Cabot Institute Blog

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Monday, 14 April 2014

Your planet needs you!

We are under attack. Our assailants threaten to kill millions of people, destroy our homes and wipe out our crops. Who are these fiends?

Us.

The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) focusses on how we can stop runaway climate change before it’s too late.  Despite our “best efforts”, anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions have continued to increase at an alarming rate. The IPCC estimates that without any additional effort to reduce emissions, we’re looking at a rise in temperature of between 3.7 and 4.8°C by 2100, although variability in the effects of climate change mean the rise could be as high as 7.8°C. Anything over 2°C means we risk runaway climate change with catastrophic effects felt around the world.

A call to action


The UK energy secretary Ed Davey responded to yesterday’s IPCC press conference by stating,
“we need a worldwide, large-scale change to our energy system if we are to limit the effects of climate change” 
and called for an international effort to reduce carbon emissions by 2015.

The question is, are politicians willing to put in the effort needed to reduce emissions by 40-70% in the next couple of decades? It’s hard to put a price on the cost of mitigation, but as Professor Ottmar Edenhofer, co-chair of the IPCC team, stated “Climate policy is not a free lunch”. His colleague Professor Jim Skea was more optimistic, saying that,
“it is actually affordable to do it and people are not going to have to sacrifice their aspirations about improved standards of living”. 
That’s the kind of thing that politicians like to hear.

Change doesn't happen unless something dramatic happens to force us to act. The increasing frequency of extreme weather events doesn't seem to be working, so what would? As the IPCC brief states, “Emissions by any agent (e.g. Individual, community, company, country) affect other agents”. We need to invoke some Blitz mentality; we ARE facing a deadly enemy and we ALL need to do our part to stop it.

How to mitigate climate change


Image credit: Stanford
The IPCC used 10,000 scientific references to ensure that their models are properly founded in science and all the uncertainty that entails. The IPCC defined mitigation as “a human intervention to reduce the sources or enhance the sinks of greenhouse gases”, and look at a range of scenarios to find the most effective and efficient methods.

The report particularly favoured low carbon energy sources as a major way to reduce emissions, using natural gas as a transition fuel into renewable energies. Encouragingly, renewable energy comprised over half of all new electricity-generating developments globally, with wind, hydro- and solar power leading the way. The costs of renewable energies are falling, making them viable for large scale deployment in many areas, and Professor Skea enthused that

Renewables are going to be ubiquitous no matter which part of the world you look at”. 

Cities will play a big part in reducing CO2 emissions too; a combination of better urban planning to incorporate public transport and compact walkable city centres will be vital. The report also recommended high speed rail networks between cities to reduce short haul air travel and its associated high emissions.

Replanting forests will be an important way to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. Plants take in CO2 for use in photosynthesis, but can also be used to remove pollutants from the air and soil, as well as preventing soil erosion and providing important habitats for other plants and animals.


It is important for all nations that mitigation does not mean a halt to economic development. Dr. Youba Sokona, IPCC team co-chair, said, “The core task of climate change mitigation is decoupling greenhouse gas emissions from the growth of economics and population”. This will be the main challenge for governments around the world, but the overwhelming message from the IPCC is that mitigation is affordable, whilst doing nothing is not.


Social justice


There has been an undercurrent of unease alongside the IPCC report; the sticky question of who, exactly, is going to pay for this mitigation? A few days before its release, pressure from unspecified developed nations led to the removal of a section in the IPCC report stating that developing countries should receive billions of dollars a year in aid to ensure that they grow their economies in a sustainable way.

The argument centres on whether developing nations should have the right to exploit fossil fuels to expand their economies, as developed countries were able to do. Dr. Chukwumerije Okereke, one of the lead authors of the report, said that this “is holding them down from developing”, believing that “this is reinforcing historical patterns of injustice and domination”. I would argue that with the impacts of climate change predicted to affect those in developing countries most drastically, perhaps we should adopt the mentality that we are all in this together and help each other to overcome the problem.

Act now


The take home message from the IPCC is that if we act now, we can probably prevent hitting the 2°C temperature increase that would have disastrous consequences for us all. The mitigation strategies suggested are affordable and certainly cheaper than dealing with the consequences of climate change. Will politicians and all the rest of us do our parts to drastically reduce carbon emissions? Only time will tell. A lot of hope rests on the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, which is hoped to yield a global agreement on climate to avoid passing the 2°C safety threshold.

Cross your fingers and turn off your lights.

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This blog is written by Sarah JoseCabot Institute, Biological Sciences, University of Bristol


You can follow Sarah on Twitter @JoseSci 
Sarah Jose

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Climate change in the media

This winter, devastating floods and extreme weather have battered the UK.  Similarly, we have been battered by an endless barrage of news, opinion and political grandstanding.  Encouragingly, a narrative is beginning to emerge that now is the time for disaster management not a complete dissection of our short- and long-term flood defense system (an opinion we have advocated ourselves). That is encouraging.

It is vital that the issue of climate change be a central part of that discussion. Climate change is one of the most profound challenges facing humanity – a challenge recognised by scientists, politicians, lawyers, businesses and even the military. However, it is a challenge associated with uncertain and complex consequences, with the most pernicious concerns not necessarily being climate change itself but how it exacerbates other issues, such as flooding but also food security, access to resources, the spread of disease and fostering conflict.  It cannot sit in isolation from the rest of the news, and it demands nuanced exploration by the media that facilitates the responsible formation of opinion and policy.

