Cabot Institute Blog

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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

Naomi Oreskes – are the merchants of doubt still selling?

Naomi Oreskes at the Cabot Institute. Image credit: Hayley Shaw.
With breakthrough science finding and new technologies emerging every day, one major issue for the scientists is to convince the public to embrace the novelties. However, despite more and more effort being put into public engagement, the credibility of science is still staggering. One of the biggest frustrations, surprisingly, comes from some fellow scientists. They deny the existing consensus of the science world and incite doubts in the public minds. Last Thursday, Naomi Oreskes gave a fascinating Cabot Institute/Bristol Festival of Ideas seminar about the agenda of these doubt merchants and their reasoning behind these agendas.  This blog highlights key parts of her talk.

In her talk, Naomi took climate change as a key example. Carbon Dioxide (CO2) was established as a greenhouse gas in 1850, and the burning of fossil fuels was proved to be an emitter of CO2 at the beginning of 20th century. In 1965, after years of intensive observation and recording, Keeling demonstrated the constant rising of CO2 in atmosphere and a prediction of global warming was made at the same time. Serious discussions about global warming in 1970s led to a consensus in the National Academy of Science (NAS) of USA which described global warming as a threat and suggested immediate actions to curb the trend. The effect of warming was consequently recorded in 1988, which confirmed the worries of scientists and prompted the creation of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Since its first report, IPCC has made it clear that global warming is happening, and it is caused by the increase of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere as a result of human activities. In 2004, after analyzing 928 papers published in peer reviewed journals between 1993 and 2003 related to climate change, Naomi found that none of them disagree with IPCC’s conclusion. Nowadays, 72% of Americans believe that global warming is happening and 62% thinks positive interference needs to be taken.

Nevertheless, some American politicians and think tanks still claims that there is no scientific consensus on global warming, and actively campaigns against it. Among all the think tanks denying global warming, George C. Marshall Institute is the most prominent one. Founded by three famous physicists Fred Seitz, Robert Jastrow and Bill Nierenberg, Marshall Institute has played significant roles in stimulating public doubts against scientific findings on issues like ozone layer, acidic rain, DDT, and most importantly, smoking. Seitz, who was affiliated to tobacco company R.J .Reynolds, along with Fred Singer, a rocket scientist who worked for Phillip Morris, voiced their disapproval against FDA’s conclusion which calls second hand smoking a carcinogen. They claimed that there were still space for debate on the tobacco issue and FDA’s finding is inconclusive, and this strategy (“tobacco strategy”) is now used by the same group of people in their lambasting towards EPA on global warming issue.

Besides the obvious economic connection, Naomi argues that the reason for these people to act in such way may be even deeper. After the WWII, Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman led the movement of neo-liberalism, argues for free-market and less government control. This ideology was massively popularised in 1980s by UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and US president Ronald Reagan, and was absorbed by the Conservative camp. Under the historical background of Cold War, such ideology becomes more appealing to the Conservatives, as they believe that personal freedom is dependent on economic freedom. With this kind of mind set, Global Warming and Tobacco Control both seem to be conspiracies of socialists who try to tighten the government control on civil liberties, and it will be a slippery slope and eventually morphs the West into Soviet Union.
Knowing the reasoning behind these antagonists, it will be easier to tackle the problem. Of course, as the battlefield is the public opinion, the most fundamental work still lies with science communicators and science public engagements, which shoulders the responsibility to pass on scientific findings into public’s visible range. Besides that, controlling greenhouse gas emission does not always have to be in an anti-free market fashion. The creation of carbon credit and its trade market is a great experiment, which opens a possibility outside sometimes crude legislations. After all, climate change is a burning issue which needs immediate attention and action from the whole of human society. While the debate of climate change is no longer a scientific one, but a political one, it is worth recruiting political wisdom to think beyond the science, and come up with a package of solutions to minimise the obstacle for us to act upon it.
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This blog was written by Cabot Institute member Dan Lan, a PhD student in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Bristol.
Dan Lan

Historians at the science-focussed Festival of Nature

The Power and the Water team, and 2nd Year Biology student volunteers,
ready to engage with the public! Photo: Milica Prokic.

Last weekend, ‘The Power and the Water’ project ran its first ever stand at the Festival of Nature (FoN), Bristol’s annual celebration of the natural world. It was a first not only for the project but for the School of Humanities too, as it was the first time a non-science subject had been included in the University of Bristol (UoB) tent.

What we did


‘Hidden River Histories’ took the research that the Bristol-based team members are doing (Power and Water is a three-strand project with researchers at Nottingham and Cambridge Universities too) to create an interactive display that introduced environmental history to a diverse audience. We knew that the Festival is a popular event for all ages and backgrounds. Established in 2003, it is the UK’s biggest free celebration of the natural world with two days of free interactive activities and live entertainment across Bristol’s Harbourside. We wanted to introduce the field of environmental history to Festival-goers, and specifically some key themes in our project:  how the natural world is intertwined with the human; how past water and energy uses might inform current and future environmental values; and how local issues fit with global environmental change.

