Knowledge for a sustainable world

BSc (Hons), PhD

Dr Burt joined the Natural Resources Institute as a Special Research Fellow in January 1989 and was appointed Principal Scientist in 1991. He has been a member of the Agriculture, Health and Environment Department since April and was previously Acting Head of the Environmental Sustainability Group (January – March 2003) and Deputy Head of that Group (August 2001 to December 2002).

Dr Burt has 30 years experience working in the field of biometeorology, with emphasis on investigations of micro- and meso-scale dispersal of pests, disease pathogens and pollens, micrometeorological monitoring and environmental remote sensing. He has completed major investigations to assess the role of the wind in the movement of the plant pathogens causing Sigatoka diseases of banana and plantain and the use of satellite imagery to identify likely areas of the eclosion of pest grasshoppers in relation to rainfall in the Sahel (particularly Mali), as well as studies of insect movement and dispersal in association with wind systems in the lower atmosphere. Other investigations have involved the use of satellite remote sensing as an aid to agro-ecological monitoring and in the collection and analysis of atmospheric profile (temperature, water vapour and ozone) data.

Dr Burt is Programme Leader for the University's MSc in Sustainable Environmental Management. He has also been involved in the preparation and teaching of courses in biometeorology at undergraduate and postgraduate level, and currently lectures in introductory meteorology to first-year undergraduates, as well as lecturing in other undergraduate and postgraduate courses on aspects of ecology, applied meteorology/climatology and airborne dispersal. He is responsible for the Institute's academic quality control, reporting directly to the Director of Learning and Quality in the Department of Science. His research in aspects of meteorology/climatology and airborne dispersal is further supported through the supervision of MSc and PhD students. He is currently involved in investigations of the dispersal of airborne material within the Medway, Kent, area and has acted as an Expert Witness on airborne particulate dispersal at local planning enquiries.

Dr Burt was a member of the organising and scientific committees of the 24th Annual Conference and Exhibition of the Remote Sensing Society, held at the University of Greenwich in September 1998, and co-editor of the conference proceedings (see publications list). He was also involved in the organisation on the Third European Symposium on Aerobiology, held at University College Worcester in August 2003, as a member of the organising and scientific committees, co-editor of the symposium abstracts and invited Chair of the Climate Change session. He has acted as an Expert Reviewer for Working Groups I and II for the IPCC 5th Assessment Report.

Other experience includes:

  • Management of a project involving the monitoring of the ozone hole over southern Chile
  • Management of the development and marketing of software to extract atmospheric profile information from satellite data
  • Preparation of a bibliography of locust upsurges and declines
  • Investigations of the role of weather conditions on the low-level movement of insects in the atmosphere

Dr Burt's research activities can be divided into four main categories: biometeorology, with emphasis on insect aerobiology; pollen and spore aerobiology; investigations of the atmospheric dispersal of pollutants, and general meteorology.

Biometeorology, with emphasis on insect aerobiology

Initial, novel, investigations demonstrated that small temporal (few minutes) and spatial (metres to tens of metres) thermal convective structures in the atmosphere are important in the concentration and dispersal of small insects, especially those such as aphids and thrips which feed on cereal crops. Conventional monitoring equipment does not normally operate at these resolutions, hence the impact of such structures in creating non-randomness in the arrival of airborne insects, and in epidemiological studies, may have been underestimated. This was verified for other species in field investigations overseas.

Many insect pests fly at night. Studies of the role played by nocturnal wind systems in dispersing and concentrating such insects drew together material on this subject for the first time, as an aid to insect forecasters and pest controllers identifying likely areas of pest insect outbreaks.

On larger spatial and temporal scales, Desert Locusts have the capacity to migrate across the Atlantic Ocean, a feature of their behaviour which takes them outside their normal ecological ranges and which is not predicted through laboratory investigations of flight capacity. Historically, however, such migrations are rare, and future movements are unlikely to become of economic importance, even under proposed climate change scenarios. Such migrations suggest that the arrival of Old World species may have affected the speciation of New World grasshopper species. The results of this work also demonstrated the problems of transferring laboratory results directly in to the field (which have informed other aerobiological and ecological studies).

