Professor Kate Spencer, BSc (Greenwich), MSc (Imperial), PhD (Greenwich)
Professor of Environmental Geochemistry
Tel: 020 7882 7814
Location: Geography Building, Room 207
I am an environmental geochemist who works closely with geomorphologists, hydrologists and ecologists to provide fundamental science to underpin effective management of fine sediment in estuaries and lowland rivers. My principal research interest is in understanding the source, distribution and behaviour of sediment-bound contaminants and to quantify how this is impacted by natural disturbance, anthropogenic management and restoration activities. Key research highlights include improved understanding of: (i) the influence of environmental parameters on contaminant behaviour; (ii) flocculation and cohesive sediment transport; (iii) the development of innovative geochemical tracers; and iv) the interactions between physical and biogeochemical processes in saltmarsh environments.
- Spencer KL and Harvey GL. 2012. Understanding system disturbance and ecosystem services in restored saltmarshes: Integrating physical and biogeochemical processes. Estuarine Coastal Shelf Science 106: 23–32
- Spencer, K.L, Droppo, I.G, He, C, Grapentine, L and Exall, K (2011) A novel tracer technique for the assessment of fine sediment dynamics in urban water management systems. Water Research 45:2596–2606
- Spencer, K.L., Manning, A., Droppo, I., Leppard, G.G. and Benson, T. (2010) Dynamic interactions of cohesive sediment tracers and natural mud. Journal of Soil and Sediment 10, 7:1401–1414
- Reid, M. and Spencer, K.L. 2009. Use of principal components analysis on estuarine sediment data sets: The effect of data pre-treatment. Environmental Pollution 157, 2275–2281
- Spencer, K.L., Cundy, AB., Hearn-Davies, S., MacLeod, CL., Turner, S. and Hughes, R. (2008). Physicochemical changes to sediments at Orplands Farm, Essex, UK following 8 years of Managed Realignment. Estuarine Coastal Shelf Science 76, 608–619
- President elect of the Estuarine and Coastal Science Association (2012–present)
- Invited talks/keynotes: Sediments and Biodiversity, 7th International SedNet conference on 6–9 April 2011, Venice, Italy; Impacts of physical disturbance on biogeochemical cycling in restored saltmarshes, Open Landscapes, Society for Ecological Restoration, 29 September – 3 October 2013, Hildesheim, Germany.
- Provide expert advice on sediment contamination and management to; the Environment Agency, Environment Canada, Medway Ports Authority, Dredging Liaison Group, Port of London Authority, Groupe d’Etude Observations Dragage sur l’Environment and the Port of Nantes.
- Invited international visiting fellowships: National Water Research Institute, Canada; University of Xiamen, China
I am actively involved in teaching at all levels of our undergraduate and postgraduate taught programmes. I employ a range of teaching and assessment methods including laboratory work, field-based learning, large lecture classes, small seminars and workshops. I am particularly interested in the development of student-led approaches to learning. For example, I convene ‘Environmental Management Applications’ which includes a residential fieldtrip to south Florida. In preparation for this trip, students carry out a critical literature review on a relevant topic. The students each produce a 2-page fact sheet and they then become the ‘expert’ on their topic holding a question and answer session at an appropriate location – it could be on a beach, in a boat or on the middle of a mangrove swamp!
Much of my teaching, particularly at third year and masters level, has a strong emphasis on developing the skills that students need to progress into environmental careers. This teaching is informed strongly by my research. For example, in Environmental Management Applications students learn how to carry out ecosystem service assessments, and at 2nd, 3rd and masters level students collect environmental data (e.g. contaminants in soils, sediment and water) and write up their findings as technical consultancy style reports.
The modules I contribute to include;
Characterisation and targeting of measures for (non-coal) polluted mine waters – Impacts of contaminated sediment on ecological recovery (funded by Defra, in collaboration with Queen Mary, School of Biological and Chemical Sciences, the Natural History Museum and Adas)
Pollution from non-coal abandoned metal mines is a serious impediment to rivers and estuaries in England Wales meeting their water quality targets as set out by the EU Water Framework Directive. Recent work has identified the mines that are most likely to be causing a significant environmental impact and hence where efforts to prevent pollution will be focussed. However, what is not clear is to what extent rivers, and the animal and plant life they support, are impacted by the legacy of past pollution still bound up in river sediments and to what extent the problem is linked to metal-contaminated water currently entering rivers from mines and mine waste heaps. Work will be undertaken to clean up mine waters (removing or reducing toxic metals) before they enter the river but if sediments in the river and estuary beds are already contaminated and affecting life in rivers then the planned clean-up work of mine water sources may not result in the expected recovery of ecological condition.