Talking about river waters and history with members of the public. Photo: Peter Coates.

Our stand could not be boring: we were representing History and the Humanities among a sea of Science stands!  For the kids we knew would visit (Day 1 of FoN is Schools Day), we had to provide something interactive – something they could get their hands on. Luckily, in environmental history, we have no shortage of fascinating natural, and unnatural, items to work with. River waters from four ‘Bristol’ rivers, the Severn, The Avon, the Frome, and the often-forgotten Malago (Bedminster) bottled in clear glass took an idea that was originally inspired by a Canadian artwork [1]  to become an interactive way of thinking about tides, water quality, rivers-as-ecologies, and a quick way of testing people’s knowledge about their local rivers. Kids shook up the river waters and urgh-ed at the murky Severn and Avon. But they were fascinated to see old photos of salmon fishing and a beached whale in the estuary (in 1885), and we were able to talk about how ‘brown’ is not always ‘bad’, and how, from a salmon’s perspective, a nicely tidal, turbid (unbarraged!) River Severn is exactly where you’d want to be. The ‘pure’ Frome, on the other hand, was the river that was so dirty in the 19th century that the city chose to bury it.

Bottled water from the Bristol’ rivers, the Severn, The Avon, the Frome,
and the Malago. Photo: Milica Prokic.

The bottled rivers were a way-in to talking about Bristol’s watery past, but we also wanted to discuss Bristol’s water future, particularly with an issue that we’d observed on field trips down to the riverbank at Sea Mills (a suburb of Bristol). On the intertidal zone there, plastics are a huge problem, brought in on the tides. The issue of marine litter connects local environmentalism with a global plastics issue - the river banks of Sea Mills with the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

One item of plastic trash from the banks of the Severn. Photo: Milica Prokic

We collected a huge array of discarded plastic items one morning in May. Guided through Health and Safety requirements by the Centre for Public Engagement, we decided to bag the plastic items (in yes, more plastic – the irony was not lost) and create a Trash Table, in which the rubbish was laid bare for the public to see, pick up, question and discuss. It had something of a forensics scene about it, compounded by the presence of numerous, enigmatic, lost shoes. We’ve been discussing ‘future archaeology’ as an interesting methodology, and it provided us with our key question: what stories would future historians and archaeologists tell about us now, based on these non-degrading plastics? In addition to confronting the environmental impacts of consumer culture, visitors to the stand could engage in some informal, but not inconsequential, narrative building.

Artist Eloise Govier and her hi-vis
installation, made from polystyrene
found by the Avon. Photo: Milica Prokic.
Though an exercise in public engagement in itself, we were able to highlight other public engagement and knowledge-exchange initiatives we’ve been working on. Artist Eloise Govier has been collaborating with researcher Jill Payne on installations that encourage people to think about energy. Her high-vis block of polystyrene – sourced on our forage along the Avon – was a great talking point, likened to cheese, Spongebob Squarepants, fatbergs and a meteorite! Artists from the Bristol Folk House also contributed works, based on an outdoor workshop we ran at the Ship’s Graveyard on the River Severn at Purton.  We made them into free postcards that included our project website and contact info, encouraging future communication. The watercolours updated our visual record of the river and helped us to think about how people see and value the River Severn today, and how this connects with – or departs from – traditions of viewing land- and waterscapes in Britain.

Why did we come to a science based festival?

A 3-day presence at the Festival of Nature was the culmination of months of planning by me and Jill (Payne, researcher on Power and Water). We had our first meeting before Christmas, and plenty since! Was it worth the effort? Unreservedly, yes. In terms of disseminating our project research, FoN allowed us to communicate our work – and raise awareness of the vitality of environmental history at Bristol – to a huge number of interested citizens. We await attendance figures for this year but last year, over 4, 385 people attended the UoB tent. In 2013 it was 6, 284. This year the weather was good and there were queues to enter the UoB tent, so we are confident that attendance was a strong as ever [2].

But public engagement of this kind goes way beyond sheer numbers. The process of planning the stand has been productive, helping us identify the themes in our work that hold interest (and are therefore useful for telling histories, in and beyond academia). The photo of the 69ft whale beached at Littleton-on-Severn was a side-story to my research, but people were fascinated by why and how this creature came to Bristol. A trip to Bristol City Museum to track down the bones is being arranged, and the animal inhabitants of the river will be more visible in my work as a result.

