Cabot Institute Blog

Find out more about us at www.bristol.ac.uk/cabot

Friday, 15 May 2015

The benefits of investing in a community-owned solar array

On Saturday 9 May 2015, Low Carbon Gordano officially opened their Moorhouse Farm Solar Array, with the Mayor of Bristol George Ferguson conducting proceedings. The array, sited within the jurisdiction of Bristol on farmland between the M49 and M5, has a nameplate capacity of 1.875 MW and cost £2.2 million to install. The money was raised entirely by public share offer and community owned (and in very small part by me). Over the course of a year the array is expected to produce >1,700 MWh of electricity, which using the inevitable conversion, is enough to power 500 homes, and more importantly and relevantly for this blog, save around 850 tonnes of CO2 per annum compared to fossil fuels.

Mayor of Bristol George Ferguson officially opens the Moorhouse Array.
Image credit: Marcus Badger 
The Moorhouse Farm Array is one of a number of community owned solar arrays in the South West, an area whose large areas of farmland and (for the UK) relatively high solar irradiance makes it an ideal site for significant solar photovoltaic (PV) generation. In the UK, solar PV generation has doubled in the last year alone, from 2.4 Gw in February 2014 to 4.4 Gw in the same month this year. This “solar surge” has been almost entirely without direct government intervention, but with feed in tariffs and tax breaks for community owned projects like the Moorhouse Farm Array community groups and large scale developers are both cashing in, and making significant inroads into the UKs legally binding CO2 reduction targets. It’s not difficult to see why PV has started to surge; manufacturing cost for the PV panels themselves continues to come down, companies like Solarsense (who built the Moorhouse Array) are coming of age and have the expertise to bring projects to fruition. In the community-owned arena, raising funds through attractive share offers can be facilitated by marketplaces like Ethex and the experience of the more mature community groups (like Bath & West Community Energy) is being willingly shared to help smaller groups off the ground. Low Carbon Gordano started as a small community group, offering energy use advice and initially very small household and school energy generation projects, but now owns a multi-million pound array and has plans for more.

The fact that solar PV can nestle snugly behind farmers’ hedges also means that, inevitably, it has an easier time than onshore wind getting through the planning system. In fact in much of the South West, grid constraint (the capacity of the local and electricity grid see http://www.regensw.co.uk/our-work/onshore-electricity/tackling-grid-constraints/) is becoming the restricting factor in many places.

It’s not only grid carbon emissions that can benefit from solar arrays. Working with local wildlife trusts (like Avon Wildlife Trust for the Moorhouse Array), biodiversity around and between the panels can be managed and increased – turning a former sheepwreck into a biodiversity hotspot.

For Bristol much more Solar PV is on the way, with the council’s municipal energy company Bristol Energy set to fit solar PV to the City’s Council-owned buildings, and Low Carbon Gordano set to launch a second share offer for their next array in the next few weeks.

Part of the Moorhouse Array with the wind turbines of Bristol Dock in the
background, and water-vole rich drainage channel in the foreground.
Image credit: Marcus Badger
It’s essential for meeting our carbon reduction goals that the solar surge can continue – grid capacity, changes to feed in tariffs and the new Contract for Difference rules could all put the brakes on. We can only hope that the new Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change drives policies which can continue the solar surge in the South West and across the UK.

Part of the Moorhouse Array with the wind turbines of Bristol Dock in the background, and water-vole rich drainage channel in the foreground (photo by the author)
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This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Dr Marcus Badger, a Research Associate in the Schools of Chemistry and Geographical Sciences at the University of Bristol. His research is focussed on reconstructing greenhouse gases on multi-million year timescales, using both fossil organic compounds and fully coupled three dimensional model approaches.

Marcus is a small investor in the Moorhouse Array and an LCG member.
Marcus Badger

Follow Marcus Badger @climate_badger.

Top 5 things to see at the University of Bristol tent at the Festival of Nature

Image credit: Bhagesh Sachania
When I was told I would be coordinating all the marketing materials for the University of Bristol stands at the Festival of Nature, I was quite excited. Being a nature lover, I knew the job would fit me well. What I wasn’t prepared for was all the amazing things that our researchers have been working on and will be showing off at this year’s festival. I am really pleased to be involved in helping them to showcase their nature-based research and I hope you all enjoy the experience when you come and visit us.

Here are my top five things to look out for when you visit the University of Bristol tent:

H1N1 flu virus

1. Explore how your genes might help you to fight the flu


Who knew that your genetics can determine how well you can fight off the flu? At this stall you will find some biologists and veterinary scientists who will be showing you how your immune system has to keep up with ever-evolving viruses in order to keep your body free from infection. Expect to get involved in a ‘war’ between the viruses and the immune system…who’s going to win?

2. Discover the underground world of roots


Roots. Those long straggly things attached to the bottom of plants. What are they good for? These small structures are actually very clever and extremely vital to life on earth. Visit our biologists at this stand to find out how extraordinary this plant part is and get up close to the root systems to see how they interact with the soil and help bind it together to prevent soil erosion.

3. Learn about Bristol’s hidden river history


Did you know that Bristol has a hidden river running right through the city centre? Nope, neither did I! The Frome River used to flow where the Hippodrome is now, but it became so polluted that we buried it! Join our environmental historians for a hands-on journey around Bristol’s rivers and discover why Bristol’s hidden river history is so important in shaping our lives.

An ammonite.  These would have been found in Bristol
under water when CO2 levels were at similar levels to
 today.  Image credit: Alex Lucas.

4. Have your say on our uncertain world


At the end of 2015, Paris will be hosting the COP21 – a huge international conference to try to agree a legally binding and universal agreement on climate. The aim will be to keep global warming below 2°C. At our Uncertain World stall, you will meet Cabot Institute scientists who study Earth’s past climate. They know from their research that sea level was much higher in the past when carbon dioxide levels were at similar levels as today. So what’s in store for our world and what are the uncertainties in our future? We will tell you what we know and what we don’t know and we would love to get you to write or draw your feelings and concerns on our uncertainty wall so that we can send a big Bristol message to Paris for the COP21.

