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Friday, 12 February 2016

How the great phosphorus shortage could leave us short of food

You know that greenhouse gases are changing the climate. You probably know drinking water is becoming increasingly scarce, and that we’re living through a mass extinction.

But when did you last worry about phosphorus?

It’s not as well-known as the other issues, but phosphorus depletion is no less significant. After all, we could live without cars or unusual species, but if phosphorus ran out we’d have to live without food.

Phosphorus is an essential nutrient for all forms of life. It is a key element in our DNA and all living organisms require daily phosphorus intake to produce energy. It cannot be replaced and there is no synthetic substitute: without phosphorus, there is no life.

Our dependence began in the mid-19th century, after farmers noticed spreading phosphorus-rich guano (bird excrement) on their fields led to impressive improvements in crop yields. Soon after, mines opened up in the US and China to extract phosphate ore – rocks which contain the useful mineral. This triggered the current use of mineral fertilisers and, without this industrial breakthrough, humanity could only produce half the food that it does today.

Testing crops in 1940s Tennessee. Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum

Fertiliser use has quadrupled over the past half century and will continue rising as the population expands. The growing wealth of developing countries allows people to afford more meat which has a “phosphorus footprint” 50 times higher than most vegetables. This, together with the increasing usage of biofuels, is estimated to double the demand for phosphorus fertilisers by 2050.

Today phosphorus is also used in pharmaceuticals, personal care products, flame retardants, catalysts for chemical industries, building materials, cleaners, detergents and food preservatives.

Phosphorus is not a renewable resource

Reserves are limited and not equally spread over the planet. The only large mines are located in Morocco, Russia, China and the US. Depending on which scientists you ask, the world’s phosphate rock reserves will last for another 35 to 400 years – though the more optimistic assessments rely on the discovery of new deposits.

It’s a big concern for the EU and other countries without their own reserves, and phosphorus depletion could lead to geopolitical tensions. Back in 2008, when fertiliser prices sharply increased by 600% and directly influenced food prices, there were violent riots in 40 different developing countries.
Phosphorus also harms the environment. Excessive fertiliser use means it leaches from agricultural lands into rivers and eventually the sea, leading to so-called dead zones where most fish can’t survive. Uninhibited algae growth caused by high levels of phosphorus in water has already created more than 400 coastal death zones worldwide. Related human poisoning costs US$2.2 billion dollars annually in the US alone.

With the increasing demand for phosphorus leading to massive social and environmental issues, it’s time we looked towards more sustainable and responsible use.

There is still hope

In the past, the phosphorus cycle was closed: crops were eaten by humans and livestock while their faeces were used as natural fertilisers to grow crops again.

These days, the cycle is broken. Each year 220m tonnes of phosphate rocks are mined, but only a negligible amount makes it back into the soil. Crops are transported to cities and the waste is not returned to the fields but to the sewage system, which mainly ends up in the sea. A cycle has become a linear process.

We could reinvent a modern phosphorus cycle simply by dramatically reducing our consumption. After all, less than a third of the phosphorus in fertilisers is actually taken up by plants; the rest accumulates in the soil or is washed away. To take one example, in the Netherlands there is enough phosphorus in the soil today to supply the country with fertiliser for the next 40 years.

Food wastage is also directly linked to phosphorus overuse. In the most developed countries, 60% of discarded food is edible. We could also make agriculture smarter, optimising the amount of phosphorus used by specially selecting low-fertiliser crops or by giving chickens and pigs a special enzyme that helps them digest phosphorus more efficiently and therefore avoid extensive use of phosphorus-heavy growth supplements.

Original phosphorus cycle (left); the broken cycle (centre); and an optimised cycle (right). Author provided

It takes vast amounts of energy to transform phosphate ore into “elemental phosphorus”, the more reactive and pure form used in other, non-agricultural sectors. Inventing a quicker route from raw rocks to industrially-useful compounds is one of the big challenges facing the future generation. The EU, which only has minimal reserves, is investing in research aimed at saving energy – and phosphorus.

We could also close the phosphorus cycle by recycling it. Sewage, for instance, contains phosphorus yet it is considered waste and is mainly incinerated or released into the sea. The technology to extract this phosphorus and reuse it as fertiliser does exist, but it’s still at an early stage of development.

When considering acute future challenges, people do not often think about phosphorus. However, securing enough food for the world’s population is at least as important as the development of renewable energy and the reduction of greenhouse gases. To guarantee long-term food security, changes in the way we use phosphorus today are vital.
This blog is written by Charly Faradji, Marie Curie Research Fellow, School of Chemistry, University of Bristol and Marissa de Boer, Researcher VU Amsterdam, Project Manager SusPhos, VU University Amsterdam
Charly Faradji
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

What happens when you cross a venture capitalist with a major national scientific research organisation?

CSIRO Corporate Headquarters, Campbell. Image credit: Bidgee - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0
I’m not sure if there’s a punchline, instead just a rather alarming answer. A couple of days ago, over on the other side of the world, Larry Marshall, the chief executive of Australia’s government agency for scientific research, made a disturbing announcement. Australia’s national science agency, CSIRO (the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) is to face a further 350 job losses (over 5% of its workforce) over the next two years. Primarily these losses look to be from the Oceans and Atmosphere division, affecting ongoing work on monitoring and predicting the Earth’s climate.