Naturalist and broadcaster Ed Drewitt drops by to say hello.
Ed provided a wildlife commentary for our project boat trip down the Avon

Moreover, good public engagement goes beyond disseminating research. They may be buzzwords in funded research, but ‘knowledge exchange’ and ‘co-production of knowledge’ are very real benefits of engaging with groups and individuals beyond the academy. For a project like ours, which is interested in public environmental discourses and people’s relationships with place, talking with the public is a key source of information, and a way in which we can build research questions, identify key issues, and meet people who can aid our research. We learnt of more hidden rivers in Bristol, community action groups, and old records of the Severn Bore. We were also asked why we were not being more active on the issue of plastic waste, prompting us to reflect on the aims of the project, and the role of academics in communities where sometimes, actions speak louder than words. It was useful to recognize our strengths and limitations, as perceived publicly, and to articulate our key aim of providing sound research from which people can become informed, and motivated.  Getting involved in an event such as Festival of Nature is a useful reminder that rather than ‘us’ and ‘them’, we are the public too, offering a particular set of knowledge and skills but equally willing to learn from others.

As researchers funded by the public purse (through the UK Research Councils) the expectation that we take our work beyond the university is entirely reasonable. Public engagement is now built into funding applications, and the impact it can produce is a measurable output of research. Meaningful public engagement, based on principles of knowledge exchange and co-production, is a pathway to tangible impact, rather than a one-sided conversation. If we hope to achieve impact, that is, through our research change the way a group thinks or acts with regards to a particular issue or topic, then we must engage with the ‘group’; talk to them, identify key concerns, think about how our research can address issues and contribute to understanding and practice. The language of ‘impact’, public engagement and knowledge exchange, serves to reinforce the academic/public divide. The practice of such ideas, through events such as Festival of Nature, helps to overcome such distinctions. It’s also (whisper it) fun!

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This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Marianna Dudley, Department of Historical Studies, University of Bristol.  It was kindly reproduced from the Power of Water blog post of the same name.

Marianna Dudley

The Power and the Water project would like to thank the Centre for Public Engagement (University of Bristol) for all their logistical and design support; the 2nd Year Biology volunteers that helped man the stand with enthusiasm; Eloise Govier, for the loan of her artwork and for helping on School Day; and Milica Prokic and Vesna Lukic, for filming, photographing, and mucking in over the FoN weekend.  



[1] Emily Rose Michaud, ‘Taste the source (while supplies last) (2006-present)’ in Cecilia Chen, Janine MacLeod and Astrida Neimanis (eds), Thinking with water (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s UP, 2013), 133-38

[2] Thanks to Mireia Bes at the Centre for Public Engagement for attendance numbers.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Why partnerships are so vital to the University of Bristol and the Cabot Institute (part 2)

Launching VENTURE during Bristol 2015 

VENTURE is a new collaborative partnership with some of our major corporate partners.  It is the latest in a series of announcements (including Bristol is Open, the UK Collaboration for Research and Infrastructure and Cities, and the launch of a new project on Re-Distributed Manufacturing and the Resilient, Sustainable City) that represent a step change in how we are engaging with the city and region during 2015.  In my previous article, I discussed the ethos that underpins our drive to build partnerships – across the city, the region, national and globally.  In this follow-up, I want to share some of the very exciting activities that are currently happening, many of them catalysed by the efforts to win the European Green Capital award.

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For the Cabot Institute, one of the great opportunities of Bristol 2015 has been a stronger relationship with organisations across the city. Many of our 2015 activities are the culmination of our past partnership ambitions, but it is also the opportunity to make a step change towards broader and deeper collaboration.

The nature of our University and the Cabot Institute and the scope of global environmental challenges has always dictated diverse partnerships with national and international agencies – we study melting ice sheets with the British Antarctic Survey, develop climate models with the Met Office, predict floods with the Environment Agency and advise the Government Office of Science on the ash cloud crisis.  We work with DFID and the United Nations, with the Somalian government to develop grassroots security and with small island developing nations to help them adapt to climate change – and to learn from their experiences.
Cabot Institute scientist Isabel Nias working with the British Antarctic Survey in Antarctica. 
Dame Pearlette Louisy at the Small Island States: Living at the sharp end of
uncertainty conference in Bristol, July 2014.
  Image credit: Amanda Woodman-Hardy

Working globally never stopped Cabot Institute researchers from also working locally; we have collaboratively studied housing and education in our city, partnered on new innovations such as Bristol Green Doors, worked with Voscur on equality issues and with the Knowle West Media Centre on numerous digital engagement projects.

And yet we could have been doing so much more….  


Our commitment to the Green Capital arose from a recognition that we could do more and that we had to do more if we wanted to learn from the vibrant experimentation occurring in our own backyard. To that end, the Cabot Institute Manager, Philippa Bayley was an early member of the Bristol Green Capital Partnership and was elected with Liz Zeidler to be the first co-director after the award.