5. Hear a family friendly story about climate change


If you do anything at the Festival of Nature this year, please do try and catch the Cabot Institute’s Dr James Norman who will be telling a story about climate change in the Talks Tent at 2.15 pm on the Saturday. This is not your average storyteller, this is a man who is passionate about what he talks about and will use his kids storybooks to ask – are we ever really going to change how we behave? James will take you through an amusing adventure via monsters, story books and kites stuck in trees to try and answer the question “if not now, when?”

The University of Bristol tent will be based in Millennium Square on Bristol Harbourside from Saturday 13 to Sunday 14 June. It’s free to attend our tent and talks. For more information about our tent and activities, visit our website here.

We look forward to seeing you soon!
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This blog has been reproduced with kind permission from the Festival of Nature news page.

This blog has been written by Amanda Woodman-Hardy, Communications Officer at the University of Bristol.  Follow @Enviro_Mand.
Amanda Woodman-Hardy

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Floes, leads and CTD’s: The state of the ice at 83°

The air at 82° 23’ North is crisp and still, and the afternoon sun blazes down on the ice floe we hope to call home for the next three months. The gentle hum of the Research Vessel (R/V) Lance’s engine some 300 metres away, and the regular click of the winch deploying our oceanographic profilers below the ice sheet, breaks the all-consuming silence in this seemingly barren wilderness. A walkie-talkie crackles into life from my pocket; a message from the ship! Norwegian isn’t my strong point, but one word in particular causes my ears to prick up in concern: ‘Isbjørn’, or, ‘Polar Bear’. For those aboard the Lance, this is a prime opportunity to grab a camera and be the envy of all their friends back home. For those of us ambling about on the ice, away from the cosy confines of our floating laboratory, pulses quicken as we try to withdraw our equipment without compromising the all-important data…

Constructing hole for on-ice CTD (Image credit: Torbjørn Taskjelle, UiB)
The Norwegian Young Sea Ice Cruise (N-ICE2015) is a truly international effort, with researchers from over a dozen institutions coming together to gather data from the Arctic ice cap, as well as the surrounding atmospheric and oceanic currents. Initiated by the Norwegian Polar Institute, the R/V Lance plans to drift with the sea ice for six months, from January to June 2015. After a brief hiatus in Svalbard to change crew in March, I was able to join the ship as it steamed back into the ice, where it would get ‘refrozen’ for the remainder of the expedition.

It was never going to be plain sailing from Longyearbyen to our target latitude of 83° North. Battling against the wind, snow and pack ice in increasingly treacherous conditions had left those seeking warmer climes to put the ship’s impressive DVD collection to good use! That being said, efforts to measure this dynamic polar wilderness were already being undertaken from the offset.

Atmospheric scientists have been releasing weather balloons twice per day to profile the troposphere and stratosphere. Biologists collected water samples as we skimmed over the continental shelf off Svalbard, in order to divulge information on the bloom of primary producers found in shallower waters at this time of year. I managed to get better acquainted with my new friend for the month: the Conductivity-Temperature-Depth instrument, or CTD, which is deployed through the water to measure parameters such as salinity and temperature. With this information we can look at the width and depth of contrasting water masses, allowing us to track their progress at specific points.

As a member of the physical oceanography work package, I’m interested in how warm, salty Atlantic water, formed in the tropics off the eastern United States, travels north into the Arctic basin, and how its heat is distributed in the colder Arctic waters. By measuring the turbulence and temperature flux of this relatively shallow ‘tongue’ of Atlantic water (approximately 200m deep), I hope to glean information regarding how this may affect the melting of overlying sea ice.

Currently, the oceanographic models we have for the Arctic concern multi-year ice: that is, perennial ice that is built upon year after year. Now that this is being replaced by seasonal, or first-year ice, which is chemically and physically distinct to the longer-lived variety, the existing models are due for renewal. This cruise is particularly exciting, as data throughout the winter months are rare. Seeing how water masses affect, and respond to, a new first-year ice regime over this 6 month timescale is of paramount importance for the synthesis of more up-to-date heat exchange models.

Polar bear inspecting our (thoroughly displaced!) survey line.
(Image credit: Markus Kayser, AWI)
Working directly on the sea ice comes with its challenges. The Lance has been drifting in a predominantly southwestern direction towards Fram Strait, between Greenland and Svalbard where the majority of wind and ocean currents leave the Arctic. Accompanied by increasing temperatures, ice floe disintegration is a very real occupational hazard. It is a relief to gaze out the window every morning and see our little world still intact, though occasional cracks (or ‘leads’) through the ice threaten to tear our playground apart in a matter of minutes. Hundreds of metres of power cable have had to be hauled back onto the boat on more than one occasion, over where cracks spread, revealing the inky blue abyss of the ocean below.

Then we have the bears. Curious onlookers for the most part, we've managed to avoid any potential run-ins unscathed, thanks to our compulsory bear-guard system (pray that this continues!). Not all our equipment has been so lucky, with chewed cables and scuffed buoys occasionally appearing overnight. Though, with a chance to see these bumbling giants in their rapidly diminishing habitat, I’d still have jumped at the chance to work on the Lance even if it was as the dishwasher!

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This blog is written by Adam Cooper, recent Earth Sciences graduate at the University of Bristol.
Adam Cooper (right)

More information





Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Power, policy and piranhas: Martin Bigg on energy

"When it comes to energy solutions we
need to be like the piranha: Being
passive isn't working". Image
credit: Wikimedia Commons
When it comes to energy solutions, we need to be like Martin Bigg’s favourite fish; the piranha. Why do we need to be like a flesh-eating aquatic animal to get these solutions? Because being passive isn’t working.

Such was the closing message of Bigg’s talk at the Bristol Politics Café in the kitchen of The Station. Bigg’s talk entitled ‘Energy generation, use and denial’ was a well-integrated combination of academic analysis and challenging chit-chat about the UK’s energy enigmas.

While his concluding remark was engineered to influence our future actions, Bigg cleverly began with the UK’s energy past. He walked us through the history of UK energy supply, intertwining the physical processes of production with the bureaucracy and politics.

This technique highlighted how energy has been manipulated time and time again to fulfil regulations and financial expectations. Coal fired power stations built in the 1970’s are still producing today, requiring a string of expensive modifications in an attempt to meet the demands of the modern day.

