Cabot Institute Blog

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

Thursday, 27 August 2015

University of Bristol's Green Heroes: Rich Pancost

In the run up to the Bristol Post's Green Capital Awards, we thought we'd highlight some of our key Green Heroes and Green Leaders at the University of Bristol.  As part of a four part blog series this week, we will be highlighting some of the key figures behind the scenes and in front of the limelight who are the green movers and shakers of our university.  There are many more Green Heroes across the University that we would like to celebrate. To find out more about who they are and what they are doing to make our university and city a better place, please visit our Sustainability Stories website.
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Rich Pancost

With a background in Geology, Rich has steered his academic progress through a career straddling a range of disciplines from oceanography to isotope geochemistry, but all of which has been focused on understanding environmental change and its impact on life. 



Rich has now been based in Bristol for the last 15 years and became Cabot Institute Director in 2013. The Cabot Institute engages interdisciplinary approaches to address the major environmental challenges of the 21st century. Rich’s work within the Institute has incorporated an assortment of current topics relating to how we live on the planet including natural hazards, climate change and food security. 

One of Rich’s primary goals for the institute is to stimulate a dialogue between contrasting academic communities, particularly between the social and physical sciences, in combination with communication between the university and the city of Bristol. His modern vision of progress comprises a union of thoughts and ideas as he explains: “There are very few Newtons, Keplers and Darwins. I think that relatively few breakthroughs in the next century will be because of some genius sitting in a room by themself. Ultimately, those who come up with exciting new ideas will do so because they have been exposed to a cocktail of different interactions and stimuli, that will challenge us to think in very different ways.”


Under Rich’s direction, the Cabot Institute is trying to link up academics to create new communities within the university that can reach out into the public. It is this process that Rich identifies as a fundamental issue for our community to overcome: “The biggest challenge facing our city is inclusion and this is also true of Bristol 2015. We need to show how this is relevant to everyone’s lives; it is about carrying everyone along for the journey”. Additionally, he believes in maintaining the long term benefits of Bristol 2015:

“Being Green Capital isn’t a one year thing- it’s a long term legacy. We will always be the UK’s first Green Capital and that will always carry obligations and opportunities.”

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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


If you would like to nominate your Green Hero or Green Leader in the upcoming Bristol Post Green Capital Awards, please visit the official Green Capital Awards website.  Entries close on 4 September 2015.

To learn more about the University of Bristol's activities  and commitments during the Bristol 2015 European Green Capital year, please visit bristol.ac.uk/green-capital




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Other blogs in the Green Heroes series
Chris Willmore
Katharine Baldock
Martin Wiles

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

University of Bristol's Green Heroes: Martin Wiles

In the run up to the Bristol Post's Green Capital Awards, we thought we'd highlight some of our key Green Heroes and Green Leaders at the University of Bristol.  As part of a four part blog series this week, we will be highlighting some of the key figures behind the scenes and in front of the limelight who are the green movers and shakers of our university.  There are many more Green Heroes across the University that we would like to celebrate. To find out more about who they are and what they are doing, please visit our Sustainability Stories website.
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Martin Wiles


Martin Wiles is the head of Sustainability on the University Estate Management team and leads a team of thirteen staff who have been responsible for delivering university-wide sustainability initiatives.


Martin and his team are responsible for designing and implementing green solutions to the University’s energy problems. This has lead them to an array of successes, including reducing CO2 emissions by 2000 tonnes, despite a growth in the University estate and population , through the carbon management plan. Martin and his team have accomplished this largely by the installation of carbon combined heat and power and solar photovoltaics.

Despite this achievement, Martin’s work has not been limited to CO2 reduction; the University now recycles over 80% of its domestic and construction wastes.  Additionally, he has made headway in sustainable transport solutions, procurement and construction.

As well as solving practical issues in the University’s sustainability aims, Martin has been closely engaged with the student population, through a food cooperative, cycle schemes and student conferences.

Martin attributes his green-mindedness to a geography lesson in 1980; “we were looking at de-forestation in the Amazon, couldn't believe what was happening!”. After years of hard work to bring the university this far, his task is far from over as he elaborates; “Making the University sustainable is a long term project, the challenge is to keep everyone engaged with the agenda and taking sustainable actions, the end of 2015 Green Capital year is not the end of our sustainable work”.

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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


If you would like to nominate your Green Hero or Green Leader in the upcoming Bristol Post Green Capital Awards, please visit the official Green Capital Awards website.  Entries close on 4 September 2015.

To learn more about the University of Bristol's activities  and commitments during the Bristol 2015 European Green Capital year, please visit bristol.ac.uk/green-capital


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Other blogs in the Green Heroes series
Chris Willmore
Katharine Baldock
Rich Pancost

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

University of Bristol's green heroes: Katherine Baldock

In the run up to the Bristol Post's Green Capital Awards, we thought we'd highlight some of our key Green Heroes and Green Leaders at the University of Bristol.  As part of a four part blog series this week, we will be highlighting some of the key figures behind the scenes and in front of the limelight who are the green movers and shakers of our university.  There are many more Green Heroes across the University that we would like to celebrate. To find out more about who they are and what they are doing, please visit our Sustainability Stories website.
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Katherine Baldock


Katherine is a NERC Knowledge Exchange Fellow in the School of Biological Sciences and at the Cabot Institute at the University of Bristol.


Katherine has come from a background in Biology, studying in Bristol as an undergraduate. Her subsequent passion for biology and ecology has drawn her to study at various institutions and work all over the world in places such as Costa Rica and Kenya.

Her academic work is focussed on the networks of interactions between plants and their pollinators, particularly in urban environments. Her research objectives aim to improve the value of UK urban areas for insect pollinators; research which hopes to positively impact insects that are essential for maintaining a functioning ecosystem and subsequently our food supplies. Her current role requires her to liaise with policymakers, practitioners and conservation charities to ensure an effective link between research and policy. Her work is essential to Bristol as well as cities across the UK and has resulted in government action, as she elaborates: “The government have published a National Pollinator Strategy and a partnership of organisations has created a local Greater Bristol Pollinator Strategy so that we can promote action for pollinators across the whole city”.