The Wills Memorial Building, which
will be lit green in the evening throughout 2015
Since then, we have put on numerous events, worked with the 2015 Company on the launch and with the Festival of Ideas on the Coleridge Lectures and the Summits, and contributed to the Arts Programme.  Moving ahead, we are keen to include all of the city, with events planned at Hamilton House and with local schools.  That engagement has mirrored the University’s pledges and contributions.  We are aiming to become a net carbon neutral campus by 2030; bringing in a series of working practice incentives to decrease our transport footprint; including social and environmental considerations into our procurement process; and ensuring that all students have the opportunity to encounter Education for Sustainable Development at the University. We are doing far more than just turning Wills Memorial Tower green for the year!

So this year is a culmination of ever-growing engagement over the past decade…. Not just for the researchers of the Cabot Institute but for the whole city.  But more importantly, it is the platform for newer and much deeper partnership.

Implicitly, the University’s fifth and most important pledge is to be the best possible partner with our city.  That includes our students who have committed 100,000 volunteer hours to the City and who are driving new initiatives such as BrisBikes.  It includes our commitment to spend £60,000 pounds to plant trees across Bristol.  It includes working with BCC and the NHS to create a new district energy supply, key to realizing our carbon neutral ambitions.  And it includes a commitment from the Cabot Institute to do more coordinated research – with everyone in the city.

To empower that, we have launched VENTURE and we have worked very closely with the Partnership.  We have also aggressively appointed new people: Andy Gouldson, who studies urban resiliency and sustainability; Clive Sabel, who uses big data to study health and well-being; Sean Fox, who investigates urban governance; a whole swathe of experts on flooding and water quality in both urban and rural environments; Justin Dillon, the new head of our School of Education and who is passionate about ‘learning outside the classroom’; and many, many more.  These people have been hired because they are brilliant and because they are keen to work with people in the city and region.

Wildflower meadow in Bedminster.
Image credit: Julia Kole
We are also funding our research students and colleagues to work with our City.  Caroline Bird has been supported to work with the Bristol Energy Network and is now coordinating our community to better engage with the Green Capital legacy. We have asked many of you across the city to propose projects for our brilliant Masters Students, yielding great projects conducted by students like Julia Kole who studied how to improve biodiversity in Bedminster; seeds soil and social change. Dr Kath Baldock and Professor Jane Memmott and many others have been studying pollinators in Bristol and the surrounding countryside – which has led to the Urban Pollinators Project and Get Bristol Buzzing.  Dr Trevor Thompson and his team are working with local GPs, to help their practices become more efficient and sustainable.

These are all part of an ongoing and continuous buzz of activity and we will work hard to ensure that these are not just one-off successes but instead a step change in how we work with Bristol.

Big new initiatives


On the 27th of January, we launched Bristol is Open with the Bristol City Council.  This is the first joint venture between the city council and the University of Bristol and it combines University research and advanced technology (our investment in high performance computing, computational innovations by Professor Dimitra Simeonidou and wireless technology developed by Professor Andy Nix and industry collaborators) with council-owned infrastructure.  The company will develop an innovative high-performance, high-speed network in Bristol, that will be open for all to use and put Bristol at the forefront in the UK.  It is a bold experiment not just in technology but hopefully in democracy, insofar that it empowers the citizens of the city to communicate with one another and explore the urban landscape. (And if you want to know more, visit the refurbished and re-opened Planetarium!)

Shaking table in action at the Earthquake
Lab at the University of Bristol.
More recently, the government announced funding for the UK Collaboration for Research and Infrastructure and Cities (UKCRIC), and a partnership between the University, Bristol industry and the City Council is at the heart of that.  UKCRIC will apply globally important research to ensure that the UK’s infrastructure is resilient and responsive to environmental and economic impacts. In doing so, according to Prof Colin Taylor, the Bristol UKCRIC lead, ‘It will ensure that our infrastructure is resilient to future change while also avoiding conservative over-engineering thereby saving hundreds of billions of pounds.’  At the heart of the Cabot Institute’s contribution to the bid is the University’s Earthquake Engineering and Simulation Laboratory in the Faculty of Engineering.  Via enhanced world-leading experimental capabilities, the Laboratory will develop unique techniques to improve the performance and reduce the costs of foundations of buildings, bridges, ports and nuclear facilities. UKCRIC will also ensure that our innovative City Operating System is funded and fully capable of supporting Bristol is Open.

On 22 April we launched 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. I am particularly excited about this project as it is so fundamentally…. Bristol.  Our city is a champion of the power of localism, whether it be food production, launching our own energy company or the Bristol Pound. And we have a strong upcycling and maker culture. Why not extend these brilliant initiatives to how we manufacture the goods on which we depend.  New technology now allows manufacturing to be downscaled, redistributed and decentralised, making it more sustainable and also more resilient.  This new project, led by Prof Chris McMahon, will explore exactly how to do that.

