Institute for Sustainability

Earth Systems Engineering

Earth Systems Engineering

Humans have become a main driver of global environmental change, transforming the land, sea and air. Many of the ways in which people drive environmental change is through infrastructure such as transport, energy, water and food as they are linked to the land, oceans and atmosphere.

Scientists and engineers have at their disposal a wide variety of tools and techniques to analyse how society impacts the environment as a whole. However, solving complex problems like climate adaptation requires models, tools and techniques that do not yet exist.

Newcastle University researchers with the Centre for Earth Systems Engineering are analysing the impacts of long term environmental change, including climate impacts, on water and infrastructure to find ways to manage them sustainably.

How are we meeting the environmental and societal challenges of today?

Researchers in sustainability at Newcastle University are modelling processes of change in which humans and earth systems are intertwined. They are focusing on the impacts of climate change, national infrastructure systems, sustainable development of cities and catchment management. This includes data acquisition, simulation, decision analysis and visualisation tools and techniques for sustainable management of infrastructure systems.  

Developing new business models for infrastructure

Infrastructure offers a wide range of benefits to industry, government and communities. It provides services that need to be included if we are to develop and implement infrastructure that will sustain itself and continue to provide lasting benefits. However, these benefits are usually not included in appraisals making it difficult to create infrastructure that is economically, socially and environmentally sustainable. Researchers are developing new business models for infrastructure that not only account for their physical components but the services they deliver.

This will enable the UK to deliver interconnected infrastructure that values the economic, social and environmental benefits that infrastructure provides. Infrastructure is not merely ‘tracks, tubes and trunk roads’ but the flow of resources for the people and businesses that depend on them. There are also ‘hidden infrastructures’ such as energy efficiency of homes and energy demand reduction that could be included.

Newcastle University researchers with the iBuild project are focusing on infrastructure at the scale of neighbourhoods, towns and cities. This is where interdependencies between infrastructures, economies and society are most profound.

iBuild Manifesto – Are you being served? Alternative infrastructure business models to improve economic growth and well-being

Urban Observatory

The Urban Observatory part of Science Central is a ground breaking project in urban sensing monitoring. It aims to better understand how cities work to assist the local authority and other stakeholders in making future decisions about the city of Newcastle based on firm evidence. Newcastle University researchers are monitoring live data streams from multiple sensors placed throughout the city that measure a wide variety of different aspects of the city, including:

  • air quality (NO, NO2, CO, CO2, Ozone etc.)
  • soil greenhouse gas monitoring stations
  • climate and weather
  • electricity supply
  • people movement
  • road surface temperature

It also incorporates data from other sectors including utilities and the Urban Traffic Management Control Centre.

Blue-green cities

A blue-green city brings water management and green infrastructure together. Similar techniques in ‘natural engineering’ to reduce flooding in rural areas can also be used in urban ones. Using Newcastle as a demonstration city, Newcastle University researchers part of the Blue-Green Cities project are testing ways to store water at the surface of the land, and use green infrastructure to soak up water from flash floods. Similar to other urban areas Newcastle’s city centre surface is mainly impermeable making it unable to deal with high volumes of rain over short periods of time.

Researchers have identified ‘hot spots’ for flooding throughout the city where sustainable urban drainage systems could be used to protect buildings, including people’s homes, from flooding. Working with local authorities, the Environment Agency, the water provider and community groups, researchers have developed a Surface Water Management Plan for Newcastle and Gateshead. The top nine flood hotspots identified are the focus of the project.

Justice and governance

Designing infrastructure so that it is integrated and serves the needs of people who use it has to do with collaborating across multiple levels of governance. Newcastle University researchers in engineering and the physical sciences are working across boundaries of national and local governance to create solutions to sustainable infrastructure. As earth systems engineering involves studying long term environmental change, researchers are demonstrating how infrastructure can meet sustainability challenges over multiple generations.  

Soil research 

Read about examples of soil research at Newcastle University.

Work with us

Sustainability researchers in earth systems engineering work with a range of partners in industry, government and academia. They are always interested in forming new collaborations with interested stakeholders. For further information contact the Institute for Sustainability.