Her work is more than just a job, Katherine is passionate about the research she does and the effects it has on our cities as she explains: “If everyone plays a part and creates a little bit of habitat for bees and other pollinating insects in their own gardens, allotments or window boxes we could really make a difference. I'm passionate about preserving nature, not just for nature's sake but also because it is incredibly important for our health and wellbeing and provides us with so many essential services - from crop pollination to carbon sequestration to water purification.”


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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


If you would like to nominate your Green Hero or Green Leader in the upcoming Bristol Post Green Capital Awards, please visit the official Green Capital Awards website.  Entries close on 4 September 2015.

To learn more about the University of Bristol's activities during the Bristol 2015 European Green Capital year, please visit bristol.ac.uk/green-capital


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Other blogs in the Green Heroes series
Chris Willmore
Martin Wiles
Rich Pancost

Monday, 24 August 2015

Public debates in science: Where’s the balance?

Earth Science PhD student Peter Spooner shares his experiences after working as a science-policy intern at the British Library, struggling to achieve scientific balance in a politically charged debate.

Greenpeace's Will McCallum talks to Barrie Deas of the NFFO at TalkScience.
© The British Library Board
Anyone who follows any kind of environmental science will be aware of the differences in the ways that science can be portrayed - be it in the news, in TV shows, on the radio or at public events. As an organiser/reporter, a debate is often a good way to make your event/article more interesting, and there are almost always different points of view clamouring to be heard. It is often straightforward for a scientist specialising in a topic to point to a media debate of the issue and say: ‘That debate did not represent the scientific position’. However, as I discovered during my recent internship at the British Library, trying to organise a properly balanced debate is very difficult and may not always be the goal to which every debate aspires.

The British Library’s TalkScience series are discussion-style events focussing on topical issues in science. Past events have included topics such as: climate change and extreme weather; the impact of pesticides on bees; genetic modification on the farm and many more, all topics with relevance to political/social issues as well as science. When designing my event, my oceanographic background (along with having a scuba diver’s love for all things marine) led me to choose the title ‘Fishing and Marine Protection: What’s the Catch?’ The discussion would focus on the increasing pressure under which we are placing our marine environment and the impacts that has on the life beneath the waves and the fishermen above them.

A catchy title and puns galore adorned my mock up flyer for the event. But what about the speakers? Could I (or should I) make this event balanced? How could I (realising that I have a somewhat biased view of the topic) avoid ‘false balance’, especially when I am not a fisheries expert? I was able to invite three speakers and one chair person; a great number for a small discussion event, but hardly enough for a truly fair and balanced debate – a debate not just on the science of fisheries and marine conservation, but the political, economic and social aspects too. It was clear I needed at least one scientist, but since the discussion was not to be simply about science but about policy as well, I couldn’t just have scientists on the panel. Further considerations were whether those I asked to speak could eloquently handle the job, were prominent enough to lend weight to their arguments, and whether it would be possible to get a diverse panel. As if these considerations weren’t enough, I also had to think carefully about how I wanted the event to run. For example, if a conservation scientist were to speak alone opposite a fisheries representative then the conversation may not have been entirely constructive. It was important to me to try and generate a discussion that left people in a positive frame of mind, or with some good ideas to take away.

In the event, this latter goal took precedence over scientific (or political) balance, especially since those are so difficult to achieve with so few speakers and with my non-expert knowledge of the subject. It was important to me to include panellists and audience members from all the stakeholder groups interested in fishing and marine protection, to have a healthy debate, and to get everyone talking in a friendly atmosphere. Dr. Alasdair Harris, director of the charity Blue Ventures and one of our panellists, summed up the event by saying: “Change is about relationships, and change is about dialogue and understanding perspectives.” We certainly heard some different perspectives during the event, from conservation scientist Professor Calum Roberts advocating for strongly protected marine reserves, fisheries representative Barrie Deas highlighting the difficulties that conservation policies can cause fishermen, to Alasdair’s view that engaging with fishermen is the key to ensuring successful ocean protection and sustainable fisheries. The speakers (and audience members) were able to address each of these perspectives leading to a good degree of balance in the discussion.

A very useful inclusion in this regard was that of having a chairperson (Dr. Helen Scales) who was both trained in media communication and an expert in the scientific field. These skills allowed Helen to use her scientific knowledge to make sure any controversial points were challenged, and her communication experience to drive a positive discussion and engage the audience. Perhaps by using this system more often – with a subject expert acting as chair – we could better avoid situations where non-scientists are able to derail debates by simply denying the science. With science seen as the building block and basis of the discussion, rather than as one side of the debate, we could hope to remove the impact of unrealistic scepticism and focus instead on how we use what we know to inform policy and to drive change.

If you would like to learn more about fishing and marine protection, you can listen to the highlights of the event in this British Library podcast below. The whole event is also available as a video on Youtube, and you can learn about the history of fishing in the British Library science blog. If you would like to hear about future TalkScience events you can check the British Library website or follow @ScienceBL on Twitter.



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This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Peter Spooner from the School of Earth Sciences at the University of Bristol.  Peter's research focuses on deep-sea corals and climate.
Peter Spooner

The closing date for applying to next year’s round of RCUK internships is Friday 28 August 2015, apply here if you are interested.  

‘The Resilience Dividend’ – and the kind of thinking required to realise it

Way back in January I attended Judith Rodin’s lecture on resilience at the Festival of Ideas. I remember rushing through the door of a large lecturing theatre at Social Sciences Complex with my folding bike to hand and five minutes to go. Catching my breath, I came across a packed auditorium and thought that it might be impossible to seat anywhere but the steps, but thankfully I got seated somewhere at the front. I had heard of Judith, but never seen her speaking in person or read her work in detail, as it is not strictly speaking within my field of expertise. But Judith started conversing with the chair of the session and realised that everything she talked about made perfect sense for a computer scientist like me working on projects about future cities.

