Europe’s extensive network of field research sites will play a crucial role in assessing the impacts of COVID-19 on the essential benefits that the natural world brings to humans.

There are 450 European Long-Term Ecosystem Research (eLTER) sites, carrying out ecological, biogeochemical, hydrological and atmospheric measuring and monitoring in a variety of ecosystems in 26 countries. There is a strong emphasis on socio-ecological monitoring, which involves analysing the interactions between humans and the environment, in order to support scientific studies and collaborations, as well as inform policy-making. The eLTER ESFRI process is led by UFZ and the University of Helsinki.  PEER members SYKE and UKCEH are also partners in this project to develop a pan-European Long-Term Ecosystem Research Infrastructure (eLTER RI).  

Scientists say the evidence gathered at these monitoring stations over the coming months and years will indicate how changes in human activities due to the COVID-19 pandemic are affecting the environment, including air, soil and water quality as well as plants, animals and other species. 

At a ‘virtual meeting’ to launch two new EU-funded eLTER projects, representatives from more than 30 European partner institutes discussed how they can support policy-makers, researchers, businesses and the public across Europe. They will use eLTER’s unique research and data infrastructure over the coming months to consider eLTER’s response to the pandemic.

The coordinators of the eLTER ESFRI process, Michael Mirtl (UFZ) and Jaana Bäck (University of Helskinki), conclude: “Societies have been challenged by the Coronavirus outbreak, but no matter how profound, the pandemic is indicative of only one of the many challenges that the society will have to face in the coming years. Societal responses will necessarily vary from short term actions as a response to the crisis to long term adaptations that may change political, economic and social systems in a profound way. The COVID-19 pandemic presents an important opportunity to assess community resilience in the face of unexpected crisis, and eLTER LTSER platforms, with their distribution across European ecosystem gradients are ideally situated to take on this challenge. The central research focus of the eLTER initiative will be in the identification, specification, quantification and analysis of the conditions under which incidents such as the Covid-19 pandemic have different impacts across social-ecological gradients. “

UKCEH data scientist Sue Rennie, who is involved in the projects, says: “The eLTER partnership comprises an established network of observation sites plus a multi-disciplinary team of scientists who are committed to problem-solving. Therefore, we have the required skills, experience and capability to provide crucial information regarding the social and ecological impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath.

“Our research and analysis can answer crucial questions such as whether there will be a long-term effect of this pandemic on pollution levels, water resources, soil health and biodiversity loss. Long-term, real-time data provision is a core service of eLTER, and the COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the crucial need for access to such data sources in order to advise policy makers on regional, national and global decision-making.

“Working with national and local authorities, researchers, business and citizens, we will provide the scientific evidence to inform policies that capitalise on any positive environmental trends and mitigate the negative social and economic impacts.”

Further information

The EU recently awarded funding worth a total of 14 million euros from its Horizon2020 programme to fund the two new five-year eLTER projects.

The eLTER RI Preparatory Phase Project (PPP) is the next phase in the development of an integrated and formalised structure for long-term ecosystem, critical zone and socio-ecological research in Europe. Harmonised methods and research approaches will be applied across the eLTER network, access to data will be facilitated and a wide range of user groups, from research to policy, will receive comprehensive support. Meanwhile, the Advanced Community Project, eLTER PLUS, will use selected sites and platforms in terrestrial, freshwater and coastal ecosystems to study ecosystem integrity, impacts of climate change, and endangered ecosystem services at a pan-European scale.