UK aid supplies are loaded onto HMS
Daring by UK military personnel in the
Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan.
Credit: Simon Davis/DFID/Flickr
Experts (including but certainly not limited to academics), the public and the media form a triangle around policy makers, ultimately influencing the decisions that our governments make.  Most government decision makers genuinely want to enact policies that will be beneficial, but they must make those decisions in a sometimes confusing storm of information and misinformation, opinions and ideology, and short-term political imperatives.  Therefore, experts, the public and the media should work together – although the members of the Cabot Institute provide advice directly to government, we must also help foster the political climate that allows the best, evidence-based decisions to be made.

Given the complexity of climate change issues, I have been pleased to see some parts of the media adopting a more sophisticated discussion of the topic. For example, fewer journalists have asked whether climate change ‘caused’ Typhoon Haiyan or the UK’s severe winter storms and more have asked how climate change might affect such events in the future and how that might impact food prices. More are discussing how the extreme winter will exacerbate the refugee crisis in Syria. These are subtle but important expansions of the media conversation that reveal an increasing understanding of probability and the multiplication of risk.
Credit: Jackl
However, media sins persist, many of them specific to climate change but arising more generally from the external factors that have transformed the entire industry over the past two decades: a need for ratings, a need to entertain, and (most damaging in the case of environmental issues) a rapid news cycle that is better at responding to current events than in depth analysis and long-term considerations.  This has been particularly illustrated by both the media and political reaction to the floods of this past winter.

Most frustrating is the persistence by some parts of the media in creating a debate on the scientific evidence for climate change – a debate that does not exist but presumably enhances the entertainment value of the discussion.  I’m not opposed to debate.  In fact, I am eager for more rigorous, fact-based debate on this and other issues.  This is where the academic community and media could come together and bring real value to our community. But it is deeply frustrating to become entrained in non-debates regarding the underlying physics of global warming and the greenhouse effect, when there are important discussions about how much warming will occur, what the consequences will be and the cost-benefit of different policy decisions.  To its credit, media coverage is increasingly moving in that direction and ongoing coverage much better reflects the balance of scientific opinion.

However, in the aftermath of big climate news events, such as the release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report or a spate of unusually cold weather, this non-debate is resurrected.  At these times, it is frustrating that the media rarely acts as a moderator of baseless and factually incorrect claims – on both sides of the topic.  Lobbyists and pundits are allowed to repeatedly state that the IPCC report is ‘mumbo jumbo’  or that the science of climate change is a ‘conspiracy’.  It is not entirely the climate deniers who abuse evidence; some advocates for climate change action, with whom I am sympathetic, describe a ‘climate apocalypse’ or ‘climate breakdown’, fearsome concepts that upon scrutiny mean nothing scientifically.  Unfortunately, the policy of some organisations (I’m looking at you, USA Today) mandates that any editorial comment on climate change requires equal space for the opposite opinion; it is analogous to an editorial on the space programme being counterbalanced by an opinion from the Flat Earth Society. Some media agencies are adapting; Paul Thornton, the LA Times letters editor, refuses to run letters in the newspaper from some climate sceptics in order ‘to keep errors of fact off the letters page.’  There are important discussions to be had, but these will be forgotten if we become mired in debates over putative hoaxes, conspiracies or divine judgement of our hedonistic lifestyle.

One way forward is to bring more creativity to the conversation by bringing in new expert voices.  As with many other policy debates, the climate change discussion has become ossified into rather turgid and unhelpful patterns: scientists vs sceptics, environmentalists vs business.  These are poor representations of the actual issue.  Insurance companies are deeply concerned about climate change.  Our military believes that climate change could exacerbate future conflicts.  Religious leaders believe that preventing climate change that disproportionately harms the poorest of the planet is an ethical issue.  I would urge the media to ignore the uninformed but highly opinionated partisans who put themselves out there, and instead seek out the quiet but knowledgable voices of those who truly understand the challenges facing us and have firsthand understanding of the economic and social consequences.  Similarly, I would urge the academic community to focus not only on our expertise – expertise that while deep is often narrow –and explore collective expertise with some of our partners.  We should be doing our part to invigorate the conversation by bringing together different cohorts of knowledge.

The most pernicious challenge, however, and one exemplified by the media coverage of the devastating floods that we have experienced this winter, is the fickle nature of the news cycle.  Climate change is covered in a sporadic and ad hoc manner – in the aftermath of a severe storm or the release of a new finding.  Climate change should not be headline news once a year but rather a continuous part of the news cycle, reflecting its widespread impact on our environment and lives. Encouragingly, this is the trend; a quick survey of the BBC website reveals that articles reflecting on climate change are published every few days.  What is missing is a more long-term perspective – how will climate change make typhoons worse in twenty years, how could it exacerbate unrest in parts of the world already stressed by ethnic or religious tensions, will it cause greater instability in global food markets? This is the information the public needs in order to make informed personal and political decisions.

Tamsin Edwards
This change in dialogue also requires a change within the academic community.  We tend to think about engagement in the same way that we think about our other academic outputs – discrete publications containing discrete results and leading to discrete press releases.  With a few notable exceptions, such as our own Tamsin Edwards, we are less skilled in commenting on the wider issues.  This partly occurs in IPCC reports, but that alone is insufficient because it is infrequent and a synthesis of the literature, such that it is less engaged with current events or specific ongoing policy decisions.

In short, academics need to recognise our roles as well-informed experts and enter the public dialogue.  There is an ongoing and legitimate debate whether climate change scientists should comment on specific policy, but it is glaringly evident that we should be injecting climate change into the conversation where it is relevant, on topics as far-ranging as flooding, land use and planning, sustainable energy, global insecurity and agricultural strategies.  We do not have all of the answers.  Sometimes our most important contribution is raising unasked questions.  We do not have to work alone; we can build coalitions of knowledge.   But no matter how we do it, we must work with the media – all parts of the media – to share what we have learned.