Development of a predictive model relating cloud-top temperature to rainfall in the Sahelian region of Mali, and the use of satellite remote sensing to monitor it, has enabled local plant protection teams to target their pest control activities more efficiently and economically over the vast areas where the pest grasshopper Oedaleus senegalensis is endemic, thereby reducing the impact of crop losses on the livelihoods of subsistence farmers in the area.

The discovery of the degradation of the ozone layer over Antarctica, and its subsequent impact on the health and well-being of animals (including man) in the southern areas of South America in the 1980s, led to a major initiative to develop accurate ultra-violet (UV) radiation forecasting tools. Such forecasts have enabled people to be made aware of the times of higher UV radiation levels, thereby reducing human and livestock exposure to physiologically-damaging levels of radiation.

Pollen and spore aerobiology

Mycosphaerella fijiensis is the fungal spore causing Black Sigatoka disease in banana and plantain. The disease is of major economic importance to subsistence farmers in developing countries, causing significant reductions in fruit quality and yield. The results of five years of research in Central America and Africa on aspects of the airborne dispersal and epidemiology of this pathogen resolved a number of previously unclear aspects of its behaviour. Although spreading worldwide, the results from this investigation showed that the reasons for the disease not becoming well-established and destroying the subsistence-based banana industries of the Caribbean is that periods of exposure to sunlight (as normally experienced by windborne spread of spores from diseased plantations in the Americas) kills the spores before they reach potential host plants, and also that proportionally low numbers of spores enter the atmosphere from infected plants. Consequently, continued adoption of plant quarantine and disease control methods in the Caribbean should prevent the spread of this disease. Current investigations of long-distance dispersal of pollen and spores, and also the impacts of climate change on dispersal patterns, have evolved from this work, and also link to the airborne pollution studies outlined below.

General meteorology

Investigations of the atmospheric dispersal of pollutants

In recent years Dr Burt has been involved in a series of investigations which have started to address the complexities of topographic airflow and the potential for pollution transport in the southeast of England, at regional and transboundary levels. No previous investigations of the relationship between airflow and topography, and the influence of these on the dispersal of pollution, have been undertaken in this region. Preliminary results have shown the complexity of the airflows in the region, the relationship between local and synoptic scale flows and why existing physical models of pollution dispersal (relating to dispersal within the lowest 1500 m of the troposphere) were not reflecting reality. A greater emphasis should be placed on integrating measured data from monitoring stations, in association with field observations. These studies are ongoing and the results of this work will enable proxies for airborne pollen and spore dispersal to be developed, and will link in to studies of transboundary dispersal of aerobiological material between southeast England and the Continent, building on ongoing work on potential long-distance spore dispersal in the southeast.

Professional activities over the past five years have been directed towards developing aspects of teaching and training within NRI. This has involved managing an annual budget of between K£100 and K£200. Consequently, activities relating to bidding for and managing larger research projects have been less of a priority within the past 5 years.

  • Editor Meteorological Applications: July 2005 - present
  • Member of Royal Meteorological Society Publications Committee: July 2005 - present
  • Member of Royal Meteorological Society Awards Committee: July 2005 - present
  • Member of Editorial Board of Weather: October 2000 – October 2005
  • Member of Council, Royal Meteorological Society: September 2003 – October 2006
  • Associate Editor European Journal of Plant Pathology: December 2006 – present
  • British Aerobiology Federation: President May 2007 - present
  • Honorary Treasurer and member of Executive Committee 1999 – present
  • Member of the British Ecological Society
  • Member of the International Aerobiology Association
  • Member of the International Society of Biometeorology
  • Member of the European Association for the Science of Air Pollution
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