This project aims to improve our knowledge of the impact of metal-rich sediments upon river life and the potential they hold for inhibiting ecological recovery following remediation of mine water discharges. We will use new approaches to more directly measure the levels of toxic metals to which life in the water is actually exposed, and we will relate these values to the integrity of the whole community of animals in the river. This work will be supported by chemical analysis of the river and estuary sediments and laboratory experiments where we will manipulate environmental conditions and measure the response of the metals bound to the sediments and the contamination of animals living in the sediments.
Coastal Waste (funded by the NERC, the Environment Agency and Arcadis):
Historically we have disposed of our domestic waste in landfill sites in the coastal/estuarine zone that are now at, or near, to mean high water. With climate change and associated predictions of sea level rise, increasing frequency of storm surges and changes to precipitation and river discharge there is now a risk that this contaminated material may re-worked and released to river, estuarine and coastal environments. We are currently working to assess the extent of such contamination in southeast England, to predict the potential consequences of sea level rise on contaminant release, and to develop a risk assessment model and sustainable management plan for the Environment Agency.
For further details see work by PhD students Francis O'Shea and James Brand:
- Brand, J. Environment Agency, Flood & Coast 2016 (Telford, February 2016): Contamination from historic coastal landfills (oral presentation).
- Brand, J. River Restoration Centre, RRC 2016 (Blackpool, April 2016): Pollution from historic landfill sites (poster presentation).
- O’Shea, F. T., Spencer, K. L., (2015). Contamination of Coastal Sediments from Historic Landfills: A ticking time-bomb, 9th International SedNet Conference, Krakow, Poland.
- O’Shea, F. T., Spencer, K. L., Brasington, J., (2015). In-situ X-ray fluorescence (XRF) analysis: Rapid data acquisition in the coastal zone, ECSA 55, London, United Kingdom (poster presentation).
- O’Shea, F. T., Spencer, K. L., Brasington, J., (2015). Historical landfills within the coastal zone: A broad scale spatial investigation of contamination legacy, ECSA 55, London, United Kingdom.
- O’Shea, F. T., Spencer, K. L., Brasington, J., (2014). Quantitative assessment of historical coastal landfill contamination using in-situ field portable X-Ray Fluorescence (FPXRF), European Geosciences Union, Vienna, Austria. 27th April – 4th May 2014.
- O’Shea, F. T., Spencer, K. L., Brasington, J., Webb. M., (2013). Impacts of Coastal Landfills on the Quality of Estuarine Environments, 12th International Estuarine Biogeochemistry Symposium, Plymouth. 30th June – 4th July 2013.
- O’Shea, F. T., Spencer, K. L., MacLeod, C. L., (2012) ‘Development of a risk assessment model for diffuse landfill pollution as a result of climate change’, ECSA 50, Venice, Italy. 3rd–7th June 2012 (poster presentation).
- QMUL: What lies beneath? PhD study digs down to reveal legacy of landfill under our feet.
- The Independent: Landfill dumps across UK 'at risk of leaking hazardous chemicals'
- QMUL press release: Floods and coastal erosion may expose contents of UK landfills, study finds
- The Guardian: Pollution risk from over 1,000 old UK landfill sites due to coastal erosion
Environmental Impacts of Hydrodynamic Dredging (funded by HR Wallingford Ltd, the Environment Agency, Group D’Etude Dragage sur L’Environment):
Hydrodynamic dredging, including techniques such as water injection dredging (WID), involves the injection of large volumes of water under low pressure into bottom sediment in situ, breaking the cohesive forces that bind fine sediment and allowing sediment to move under the influence of gravity and/or tidal and river flows. This is an effective and economically attractive dredging technique, which has been widely used across Europe and the USA. However, since 2011 it has become a licensable activity under the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 and there is now an urgent need to improve our understanding of the potential environmental impacts of this technique including understanding the release of contaminants to the water column and changes to contaminant behaviour in remobilized sediments and then to develop appropriate monitoring protocols.