Drax power station. Image credit:
Wikimedia Commons
Drax power station is the biggest energy producer in the UK and was used by Bigg as an example of the problems with current regulations. The old coal powered generators have been modified to run off imported wood chips in order to meet air quality objectives. The technology established on the plant is not optimised for this fuel, yet the station stays open.

In addition, the audience was introduced to facts and figures representing current energy demand. Two things struck me as disturbing. Firstly, how small our green energy contribution is, and secondly, how coal power stations are used to fulfil our energy needs.  Many coal stations are paid huge government subsidies to remain on standby to provide energy at peak times. What is absurd is that coal power stations are the least efficient to start and stop when compared to other forms of power generation, so why are we using them?

What was more interesting, was Bigg’s presentation of green energy supply. He showed the audience real bids for green energy. Solar was the cheapest, followed by onshore wind. Offshore wind was one of the most expensive but it is the scheme the government is investing most in. The utterly nonsensical nature of the process was brought on in part by environmentalists concerned about the impact of onshore wind farms on local wildlife, particularly bird life. In reality, Bigg pointed out, CO2 emission are far more damaging to bird populations through acidification of wetlands than through wind farms.

What was reassuring, however, was that the green energy, at peak production was able to compete economically with the products of hydrocarbon-guzzling plants. The main issue was what to do when the wind stops blowing and the sun goes down. Here, Bigg admitted, there is the need for further research and development into effective energy storage.

The event was meant to not only be a talk but a discussion, and the strength of opinions bounced around the room was evident. Much of the discontent was channelled into the up-coming elections, particularly that green policies are not playing a bigger role in the political football preceding 9 May 2015. Hopefully, discussion such as these can only help expand the dialogue amongst green-minded voters in the Bristol area in the hope that a less passive attitude may start to take effect in future green policy making.
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This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Keri McNamara, a PhD student in the School of Earth Sciences at the University of Bristol.
Keri McNamara



Friday, 24 April 2015

Bristol 2015 Student Day: Young peoples ideas for the future

The Bristol Student Day for the Bristol Festival of Ideas was all about the future. Cabot Institute director Rich Pancost opened the day with the remark: ‘This is your planet, it is no longer my generation’s’. What he says is true; young people are soon to inherit positions as policy makers, CEOs and decision makers. Student’s visions for the future may soon become a reality, so what are their visions?
Bristol 2015: Student Day at At-Bristol. Organised by Bristol Festival of Ideas
The student day was orchestrated to produce a dialogue for the University of Bristol and UWE student’s opinions on some of the planet’s greatest problems. The thoughts generated will become part of Bristol’s message to the world in at the COP21, a global sustainable innovation forum in Paris later this year.

The discussions ranged from local cycling routes to global overpopulation. The breadth of topics covered meant discussions oscillated between worldwide concerns and university-based issues.  Regardless of scale, the prevailing desire was for increased suitability for the future generations.

Bikes parked at the University of
Bristol.  Image credit: Emily Gillingham
On a university level the participants expressed discontent with the institution’s reliance on fossil fuels with many agreeing they would like to see increased investment in sustainable energy for their organisations. Financial returns from green energy may be long term but if any institution can expect longevity it’s a university- why should their energy solutions not reflect that?

Waste reduction was an additional point for local improvement with participants venturing ideas such as a ban on single use coffee cups and increased recycling opportunities on campus. There was no shortage of creative ideas, the main issue was implementation and education; how can young people convince their less green-minded peers that such schemes are essential? Food waste was of additional concern, with unanimous support for schemes such as the Bristol Skipchen. The desire to see projects such as this affiliated with the university was a common vision.

Food was a big issue at the Student Day
Naturally, food was an issue close to the heart of many students and discussion quickly progressed to agriculture. Organic food was considered a luxury for personal health purposes, but its environmental benefit was surprisingly contentious. Many students believed that large scale, non-organic, industrialised farming is more energy efficient and produces fewer emissions, while others believe smaller organic farms are the future of agriculture.

The boundaries of the discussion were pushed both mentally and geographically as the day progressed.  The younger generation’s global responsibilities were also high priority for discussion. Overpopulation in the developing world is putting strain on resources- how can Bristol students help? Food waste reduction was high on the list of solutions, as well as the universal need for more environmentally attractive power solutions, from the first to third world.

The enthusiasm of the participants to build a better, greener and more sustainable future made the discussion both interesting and beneficial. If there is one thing the day has shown, it’s that young people have the desire for long term solutions. After all, it is the millions of small ideas such as the ones discussed in At-Bristol that will shape the future for us all.
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This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Keri McNamara, a PhD student in the School of Earth Sciences at the University of Bristol.
Keri McNamara

Further reading

Ethics and sustainability in University of Bristol catering

Sustainable waste management at the University of Bristol

Read more about all the sustainability initiatives taking place at the University of Bristol

Friday, 17 April 2015

Manufacturing in Bristol – Bridging the gap to a more sustainable and more resilient future

University of Bristol
The University of Bristol and partners announce the launch on 22 of April of a new collaborative research project to determine how highly adaptable manufacturing processes, capable of operating at small scales (re-distributed manufacturing), can contribute to a sustainable and resilient future for the city of Bristol and its hinterland. 

The next few years have the potential to be transformative in the history of our society and our planet.  We are faced with numerous choices in how we live our lives, and our decisions could either embed the practices of the last two centuries or empower new paradigms for the production of our food and energy, our buildings and transport systems, our medicine, furniture and appliance, all of those things on which we have grown to depend. It could be a transformation in what we own or borrow, how we use it…. And how we make it.

Bristol is one of the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Global Resilient Cities.  Unlike many of the other cities (and somewhat unconventionally), Bristol, the University of Bristol and its Cabot Institute have adopted a holistic definition of resiliency that includes not just adaptation to future change but also the contemporary behaviour that minimises the chances of future shocks.  Recognising that, the launch of the Bristol 2015 European Green Capital year focussed on the need to bridge the gap  between our resource intensive and environmentally harmful current behaviour and a more sustainable – and resilient – future.

This combination is key.  Increasingly we recognise that our non-sustainable behaviour could bring about dangerous climate change and resource stress. But we are also obtaining a sharper understanding of the limits of our knowledge. Unfortunately, our behaviour is not just threatening the security of our food, water and energy but is inducing a profound uncertainty in our ability to forecast and adapt to future change.  Not only does such radical uncertainty demand mitigative rather than adaptive action  but, where we fall short or the damage has already been done, it will require an equally radical emphasis on resiliency.