These are exciting times and we are proud of our Cabot Institute colleagues working on these projects.  But we do recognised that there remain challenges.  As a climate change scientist, I have always argued that many of the sustainability and resilience challenges that Bristol wants to address are issues of fairness and equality. Those who profit from our current fossil fuel, water, nutrient, and wildlife consumption are least vulnerable to climate change and diminishing resources.  As such, racial, ethnic, gender and class diversity is also high on our agenda and our partners must reflect that diversity.  Fortunately, we are based in a city with an outstanding variety of leaders.  The City and University recognise that we have a long way to go, but there is no lack of energy and wisdom.

We are not even halfway through 2015, but I think that Bristol is in the midst of building something from its historic strengths to create something new and position it as a model of global leadership.  For me, personally, the year has been exhilarating.  I love Bristol and have done so since arriving 15 years ago and attending my first Ashton Court Festival; and I have always known of the innovative creatives and social enterprises that thrive here.  But I have not had the opportunity to partner with them – my own research tends to take me to distant lands and eons into the past, as far away from Bristol you can go and still be on our planet!   But this year, I have finally engaged with them – with you – in a professional context and the ideas and wisdom have exceeded all of my expectations. The Cabot Institute would strive to build partnerships no matter what City it called home; fortunately, we are in Bristol and the partnerships are opening up opportunities that you could not find anywhere else in the world.

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

Prof Rich Pancost
Read part one of this blog.

For further information on VENTURE please email cabot-business@bristol.ac.uk

Monday, 15 June 2015

Festival of Nature 2015: Roots and soil erosion

Seed lucky dips, 3D-printer pens, and Bill Oddie with a puffin. All in a day’s volunteering for the Festival of Nature 2015!


Bristol’s Festival of Nature is the UK’s largest celebration of the natural world, and has recently spread over into Bath too. This year, I helped Kevin Smyth and Tom Denbigh from the School of Biological Sciences. Their work in Prof Claire Grierson's lab group looks at plant roots, especially how important they are at preventing soil erosion. This work is funded by the Leverhulme Trust.
We also had some smaller plants growing in transparent media. The bean on the left
has thicker roots and very few side shoots, whereas the tomato on the right has much
thinner roots but more side shoots.
The stall really helped reveal what’s going under our feet in any park, garden or green space. Like the well-known tip of the iceberg, there’s often a lot going on below the surface! For the sunflowers in this rhizotron, the roots were taller than many of the kids we saw!

We also had some smaller plants growing in transparent media (see image above). The bean on the left has thicker roots and very few side shoots, whereas the tomato on the right has much thinner roots but more side shoots.


If you want evidence that plants do help combat soil erosion, just look at the pictures! Soil without plants (right) can be really crumbly and doesn't hold itself together well. A slight slope and some rainfall would wash it away easily, leading to soil erosion. Soil and plants is a far more effective solution, holding itself together with ease – even without a supporting pot. One of so many reasons why we need more plants around!


Seed lucky dip at the Festival of Nature.
Are you inspired to lend a hand with increasing the plant numbers in your area? Perhaps you are curious about the medical-looking pots are behind the bowl of soil in the image above. We can help with both – it’s a seed lucky dip!

In the lab, Kevin’s group studies roots to try and understand why plants are so effective at preventing soil erosion. To do this, they can make mutations in some plants and see if it changes the roots. The mutant plants of choice are Arabadopsis, weedy relatives of the mustard plant and perhaps the most studied plant in the world.

Looking down the microscope at the samples, you could work out which plant was the “bald” mutant (below left) and which was the “werewolf” (below right) compared to the normal roots in the middle. If we understand how the plant’s genetics affects their roots, perhaps in the future we could grow plants that are better at holding the soil together.
Looking down the microscope at the samples, you could work out which plant
was the “bald” mutant (left) and which was the “werewolf” (right) compared
 to the normal roots in the middle. 
A 3D printing pen was used to create root structures at the Festival of Nature.
There was art as well as science! You could draw your own root structure on a plant template, then one of us lucky volunteers got to use this amazing 3D-printing pen to made a “real” version of it. You could either take it home or donate it to our ever-growing wall…

As a bonus, my lunch break timed nicely with Bill Oddie’s talk so I got to hear him tell a bunch of amusing anecdotes about his young life and how that led to a passion for wildlife. One of these apparently required a stuffed puffin!