Judith apologised for ‘being a bit incoherent’ because of jet lag, as she had only arrived in the UK the previous few hours and had travelled to Bristol straight from London, but oh my, I can’t imagine how much more composed and sharp she is normally, if that was the case. I can’t even begin to recount the many different points that made perfect sense to me that she made that evening. But there are a few key messages that really stuck with me - taking stock of them below:

  1. Quoting Churchill (‘Never let a good crisis go to waste’), she emphasised on the learning that needs to take place after a crisis; an honest assessment of what worked and what not, accountability and preparation for the future. This is particularly important for dealing effectively with climate change as the experiences of large scale disasters, such as New Orleans and the Boxing Day tsunami among others, demonstrated.
  2. However, we must avoid the kind of bias introduced by the short-termism, usually associated with contemporary policies. Lack of funding, unwillingness to commit for the long-term to resolving climatic change and knee jerk reactions, mostly for securing short term political capital, have a biasing effect of usually responding only to issues concerning the last crisis. After the terrorist attacks of 9/11 for example a lot of people started avoiding having computer rooms and data centres in tall buildings and put them increasingly in basements; the results for such companies were obviously disastrous in New Orleans.
  3. Lastly, but by no means least, not only did she emphasise Systems thinking as a way of understanding and tackling complexity, but as a key way of thinking for realising the ‘resilience dividend’. However we define resilience, preparing for the future does pay back. In an era of efficiency drives and economic tightness, it is difficult to commit to funding the spare capacity, long termism and foresight that are required to build resilience. However, spare capacity does not necessarily mean idle wastage; the lessons from the sharing economy platforms show us how value can be realised from spare capacity anyway. But to understand this we need more study of the interactions and the interrelations, hence the Systems element in her argument.

For the interested reader, Judith’s book can be found on all on-line and high street book retailers. It’s fully titled ‘The resilience dividend: Managing disruption, avoiding disaster and growing stronger in an unpredictable world’, and you can find it at http://resiliencedividend.org/. There you’ll also find a collection of key stories from the book, about how cities around the world coped with and learned from recent crises (including. fascinating accounts from Christchurch, San Francisco, New Orleans etc.).

Listen again to Judith Rodin's talk below.




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This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Dr Theo Tryfonas from the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Bristol. Theo's research focuses around cybersecurity and smart cities.
Theo Tryfonas

University of Bristol's green heroes - Chris Willmore

In the run up to the Bristol Post's Green Capital Awards, we thought we'd highlight some of our key Green Heroes and Green Leaders at the University of Bristol.  As part of a four part blog series this week, we will be highlighting some of the key figures behind the scenes and in front of the limelight who are the green movers and shakers of our university.  There are many more Green Heroes across the University that we would like to celebrate. To find out more about who they are and what they are doing, please visit our Sustainability Stories website.
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Chris Willmore


Chris Willmore is the University of Bristol's Green Academy academic lead, Director of Undergraduate Studies and lead academic for Technology Enhanced Learning.


Growing up in increasingly over-developed London, Chris has since fostered a passion for saving open spaces and built environments. After an early career as a barrister practising environmental and planning law, Chris decided to move back into academia; “being a barrister you tend to get involved in problems when things have gone wrong. I wanted to help prevent problems” she explains.

The transition to academia lead Chris to a position in the university’s Law school. In this time, Chris has used her role to introduce a number of schemes to help educate and encourage students to be involved in green issues. This includes introducing an award-winning interdisciplinary course termed ‘Sustainable Development’. The motivation for the course was inspire students to expand their thoughts on how sustainability is an issue for all, as Chris explains:  “the whole aim was to offer students an opportunity to understand sustainable development as a holistic issue – and to see how different disciplines bring different things to the challenges”.

Her work isn’t confined to taught courses, over the last few years Chris has worked with the University’s students union to engage students in informal extra curricular activities such as the ‘switch off campaign’. In her words, this was key for “thinking about how students could change this city – after all they are 10% of the city’s population between the two universities”.

This work has drawn Chris away from pure law issues and into engaging the broader student population, through sustainable volunteering schemes. Chris is also part of a pioneering committee that aims to determine the best sustainable future for the university termed the ‘Green Academy team’.  Chris explains why this team, which was formed off the back of Higher Education Academy Initiative, has been such a success: “our low cost, networked approach has attracted a lot of interest as an alternative to top down resource intensive approaches”.

Her ambitions aren’t just for a ‘quick fix’ either - Chris has long term goals for her work with the student population; “Our biggest environmental impact as a university is the thousands of students who graduate each year with a lifetime of footprint ahead of them. We need to skill them to be able to make wise choices”.

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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


If you would like to nominate your Green Hero or Green Leader in the upcoming Bristol Post Green Capital Awards, please visit the official Green Capital Awards website.  Entries close on 4 September 2015.

To learn more about the University of Bristol's activities during the Bristol 2015 European Green Capital year, please visit bristol.ac.uk/green-capital.






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Other blogs in the Green Heroes series will be posted every day this week.
Katharine Baldock
Martin Wiles
Rich Pancost

Friday, 21 August 2015

Fieldwork activities: A great opportunity to expose young scientists and engineers to novel technologies

Between 29 June and 7 July, three environmental monitoring stations have been installed in an organic farm approximately 15 km east of Swindon. The stations are part of the AMUSED project, funded by NERC and lead by me, Rafael Rosolem (Lecturer in Civil Engineering), with the ultimate goal being to identify key dominant processes that control changes in soil moisture and land-atmosphere interactions in the UK.