This blog is by Prof Rich Pancost, Director of the Cabot Institute
Prof Rich Pancost

What can satellites tell us about the link between volcanic inflation and eruption?


The bulge that formed on flank of
Mount St Helens prior to eruption
in May 1980. (Image: United States
Geological Survey).

Ground deformation at volcanoes


In order to assess and monitor the eruption potential of volcanoes worldwide, scientists use an array of observations including seismicity, gas emissions and deformation (motion or changes in the shape) of the ground. In the simplest case, a volcano will inflate before an eruption as the underlying magmatic system pressurises. This is perhaps most memorable in the bulge that formed on the flank of Mount St Helens prior to its eruption in May 1980. Observations of ground deformation not only tell us about escalating eruptive activity, but also shed light on the whole eruptive cycle, from the drainage of magma following an eruption, to the passage and storage of magma in the crust. However, many of the techniques used to monitor ground deformation are limited by their resolution in time (e.g. repeat surveys performed once each summer season) or their spatial resolution (e.g. in-situ equipment recording motion at a single or small network of points).

The role of satellites


Since the early 1990s, satellite data has revolutionised the way in which ground deformation is used as a tool for monitoring and understanding volcanoes. Rather than recording deformation at single points or at widely spaced time intervals, satellite imagery enables us to record ground deformation at millions of data-points, over 100s of km2, with repeat times up to every 12 days. This technology, known as InSAR (Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Radar), works by comparing consecutive satellite images to calculate how much the ground has moved using changes in the phase of the returned radar wave. This technique is particularly useful in hazardous or remote areas, which are inaccessible for ground-based surveys. It is also invaluable in developing countries, which host many of the world’s volcanoes as, in the absence of other equipment, satellite imagery may provide the only indicators of escalating unrest and ultimately, impending eruption.

The European Space Agency satellite
Sentinel-1 to be launched Thursday
3rd April. (Image: European Space
Agency).
We are currently just days away from the long-awaited launch of the European Space Agency Sentinel-1 satellite, and what has been described as a “new era in earth observation”. This satellite is part of the Copernicus programme: the most ambitious Earth observation programme to date. Sentinel-1 will collect data more rapidly and with better global coverage than its predecessor ENVISAT, imaging the entire earth every 6 days for a minimum of 7 years. It is therefore the ideal time to synthesise and reflect upon what we have learnt from the wealth of InSAR data collected by the past generation of InSAR satellites.

A global dataset


A new study, led by the University of Bristol and published in Nature Communications, collates the last 18 years of InSAR data, including observations at over 500 volcanoes, 198 of which have undergone systematic observations of ground deformation. In this study, the authors assess the significance of ground deformation as an indicator of a volcano’s long-term potential to erupt. The results show that many (46%) of deforming volcanoes also erupted, and almost all (94%) non-deforming volcanoes did not erupt. This demonstrates the importance of ground deformation as an indicator of unrest, and also shows that InSAR is an ideal tool to gauge the eruptive state of volcanoes on an individual, and global basis.

video
Animation demonstrating the use of InSAR to monitor volcanoes in East Africa. (Video: European Space Agency).

Many past systematic studies have targeted volcanoes with long histories of unrest. However, when observations of deformation are made at volcanoes that have not previously been studied, it is much more difficult to gauge the significance of ground deformation and whether or not it indicates an eruption is imminent. This is particularly true in the absence of additional monitoring equipment. This study demonstrates how, in these cases, we can use data from a global dataset to predict how the composition of the magma, the type of volcano, and the tectonic setting might influence the relationship between observed deformation and eruption. For example, the authors show that globally, deformation observed at volcanoes in subduction zone settings has a higher positive predictive value (i.e. is more likely to result in eruption) than deformation observed at volcanoes in extensional rift settings.  This approach of using global observations to inform local predictions, has the potential to be incorporated into hazard assessments

The future


With the launch of new satellites comes a new age of more systematic and regular data acquisitions, enabling more volcanoes to be monitored systematically. This will inevitably reveal new cases of ground deformation at previously unstudied volcanoes. In these cases, where historical records are short or non-existent, the integration of a global set of observations will be extremely helpful in unravelling the link between deformation and eruption.

New technology and improved data quality will allow the scientific community to improve the accuracy and rate at which satellite imagery is processed and used for hazard assessments. This will enable us to add to this global dataset, strengthening conclusions and widening the global effort to better understand the significance of volcanic unrest at individual volcanoes.

“Global link between deformation and volcanic eruption qualified by satellite imagery” (Biggs et al. 2014) is published today in Nature Communications.

Read the official University of Bristol press release A satellite view of volcanoes finds the link between ground deformation and eruption

Amy Parker, is a PhD student in the School of Earth Sciences at the Cabot Institute, University of Bristol. For more information email Amy.Parker@bristol.ac.uk or tweet @amylauraparker.
Amy Parker

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

A brief introduction to how Bristol's plant science might save the world

Global crop yields of wheat and corn are starting to decline, and the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) suggests things are only going to get worse.

Last year I looked at previous research into what climate change might mean for global crop yields and found that overall crop yields would remain stable but regional declines could prove devastating for certain parts of the world. The definitive new report from the IPCC finds that actually a temperature rise of just 1°C will have negative impacts on the global yields of wheat, rice and maize, the three major crop plants. Food prices could increase by as much as 84% by 2050, with countries in the tropics being much more badly affected than northern Europe and North America.