Bill Oddie at the Festival of Nature.
There was plenty to do at the stall, in the tent and throughout the festival. I was genuinely impressed at the range of activities and how interesting they were, something for all ages and experiences. I had a great time helping out and look forward to next year’s Festival of Nature already! It also fit in as a pretty wild indeed #30dayswild.
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This blog is written by Emily Coyte, and has been reproduced from her blog Memetic Drift.  Emily is an Assistant Teacher in the School of Biochemistry at the University of Bristol.
Emily Coyte

Thursday, 11 June 2015

The great climate communication clash

Cultural cognition vs. consensus messaging: 

Challenges of climate communication in a polarized world


L-R: Dan Kahan and Steve
Lewandowsky. Image taken from
Climate Desk (Maggie Severns).
If anyone attending the Cabot Institute debate between science communication researchers Dan Kahan and Stephan Lewandowsky last Wednesday was hoping for a relaxing, passive glance into the word of climate communication then they were in for a shock.

Attending the event, which was moderated by Climate Outreach director Dr Adam Corner, was like being thrown into a politically-fuelled hurricane of communication and miscommunication. The mildly terrifying, albeit engaging, debating style of Dan Kahan meant there was never a dull moment as the two world-leading cognitive scientists locked horns over their opinions on how science should communicate climate change to the public. 

The evening was kicked off by Kahan, whose invasive debating style saw him thundering into the audience to deliver his messages, a style which certainly drew attention if not support. The greatest focus of his message seemed to be in addressing the motivations of climate sceptics. Kahan claimed that the climate change consensus delivered by the scientific community is polarising opinion; those who are sceptics are not misinformed, their scepticism is fuelled by how they identify themselves. To put simply, the side of the climate change war they fight is supported more by culture than learning. 

If this is the case, then increasing the budget powering the scientific consensus won’t help. Indeed, as Kahan expressed, the expensive climate change communication campaign in the U.S. hasn’t made any difference to the opinions of the public. His message? Stop trying to change who we are and do something proactive with the budget instead.

Next Lewandowsky stepped up to the floor. His argument is pro-consensus, defining the consensus as a few simple facts; that climate change is happening, is caused by humans and is problematic.  His theory is that people respond to education and change their opinions based on the information available to them. This, he claims, is based on testing trials performed in Australia where participants found themselves more concerned about climate change after being exposed to the general consensus. In Lewandowsky’s words “consensus is the gateway to belief’.

Underpinning his argument is the relationship between the layman and the expert. Lewandosky claims that in times of uncertainty, people defer to the expert; “If 97% of engineers delivered a consensus that the bridge was unsafe to cross, would you cross the bridge?”. 97% of climate scientists believe global warming is an issue, so we submit to the opinion of the expert. The idea works in theory but, according to Kahan we aren’t submitting to the expert, in fact, public opinion is unchanged.

So where does the answer lie? Despite lengthy discussions on the climate consensus, no communication consensus was reached. After the discussion was opened up to the audience, the complexities of the task at hand became apparent: while the ‘yes’ versus ‘no’ controversy is clearly polarised, audience members suggested there are degrees of ‘yes’. Is climate change part man made and part natural? Should we be spending more money on adaption rather than mitigation as Kahan suggested? To what extent is politics contributing to the miscommunication; how can we disentangle the issue of left-wing environmentalism as an opponent of capitalism? The list goes on. 

My opinion of the outcome was that the path forwards was a hybrid of the opinions present. Yes, we shouldn’t focus on ‘converting’ the minority of sceptics. The consensus should focus on revaluating the options and behaviour of the supporters. How can we make reducing climate change an economic option for free market capitalism, rather than just trying to close it down. Maybe, as Kahan suggests, instead of aggressive PR campaigns that polarise opinion, we should be working on strengthening the knowledge of the ‘believers’. Indeed making the outcome of the consensus more attractive to those who are in support of climate change, to me, seems like a more progressive step forward. 
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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

Dan Kahan's blog from this event: Against consensus messaging

Read about Steve Lewandowsky's paper on how climate science denial affects the scientific community.

Friday, 29 May 2015

Troubled waters

Water seems like the simplest of molecules, but its complexities have enabled all life on Earth. Its high specific heat capacity allowed early aquatic life to survive extreme temperature fluctuations, its ability to dissolve a wide range of compounds means it is used as a solvent for cellular compounds, and its powerful cohesive properties allow tree sap and blood to move upwards, against the flow of gravity.



ITV science correspondent Alok Jha discussed the incredible properties of water this week as part of a Cabot Institute and Festival of Ideas talk at The Watershed, Bristol.  This was part of a promotional tour for his new book, The Water Book. He amazed the audience with where our oceans came from (ice-covered rocks pelting the Earth during the Late Heavy Bombardment), the strange properties of ice (a bizarre solid that floats on its liquid), and the possibility of water and life on other planets.

Alok Jha
It was really the universal importance of water that struck me though. As Alok discussed, water is absolutely essential not just for life, but also to enable every aspect of our lives. Its unique properties make it a critical component of almost everything we make and do. In addition to household uses like showers and toilets, the UK uses a lot of water in manufacturing, agriculture and mining, amongst other things. One report suggested that the average person’s life requires 3400 litres of water a day in the UK, with a total global requirement of four trillion litres a year.