Each station is equipped with standard meteorological sensor as well as new technology for measuring soil moisture at spatial scales of approximately 600m diameter through cosmic-ray neutron interactions at approximately. The AMUSED network covers an area of approximately 1.7 square kilometers and will provide soil moisture estimates for hyper-resolution hydrometeorological modeling around the farm taking into account spatial scale heterogeneities not seen by satellite remote sensing products. The three sites are above chalk landscape and will improve our understanding of soil moisture and evaporation dynamics in such regions across a range of spatial scales.

Novel cosmic-ray sensor network will help estimate soil moisture at
hyper-resolution while accounting for differences in land cover and
soil characteristics. Source: Rafael Rosolem
An important aspect recognized in the AMUSED project is to expose young engineers and scientists to the novel cosmic-ray sensor technology. Our fieldwork was organized so that a small group of scientists and engineers carried out fieldwork and laboratory activities while learning more about environmental sensors.

The small group consisted of a post-doctoral researcher (Shams Rahman), a Civil Engineering PhD student (Joost Iwema), and a Civil Engineering undergraduate student (Juliana Koltermann da Silva) from the Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil. Shams Rahman interests include understanding groundwater-atmosphere coupling through numerical models. He is currently working under the AMUSED project. Joost Iwema is a second year PhD candidate in the Department of Civil Engineering. His background is in Soil Sciences, and he has been directly working with cosmic-ray sensors. Juliana Koltermann da Silva is a Brazilian Sciences Without Borders undergraduate student with interest in Geotechnics.

While in the field, the group had a chance to interact directly with cosmic-ray sensor developer, Darin Desilets, from Hydroinnova, asking questions and learning more about this new technology. Fieldwork activities were also supported by the Faculty of Engineering and the University of Bristol International Office.

Woodland site: Left to right: Juliana (undergraduate student), Joost (PhD candidate),
Shams (Post-Doctoral Research Assistant), and Rafael (Lecturer in Civil Engineering).
Source: Rafael Rosolem
The group had an opportunity to interact with Darin Desilets (Hydroinnova; left in
the photo) during fieldwork and laboratory activities to learn more about the
new cosmic-ray sensor technology. Source: Rafael Rosolem
The fieldwork also involved collection of a large number of soil samples for analysis (more than 100 samples within 200m radius for each site). Soil samples are currently being analyzed in order to calibrate not only the cosmic-ray sensors but also cross-calibrate additional soil moisture sensors available in the site.

We collect approximately 60 soil samples to a depth of 30cm during the field
campaign. Each profile is further subdivided into 6 x 5cm thickness layers,
which are then used for calibrating the cosmic-ray sensors and numerical
models used in the NERC AMUSED project. Source: Rafael Rosolem.
One of the aims of the AMUSED project is to engage in knowledge transfer to young scientists and engineers, with a distinct backgrounds and at different stages of their careers, to novel technologies for environmental monitoring while providing a good balance between fieldwork and laboratory activities as well as numerical modeling approaches.

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This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Rafael Rosolem (Lecturer in Civil Engineering).
Rafael Rosolem

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Building up solar power in Africa


It's proving tough enough in the UK to increase the amount of renewable energy we use, and attempting this in Africa may seem like a pipe dream. However, six years ago, University of Bristol alumni Edward Matos (Engineering Design, 2009) and Oliver Kynaston (Physics, 2007), fresh faced out of their degrees, created a company to do just this.

Last month, I interviewed Oliver from his home in Tanzania and he gave me the low down on how it all happened.

It all started when Edward won £10K for his social enterprise idea in the 2009 Bristol New Enterprise Competition hosted by RED (Research and Enterprise Development) at the University of Bristol. The basic plan was to design and disseminate biodigesters amongst the rural poor of developing countries that would produce clean fuel for cooking and heating from livestock excrement; thereby avoiding the need to burn firewood in the home. Inhaling smoke in the home causes acute respiratory infections and in Africa alone, this causes more than 400,000 people, mostly children, to die every year.

Intrigued to find out if his idea was at all feasible, Edward flew out to Tanzania for two weeks for a business research trip. Oliver was working at a renewable energy company in the UK at the time and upon Edwards return, he joined Edward in a pub in Bristol for an informal chat. Reminiscing over this meeting Oliver tells me that at as they got talking about the possibilities, they both thought: “May be, may be we could just do this.” By the age of 25 the pair had formed Shamba Technologies, a renewable energy company in Tanzania.

In the early stages of the company, they lived on a farm in rural Tanzania in order to test their products for the local market. This was a crucial step that Oliver and Edward took because only by putting themselves in the shoes of their target market could they design products that were appropriate for low-income households.

Although Shamba Technologies started off with biodigesters, the company has now focussed on a new product that generates electricity from solar power. Increasing access to electricity is key to reducing poverty: health, education and communication can be greatly improved. In Tanzania, 15% of the population have access to electricity and there isn't any semblance of an electrical grid outside of the cities. Therefore, products that can provide clean electrical power off-grid are pivotal in lifting millions of people out of poverty.

Oliver tells me that there have been three key technological advances which have paved the way to being able to develop such a product: solar panels, LEDs and batteries. They have all become more effective and cheaper over the years. Using these components, Shamba Technologies have developed a domestic solar product with an interesting design feature: the product can be bought in affordable chunks and assembled like Lego. In fact, Oliver says that this modular design was influenced by observing how a Tanzanian built their houses near their farm.

This product can be bought in affordable chunks and assembled like Lego.
“One day the foundations were laid and they were left for a few months, then some trucks came along with bricks and a few layers were laid down. A further six months went by, weeds started growing on the unfinished walls and we'd thought the building had been abandoned, but sure enough they came back with more bricks.”

This erratic building schedule is reflected in how Tanzanians spend their money. A stable wage with an hourly rate is hard to come by in Tanzania, and workers usually get paid in lump sums for a period of work or after selling farm produce. Given the lack of secure banking in Tanzania, it is prudent to turn your money into assets as soon as possible. So a Tanzanian would buy as many bricks as their money can allow, lay them on their house and then wait for the next pay packet.