All over the world, research is underway to find sustainable ways to feed the growing population. Scientists within the Cabot Institute’s Food Security research theme are working on a range of problems that should help us manage the threat that climate change presents.

Improving crop breeding


The average increase in yields of the world’s most important crops is slowing down, which means that supply is not keeping up with demand. Professor Keith Edwards and Dr. Gary Barker are leading UK research into wheat genomes, developing molecular markers linked to economically important traits. These markers are often Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms (SNPs), which are single letter differences in the DNA code. It's possible to find SNPs linked to areas of the genome associated with disease resistance or increased yield, allowing breeders to rapidly check whether plants have the traits they are looking for.


Wheat is a vital crop for UK agriculture as well as global food security.

Water use in plants


Climate change means that many parts of the world will face extreme weather events like droughts. Clean, fresh water is already an increasingly valuable resource and is predicted to be a major source of global conflict in the future.

Plants produce microscopic pores known as stomata on their leaves and stems, which open to take in carbon dioxide for photosynthesis but close in drought conditions to prevent excess water loss from the plant. Professor Alistair Hetherington's group looks at the environmental conditions that affect stomatal formation and function, which will help to determine how droughts or higher carbon dioxide levels might affect crop productivity in the future and how we might enhance their water use efficiency.

Professor Claire Grierson's group are working on root development, another important factor in managing how plants use water. Plants produce elongated root hairs which extend out into the substrate, increasing the root surface area in order to absorb more water and nutrients. If we can understand how root hairs are produced, we may be able to breed plants with even more efficient roots, able to extract enough water from nearly-dry soil in periods of low rainfall.

Each root hair is a single elongated cell that hugely increases a plant's ability to take up water.

Preventing disease


Mycosphaerella graminicola is a wheat
pathogen that greatly reduces yield,
posing the biggest risk to wheat production worldwide.
A particular concern of climate change is that diseases may spread to new areas or be more destructive than they used to be. Professor Gary Foster and Dr. Andy Bailey are leading research into a variety of fungal and viral plant pathogens, which are responsible for devastating crop yields around the world. They use new molecular techniques to determine exactly how diseases begin and what treatments are effective against them, information that will be vital as plant disease patterns change across the world.

Crop pollination


It is still unclear whether climate change is affecting bees, however some research suggests that flowers requiring pollination are getting out of sync with bees and other pollinators. This might not be a problem for wind-pollinated crops like maize and barley, or self-pollinators like wheat and rice, however most fruits and oil crops rely on pollinators to transfer pollen from plant to plant. Dr. Heather Whitney researches the interaction between plants and their pollinators, particularly focussing on how petal structure, glossiness and iridescence can attract foraging bees.

Plants in a warmer world


Infra red cameras can sense differences in plant
responses to temperature. Credit: Dr. Keara Franklin
As the planet warms, the IPCC has shown that there will be an overall decrease in crop productivity. Climate change has had an overall negative impact on crops in the past 10 years, with extreme droughts and flooding leading to rapid price spikes, especially in wheat. Dr. Kerry Franklin is investigating the interaction between light and temperature responses in plants. High temperatures induce a similar reaction in plants to that of shade; plants elongate, bend their leaves upwards and flower early, which is likely to reduce their overall yield. We need to understand the benefits and costs of plant responses to temperature, and look  for alternative growing approaches to maintain and hopefully even increase crop yields in a warmer world.

What does the future hold?


The IPCC report shows that if nothing changes, we are rapidly heading towards a global catastrophe. Food production will drop, which combined with the increasing population means that billions of people could face starvation. The IPCC is keen to highlight that new ways of growing and distributing food may mitigate some of the consequences that we can no longer avoid, and a key part of that is understanding how plants (and their pathogens) will respond to changes in temperature, water availability and increases in CO2. 

The research by some of the University of Bristol's plant scientists, highlighted above, should provide important knowledge that plant breeders can utilise to develop and grow crops more suited to the daunting world that climate change will present. 

This blog is written by Sarah JoseCabot Institute, Biological Sciences, University of Bristol
You can follow Sarah on Twitter @JoseSci 
Sarah Jose

Monday, 24 March 2014

2nd Generation biofuels: a transdisciplinary dialogue


“Globally, there are politically important evidence gaps, but nationally, those evidence gaps are just not important enough for policy-makers to take account of them”.  

This was one comment summing up the discussion I had at a workshop on the development of 2nd generation, or cellulosic, biofuels (biofuels produced from crops or waste, that is not otherwise used as food).  The workshop’s aim was to produce ‘A transdisciplinary dialogue on the opportunities and challenges of cellulosic ethanol in the UK’, and was run by Dr. Kate Millar, the Director of the Centre for Applied Bioethics.  It was part of a number of events convened for the EU Framework 7 project, “Integrated EST-Framework” (EST-Frame).  Bringing together 12 scientists, engineers, environmental scientists and social scientists is not an easy feat, but the 24 hours’ of the workshop produced some extremely interesting discussions.

My own research considers endeavours to overcome some of the sustainability problems commonly associated with 1st generation biofuels (e.g. sugarcane and wheat), and so I was particularly interested in how the development of 2nd generation biofuels might change the sustainability landscape. Would many of the problems associated with biofuels in general – increased greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions when compared with fossil fuels, land grabbing, food insecurity and biodiversity loss – disappear if we were to start producing 2nd generation biofuels? 