Also see an ERASMUS funded PhD project ‘Environmental impacts of hydrodynamic dredging’ advertised at http://www.riverscience.eu/
Coastal Restoration and Managed Realignment
Managed realignment (MR), a widespread coastal restoration technique, is increasingly being across Europe and the USA to re-create coastal salt marsh habitats and to deliver sustainable coastal defence. However, MR also has the potential to deliver many additional ecosystem services including carbon sequestration and water purification (through e.g. contaminant storage or denitrification). Our research has shown how understanding past land use and changes to soil structure can influence hydrology and solute transport in restored salt marsh sediments with potential consequences for the ecosystem services that these restoration schemes can deliver (European Commission 2012; Spencer et al. 2008; Spencer and Harvey 2012). Current work includes the examining the potential of MR sites as mercury methylation ‘hotspots’.
- Brand, J.H. and Spencer, K.L. 2017. Assessing the risk of pollution from historic coastal landfills. Executive Summary for the Environment Agency.
- Spencer KL and Harvey GL. 2012. Understanding system disturbance and ecosystem services in restored saltmarshes: Integrating physical and biogeochemical processes. Estuarine and Coastal Shelf Science 106: 23–32.
- Kadiri, M., Spencer, KL., Heppell, CM. 2012. Potential contaminant release from agricultural soil and dredged sediment following managed realignment. Journal of Soils and Sediments. DOI 10.1007/s11368-012-0568-z.
- Spencer, K.L, Suzuki, K and Hillier, S. 2011. The potential of Rare Earth Element labelled potassium depleted clays as cohesive sediment tracers in aquatic environments. Journal of Soils and Sediments 11: 1052–1061.
- Kadiri, M., Spencer, KL., Heppell, CM. and Fletcher, P. 2011. Sediment characteristics of a restored saltmarsh and mudflat in a managed realignment scheme in Southeast England. Hydrobiologia 672: 79–89.
- Reid MK, Spencer KL, Shotbolt L (2011). An appraisal of microwave-assisted Tessier and BCR sequential extraction methods, for the analysis of metals in sediments and soils. Journal of Soils and Sediments. 11: 518–528.
- Spencer, K.L, Droppo, I.G, He, C, Grapentine, L and Exall, K (2011) A novel tracer technique for the assessment of fine sediment dynamics in urban water management systems. Water Research 45 2596–2606.
- Jingchun, L., Chongling, Y., Spencer KL., Ruifeng Z. and Haoliang L. 2010. The distribution of acid-volatile sulfide and simultaneously extracted metals in sediments from a mangrove forest and adjacent mudflat in Zhangjiang Estuary, China. Marine Pollution Bulletin 60: 1209–1216.
- Spencer, K.L., Manning, A., Droppo, I., Leppard, G.G. and Benson (2010) Dynamic interactions of cohesive sediment tracers and natural mud. Journal of Soils and Sediments 10, 7: 1401–1414.
- Reid, M. and Spencer, K.L. 2009. Use of principal components analysis on estuarine sediment data sets: The effect of data pre-treatment. Environmental Pollution 157, 2275–2281.
- Spencer, K.L., Cundy, AB., Hearn-Davies, S., MacLeod, CL., Turner, S. and Hughes, R. 2008. Physicochemical changes to sediments at Orplands Farm, Essex, UK following 8 years of Managed Realignment. Estuarine Coastal and Shelf Science 76, 608–619.
- Spencer, K.L., Suzuki, K., Benson, T., Taylor, J.A., Manning, A. and Dearnaley, M. (2007). The potential use of geochemically labelled minerals as tracers for cohesive sediments. In: Westrich, B. and Förstner, U. (Eds) Sediment Dynamics and Pollutant Mobility in Rivers—Interdisciplinary Approach. Springer-Verlag Berlin, Heidelberg, New York.
- Spencer, K.L., James, S.L., Taylor, J.A. and Kearton-Gee, T. (2007). Sorption of La3+ onto clay minerals: A potential tracer for fine sediment transport in the coastal marine environment? In: Balson, P.S. and Collins, M.B (Eds) Coastal and Shelf Sediment Transport. Special Publication of the BGS, vol SP274, British Geological Society, London.