Water is scarce


Around 2.7 billion people are affected by water scarcity worldwide. Rivers are drying up or becoming too polluted to use, climate change is altering patterns of weather around the world and mismanagement of precious sources of fresh water has led to the prediction that by 2025, two thirds of the world’s population may face water shortages.

Image credit: Hasin Hayder.
Image used under: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
You only have to read the news to see the warning signs.

Agriculture is a huge business in California, using 80% of the freshwater to raise livestock and grow two thirds of the USA’s fruits and nuts. California’s climate makes it ideal for growing a range of crops, assuming they can be irrigated. A recent NY Times article revealed that it takes 15.3 gallons of water to produce just 16 almonds, 1.4 gallons of water for two olives, and a whopping 42.5 gallons of water to grow three mandarin oranges. As Alok commented, the state is literally shipping its freshwater to the rest of the world as food. California is currently in its fourth year of drought, and strict laws banning water wasting have been put into place.

Last week, Californian farmers in the deltas of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers volunteered to use 25% less water, in a bid to avoid even harsher restrictions being imposed by the state government. These reductions came after uproar from Californian citizens, for whom water wastage was already illegal.

Water conflict


Image credit: Katie Tegtmeyer. Image used under:CC BY 2.0
In Brazil, São Paulo has been suffering through the worst drought in more than 80 years. The water supply has been restricted to just six hours per day, but millions of citizens have also had several days without running water. Tensions are beginning to rise, with protests, looting and outbreaks of violence in the city of Itu. The Guardian reported one resident as saying: “We spent four days without water, and we saw what it was like. We saw people behave like animals in our building, so imagine 20 million people”.

Imagine billions.

Crown Prince General Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan of Abu Dhabi has declared water is now more important for his people than oil. Egypt has vowed to stop Ethiopia’s construction of a dam on the Nile at “any cost”. Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam look poised to suffer from China’s continued damming of the Mekong River. Water is predicted to be used as leverage, or as the target of terrorist attacks in the future. Paul Reig, Word Resources Institute, stated,
“Water is likely to cause the most conflict in areas where new demands for energy and food production will compete with the water required for basic domestic needs of a rapidly growing population”.
What can we do about this? It’s a problem almost as complex as the molecule itself, and I certainly don’t have the knowledge or expertise required to answer. Alok suggested that the value of water could be added into the final price of our products and services, to make people aware of how much they are consuming and to think twice before wasting it.

Whatever happens, we’re going to need massive global action on a range of issues. We need to use less water to grow our food and manufacture the items we use daily, we need to prevent shared resources being selfishly used, and we need better management systems in place to prevent further pollution or loss of freshwater. Only then will we be better prepared to face uncertainties of the future and ensure everyone has enough to drink.
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This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Sarah Jose, Biological Sciences, University of Bristol.

Sarah Jose

Why partnerships are so vital to the University of Bristol and the Cabot Institute (part 1)

Launching VENTURE during Bristol 2015 


Nishan Canagajarah, PVC for Research at the University
of Bristol, launched VENTURE on 18 March 2015.
Image credit: Amanda Woodman-Hardy
VENTURE is a new collaborative framework for the Cabot Institute and some of our key corporate partners. Building stronger partnerships with our City has been the major theme of our engagement with the European Green Capital year. VENTURE, then, represents the latest step (including Bristol is Open, the UK Collaboration for Research and Infrastructure and Cities, and the launch of a new project on Re-Distributed Manufacturing and the Resilient, Sustainable City) in the progression of how we are engaging with Bristol and the South West Region.  This is the first of two blogs that explore the intrinsic value of partnership to the Cabot Institute, what we have achieved and our aspirations.

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On 18 March, the Cabot Institute and the University of Bristol PVC for Research launched VENTURE, a new initiative and network that will facilitate the partnership of Cabot Institute academics with key corporate partners.  The focus of VENTURE is on the risk, insurance, future cities and infrastructure sectors. Those areas do not represent the entirety of the Cabot Institute remit, but they are particularly central given the challenges of environmental change and the need for cities and society to become more sustainable and resilient. These needs are also central to our City and Region, exemplified by the Green Capital agenda but also a long history of social and technological innovation.

The first VENTURE workshop held at the
University of Bristol in May 2015. Image credit:
Amanda Woodman-Hardy
We are very excited about VENTURE – it is a chance for the Cabot Institute to build stronger links to our external partners and our City and it is will inspire exciting new ideas and solutions. Increasingly, our corporate, governmental and public partners have asked for a conduit to the more diverse, multidisciplinary and sector-appropriate communities that sprawl across multiple Schools or even Faculties.  That is one of the primary reasons that the Cabot Institute was founded, and as such VENTURE is the logical progression in supporting and nurturing those relationships.  