Policy problems 


Oilseed rape grown for  1st
generation biofuel has limitations.
Image credit: Richard Webb
Much of the first day of the workshop was spent discussing ‘policy problems’ that would need to be overcome for the successful production of cellulosic biofuel for consumption in the UK. 2nd generation biofuels have not been viably commercialised to date largely because of the cost of production.  But this is not the only policy problem to be overcome.  2nd generation biofuel will not only come from ‘waste’, but also from crops, such as miscanthus, which are specifically grown as biofuel feedstock.  But policies to encourage the use of crop residues for biofuels, depend, first, upon the categorisation of the cellulose left behind in the farming of particular crops as ‘waste’ and, second, upon a decision that the ‘best’ use of that waste is its conversion to energy.  This decision may, in turn, depend upon an assumption relating to national energy security.

2nd generation biofuels can be made
from farm waste such as wood chips,
and residual non-food parts of crops
 
(e.g. stemsleaves and husks).

Image credit: Innovationdiaries.com
When discussing the problems that would need to be overcome for the production of 2nd generation biofuel, it soon became clear that our own understanding of the problems depended upon the frames through which they were envisioned, and/or the assumptions that might be made in even categorising them as problems in the first place. Such frames and assumptions need to be unpicked when making policy decisions relating to, for example, the ‘best’ use of land, the ‘best’ conversion processes, displacement effects resulting from the adoption of those policies, and the valuations made in assessing ‘costs’ resulting from the production of such biofuels.

Indirect land use change (ILUC)


One thorny issue relating to biofuels production has been that of ILUC.  ILUC has been a huge spoke in the wheel of policy-makers’ development of policy in relation to the development of biofuels, not only in the UK, but in the EU, and further afield.  Endeavouring to tackle this issue involves identifying potential knock-on effects resulting from direct land use change to biofuels feedstocks (whether 1st or 2nd generation). These might include increased GHG emissions, erosion, biodiversity loss, or increased insecurity in relation to land rights or food supply of local people.  

While the focus of policy-makers’ concerns in relation to ILUC has to date been GHG emissions, views in relation to all of these issues also depend upon one’s assumptions/framing.  Furthermore, such issues are by their very definition uncertain (because they involve future potential scenarios) and, in tackling each of them, require policy-makers to give value (either positive or negative value) to those potential scenarios.  Some of the values endowed by policy-makers in assessing indirect or direct land use change may be quantifiable.  Others, such as the values given by local people to their landscape before it is transformed for biofuel feedstocks, may not be.  Moreover, land use change resulting from policies made in the UK, may be taking place in countries as far afield as Africa or South East Asia, for example.  

While some participants thought that this demonstrated that even endeavouring to tackle an issue such as ILUC was purely altruistic, and therefore usually not important enough for national policy-makers to be swayed by, others argued that it was not altruism that demanded its recognition, but an appreciation of the integrated nature of our world, its people and environment, and markets for feedstocks.  Without actively sympathising with policy-makers, many participants recognised that there are no right answers when it comes to ILUC.

Need for a holistic approach in policy-making


Image by Steve Jurvetson
When discussion moved on to consider the types of evidence required for policy-makers to tackle the policy problems, we soon realised that different forms of ‘evidence’ were often integrated.  Moreover, it was not lack of evidence that was the problem for policy-makers, or even ambiguity and uncertainty in the evidence, but the appraisal of that evidence.  This requires political decisions to be taken, something that policy-makers seem, ironically, to be distinctly uncomfortable with in relation to this area.

The workshop was a valuable exercise.  To paraphrase one participant: many of the technical or economic issues relating to the development of cellulosic biofuels in the UK could be resolved by taking a very narrow view of the problem.  However, such issues do encompass wider issues.  Countering the scientists’ and engineers’ ‘problem-solving’ approaches to policy issues, with social scientists’ more critical understanding of the social issues surrounding the problems is always going to be a challenge, but one that, I believe, is crucial if those problems are really going to be solved with any success.

This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Dr Elizabeth Fortin, University of Bristol Law School.
Dr Elizabeth Fortin

Friday, 21 March 2014

Crisis in Ukraine: The energy implications

Energy security- a primarily theoretical concept in recent years that has been made startlingly real by the recent developments in Ukraine. But what could the possible repercussions of this crisis be on European energy policies and our fuel bills?

I had a chance to ask this question during a recent event at the House of Commons, hosted by the APPCCG and Sandbag. The answer surprised me.

According to Baroness Worthington, director of Sandbag and member of the House of Lords, two outcomes are broadly possible.

Figure 1: Map of Ukraine 

The first scenario is of a stabilisation of the diplomatic situation and the emergence of a westward-leaning Ukraine. In this situation, it is likely that Ukraine might choose to exploit its own natural gas reserves, estimated to be in the region of 1.1 trillion cubic metres. Ukraine possesses the 26th largest natural gas reserve in the world, which is estimated to be more than half the size of the combined reserves of the EU.

If Ukraine `turns on the taps’, this would solve their immediate energy dependence on Russia and produce a revenue stream to support their economy. However, exploiting natural resources on the scale required would require significant investment, and Ukrainians would have to accept the change in land use and economic transformations that come with becoming a major energy exporter.

This optimistic outcome seems open to several criticisms. It’s unclear at this moment where investment would come from, and whether Russia would oppose competition in the European energy market. Moreover, can Ukraine ever completely replace Russia as an energy supplier? For instance, Russia’s natural gas reserves are around 40 times the size of Ukraine’s.