The modular design of the solar energy product that Shamba Technologies have developed is a brilliant example of how Oliver and Edward have really understood and listened to their market. This underlying ethos of their company has put them in good stead for future success in the renewable energy market in Africa.

Edward and Oliver in Tanzania.
At present, Oliver still lives in Tanzania carrying out market trials of their products and Edward has recently returned from a year in China where he has been learning how to decrease the cost of their products through mass-manufacture. Shamba Technologies have high hopes for the future and would like to be at the forefront of Africa’s renewable energy sector in the next 10 years.

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This blog is written by Cabot Institute member and PhD student Lewis Roberts.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Withdrawn: Reflections on the past and future of our seas

On the 23rd of August, and as part of Bristol 2015 European Green Capital, I have the privilege of participating in a conversation about the future of our coastal seas that has been inspired by Luke Jerram’s ethereal and evocative Withdrawn  Project in Leigh Woods.  The conversation will include Luke, but also the esteemed chef, Josh Eggleton  who has championed sustainable food provision and is providing a sustainable fish supper for the event, and my University of Bristol Cabot Institute colleague, Dani Schmidt, who is an expert on the past and current impacts of ocean acidification on marine ecosystems.


My engagement with Withdrawn has been inspired on multiple levels, primarily the enthusiasm of Luke but also arising from my role as Cabot Director and my own research on the oceans. Withdrawn inspires reflection on our dependence on the sea and how we have polluted and depleted it, but also on how we obtain our food and the people at the heart of that industry.

All of these issues are particularly acute for our island nation, ringed by nearly 20,000 kilometres of coastline and culturally and economically dependent on the sea. Beyond our own nation, over 2.6 billion people  need the oceans for their dietary protein, a point driven home when I interviewed Sir David Attenborough on behalf of Cabot (see video below). He passionately referred to the oceans as one of our most vital natural resources. And of course, as Withdrawn reminds us, the oceans have vast cultural and spiritual value. It also reminds us that those oceans and those resources are at profound risk.


I’ve spent over 25 years studying our planet and its oceans. However, my first ocean research expedition did not occur until 1999, and it was a profoundly eye-opening experience. We were exploring the deep sea communities fuelled by methane extruded from the Mediterranean seafloor.  Isolated from light, the ocean floor is a largely barren world, but in parts of the Mediterranean it is interrupted by explosions of colourful life, including tubeworms, bacterial colonies, fields of molluscs and strange and lonely fish, all thriving in exotic mountains of carbonate crusts cut by saline rivers. These are vibrant ecosystems but so far removed from the surface world and light that they instead depend on chemical energy sourced from deep below the bottom of the ocean. And even here we found human detritus, plastic and cans and bottles.

Those were powerful observations, in large part because of their symbolism: our influence on the oceans is pervasive and quite often in ways that are challenging to fully comprehend and often invisible to the eye. These include, for example:
  • The potentially devastating impact of plastic on marine ecosystems, including plastic nanoparticles that are now, for all intents and purposes, ubiquitous.  Of course, pollutants are not limited to plastic – our lab now identifies petroleum-derived hydrocarbons in nearly every ocean sediment we analyse.
  • The decreasing pH of the oceans, due to rising CO2 levels, an acid when dissolved in water. We acidifying the oceans, apparently at a rate faster than at any other time in Earth history, a deeply alarming observation. We are already seeing some consequences of ocean acidification on organisms that make calcium carbonate shells. However, what concerns most scientists is how little we know about the impacts of rapid ocean acidification on marine ecosystems
  • Ocean warming. A vast amount of the energy that has been trapped in the Earth system by higher greenhouse gas concentrations has been absorbed by the oceans.  Its impact on marine life is only beginning to be documented, but it has been invoked, for example, as an explanation for declines in North Sea fisheries.

And these represent only a few of the chemical and environmental changes we are making to the marine realm. They do not even begin to address the numerous issues associated with our over-exploitation and poor management of our marine resources.

Compounded, these factors pose great risk to the oceans but also to all of us dependent on them. As Cabot Institute Director, I engage with an inspiringly diverse range of environmental scientists, social scientist, engineers, doctors and vets.   And in those conversations, of all the human needs at threat due to environmental change, it is water and food that concern me the most.  And of these, our food provision seems the most wildly unpredictable. The synergistic impact of warmer temperatures, more acidic waters, and more silt-choked coastal waters on a single shellfish species, let alone complex ecosystems such as coral reefs or North Sea food webs, is very difficult to predict. This uncertainty becomes even more pronounced if we factor in nutrient runoff from poorly managed land, eutrophication and ocean anoxia leading to more widespread ‘dead zones’. Or the impact of plastic, hydrocarbon, and anti-biofouling pollutants. The ghost ships of Withdrawn quietly tell the story of how our increased demand and poor management have led to overexploitation of fish stocks, causing an industry to face increasing uncertainty. But they also invoke deeper anxieties about how environmental change and pollution of our seas could devastate our food supply.

But Withdrawn, like other Bristol Green Capital Arts projects and like all inspiring art, does not telegraph a simple message.  It does not shout to ‘bring back local fisherman’ or ‘save our oceans’.  These messages are present but subtly so, and for that both Luke and the National Trust should be celebrated. The boats themselves are captivating and draw you into the fisherman’s efforts; they acknowledge our dependence on the ocean and that we must continue to exploit it. To others they are suggestive of some past catastrophe, a tsunami that has somehow deposited fishing boats in a wildly unanticipated place. And yet to others, they suggest the changing character of seas, seas that once stood 100 m higher than they do today and which almost certainly will do so again if all of our coal and oil is burned into carbon dioxide.

Withdrawn is about all of those things. And consequently, at its deepest level, I think Withdrawn is about change.

Ammonite by Alex Lucas as part of Cabot Institute's Uncertain World art project.

