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Ocean and Earth Science, National Oceanography Centre Southampton

Environmental Geochemistry and Radioactivity


Environmental geochemistry and radioactivity focuses on the sources, distribution and interactions of chemical elements and radionuclides in rocks, soils, waters, air and organisms (including humans) – examining our impact on the geochemical environment, and its impact on us. The second half of the 20th century saw a huge increase in the global geochemical impact of human society, with some arguing we are now living in a new geological epoch – the Anthropocene. Within this context, there is a pressing need to better understand the sources, pathways and fluxes of contaminants, and find improved ways of measuring, monitoring and managing contaminants in order to better mitigate their environmental and human health impacts. This requires a combination of fundamental understanding of geochemical processes, and the development of new characterisation, analysis and integrated management methods both for more traditionally measured and emerging contaminants, such as plastics and pharmaceutical residues. The Southampton Geochemistry Group is ideally placed to address these requirements, bringing together experts in inorganic and organic geochemistry, analytical and environmental radiochemistry and radioactivity, and environmental geology and contaminated land and water management. Our GAU-Radioanalytical Laboratories, with its ISO17025 accreditation, is a major provider of radioanalytical and analytical expertise to the environmental and nuclear sector, while our state-of-the-art geochemical facilities support material characterisation from the bulk to the nano-scale.

Key questions:

Our research spans rock-water-soil-air systems, fingerprinting sources of contamination using isotopic and other methods, developing new more sustainable methods for land and water clean-up, assessing historical contaminant inputs using sedimentary archives, and examining the distribution and environmental cycling of emerging contaminants such as microplastics and nanoparticles. Key questions we are examining with University and external partners include:

1. Can we develop new, improved methods of characterising and managing nuclear wastes, particularly for difficult to measure (DTM) radionuclides and sites undergoing nuclear decommissioning?

2. What are the sources and impacts of urban air pollution, particularly in port cities such as Southampton?

3. What potential is there to develop new, more sustainable, methods for managing toxic “forever chemicals” such as perfluorinated compounds, and other problem contaminants and contaminated sites?

4. To what extent can we use nuclear fallout as a basal marker for the stratigraphic Anthropocene?

5. What are the key processes that moderate the inputs of contaminants from land to sea, through estuaries?

Wastes characterisation
On-site wastes characterisation & clean-up methods for nuclear sites.
Schematic figure
Schematic figure for on-site wastes characterisation.

How do we do it?

We use a broad range of advanced shared analytical facilities in high specification laboratories which provide a powerful infrastructure to enable diverse studies in environmental geochemistry and radioactivity.

These facilities allow us to determine the concentrations and environmental fingerprints of a wide range of contaminants down to ultra low levels in various geological and oceanographic materials, study and radiometrically date sediment cores to look at recent environmental and anthropogenic changes, and develop new techniques for characterising environmental and waste materials, and ensuring their effective clean-up or risk management.

Major equipment within our geochemical and radiochemical laboratories includes numerous mass spectrometers (ICP-MS, TIMS, TOF-ICP), organic geochemistry facilities (including compound specific isotope ratio mass spectrometry), high-resolution radioactivity detectors and laboratories, and X-ray fluorescence systems, which also support our National Nuclear Users Facility in next generation accelerated characterisation technologies (NNUF-EXACT).

Laboratory flume
Assessing the processes trapping microplastics and other contaminants.
In the field
Sample gathering in estuaries.









Who in the Geochemistry Group is involved?

Professor Andy Cundy; Professor Gavin Foster; Dr Pawel Gaca; Dr Gordon Inglis; Professor Andy Milton; Professor Martin Palmer; Dr Jamie Purkis; Professor Phil Warwick; Dr Jessica Whiteside.

Cruise ship
Cruise ship in port in Southampton spreading emissions over the city.
Radioactive sample screening
Radioactive sample screening in our National Nuclear User Facility.

Links to other Research Themes

How fast does climate change?

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