The second scenario is of a destabilised Ukraine, whose policies are influenced to a significant degree by Moscow. In this situation, European nations would need to purchase natural gas in the short-to-medium term from Russia and Ukraine, and tamely accept price rises and the uncertainty and energy insecurity that comes with dependence on a foreign nation for energy supplies.

This second possibility may also be criticised; Russia may not have further demands after the annexation of Crimea is completed. It may be the case that Russia wish to return to business as usual as quickly as possible, and may choose to offer energy supplies on favourable terms to Europe in order to encourage the resumption of trade and renewed trust.

In my view, both scenarios will result in one predominant outcome: the loss of trust. It seems unlikely that Russia can regain the trust of the West quickly; by it’s very nature, trust takes years to accrue and moments to lose. Energy security will become a much larger talking point in the next few years if relations with Russia continue to remain cool. Nations that previously were willing to base their energy supply on foreign gas purchases will choose instead to pay a price or environmental premium to source those supplies from more trusted sources.

The nations most likely to make changes to their energy mix as a result of this crisis are Germany and Poland. Germany’s choice to abandon nuclear fission after the Fukushima crisis leaves them slightly more vulnerable to a loss of fuel supplies from abroad, and they may choose to shift further towards renewables, or attempt the politically difficult U-turn of returning to nuclear power. Poland uses natural gas and coal to power much of its economy, a significant portion of which is purchased from Russia. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Poland has been consistently suspicious of Russia, and may decide that now is the time to reduce or remove their dependence on Russian supplies.

Figure 2: DECC figure for natural gas supplies by source, 2010-2013


As for the fuel bills of UK consumers, it’s unlikely that we will see any immediate effects. If sanctions on Russia are imposed, this may raise gas prices worldwide, but the UK does not directly obtain its supplies from Russia. The most likely change to the UK’s energy mix will be one that was on the cards already- an expansion in the exploitation of shale gas. Using energy security as a primary argument, supporters of shale gas may now find it easier to convince others that fracking and onshore gas exploitation should continue or be accelerated.

Perhaps the Ukraine crisis will be the public relations coup the shale gas industry has been looking for. 

This blog is written by Neeraj Oak, Cabot Institute.
Neeraj Oak

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Setting-up new collaborations with geoscientists from Kazakhstan

A map of Kazakstan
(from GraphicMaps.com, World Atlas)
Landlocked in central Asia, Kazakhstan is the world 9th largest country, larger than Western Europe. It is host to one of largest amounts of accessible minerals and fossil fuel. Even though, Kazakhstan is relatively unknown to the general public and geoscientists. In order to encourage international research collaboration between ambitious young researchers from the UK and Kazakhstan, in March 2014 the British Council Researcher Links organized a workshop in Ust-Kamenogorsk in Kazakhstan.

I was selected to attend this meeting and as a result I found myself on a Monday afternoon boarding a plane to Kazakhstan together with 12 other UK scientists. My main reason to attend the workshop was that palaeoclimatic reconstructions from this part of the world are almost non-existant. This while in the geological past (Mesozoic and Paleogene) Kazakhstan was on the bottom of a large epicontinental ocean that connected the Tethys Ocean with the Arctic. Any palaeoclimatic records from this region of the world are thus very valuable and could provide key-insights into deep-time paleoclimate. I hoped that some scientists worked on palaeoclimate reconstructions. Publications were sparse, and sometimes in Russian, so hopefully a face-to-face meeting would be good start for collaboration.

The modern campus of the East Kazakhstan
State Technical University in Ust-Kamenogorsk.
The first personal encounter with the vast size of Kazakhstan and remoteness was the time in took us to get there. Flying from London, it took us more than 24 hours to get to the small city of Ust-Kamenogorsk, located in northeastern Kazakhstan. Although temperatures in the UK reached a comfortable 18 degrees C that day, in Ust-Kamenogorsk day temperatures were well below freezing and winter still in full swing. Snow was packed half a meter high at the side of the roads.


The workshop was held at the modern campus of the East Kazakhstan State Technical University. The first days were filled with presentations from both UK and Kazakh scientists, as well as Simon Williams, the Director of the British Council Kazakhstan. An interpreter was used to translate Russian into English and vice versa. It was very interesting to give a presentation with an interpreter, it makes you very conscious of what you say and forces you to talk in brief and concise sentences. I was very happy to hear that several Kazakh palaeoclimatologist were present and very enthusiastic to share their results and ideas. Although palaeoclimate is not a top research priority in Kazakhstan, it was impressive to see the work that was already done. Several scientists worked on sections covering all periods from the Cambrian to the early Cenozoic and detailed stratigraphies were developed. We saw dinosaur eggs, beautifully preserved fossil leaves, fossil fish, and remains of large ferns. Very exciting! We had an impressive lab tour in which they showed us an array of state-of-the-art instruments that would make some UK-geoscientists jealous. 

All geared-up and ready to descend into the mine.
(I am on the right!)
As a main theme of the workshop was mining, the 3rd day we visited the Maleevka Mine near Zyryanovsk. After a detailed explanation of the daily operations of the mine, which mainly produces copper and zinc, we went down into the mine and had an amazing and slick two-hour tour. Although I am not an expert in mining, it was fascinating to see the mining operations from close-by. I was impressed by the state-of-the-art technology and know-how and safety regulations.