Bristol Energy Coop - community
owned energy
Part of Bristol’s path to achieving these goals of sustainability and resiliency is localism, including local production of food and energy, exemplified by the recent launch of a municipally-owned energy company  but also community-owned energy and food cooperatives.   Localism can only go so far in our highly interconnected and interdependent world, but it is undeniably one of Bristol’s strongest tools in empowering local communities and driving its own sustainability agenda while making us more resilient to external factors.  But why stop at food and energy?

Manufacturing has undergone a suite of radical transformations over the past decade, the potential of which are only now being harnessed across a range of manufacturing scales from high-value (such as Bristol’s aerospace industry) to SMEs and community groups.  Crudely put, the options for the manufacturer have traditionally been limited to moulding things, bashing things into shape, cutting things and sticking things together.  New technologies now allow those methods to be downscaled and locally owned. Other technologies, enabled by the exponential growth of computer power, are changing the manufacturing framework for example by allowing complex shapes to be made layer-by-layer through additive manufacturing.

Bristol Hackspace - example
of  the maker movement. Image
credit: Matthew Venn,
Bristol Hackspace
.
Crucially, these new technologies represent highly adaptable manufacturing processes capable of operating at small scales.  This offers new possibilities with respect to where and how design, manufacture and services can and should be carried out to achieve the most appropriate mix of capability and employment but also to minimise environmental costs and to ensure resilience of provision.  In short, manufacturing may now be able to be re-distributed away from massive factories and global supply chains back into local networks, small workshops or even homes. This has brought about local empowerment across the globe as exemplified by the Maker movement and locally in initiatives such as Bristol Hackspace.  These technologies and social movements are synergistic as localised manufacturing not only brings about local empowerment but fosters sustainable behaviour by enabling the remanufacturing and upcycling that are characteristic of the circular economy.

There are limits, however, to the reach of these new approaches if they remain dependent on traditional manufacturing organisations and systems into which we are locked by the technological choices made in two centuries of fossil-fuel abundance.  As well as the technologies and processes that we use, a better understanding of how to organise and manage manufacturing systems and of their relationship with our infrastructure and business processes is central to the concept of re-distributed manufacturing and its proliferation.  It requires not only local production but a fundamental rethinking of the entire manufacturing system.

A Bristol plastics manufacturer reshores
its manufacturing to the city. Image
credit: Bristol Post. Find out more.
This is the focus of our exciting new RCUK-funded project: it will create a network to study a whole range of issues from diverse disciplinary perspectives, bringing together experts in manufacturing, design, logistics, operations management, infrastructure, engineering systems, economics, geographical sciences, mathematical modelling and beyond.  In particular, it will examine the potential impact of such re-distributed manufacturing at the scale of the city and its hinterland, using Bristol as an example in its European Green Capital year, and concentrating on the issues of resilience and sustainability.

It seems entirely appropriate that Bristol and the SW of England assume a prominent leadership role in this endeavour.  In many ways, it is the intellectual and spiritual home of the industrial use of fossil fuels, responsible for unprecedented growth and prosperity but also setting us on a path of unsustainable resource exploitation.  Thomas Newcomen from South Devon produced arguably the first practical steam engine, leading to the use of fossil fuels in mining and eventually industry; in the late 1700s, coal-powered steam energy was probably more extensively used in SW England than anywhere in the world.  Continuing this legacy, Richard Trevithick from Cornwall developed high pressure steam engines which allowed the use of steam (and thus fossil fuels) for transportation, and of course Brunel's SS Great Western, built in Bristol, was the first vehicle explicitly designed to use fossil fuel for intercontinental travel.

University of Bristol students taking part
in an upcycling project.
Image credit Compass Project
But that legacy is not limited to energy production.  Abraham Darby, who pioneered the use of coke for smelting iron in Coalbrookdale, i.e. the use of fossil fuels for material production, had worked at a foundry in Bristol and was funded by the Goldney Family, among others.  He married fossil fuels to the production of materials and manufactured goods.

These are reasons for optimism not guilt.  This part of the world played a crucial role in establishing the energy economy that has powered our world.  On the back of that innovation and economic growth have come medical advances, the exploration of our solar system and an interconnected society.  That same creative and innovative spirit can be harnessed again.  And these approaches need not be limited to energy and materials; our colleagues at UWE been awarded funds under the same scheme to explore redistributed healthcare provision. The movement is already in place, exemplified by the more than 800 organisations in the Bristol Green Capital Partnership.  It is receiving unprecedented support from both Universities of this city.  This new project is only one small part of that trend but it illustrates a new enthusiasm for partnership and transformative change and to study the next generation of solutions rather than be mired in incremental gains to existing technology.
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This blog is written by Cabot Institute Director Prof Rich Pancost and Prof Chris McMahon from the Engineering Department at the University of Bristol.

Prof Chris McMahon
Prof Rich Pancost












More information

For more information about the issues covered in this blog please contact Chris McMahon who is keen to hear from local industries and other organisations that may be interested in the possibilities of re-distributed manufacturing.

The grant has been awarded to the University of Bristol, supported by the Universities of Bath, Exeter and the West of England and Cardiff University, by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). The network, one of six being funded by the EPSRC for the next two years to study RDM, will also explore mechanisms by which interdisciplinary teams may come together to address societal grand challenges and develop research agendas for their solution. These will be based on working together using a combination of a Collaboratory - a centre without walls - and a Living Lab - a gathering of public-private partnerships in which businesses, researchers, authorities, and citizens work together for the creation of new services, business ideas, markets, and technologies.