Geologists have a rather philosophical engagement with the concept of change – on long enough timescales, change is not the exception but the defining character of our planet and life. I should clarify that the aforementioned Mediterranean expedition was my first proper research excursion to the modern seas, but it came long after numerous visits to ancient ones.  In 1993, my PhD co-supervisor Mike Arthur took a group of us to Colorado where we collected samples from sedimentary rocks that had been deposited in the Cretaceous Western Interior Seaway 90 million year ago, a Seaway from a hotter, ice-free world, in which higher oceans had invaded a downflexed central North American basin. That might not seem like a proper marine experience but to a geologist you can reconstruct an ocean in startling clarity from the bold clues preserved in the rock: current flows that tell you the shape of the coastline; fossils that reveal the ecosystem, from cyanobacterial mats on the seafloor to inoceramids  and ammonites  to great marine reptiles in the waters above; and the rocks themselves that reveal a shallow sea in which limestone was deposited across a great platform.

But it was only like this at some times.  The fascinating aspect of these rocks is the complex pattern of sedimentation – from limestones to shales and back again – limestones that were much like the lime cliffs of Lyme Regis, switching in a geological blink of the eye to oil shales similar to those in Kimmeridge Bay, from which, further North and at greater depths and pressures, North Sea oils derive. Limestone. Shale. Limestone. Shale. A pattern repeated hundreds of times.  In the Western Interior Seaway.  Along the Jurassic Coast. Across the globe, from the Tarfaya, Vocontian and Maracaibo basins to the Hatteras Abyss, from Cape Verde to the Levant Platform. Cycles and cycles of astonishingly different rock types – all bundled up in patterns suggesting they were modulated by the ever changing character of Earth’s orbit.  These cycles are change, from a sea with clear waters, little algal growth and ringed with reefs to one fed with nutrients and gorged with algal blooms and stripped of oxygen.

Change is a necessary and inevitable feature of our planet.  And of the human condition.

But we seem incapable of resisting the urge to impose a value judgment for or against change. It is either viewed as a technocratic marvel to be celebrated or a violation against the natural state of the world and to be resisted.  But often, change is conflated with loss.  And there is something of loss in Withdrawn. These are the ‘Ghost Ships’ of Leigh Woods.  Ghosts of a way of life that no longer exists. Ghosts of the animals these boats once hunted.  Ghosts of some past and inexplicable event.

Of course, change will always be about progress vs loss, its value neither solely good nor bad but nonetheless inevitable.  But just because a geologist recognises the inevitability of change does not mean he thinks we should be passive to it. Change will come but should be managed, a significant challenge given its rapid pace over the past 150 years. In fact, one of the main observations of Dani Schmidt’s research is that our current rate of environmental change appears to be essentially unprecedented in Earth history, let alone human experience.

My hope is that Withdrawn has caused people to engage with the concept of change. How do we manage change in the 21st century?  How do we recognise those things that can and should be let go. As one visitor said, ‘We want to resist romanticising the past.’  Conversely, how do we decide what change must be moderated, because its cost is too high?  We can reduce our plastic consumption and waste, and we can enforce more rigorous regulations to stop the pollution of our planet – and we should.  More complicated questions arise from how we manage our dependencies on these precious marine resources, but it is clear that we can eat fish more sustainably, and chefs like Josh Eggleton are showing the way. We can create marine reserves that will not only conserve species but serve as biodiversity hotspots benefitting all of the oceans.

Perhaps most importantly, how do we recognise those things that must be preserved?  When I see the ghost ships of Withdrawn, I feel the poignant loss of our connection with nature and our connection with what it provides. Our food is now produced far away, delivered to sterile supermarkets via ships, trains and lorries; maybe that is necessary on a planet of over 7 billion people but if so, we must strive to preserve our connection to the sea – to our whole planet – understanding what it provides and understanding its limits.

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This blog is by Prof Rich Pancost, Director of the Cabot Institute at the University of Bristol.

Prof Rich Pancost
The final Withdrawn talk at Leigh Woods will be taking place on 23 August 2015 and will feature Cabot Institute scientists, Luke Jerram and chef Josh Eggeleton who will be cooking up a sustainable fish and chip supper for attendees.  This event is sold out.

Monday, 20 July 2015

How Bristol geologists are contributing to international development

Guatamala.  Credit: Geology for Global Development

It maybe isn't immediately obvious how a pet-rock-owning earth scientist is able to change the world; the basement labs in the Wills Memorial Building seem a far cry from fighting global poverty. But the study of geology and having a knowledge of the earth and its resources is actually vitally important for the success of many international development projects.

Geology for global development: what is it all about?


Geology for Global Development (GfGD) is a national organisation that wants to bring awareness to the important position that geologists are in, to be able to make a difference. And it’s not just geologists that are involved here; GfGD recognises that through the collaboration of students from a wide range of disciplines, a positive and effective contribution to development can be made. For example, earth scientists can learn a lot from anthropologists about working alongside different communities whilst being sensitive to cultural differences.

This has been the first year for the GfGD society at Bristol and so far we think it has been a great success. We have held talks covering a whole variety of topics: from volcanic hazards in Guatemala, to sustainably procuring our world’s resources, to an overview of what it is actually like to be working in aid and development as a volunteer. We aim to offer earth scientists and geographers, and anyone else who is interested, an alternative view of the opportunities available to them, aside from the more traditional career paths that often flood everybody’s radars. And alongside this, we’re also trying to raise awareness of the social science skills that are necessary for successful and sustainable development projects.