Remote-controlled mine dozer used to safely
get ore from newly blasted areas.
After four intense days (and nights), it was time to make the 30hr journey back to Bristol. My overall impression is that Kazakhstan is an amazingly beautiful country. It was impressive to fly for hours over snow-covered steppe and mountains. Although the weather was cold, the people were incredible warm and friendly. Wherever we went, people welcomed us with smiles and food, lots and lots of great food! The workshop was incredibly well organized. I definitely want to come back to this country. In fact, the last day one scientist gave me some Paleocene samples that I literally had to smuggle out of the country and which we will use for a pilot study. In the near future we aim to organize another workshop in Kazakhstan, focusing especially on palaeoclimate and hopefully some fieldwork because there is so much potential for great science and collaboration!
  
The British Council organized this trip. The UK coordinator was Prof. K. Jeffrey from the Camborne School of Mines, University of Exeter.

This blog is written by Dr David Naafs who is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Organic Geochemistry Research Unit at the Cabot Institute, University of Bristol.
Dr David Naafs




Monday, 17 March 2014

The controversy of the Greenland ice sheet

I was expecting a dusty road, a saloon door swinging, two geologists standing facing each other in spurrs and cowboy hats with their hands twitching at their sides, both ready to whip out their data and take down their opponent with one well-argued conclusion.

Sadly (for me), things were much more friendly at Professor Pete Nienow's seminar in Bristol's Geographical Sciences department last week. Twelve years ago he visited the University with a controversial hypothesis, causing considerable debate with members of the department. Now he was back, Powerpoint at the ready, to revisit the theory.

Professor Nienow is a glaciologist at the University of Edinburgh. He is currently researching glacial movement and mass in Greenland, but I'll let him tell you more.


Pete Nienow - GeoScience from Research in a Nutshell on Vimeo.

The Greenland ice sheet covers almost 80% of the country, enclosed by mountains around its edges. The ice sheet is dynamic; glaciers are constantly moving down from the summit towards the sea but replaced each winter by snow. Glaciers are funnelled through the mountains in large "outlet glaciers" that either melt or break into icebergs when they reach the sea.

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that the outlet glaciers are speeding up, rushing down to meet the sea almost twice as fast as they did in the 1970s. Unfortunately that means more melting icebergs floating around, contributing to sea level rise. The winter snowfall is not able to replenish this increased loss of glacial mass, so the Greenland ice sheet is slowly shrinking.

Coverage of the Greenland ice sheet in different future climate change scenarios. A critical tipping
point could be reached, after which it will be impossible to stop the ice from melting and raising sea
levels by seven metres globally.  Source: Alley et al., 2005 (Science)

Controversy


Professor Nienow stirred up a debate in 2002, when he proposed that the Zwally Effect could be hugely important for the Greenland ice sheet. This theory suggests that meltwater could seep down through the glacier to the bedrock, lubricating and speeding up the glacial movement.

The conventional wisdom of the time was that it would be impossible for meltwater to pass through the 2km of solid ice that comprises most of the Greenland ice sheet. The centre of the glacier is around -15 to -20°C, so the just-above-freezing water would never be able to melt its way through.

Meltwater research


Meltwater on glaciers often pools on the surface, creating supraglacial lakes. These lakes can drain slowly over the surface, but Professor Nienow found that they can disappear rapidly too. The water slips down through cracks in the ice to the bedrock, leading to a rapid spike in the amount of meltwater leaving the glacier.

Supraglacial lake.
Source: United States Geological Survey, Wikimedia Commons
Meltwater can reach the base of the glacier so that's one point to Nienow, but can this actually affect the movement of the glacier?

During the summer, the higher temperatures lead to increased glacial melting, which drains down to the bedrock. This raises the water pressure under the glacier, forcing it to slide more rapidly.  Interestingly, as the season progresses, Nienow found that the meltwater forms more efficient drainage channels beneath the glacier, stabilising the speed of the ice.

Nienow was almost ready to mosey on back to Bristol, show them how subglacial meltwater had clear implications of glacier loss for a warmer world, and declare himself the Last Geologist Standing.

Turning point


Glaciologists had always assumed that the winter glacier velocity was consistently low. However, at the end of a very warm 2010, Nienow and his colleagues discovered a blip of especially low speeds, even slower than the standard winter "constant".

The large channels underneath the glaciers formed by the extra meltwater of that hot year actually reduced the subglacial water pressure during the winter, slowing the glacier more than on a normal year. Nienow found that this winter variability is critical for overall glacier velocity and displacement. In 2010, the net effect of both summer and winter actually meant that the glacier velocity was reduced in this hot year.


Back to Bristol


Nienow returned to Bristol to give his seminar. Somewhat unlike a cowboy film, Nienow concluded that it was a draw; he'd been right that it was possible for meltwater to seep down to the bedrock and lubricate glacial movement, but his friends at Bristol had been correct in thinking that it wasn't very important in the grand scheme of things.

A collaborative paper between Professor Nienow, the Bristol team and other glaciologists from around the world found that subglacial meltwater will only have a minor impact on sea level rise, contributing less than 1cm of water globally by 2200.  Surface run off and the production of icebergs will continue to play a bigger role, even in a warming world. The computer models used to predict sea level rise will be able to include these findings to give a more accurate insight into future glacier movement and coverage across Greenland and beyond.

Bristol glaciologist Dr. Sarah Shannon, lead author on the paper, pointed out that whilst overall glacier velocity is unlikely to be affected by subglacial meltwater in warm years, "global warming will still contribute to sea level rise by increasing surface melting which will run directly into the ocean".

Check out this video to hear more about the effects of Greenland ice sheet melting.


This blog is written by Sarah Jose, Cabot Institute, Biological Sciences, University of Bristol
You can follow Sarah on Twitter @JoseSci 
Sarah Jose



Friday, 14 March 2014

Do not make policy during the middle of a flood crisis

Across the country, we have seen our neighbours’ homes and farms devastated by the floods.  We understand their anger and frustration.  We understand their demands for swift action.