- Spencer, K.L., MacLeod, C.L., Tuckett, A. and Johnson, S.M. 2006. Source and distribution of heavy metals in the Medway and Swale Estuaries, Kent, UK. Marine Pollution Bulletin 52(2): 226–230.
- Cundy, A.B., Lafite, R., Taylor, J.A., Hopkinson, L., Deloffre, J., Charman, R., Gilpin, M.B, Spencer, K.L, Carey, P.J., Heppell, C.M., Ouddane, B. and De Wever, S. 2006. Sediment transfer and accumulation in two contrasting saltmarsh/mudflat systems: the Seine estuary (France) and the Medway estuary (UK). Hydrobiologia, 52, 2, 226–230.
- Spencer, K.L., Dewhurst, R.E. and Penna, P. 2006. Potential impacts of water injection dredging on water quality and ecotoxicity in Limehouse Basin, River Thames, SE England, UK. Chemosphere, 63 (3): 509–521.
- Cundy, A.B., Hopkinson, L., Lafite, R., Taylor, J.A., Ouddane, B., Spencer, K.L, Heppell, C.M., Carey, P.J., Charman, R., Shell, D. and Ullyott, S. 2005. Heavy metal distribution and accumulation in two Spartina sp.-dominated macrotidal salt marshes from the Seine estuary (France) and the Medway estuary (U.K.). Applied Geochemistry, 20, 1195–1208.
- Spencer, K.L., Cundy, A.B., Croudace, I.W. 2003. Heavy metal distribution and early-diagenesis in salt marsh sediments from the Medway Estuary, Kent, UK. Estuarine Coastal Shelf Science, 57 (1–2) 43–54.
- Spencer, K.L. and MacLeod, C.L. 2002. Partitioning of heavy metals in estuarine sediment cores and implications for use of sediment quality standards. Hydrology and Earth Systems Science, 6 (6) 989–998.
- Spencer, K.L. 2002. Spatial distribution of metals in the inter-tidal sediments of the Medway Estuary, Kent. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 44 (9) 933–44.
I have successfully supervised 6 PhD students to their completion and am actively recruiting new doctoral candidates. I am particularly interested in supervising projects that examine: hydrology, sediment structure and biogeochemistry in natural and restored salt marshes (including contaminants and carbon storage); the behaviour and structure of flocs and associated contaminants in aquatic environments; and the environmental impacts of flooding and coastal landfills.
Funded PhD topics are advertised through our EU Erasmus Mundus Joint Doctoral programme, SMART (Science for Management of Rivers and their Tidal Systems); the London NERC DTP programme and our website.
Please contact me directly if you would like to discuss a PhD or MSc by Research in these areas.
Current PhD students:
- Abel Anderson Machado (2013-) A conceptual model for metal dynamics in estuarine environments (ERASMUS).
- James Brand (2012-): Diffuse pollution in the coastal zone: waste filled sea walls (Environment Agency).
- John Groves (2012-): 3D Analysis of Environmental Materials (QMUL studentship)
- Michelle Morris (2011-): Mercury cycling in restored saltmarshes (NERC and QMUL studentship)
- Francis O’Shea (2011-): Development of a risk assessment model for bankside estuarine landfill sites (NERC Case Award and Arcadis).
- Jonny Wheatland (2012-): Novel analytical protocols for correlative, multi-scale image analysis of the structure of complex environmental materials (EPSRC)
- Dr Sarah Johnson (2004) Mercury cycling in the Medway Estuary (EPSRC)
- Dr Miriam Reid (2008) Metal partitioning in sediments of the Medway Estuary (QMUL studentship)
- Dr Margaret Kadiri (2010) Contaminant release from managed realignment soils and sediments (QMUL studentship)
- Dr Robert Grabowski (2010) Erodability of cohesive sediment (QMUL studentship)
- Dr Helen Gibbs (2012) Urban river restoration: some potential problems associated with sediment accumulation (QMUL studentship)
- Dr Jean Paul Belliard (2014) Eco-morphodynamics of tidal wetlands (ERASMUS).