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CAKE: In memory of Dr Caroline Williams

It all started with a picture.

A picture of a 1773 eruption of Tungurahua volcano in Ecuador. Caroline, the historian, was fascinated by the writing. Alison and Kathy were interested in the details of the eruption: the two vents, the distribution of the lava bombs, the flow that blocked the river. Erica, the paleoclimatologist, was the conduit between us, receiving the image from Caroline and passing it along to Alison and Kathy. And thus CAKE (Caroline-Alison-Kathy-Erica) was established.

Over the intervening years, we pursued several academic collaborations with students (one PhD and two MSc) that not only brought us together on questions of science and historical records, but also grew into a deep CAKE friendship, with shared dinners and social events in addition to a shared Dropbox folder and co-authored publications. Caroline taught us (the scientists) that the methodologies employed by data-driven historians are very similar to those used by scientists - find more than one sourc…
Recent posts

Tackling the climate crisis with energy transitions

Aerospace Engineering student Kieran Tait recently returned from a transformative journey through Western Canada, representing the University at the Energy Transitions summer school at the University of Alberta. A timely topic following the recent declaration of climate emergency here at the university.
Throughout the two weeks, we endured a 40-hour lecture series, in which world-leading industry experts and researchers presented to us the current state of energy, the outlook for the future and an insight into different types of energy systems and their relative merits. This was superbly rounded off with insightful field trips including a tour around a wind farm and a hydroelectric dam, which really helped to contextualise the lectures.

The course was coordinated by the Worldwide Universities network, in which 21 representatives from 13 universities worldwide came together to study the practicalities of decarbonising society. The network brought a diversity of cultures and study areas…

Why no change? Sustainable development, extractivism and the environment in Bolivia

As an early career academic, it’s been a challenge to research sustainable development and the SDGs. The SDGs may be a new set of development goals but the concept of sustainable development is old….and already much critiqued. In my recent research on the early take-up and implementation of the SDGs in Bolivia, I have tried to use this as a starting point for my work. In terms of theory, this has meant asking what can help us think about sustainable development differently? And in terms of my empirical focus, this has meant questioning how the mainstreaming of the SDGs, as a global (and globalizing) response to climate change, effect more radical environmental agendas - those that have emerged since the mainstreaming of sustainable development in the 1980s (and sometimes in critique of the concept). Somewhat conversely, these efforts to think differently have actually helped me to better understand why things are staying the same and how, in Bolivia, powerful, extractivist developmen…

The Earth comes to Bristol

Humans have gazed at the moon since our origin, yet the Earth has only been visible in its entirety for the last 50 years.

The present era is a time of great need. A time where humans need to change our relationship with the planet and to change our relationship, we need to change our perspective. Luke Jerram’s Gaia hosted by the Cabot Institute is an art installation which seems at least in part envisioned to do that through simulating the “overview effect”.

The “overview effect” is a common experience described by astronauts who have seen the Earth from space. It is said that seeing the planet hanging in space, in all its majestic beauty leads the viewer towards a cognitive shift in their perception of themselves, the world and its future. It seems somewhat ironic that only by consequence of venturing into and exploring the space around our planet, do we realize how infinitely valuable our home is.
The thing that really surprised me was that it [Earth] projected an air of fragility…

Peru’s ancient water systems can help protect communities from shortages caused by climate change

Water is essential for human life, but in many parts of the world water supplies are under threat from more extreme, less predictable weather conditions due to climate change. Nowhere is this clearer than in the Peruvian Andes, where rising temperatures and receding glaciers forewarn of imminent water scarcity for the communities that live there. Peru holds more than 70% of the world’s tropical glaciers. Along the 180 kilometre expanse of the Cordillera Blanca (“white mountains”), more than 250,000 people depend on glaciers for a year-round supply of water. Meltwater from the glaciers supplies rivers, offering a vital supplement to rainwater so that locals can continue irrigating food crops throughout the dry season, from May to October. But Peruvian glaciers have shrunk by 25% since 1987, and the water supply to rivers during the dry season is gradually decreasing. While national and regional governments and NGOs are responding to the threat of water scarcity with modern engineering so…

Three history lessons to help reduce damage from earthquakes

Earthquakes don’t kill people,’ the saying goes. ‘Buildings do.’ There is truth in the adage: the majority of deaths during and just after earthquakes are due to the collapse of buildings. But the violence of great catastrophes is not confined to collapsed walls and falling roofs. Earthquakes also have broader effects on people, and the environments we live in.

The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP)’s second Disaster Resilience Week starts in Bangkok on 26 August 2019. Practitioners and researchers have achieved great progress in reducing disaster risk over the past few decades, but we must do more to save lives and protect livelihoods.

Can history help?

Building against disaster Buildings are a good, practical place to start.

Material cultures offer paths to resilience. A major example is traditional building styles that reduce the threat from seismic shaking. A building is not only a compilation of bricks and stones, but a social element t…

Turning knowledge of past climate change into action for the future

It’s more helpful to talk about the things we can do, than the problems we have caused. Beth Shapiro, a molecular biologist and author of How To Clone A Mammoth, gave a hopeful response to an audience question about the recent UN report stating that one million species are threatened with extinction.

I arrived at the International Union for Quaternary Research (INQUA) 2019 conference, held in Dublin at the end of July, keen to learn exactly that: what climate scientists can do to mitigate the impact of our rapidly changing climate. INQUA brings together earth, atmosphere and ocean scientists studying the Quaternary, a period from 2.6 million years ago to the present day. The Quaternary has seen repeated and abrupt periods of climate change, making it the perfect analogue for our rapidly changing future.
In the case of extinctions, if we understand how species responded to human and environmental pressures in the past, we may be better equipped to protect them in the present day.
Prot…