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School of Geography

Students witness river in flood on latest Italy fieldtrip


Environmental Scientists flew out to Italy this term to observe the Tagliamento River in the north east of the country in the Province of Udine – and a change in the weather provided a great opportunity to see this unique location in flood.

From the Alps to the Adriatic Sea, the Tagliamento River flows from an alpine to a Mediterranean environment. One of the few remaining near-pristine river floodplain systems in Europe, it’s an ideal place to study a natural river relatively unchanged by human interventions such as channelisation.

The river’s famous braided pattern underwent a dramatic change, however, after a prolonged deluge of rain part-way through the trip saw the amount of water flowing increase. 

Programme leader Dr Gemma Harvey said the change in weather had given the students a great opportunity to observe the river in flood and watch the development of fluvial landforms in real time.

“In the first two days, we had been going through some key skills in field data collection that help us understand the influence of vegetation on the form and structure, or morphology, of a river,” Dr Harvey said. “We had been examining the height of trees, their age, the number of species as well as looking at the speed of flow and size distribution of sediment particles in the river. The unexpected downpour, however, meant we were able to see a ‘before and after’ of the river system. It was great for the students to go back once the skies had cleared and witness for themselves this rapid transformation.”

The data gathered helps the students to build a detailed picture of the relationship between a river and its surrounding environment. Students undertook their own projects as part of the trip looking at ‘pioneer islands’ – the teardrop-shaped crops of vegetation often seen building up into islands in the middle of the riverbed. Postgraduate student Rosie Steadman from East Sussex joined the School of Geography in September and this was her first fieldtrip with the team.

“We all had a go at everything, it was fantastic – from tree-coring to using a clinometer to measure the height of trees. We learned so much in a short space of time and in such a friendly team as well,” she said. Rosie’s academic interest is focused in how sources of groundwater can be polluted and she is considering a career in environmental consultancy. “Being able to visit one of the few near-natural rivers left in the world to gather this data was extremely valuable to me. The majority of the papers I’ve read in advance about this subject had been written by the staff here at Queen Mary, so I knew I would be with the best people to find out more.”

This new field course was introduced to the MSc Environmental Science: Integrated Management of Freshwater Environments programme in 2012.

Below: The famous braided pattern (left) of the Tagliamento River disappears (right) after a deluge of rainfall.



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