This year’s focus: volcanic hazards in Guatemala


There is one project in particular that the national GfGD group is currently working on: strengthening volcanic resilience in Guatemala. At Bristol we’re perfectly placed to contribute to this because every year students on the MSc Volcanology course spend 3 weeks studying the volcanoes in this country and learning about the agencies that are set up to monitor them. To draw on all of their experiences we held a ‘Noche de Guatemala’ to learn about this beautiful country and hear how the people living in the shadows of volcanoes are in dire need of better resources and escape routes to ensure their safety in case of eruption. As part of this event we also introduced some cultural aspects of the country as well as the current socio-political situation to put the project into context. In the discussion session that followed we saw some great suggestions for strengthening resilience, from ways to make crops that aren’t affected by volcanic eruptions, to ideas for community involvement with volcano monitoring agencies. These ideas have been passed on to the director of the national GfGD group to help inform how the project might proceed.

Noche de Guatamala at the University of Bristol. Credit: Serginio Remmelzwaal.

As well as contributing to the Guatemala project through awareness and discussions, our group has also managed to raise a fantastic £279.36 towards GfGD’s £10,000 target. This money will be used to supply improved resources to the monitoring agencies and provide educational materials for the communities affected by volcanic hazards so the risks and evacuation procedures are better understood.

Mapping for humanitarian crises


As you will probably be aware, over 9,000 miles away from the volcanoes in Guatemala, another type of natural hazard stuck violently on the 25 April this year. The 7.8 magnitude Gorkha earthquake in Nepal caused the death of more than 9,000 people and left hundreds of thousands of people homeless. We wanted to do something that could really contribute to the relief effort so we decided to hold two ‘mapathons.’ This is where a group of people get together and use OpenStreetMap with satellite images to add buildings, roads and waterways to areas where this information doesn't exist. This work is an enormous help to aid agencies that need to know all of this information to be able to help as many people as possible.
We’ve been busy this year and can’t wait to get even more people involved next year. We’ll be back in September with more talks, mapathons and hopefully some new style events to inspire anyone interested in earth processes to think again about how their knowledge could be used to bring about positive change in the developing world.

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This blog has been written by Cabot Institute member Emily White, a postgraduate student in the School of Chemistry at the University of Bristol.

If you want to find out more about this society, request to join our Facebook group.

Email emily.white@bristol.ac.uk to join the mailing list.

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

How to communicate effectively about climate change uncertainty


Have you ever struggled with the communication of climate change uncertainties? Are you frustrated by climate sceptics using uncertainty – inherent in any area of complex science – as a justification for delaying policy responses? Then the new ‘Uncertainty Handbook’ – a collaboration between the University of Bristol and its Cabot Institute and the Climate Outreach & Information Network (COIN) – is for you.
The handbook was authored by Dr. Adam Corner (COIN), Professor Stephan Lewandowsky (Cabot Institute, University of Bristol), Dr Mary Phillips (University of Bristol) and Olga Roberts (COIN). All have expertise relating to the role of uncertainty in climate change or how best to communicate it.
 The Handbook distills the most important research findings and expert advice on communicating uncertainty into a few pages of practical, easy-to-apply techniques, providing scientists, policymakers and campaigners with the tools they need to communicate more effectively around climate change. Download the report here, and check out our 12 principles for more effectively communicating climate change uncertainty:
1. Manage your audience’s expectations
People expect science to provide definite ‘answers’, whereas in reality it is a method for asking questions about the world. So manage people’s expectations, and use plenty of analogies from ‘everyday life’ so people can see that uncertainties are everywhere – not just in climate science.
2. Start with what you know, not what you don’t know
Too often, communicators give the caveats before the take-home message. On many fundamental questions — such as ‘are humans causing climate change?’ and ‘will we cause unprecedented changes to our climate if we don’t reduce the amount of carbon that we burn?’— the science is effectively settled.
3. Be clear about the scientific consensus
Having a clear and consistent message about the scientific consensus is important as it influences whether people see climate change as a problem that requires an urgent societal response. Use clear graphics like a pie-chart, use a ‘messenger’ who is trustworthy to communicate the consensus, and try to find the closest match between the values of your audience and those of the person communicating the consensus message.
4. Shift from ‘uncertainty’ to ‘risk’
Most people are used to dealing with the idea of ‘risk’. It is the
language of the insurance, health and national security sectors. So for many audiences — politicians, business leaders, or the military — talking about the
risks of climate change is likely to be more effective than talking about the uncertainties.
5. Be clear about the type of uncertainty you are talking about
A common strategy of sceptics is to intentionally confuse and conflate different types of uncertainty. So, it’s critical to be clear what type of uncertainty you’re talking about – causes, impacts, policies or solutions – and adopt appropriate language for each.
6. Understand what is driving people’s views about climate change
Uncertainty about climate change is higher among people with right-leaning political values. However, a growing body of research points to ways of communicating
about climate change that do not threaten conservative belief systems, or which use language that better resonates with the values of the centre-right.
7. The most important question for climate impacts is ‘when’, not ‘if’
Climate change predictions are usually communicated using a standard ‘uncertain outcome’ format. So a statement might say that sea levels will rise by “between 25 and 68cm, with 50cm being the average projection, by 2072”. But flip the statement around — using an ‘uncertain time’ framing — and suddenly it is clear that the
question is when not if sea levels will rise by 50cm: “Sea levels will rise by at least 50 cm, and this will occur at some time between 2060 and 2093”.
8. Communicate through images and stories
Most people understand the world through stories and images, not lists of numbers, probability statements or technical graphs, and so finding ways of translating and interpreting the technical language found in scientific reports into something more engaging is crucial. A visual artist can capture the concept of sea-level rise better than any graph, and still be factually accurate if they use scientific projections to inform their work.
9. Highlight the ‘positives’ of uncertainty
Research has found that uncertainty is not an inevitable barrier to action, provided communicators frame climate change messages in ways that trigger caution in the face of uncertainty. A ‘positive’ framing of uncertain information would indicate that losses might not happen if preventative action was taken.
10. Communicate effectively about climate impacts
The question ‘is this weather event caused by climate change?’ is misplaced. When someone has a weak immune system, they are more susceptible to a range of diseases, and no one asks whether each illness was ‘caused’ by a weak immune system. The same logic applies to climate change and some extreme weather events: they are made more likely, and more severe, by climate change.
11. Have a conversation, not an argument
Despite the disproportionate media attention given to ‘sceptics’, most people simply don’t talk or think about climate change all that much. This means that the very act of having a conversation about climate change — not an argument or repeating a ‘one-shot’ slogan — can be a powerful method of public engagement.
12. Tell a human story not a scientific one
The amount of carbon dioxide that is emitted over the next 50 years will determine the extent to which our climate changes. So what we choose to do — and how quickly we can muster the collective willpower to do it — is an uncertainty that dwarfs all others.
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This blog was written by Adam Corner and reproduced with kind permission from Adam and COIN.  View the original blog.
Dr Adam Corner is COIN's Research Director, and an Honorary Research Fellow at the School of Psychology, Cardiff University. Adam manages COIN's research portfolio, oversees the 'Talking Climate' project website, and directs COIN's collaborations with academic partners. He writes regularly for the national media, including The Guardian and New Scientist magazine.

