarity and pH. The Open University (distance learning) will run the Biodiversity Survey, which will start in September 2010. It is closely associated with the OPAL funded Open University’s Biodiversity Observatory (“iSpot), which is an online social networking site, connecting beginners to experts. The final element, the Climate Survey run from the Meteorological Office, will commence in March 2011. The exact nature of this is still being worked out, but suggestions include chasing soap bubbles to record wind characteristics.

In addition to the surveys, centres have been set up in Air, Soil and Climate Change (Imperial College), Water (University College London) and Biodiversity (Open University). These act as focal points for research into these areas, with a high level of public interaction, as well as the relevant national surveys. In view of the requirement for OPAL activities other than the surveys to cover all of England, 9 regional centres have been set up in local universities, which address different environmental issues, of particular interest to the regions concerned. Thus the University of Hertfordshire concentrates on the ecology of orchards, covering the East Anglia region; Imperial College covers impacts of road traffic pollution in South East England and the characteristics of the urban climate of London; University of Nottingham studies heathlands, particularly the deleterious effects of nitrogen deposition; University of Birmingham concentrates on the environment of urban green spaces; University of Plymouth covers effects of pollution on woodlands; University of York concentrates on a wide range of environmental activities in Yorkshire and Humberside, with the University of Newcastle-on-Tyne having a similar broad range of activities in North East England; University of Central Lancashire operates in North West England and concentrates on people’s experience, especially of communities which have not had the opportunity previously to explore the delights of nature. All these regional centres employ community scientists who are involved in a very wide range of outreach activities.

OPAL has not yet reached its halfway stage and, indeed, has only recently held its first annual conference. However, there is every indication that it is proving to be an outstanding success, amply fulfilling its original objectives. Thus all stakeholders are benefiting, including academics, who are receiving a vast amount of original data which will be published in the scientific literature. The survey packs are immensely popular and are being progressively refined with each new survey, in view of experience. Amateur societies are being encouraged, with a programme of grants being awarded and the recent formation of the first Earthworm Society of Britain. However, the most pleasing aspect is the keen involvement of many marginalised and disadvantaged groups, such as handicapped children and adults, black and ethnic minorities, the long term unemployed and even prisoners. Thus many people are encountering nature for the first time and learning new skills, not the least in plant and animal identification, which hopefully will lead to opportunities of employment, filling the gap left by the decline in taxonomy teaching in UK universities at a time when the demand for field ecologists is growing rapidly.

While the OPAL programme is restricted to England, there is considerable interest elsewhere in the UK and I feel that it can form the model for transfer to other countries. As has been discussed previously in Environews, biomonitoring is particularly suitable for use in the developing world and I would love to see an OPAL scheme developed in India and elsewhere. Finally, I would like to pay tribute to all the members of the OPAL team, but in particular to its Director, Dr. Linda Davies, whose idea it was entirely, arising out of her PhD research under my supervision into the effects of changing air quality on London’s lichen flora.


*Professor of Environmental Pollution, Centre for Environmental Policy, Mechanical Engineering Building, Imperial College, London, SW7 2AZ, UK.

E-mail: [email protected]

This article has been reproduced from the archives of EnviroNews - Newsletter of ISEB India.

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