In a subsequent blog, I will discuss the history of our partnership and some of the other initiatives that excite us as part of the Green Capital year and its legacy.  Here, however, I’d like to discuss exactly why partnerships are so important to the University of Bristol and particularly the Cabot Institute. This may seem obvious: we work together to procure funding and to conduct research.  It is taken as read that Universities must be engaged and work closely with stakeholders, and this is enshrined in the University of Bristol’s engaged University vision and Engaged University Steering Group.  However, the rationale for specific partnerships vary and they bring different types of values and motivation.  Moreover, there are legitimate questions about engagement. Who should our partners be and who should Universities serve? There is a strong push that Universities provide value for the UK, but who determines ‘value’ and how do we avoid becoming overly focussed on one stakeholder at the expense of others? 

What does partnership mean to the Cabot Institute?  


The Cabot Institute’s main goals are to build a vibrant and new multidisciplinary community and stimulate new ideas; in turn, these will position us to conduct novel research that addresses 21st century challenges.  External partnerships are key to all of these aims.  They are part of that multidisciplinary community and they stimulate academics to collaborate in new configurations.  They ask those studying hazards to work with those studying risk perception, and they demand that engineers consider how infrastructure is occupied and navigated by people.  In doing this, they create the environment to generate fundamentally new ideas and forge new intellectual ground; these creative, occasionally disruptive, interventions and requests stimulate, challenge and inspire new directions of research. 

Bringing together experts from different disciplines to tackle
global environmental problems at the Cabot Institute.
Image credit: Amanda Woodman-Hardy 
This is an aspect of collaboration and partnership that means a great deal to me, personally. I have used the challenge of working with other disciplines and with people with different skills (and more importantly different perspectives and preconceived notions) to invigorate and continually refresh my research. Those experiences have allowed me to work in teams that developed new approaches and made new breakthroughs. It is not my own special abilities but rather the cauldron of brilliant but often contradictory and occasionally tangential ideas that has led to the findings of which I am most proud. Partnership is good because collaboration is good – and not just because you need to collaborate to achieve your goals but because the very act of collaboration is intellectually invigorating.

Those new collaborations and ideas are helping us make a difference, addressing the global environmental challenges of the 21st century.  Clearly, if the Cabot Institute research aspires to solve societal challenges it has to be strongly connected to those who can make good use of it.  However, this requires more than translation; it requires close collaboration during inception and development of ideas, such that discoveries, inventions and conclusions are useful and relevant. Partnership is also crucial to ensuring the wider community co-owns an idea.  The world is facing difficult challenges that will require paradigm shifting ideas and difficult decisions. Acceptance of radical new proposals or difficult compromises requires an inclusive and engaged public – from the very beginning.  This is why we need VENTURE. 

For all the rewards of a vibrant partnership, we cannot pretend that it is easy. Different organisations have different priorities, stakeholders, responsibilities and interests.  In my experience, University – Stakeholder partnerships can too easily fall into one of two, equally unsatisfying scenarios.  At one extreme, academics ‘push’ our research out into industry or government, arguing for its relevance, hoping it is used and allowing us to claim a positive social or economic impact.  At the other, industry or government partners approach us with a project or consultancy, often with an unrealistic turnaround time and not inspiring our interest.  

Fostering a more creative partnership atmosphere is why the University created the Research Enterprise and Development division in 2000, and VENTURE will build on that legacy, ensuring more long-term, broader and deeper relationships.  It will develop genuine partnerships, in which we work together on challenges that represent both fundamental, intellectual advances but also have deep value to the partner. We will write grants, co-supervise students, publish, advise and share our findings together.  Specifically, VENTURE will fund and support the Cabot Institute to more effectively guide our partners to the specific knowledge, expertise and skills of our academic community. It will facilitate access to our resources, whether that be computer models, materials analysis or infrastructure resilience. It will create a network and enable a higher degree of partnership and mutual profile-sharing, as we not only work together but share common messages.

Crucially, VENTURE will be the nucleus of the wider portfolio of partnership required to face the environmental and sustainability challenges facing Bristol, the UK and our planet.  The corporate members of VENTURE will be integrated with our other partners: the civil organisations that want to govern their own energy futures or instigate new social movements; government agencies, like the Met Office or the Environment Agency, who have their own expertise; Bristol City Council but also the Bristol Green Capital Partnership with whom we are working to ensure a resilient and sustainable future for our city; and many others. VENTURE will focus on our key corporate partners but it will be part of a wider, University subsidised portfolio of civil and government partners in the city and region.  It will be a network whereby these corporate partners develop stronger relationships with Cabot but also the City and in which our community can challenge and champion interventions. 
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This blog is by Prof Rich Pancost, Director of the Cabot Institute at the University of Bristol.

Prof Rich Pancost
Read part two of this blog.

For further information on VENTURE please email cabot-business@bristol.ac.uk

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.