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Weathermen of Westeros: Does the climate in Game of Thrones make sense?

The climate has been a persistent theme of Game of Thrones ever since Ned Stark (remember him?) told us “winter is coming” back at the start of season one. The Warden of the North was referring, of course, to the anticipated shift in Westerosi weather from a long summer to a brutal winter that can last for many years. An unusual or changing climate is a big deal. George R R Martin’s world bears many similarities to Medieval Europe, where changes to the climate influenced social and economic developments through impacts on water resources, crop development and the potential for famine.
We’re interested in whether Westeros’s climate science adds up, given what we’ve learned about how these things work here on Earth.

It’s not easy to understand the mechanisms driving the climate system given we can’t climb into the Game of Thrones universe and take measurements ourselves. It’s hard enough to get an accurate picture of what’s driving the world’s climate even with many thousands of thermometers, buoys and satellite readings all plugging data into modern supercomputers – a few old maesters communicating by raven are bound to struggle.

The fundamental difference between our world and that of Westeros is of course the presence of seasons. Here on Earth, seasons are caused by the planet orbiting around the sun, which constantly bombards us with sunlight. However the amount of sunlight received is not the same throughout the year.


You won’t see this in Westeros. Rhcastilhos


If you imagine the Earth with a long pole through its centre (with the top and bottom of the pole essentially the North and South Pole) and then tilt that by 23.5 degrees, the amount of sunlight received in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres will change throughout the year as the Earth orbits the Sun.

Clearly the unnamed planet on which Game of Thrones is set is missing this axis tilt – or some other crucial part of Earth’s climate system.

How longer seasons might work


The simplest explanation could be linked to spatial fluctuations in solar radiation (sunlight) received at the surface. A reduction in incoming solar radiation would mean more snow and ice likely remaining on the ground during the summer in Westeros’s far north. Compared to the more absorbent soil or rock, snow reflects more of the Sun’s energy back out to space where in effect it cannot warm the Earth‘s surface. So more snow leads to a cooler planet, which means more snow cover on previously snow-free regions, and so on. This process is known as the snow albedo feedback.
The collapse of large ice sheets north of the Wall could also rapidly destabilise ocean circulation, reducing northward heat transport and leading to the encroachment of snow and ice southwards towards King’s Landing.


What if all this ice suddenly melted? HBO

To descend into glacial conditions would require a large decrease in solar radiation received at certain locations on the Earth’s surface and likewise an increase would be needed to return to warmer conditions.

This is roughly what happened during the switches between “glacial” and “interglacial” (milder) conditions throughout the past million years on Earth. This is controlled primarily by different orbital configurations known as “Milankovitch cycles”, which affect the seasonality and location of sunlight received on Earth.

However, these cycles are on the order of 23,000 to 100,000 years, whereas Game of Thrones seemingly has much shorter cycles of a decade or less.

When winter came back


Around 12,900 years ago there was a much more abrupt climate shift, known as the Younger Dryas, when a spell of near-glacial conditions interrupted a period of gradual rewarming after the last ice age peaked 21,000 years ago. The sudden thawing at the end of this cold spell happened in a matter of decades – a blink of an eye in geological terms – and led to the warm, interglacial conditions we still have today.


A particularly long and brutal winter? Younger Dryas
cooling is visible in Greenland ice core records.
 NOAA


Various different theories have tried to explain why this spike occurred, including the sudden injection of freshwater into the North Atlantic from the outburst of North American glacial lakes, in response to the deglaciation, which destabilised ocean circulation by freshening the water and reducing ocean heat transport to the North Atlantic Ocean, cooling the regional climate.
Less likely explanations include shifts in the jet stream, volcanic eruptions blocking out the sun, or even an asteroid impact.

The shift from the Medieval Warm Period to the Little Ice Age that began around 1300 AD represents a more recent, and more subtle, example of a “quick” climate change. Although the overall temperature change wasn’t too severe – a Northern Hemisphere decrease of around 1˚C compared with today – it was enough to cause much harsher winters in Northern Europe.
None of these events indicate the abrupt transitions from long summers to long winters as described in Game of Thrones – and they still all happen on a much longer timescale than a Westeros winter. However they do demonstrate how extreme climate shifts are possible even on geologically short timescales.

Regardless of the causes of the long and erratic seasons, winter in Westeros won’t be much fun. It may even make the struggle for the Iron Throne between the various factions seem irrelevant.
Indeed the House of Stark’s motto: “winter is coming” may have a lesson for us here on Earth. Anthropogenic climate change is one of the biggest challenges facing humankind today and if left unmitigated the potential environmental impact on society may be far greater than any global recession. Stop worrying about the Iron Throne, everyone, winter is coming.
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The Conversation
This blog has been written by Cabot Institute members Alex Farnsworth, a Postdoctoral Research Assistant in Climatology at University of Bristol and Emma Stone, a Research Associate in Climate History at University of Bristol.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Emma Stone
Alex Farnsworth