EPSRC Reference: EP/M01777X/1, Re-Distributed Manufacturing and the Resilient, Sustainable City (ReDReSC)

The Cabot Institute

The Cabot Institute carries out fundamental and responsive research on risks and uncertainties in a changing environment. We drive new research in the interconnected areas of climate change, natural hazards, water and food security, low carbon energy, and future cities. Our research fuses rigorous statistical and numerical modelling with a deep understanding of social, environmental and engineered systems – past, present and future. We seek to engage wider society by listening to, exploring with, and challenging our stakeholders to develop a shared response to 21st Century challenges.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Bringing science and art together - part 2

The Somerset Levels and Moors are a low lying region prone to frequent flooding due to a range of environmental and human factors. The history of drainage and flooding in the Levels is rich and unique, yet its present condition is unstable and its future uncertain. Winter 2013-14 for example saw extensive floods in the Levels that attracted significant media attention and triggered debate on how such events can be mitigated in the future. The Land of the Summer People Science & Art project brings together engineering PhD students with local artists to increase public awareness and understanding of the Somerset floods. Scientific understanding and traditional engineering tools are combined with the artists’ creativity to prompt discussions about the area’s relationship with floods in a medium designed to be accessible and enjoyable.
Having worked on the early stages of this project researching the history and hydrology of flooding and drainage in the Somerset Levels I thought I was well prepared for the art stages to follow. I was decidedly wrong! The first workshop involved making a standard engineering-style poster containing information in the area our group had chosen to focus on; in my case the future of flooding in the region. This was a pretty standard summary of climate change impacts, land use change and a critique on the present policy which will shape the region over the next 5-20 years.

The next workshop saw us transform this information into a more ‘arty’ format. We chose a newspaper style article from 5 years in the future. In civil engineering (my undergraduate background) there’s a strong perception that the public don’t know anything about engineering and that they demand only bottom-up management towards their own interests; and this was definitely present in my article. Regardless of the truth or fallacy in this assumption, taking this attitude will not gain you public support for your project and, importantly, you will very likely miss out on important information that stakeholders could provide you with.

Each group began work with a Somerset artist to create art out of their topics and ideas. Our group is currently putting together a ‘flood survival kit’ containing items which aim to bring together ideas about the impacts and mechanisms behind flooding. Putting this together has been constant interplay between engineers looking to add purpose to items and our artist looking to reduce purpose with a much heavier use of metaphors/symbolism. Items include purpose-heavy hand-made water filters (from drinking bottles and sand!) and metaphor-heavy sponges and boats (made from Somerset clay).

Additionally our group will be inscribing rocks around Somerset with a text-number which will provide flood relevant proverbs or information when a message is sent to them. This was inspired by tsunami warning rocks in Japan!
An original tsunami warning rock in Japan
courtesy of the Huffington Post, 4th June 2011.
On 25th March, all the groups presented their projects in an exhibition in the Exeter Community Centre.

Our most valuable return on these projects are the skills in working with the public we will gain. After all, even capital projects designed with a stakeholder’s desires and demands in mind won’t work if the stakeholder rejects them. The pre-industrial history of the Somerset Levels illustrates this perfectly as drainage works in the region have typically been vandalised and prevented from working due to public opposition (an interesting contrast to the present dredging-heavy mentality!).

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This blog has been reproduced with kind permission from the Bristol Doctoral College blog. It is written by Barney Dobson and Wouter Knoben who are currently studying engineering PhDs at the University of Bristol.

Read part one of this blog.

More about Land of the Summer People

This event was organised by Cabot Institute members Seila Fernández Arconada and Thorsten Wagener.  Read more.

Bringing science and art together - part 1

The Somerset Levels and Moors are a low lying region prone to frequent flooding due to a range of environmental and human factors. The history of drainage and flooding in the Levels is rich and unique, its present condition is unstable and its future uncertain. Winter 2013-14 for example saw extensive floods in the Levels that attracted a great deal of media attention and conflicting opinions on what to do how to prevent this from happening again. The Science & Art project brings engineering PhD students together with local artists, to increase public awareness and understanding of the Somerset floods. Scientific understanding and traditional engineering tools are combined with the artists’ creativity, in an effort to make discussions about the area’s history, present and future more accessible and enjoyable.

Coming from an engineering background, the prospect outlined above slightly scared me at first. As an engineer, you rarely use art as a tool in your work and, funnily enough, doesn’t appear during your university courses either. The few interactions with artists (as colleagues in a bar) and art (sporadic museum visits) left me very sceptic as to the success of this cooperation. Sure, art can be nice to look at, but what is the point of it when you’re trying to convey the results of your studies on flood risk?

This project is divided into a couple of workshops, and the differences between engineers and artists was apparent right from the start. We (the engineers) tried to convey as much knowledge about the Somerset Levels as we could cram onto our posters. Dates, history, water safety plans, references, whatever information was available. The artists then showed us some of their work. We saw sketches of landscapes reflecting in water, paintings of local soldiers in shoe polish and visual representations of sound waves to name a few things.

For the next workshop we were asked to change our original posters in any way we saw fit, based on the things we picked up from our first art workshop. This turned out to be not as easy as we’d hoped. After years of being trained to present information in a thorough and accurate way, making the necessary switch to create something that could be called artistic is difficult. We mostly managed to present the, admittedly dry, material on the posters into a somewhat more appealing way. The idea to do something else than conveying information was still difficult to bring into practise.

As the artists kept reminding us, it is not always necessary to convey knowledge to the viewer of our work. Sometimes it is enough to make someone think about a certain topic you think is important, or to simply present some specific theme in an intriguing, appealing or interesting way. In the third workshop we began to form ideas based on this line of thinking. Transferring information and creating knowledge for the viewer are still important parts of the work, but they have become secondary rather than primary objectives. Now we’re hard at the work to make our ideas become reality!

These workshops have been good to show some perspective. As a specialist, you would normally want to present as much of your gathered information and knowledge as you possibly can, but this quickly becomes overwhelming for someone unfamiliar to the topic. Collaborating with artists can be a good way to introduce a specialised topic to a wider audience in an entertaining and accessible way, while at the same time teaching us how laypeople might think about our subjects.
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This blog has been reproduced with kind permission from the Bristol Doctoral College blog. It is written by Barney Dobson and Wouter Knoben who are currently studying engineering PhDs at the University of Bristol.

Read part two of this blog.

More about Land of the Summer People

This event was organised by Cabot Institute members Seila Fernández Arconada and Thorsten Wagener.  Read more.

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Animals in the fraternity of universal nature

Have you read any poems about animal rights lately? Or perhaps attended a talk or exhibition on this or another environmental topic? Andrew Kelly, director of the Bristol Festival of Ideas, has aimed to inspire discussion on controversial issues for the past ten years through public lectures and commissioned art, this year focusing on the theme radical environmentalism. On 26 March Kelly himself gave a lecture entitled “Animals in the fraternity of universal nature,” where he argued that poets and other artists have been drivers of cultural discourse on radical environmental issues, and specifically on animal rights, since the time of the romantic poets. He suggests that Bristol’s exciting cultural line up for 2015 can give us inspiration as a city to improve our relationship with nature in an urban environment.