What they have been given is political gamesmanship.  Blame shifting from party to party, minister to minister, late responses, dramatic reversals of opinion.  It reached its well-publicised nadir this past weekend, with Eric Pickles’ appearance on the Andrew Marr show:
‘I apologise unreservedly and I'm really sorry that we took the advice; we thought we were dealing with experts.’  
Throwing your own government experts to the wolves is not an apology.

This political vitriol, at least with respect to the Somerset Levels, all appears to come down to a relatively simple question – should we have been dredging?

This is not a simple question.  

It is an incredibly complex question, in the Somerset Levels and elsewhere, and this simplistic discussion does the people of those communities a great disservice.

Image by Juni
But more fundamentally, this is not the time to be deciding long-term flood mitigation strategy.  In times of disaster, you do disaster management.  Later, you learn the lessons from that disaster.  And finally, informed by evidence and motivated by what has happened, you set policy.  And that, to me, is the most frustrating aspect of the current political debate.  In an effort to out-manoeuvre one another, our leaders are making promises to enact policy for which the benefits appear dubious.

So, what are some of the issues, both for Somerset and in general?

First, the reason the rivers are flooding is primarily the exceptional rainfall – January was the wettest winter month in almost 250 years. This rain occurred after a fairly damp period, so that the soil moisture content was already high. However, these issues are exacerbated by how we have changed our floodplains, with both agricultural and urban development reducing water storage capacity.

Second, as the 2013-2014 flooding crisis has illustrated, much of our nation is flood-prone; however, those floods come in a variety of forms and have a range of exacerbating causes – some have been due to coastal storm surges, some due to flash floods caused by rapid flow from poorly managed lands and some due to sustained rain and soil saturation. We have a wet and volatile climate, 11,073 miles of coastline and little geographical room to manoeuvre on our small island.  Our solutions have to consider all of these issues, and they must recognise that any change in a river catchment will affect our neighbours downstream.

Flooding on West Moor, Somerset Levels
Image by Nigel Mykura
Third, returning to the specific challenge of the Somerset Levels, it is unclear what benefit dredging will have. The Somerset Levels sit near sea level, such that the river to sea gradient is very shallow.  Thus, rivers will only drain during low tide even if they are dredged.  And widening the channels will actually allow more of the tide to enter. Some have argued that in the past, dredging was more common and flooding apparently less so.  However, this winter has seen far more rain and our land is being used in very different ways: the memories of three decades ago are not entirely relevant.

Fourth, where dredging is done, it is being made more costly and challenging by land use practices elsewhere in the catchment. The rivers are filling with sediment that has eroded from intensively farmed land in the headwaters of the catchments and from the levels themselves. Practices that have greatly accelerated erosion include: heavy machinery operations in wet fields; placement of gates at the bottom of hillslopes so that sediment eroded from the field is very efficiently transported to impermeable road surfaces, and thence to streams downslope; cultivation of arable crops on overly steep slopes (increasing the efficiency of sediment transport from land to stream); overwintering of livestock on steep slopes; and excessive stocking densities on land vulnerable to erosion.  

Image by Nicholas Howden
Nutrient enrichment from livestock waste and artificial fertilisers (when used in excess of crop requirements) also contribute to the dredging problem.  The nutrient loading often exceeds the system’s recycling capacity, such that nutrients flow into ditches and waterways, stimulating growth of aquatic plants that can readily clog up the minor ditches and waterways. With less space to dissipate water within the network, it is forced into the main channel.  In other words, some of these floods are a subsidised cost of agriculture – and by extension the low costs we demand of our UK-produced food.

And finally, if we are going to consider long-term planning, we must consider climate change impacts. Flooding will become worse due to sea level rise, which has already risen by about 12cm in the last 100 years, with a further 11-16cm of sea level rise projected by 2030.   It is less clear how climate change will affect the intensity and frequency of these particularly intense rainfall events. Although almost all projections indicate that dry areas will become dryer and wet areas will become wetter, predictions for specific geographical regions are highly uncertain.  And our historical records are not long enough to unravel long-term trends in the frequency of uncommon but high impact weather events. This should not be reassuring – it is another major element of uncertainty in an already complex problem.

As challenging as these issues are, they are not intractable. The solutions will involve stronger planning control and scientifically informed planning decisions (including allowing some areas to flood), a reconsideration of some intensive farming practices, some dredging in key areas, some controlled flooding in others, and better disaster management strategy for when the inevitable flooding does occur.  But now is not the time to resolve such a complicated knot of complex issues.  It is certainly not the time to offer false promises or miracle cures.

Now is the time to help our neighbours in distress, listen to their stories, and remember them when the floodwaters recede.  And then we should let our experts get on with their jobs.
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This blog is co-written by Professor Paul Bates, Professor Penny Johnes (Geographical Sciences), Professor Rich Pancost (Chemistry) and Professor Thorsten Wagener (Engineering), all of whom are senior members of the Cabot Institute at the University of Bristol.

This blog post was first published in the Guardian on 12/02/2014, titled Flood crisis: Dredging is a simplistic response to a complex problem.

If you have any media queries relating to this blog, please contact Paul Bates or Rich Pancost (contact details in links above).
Prof Paul Bates, Head of
Geographical Sciences
Prof Rich Pancost, Director of the
Cabot Institute

Penny Johnes, School of
Geographical Sciences
Prof Thorsten Wagener,
Water Engineering,
Cabot Institute