Kelly’s literary lens on the history of animal rights showed how the romantic poets, and in particular Samuel Taylor Coleridge (who the whole lecture series this year is named after) and William Wordsworth, brought a relationship with animals and philosophy of universal rights for all creatures to a mainstream audience in the 18th century. These poets represented changing times – the growth of industry, the French Revolution, and challenges to the slave trade all changed people’s perceptions of humanity’s relationship with the natural world. In addition, the increasing use of animals as pets or companions, demonstrated that animals had personality, could feel pleasure and pain, and show loyalty.

The lecture struck a difficult balance between inspiration and excitement on the one hand and depression and pessimism on the other. I’d like to believe that art really can make political change – but issues the romantic poets raised in the 1700s are still considered radical today. For example, hunting for sport was decried by the romantic poets as cruel, although at the time hunting was seen as a symbol of courage. It was not until 2004 that hunting (only with dogs) was banned in England under the Hunting Act. Today, public support of this ban stands at 76%. However, other forms of hunting, and wildlife culling, are perfectly legal.

One of the primary animal welfare issues that we face today, and that the romantic poets might never have imagined, is the growth of intensive factory farms for meat, dairy, and egg production. We also face the rapid destruction of rainforest and other habitat for wild animals for production of palm oil and livestock feed, and the rampant poaching of highly endangered rhinos for black market traditional medicines. Kelly feels that the decimation of the natural world that we see today would have greatly saddened the romantics. His pessimism about the future came through as he quoted a vision of the future from H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine, written in 1895:
“I looked about me to see if any traces of animal life remained … But I saw nothing moving, in earth or sky or sea. The green slime on the rocks alone testified that life was not extinct … I fancied I saw some black object flopping about upon this bank, but it became motionless as I looked at it, and I judged that my eye had been deceived, and that the black object was merely a rock.”
Is it possible to make cultural and political change quickly enough to stop the rampant environmental destruction and exploitation of animals that feels inevitable? Can art and discussion convert the human connection with nature into political will? As Kelly described, the romantic poets wrote about cruelty to animals with quills plucked from live geese; today, we debate the badger cull while eating hamburgers from factory farms. After 250 years, will art finally be able to bring radical environmentalism into the mainstream and into policy?
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This blog is written by Cabot Institute member and PhD student Josephine Walker in the School of Biological Sciences.
Josephine Walker


Monday, 30 March 2015

The promise of the Anthropocene?

London lights by NASA Earth
Observatory.
Has the Holocene come to a close? Don’t tear up your geology textbooks just yet; the experts are still to decide whether the Anthropocene is a new epoch or merely a device of journalistic rhetoric. However, the symbolism of the christening of this new geological era may provide an important opportunity – presenting a lens through which we can transform our understanding of nature, its processes, and our role within both.

The coming of socionature?


The recasting of Homo Sapiens as a geological actor, as well as a historical agent, finds its roots in the hypothesis posed by atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen and ecologist Eugene Stoermer in 2000.   When this paper was released, the authors could not possibly have understood the dominance that the idea would later assert. We are now enthralled by the debate – with the concept transcending academia and entering popular discussion. The dawn of this new geological epoch may have devastating consequences for natural scientists – for, if we live in this Anthropocene, we can no longer say anything meaningful about the natural world without including an understanding of its social, political, economic and cultural characteristics. It asserts that nature is socially produced – that the environment is made, transformed and destroyed by us exclusively.

Luckily, you do not need to be a post-modernist to understand the social production of nature. All organisms transform their habitat to some degree. Woodpeckers make holes in tree, creating sites for nests; rodents burrow; and beavers build dams. However, human society has taken it to a new level. Over half of the planet’s large river systems have been fragmented by our dam-construction – with over 45,000 large dams disrupting two-thirds of natural freshwater flows across the world. We have drained entire marshes and aquifers. We have altered the carbon cycle, the nitrogen cycle and the acidity of the oceans. We have created urban areas whose dominance and environmental consequences extend well-beyond their peripheries. Close to 70% of the world’s forests are at a distance of less than half a mile from the forest’s edge, and the civilisation that exists outside of it. The concept of wilderness is now an historical artefact. The extinction of many species has come as a result of our own actions. Virgin nature has ended; we have harnessed it and constructed our physical environment in such a way that it has become unrecognisable.


A question of symbolism


Notably, the debates surrounding the new epoch has involved those from across the disciplinary spectrum – with debates incorporating teachings and views from the natural sciences, the social sciences, the humanities and the arts. The Anthropocene shakes our current understandings of nature to their foundations – with the concept affecting the very idea of what it means to be human in this previously natural world. All disciplines have something to contribute to this debate. The Anthropocene does not just represent a change in our relationship with our planet but also a transformation of how that relationship must be understood. 

Significantly, if we co-produce the physical nature of this planet – climate change ceases to be an environmental problem that can be solved by legislation and technological advance. It becomes a problem of choice, of politics and of conflict – we are forced to place the process within the wider trends of accumulation, consumption and excess.  We retreat from the characterisation of climactic change as a coming naturalised catastrophe and transform it into a politicised process. The role of carbon as the political enemy ends and it becomes a pathological symptom of something wider. Our relationship with nature may appear technical and scientific but it is inherently political – enabled and driven by political action. Politicising nature allows for us to question our relationship with the natural world and to detect political issues, social inequalities and the gross power asymmetries that guide it.

In many ways, the dawn of the Anthropocene can be seen as a development of semantics that many will not accept. However its symbolic nature provides an important opportunity. It is not everybody that has caused this transformation of nature. This new era is not the age of civilisation; it is the era of man. Ironically, this notion of the Manthropocene is even noticeable in the makeup of the Anthropocene Working Group, which consists of 31 men and five women. Furthermore, it is not even all men – it is a specific type of man, conducting a specific type of economic activity. In the contemporary system, ecology and nature is located as a branch of the greater political economy. As Jason Moore has argued, perhaps we need to rechristen this era further – it is not the Anthropocene that we entering, it is the Capitalocene. This provides an important opportunity for critical research. 

In contemporary debates regarding climate change, we have succeeded in environmentalising politics; however, we must push further. We must politicise the environment, situating the natural world within the wider terrain of political processes and conflict. Environmental issues and conflicts can never be understood in isolation from the political and economic contexts from which they emerge. Take the respective droughts currently faced by California and southern-coastal Brazil – which are just as much results of human decisions as they are the consequences of natural processes.  If we understand these ‘natural’ problems as issues of our own making, we can become aware of our own collective responsibility in the health of the planet we inhabit.

As Christian Schwägel has stated, “the Anthropocene should be the age of responsibility, cooperation, creativity, inventiveness and humility.” It forces a departure from the social assumptions of the Holocene – that there is an inexhaustible expanse of space out there that we can utilise, harness and exploit to our heart’s content. For ecological movements to succeed, they must illustrate the intertwined nature of the environment and of people and offer routes to the health, sanctity and development of both. If this is achieved and society is forced to question our role within nature, the Anthropocene could be a very short geological period indeed.
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This blog is written by Cabot Institute member, Ed Atkins, who is currently studying on the Environment, Energy and Resilience PhD at the University of Bristol.
Ed Atkins

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

European Green Capital 2015: How student projects are engaging the city

We had great success with the Cabot Institute pilot of the Dissertation Partnership Scheme that saw seven students working with local community partners in Bristol to answer a real world problem as part of their dissertation on the Environmental Policy and Management MSc course at the University of Bristol.

Two projects that stuck out were a study on how to improve biodiversity in Bedminster
and an investigation of Green Deal delivery by local authorities.  Both these projects produced some great findings which should be of value to the organisations that they worked with, as well as forming part of their academic work.

Feedback from all partner organisations who answered a follow up survey were very positive finding it a ”rewarding experience”.  Outcomes for partners working with students included being able to ”feed experience into the academic world” and obtaining a “different perspective” on their work; they also felt that the ”enthusiasm of the student energised different partners they interacted with”.

This academic year the Cabot Institute and the Centre for Public Engagement who have run previous pilots in Engineering and Social Policy have teamed up to expand engaged learning as part of the University of Bristol’s commitment to European Green Capital. The Environmental Policy and Management MSc has just allocated 15 students to partners including local, governmental, international and consulting organisations.  The scheme has also been rolled out to the Climate Change Science and Policy MSc also in the Geographical Sciences department and to the Nutrition, Physical Activity and Public Health MSc based in the School for Policy Studies.

A slightly different scheme is underway in the International Development MSc in the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies.  Students on this course can undertake a unit where they create a business plan for an NGO or small business.  In the past, organisations have been taken from a database of past examples or have been fictional.  We sent a call out for real organisations that have a need for a business plan but not the capacity to create one and 20 organisations requested student support - way more than the course had the ability to undertake.  11 groups involving 43 students are about to meet with their organisations.  At the end of the unit students present their business plan and this will be recorded and sent to the partner organisations.

The hours students put into these partnerships will contribute to the University of Bristol pledge to provide 100,000 hours of student engagement with the city in partnership with the University of the West of England as part a HEFCE grant to encourage student involvement in Bristol during its year as European Green Capital.  We are also looking for volunteering opportunities for our talented students.

If you are an organisation with a research question you would like answered or a volunteering need, or an academic interested in engaged learning, please do get in touch.  It’s an exciting time to be in Bristol!

This blog is by Hannah Tweddell, Sustainability and Engaged Learning Coordinator at the Cabot Institute, University of Bristol.  More about Community Based Learning at the Cabot Institute.



Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Insights from the Natural Systems and Processes Poster Session

The Natural Systems and Processes Poster Session (NSPPS) is a University-wide poster session for postgraduate students within the Faculty of Science aimed at increasing inter-departmental connections within a relaxed and informal environment. This year’s event, which was hosted within the Great Hall of the Wills Memorial Building, was attended by ~90 PhD students from a wide variety of disciplines and hundreds more visitors came from across the University to view the posters. Most participants were interested in tackling the challenges of uncertain environmental change with an emphasis upon climate change, natural hazards and human impacts on the environment.
The Natural Systems and Processes Poster Session 2015 in the Great Hall
in the Wills Memorial Building (Image credit: D. Naafs)
Adam McAleer, a final year PhD student working in the Department of Earth Sciences, is interested in measuring the flux of greenhouse gases from restored peatlands within Exmoor National Park. The Exmoor Mires Project seeks to raise water levels via blocking of old agricultural drains in order to re-saturate the peatlands and recover its peat-forming biogeochemistry. This will potentially lead the mires to become carbon dioxide sinks and methane sources. As wetter plants were found to have a strong association to higher methane emissions, certain plant species have the potential to be used as a proxy for methane fluxes and restoration success. Mark Lunt, a third year PhD student working within the Atmospheric Chemistry Research Group, is interested in the fate of other greenhouse gases, such as hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). Hydrofluorocarbons are organic compounds that contain fluorine and hydrogen atoms and are used as refrigerants, aerosol propellants, solvents, and fire retardants in the place of chloroflourocarbons (CFCs). Although HFCs do not harm the ozone layer, they can contribute to global warming. In developing countries, demand for HFCs are increasing rapidly; as a result, both the USA and China have agreed to begin work on phasing out hydroflourocarbons.

Felipe (left) discussing his research to staff and students  (Image credit: D. Naafs)

Catherine McIntyre (1st year) and John Pemberton (1st year), based within the Organic Geochemistry Unit, presented work from the NERC-funded DOMAINE project. This project aims to look at dissolved organic matter (DOM) in freshwater ecosystems and public water supplies and will focus upon the fate of carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus. Phosphorus, for example, is used to make fertilisers and can be incorporated into lakes and streams via terrestrial run-off. As phosphorus is a key limiting nutrient, it can also stimulate algal blooms and lead to eutrophication (i.e. oxygen starvation). Indeed, the global phosphorus cycle has already been highly perturbed, as shown below. As very little is known about organic phosphorus, the DOMAIN project will investigate this further using via high-resolution molecular techniques. 

Four of the nine planetary boundaries  have now been crossed (Steffen et al., 2015; Science)

Other students are using the past to explore the future. Matt Carmichael, a final year PhD based within the School of Chemistry, is interested in understanding how the hydrological cycle varied during past warm climates. Of particular interest is the early Eocene (~48 to 56 million years ago), an interval characterised by high atmospheric carbon dioxide, high sea surface temperatures and the absence of continental ice sheets. However, the impact of these changes on the wider Earth system, especially those related to precipitation patterns, vegetation and biogeochemical cycles, remain poorly understood. This is achieved using climate models which can simulate changes in the atmosphere and the ocean during the Eocene. Future climatic change will also have a profound effect upon the hydrological cycle with the potential to make floods and droughts more extreme.

How the East Antarctic coastline might have looked during the early Eocene (Pross et al., 2012; Nature)
Collectively, the NSPPS highlights the wide variety of research undertaken with the Faculty of Science and is a great opportunity for PhD students to present their research in a relaxed setting.

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This blog was written by Gordon Inglis (@climategordon) a final year PhD student within the School of Chemistry. Additional thanks to Adam McAleer, Matt Carmichael, Mark Lunt, Catherine McIntyre and John Pemberton whose work is highlighted here. 
Gordon Inglis


Monday, 16 March 2015

Unravelling the mysteries of the subpolar North Atlantic

Why should we care about what is going on in the cold and stormy subpolar North Atlantic? I can give you at least three very good reasons:
  1. First of all, the dynamics of this region are crucially important for modulating climatic conditions in North-Western Europe. So basically this is what keeps the UK’s weather relatively mild for its latitudes.
  2. Secondly, deep-water is formed in the Labrador Sea and this is a key process within the global thermohaline circulation. 
  3. The transport of heat and freshwater by the Subpolar North Atlantic has an impact on global climate, marine ecosystems, hurricanes, and even on rainfall in the African Sahel, the Amazon and parts of the US.  
Main circulation patterns in the North Atlantic. Orange-yellow lines are
surface, warmer currents and blue lines are deep, colder currents.

How do we know what is happening up there? 


Up until now, the subpolar North Atlantic has been inadequately measured and climate models largely fail to represent its features accurately. Last week, Dr Penny Holliday from the National Oceanography Centre (Southampton) visited Bristol to give a departmental seminar in the School of Geographical Sciences, titled “Circulation and variability in the subpolar North Atlantic”. From her talk we got to know more about the importance of long-term monitoring of the circulation in the subpolar North Atlantic and about two major ongoing monitoring programmes. These are providing precious observational data that will help scientists understand more about the interannual to multidecadal variability in these regions, in order to improve the skills of our predictions.

OSNAP (Overturning in the Subpolar North Atlantic Programme) is an international programmed that started in 2014 and includes partners from USA, UK, Canada, China, France, Germany, and the Netherlands. OSNAP is designed to provide for the first time a continuous record of measurements across the entire subpolar North Atlantic, similarly to the RAPID observational system at 26°N which has been monitoring the subtropical gyre since 2004.  Within UK-OSNAP, Penny is leading the observations being made in the deep western boundary current near Greenland.
Penny Holliday on the first UK-OSNAP (plus Extended Ellett
Line and RAGNARoCC) cruise in summer 2014
The Extended Ellett Line is a project led by the National Oceanography Centre (Southampton) and SAMS (The Scottish Association for Marine Science). It represents one of a small number of long-term, high-quality physical time series in the North Atlantic Ocean. This hydrographic section was started in 1975 by David Ellet, initially only in the Rockall Trough. In 1996 the section was extended up to Iceland. The expedition now runs once a year and the data collected includes physical (e.g. temperature, salinity, velocity), chemical (e.g. iron, nutrients, carbon) and biological (e.g. phytoplankton) measurements.  Penny is one of the two Principal Investigators for the Extended Ellett Line.

Most recent findings 


While some more time will be necessary before seeing the first results of the OSNAP project, the most recent significant discovery from the Extended Ellett Line is the importance of the episodic southward flow of the Wyville Thomson Overflow Water. Recent observations highlighted the necessity to include its contribution in the calculations of the heat transport through the Rockall Trough.  In addition, after four decades of observations, it has been observed that the top layers (0-800m) of the ocean in these regions have warmed and exhibit shorter timescale variability.

Data from the 2014 cruise has also shown that temperature and salinity in 2014 were lower compared to the previous 10 years. This suggests that the North Atlantic subpolar gyre would have increased its circulation and expanded, bringing cooler and fresher water into the eastern regions.

Life at sea in the subpolar North Atlantic


The oceanographic cruises organised within these two programmes also offer the chance to several students and early career scientists to get a taste of what life at sea really means.
Penny was one of my supervisors during my MSc in Southampton, where for my research project I was analysing the results of a new simulation with a high-resolution ocean model in the North Atlantic subpolar regions (we have recently published those results). One year or so later, Penny was recruiting some extra people for one of the Extended Ellett Line cruises and she must have remembered our conversations about how I had always wanted to go on a research cruise. So there I was, ready to board the RRS James Cook as part of the physical oceanography team, sailing from Scotland to Iceland. It was such an amazing experience: I think I will be forever grateful to Penny for making my wish come true!
Myself (left) and Natalia Serpetti (right) taking sea water samples from the CTD
(conductivity-temperature-depth instrument) and looking very happy
during the Extended Ellett Line cruise in 2013.
Life at sea is actually pretty hard work and definitely not a holiday. Initial sea sickness aside, and ignoring the fact that I was waking up a 4 am every morning (yes, I had the unluckiest shift ever!), the memories that I will cherish the most are about all the things that I learnt, the awesome people I met, the breathtaking sunrises and sunsets over Iceland (at least due to the unlucky shift I got to see both of them everyday!), the pilot whales occasionally following the ship, and the power of the ocean which makes you feel so small and insignificant. Probably I will also always remember the entire night that some of us spent scooping up and sieving mud from a deep sea sledge, while listening to pretty bad club music: that was actually great fun!

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This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Alice Marzocchi, School of Geographical Sciences, at the University of Bristol.  Follow Alice on Twitter @allygully.
Alice Marzocchi


Twitter contacts: @np_holliday    @uk_osnap    @osnap_updates  

Read Alice's other blog: The conference crashers! What are a geophysicist, a climate modeller, and a geochemist doing at a Social Sciences conference?