The job losses themselves are a huge blow for Australian and global climate research, and give the impression that the current Australian regime are perhaps not totally committed to upholding their end of the Paris agreement. This doesn’t say much, given that the Australian commitments were widely derided for being pretty weak in the first place.

So why is CSIRO’s current work important? Taking just one example, CSIRO plays a key role in monitoring the current state of the atmosphere, positioned as it is in one of the few countries in the Southern Hemisphere with well-developed scientific infrastructure. The Cape Grim atmospheric monitoring station in Tasmania, has been recording levels of southern hemisphere greenhouse gases for the last 40 years. The station mostly receives air that has travelled over the southern ocean free from pollution sources, thus providing a key record of southern hemisphere background levels of various atmospheric constituents. It’s basically the southern hemisphere equivalent of the Mauna Loa station in Hawaii which is regularly used as the key yardstick for northern hemisphere background levels.

Long term records like this are kind of pretty important, not just for scientific investigation, but also as an aid to public outreach. Anyone could look at these graphs of Cape Grim data for the three most abundant greenhouse gases, and pick up the take home message: they've all been increasing since the 1970s.

The point is that the Cape Grim measurements have played a key role in our understanding of the changes in the atmosphere over last 40 years, and should continue to do so into the future. Except maybe they won’t. If reports are to be believed it’s exactly this type of infrastructure that is under threat. Reportedly 100 people are to be unceremoniously thrown out to pasture from the Oceans and Atmosphere division, leaving just 30 left. Such a remarkably high turnover will have an inevitable effect on the quality of continuing work, not to mention quantity.

Perhaps that is what the current government in Australia want though. Less data might create more uncertainty, giving them a justification to do even less about it. But, even that view has previously been countered by the Cabot Institute’s Richard Pancost and Stephan Lewandowsky who explained why more uncertainty is no excuse for doing nothing.

Alternatively, you could take the opinion that maybe it’s not the Australian government’s responsibility to directly fund this sort of research. But, these sort of long-term records require secure long-term funding, the like of which are not found in the competitive world of academia. It’s no good chopping and changing grants every 3 years, funding different universities for different stations. There would be no consistency in the record, and suddenly any increases you see might be more attributable to a change in location than a real-world signal.

Perhaps the most alarming aspect of this is the misleading justification for the cuts, by saying that the question of global climate change has been answered. Sure, there is a consensus that human activities are affecting our climate, but that’s like saying there’s a consensus that it will rain tomorrow. It leaves questions unanswered, such as where and when?

Actually, to make matters worse the CEO added that “after Paris” the question of global climate change had been answered. Hold on, since when was it a group of politicians who were to decide whether large-scale global environmental change was happening or not? And haven’t we known about this for a good deal longer than the last three months?

Ignoring these inaccurate attempts to justify the decision, a better explanation is found in Marshall’s stated goal to make CSIRO more focused on innovation and commercialisation. The problem is, that monitoring the current state of the oceans and atmosphere or predicting its long-term future just isn't a great commercial venture. It’s the sort of research that takes in a fair bit of funding, but doesn't seem to offer any immediate financial return. Telling Joe Banker the world will be 2 °C warmer in 100 years isn't going to cause the stock market to rise or fall.

That seems to contrast with weather prediction, which seems to be a profitable business. A quick look at the UK Met Office financial statements reveals over £220m in revenue in the last financial year. Admittedly most of this is from government contracts (a case of moving money round departments), but over 10% is from commercial revenue, whether that be aviation, or maybe supermarkets wanting to know whether to stock barbecues at the weekend or not. Losing the BBC contract may have been a PR disaster, but financially it was clearly not the worst thing that could have happened.

The point is that weather prediction pays. It’s a short-term prediction that is easily evaluated, allowing people to judge the value for money it gives.

Is there some way we can put a similar value on climate monitoring and prediction? I suspect not, given it would run against scientific principles of openness and be much harder to judge its worth. I imagine Larry Marshall came to the same conclusion, but then that really calls into question whether he’s really pulling his weight at CSIRO. You can’t expect all responsibility to make CSIRO profitable to fall on employees who have no entrepreneurial experience.

If more recent reports are to be believed, this move has come as a shock to even the Australian Prime Minister, and so perhaps there is hope that the news of CSIRO’s climate science death are premature. Even so, funding issues are hardly peculiar to Australia, and the question of whether climate science can fit into modern commercial ideals will inevitably keep cropping up across the globe.

It remains to be seen what exactly will happen but severe cuts to CSIRO’s infrastructure and staff will affect not just Australian science, but have global implications as well. The name Cape Grim has always struck me as being slightly ominous, and aptly (or cruelly) its 40th anniversary celebrations were due to take place later this year. Somehow I can’t imagine there will be too many people in the mood for celebrating right now though.
This blog has been written by Cabot Institute member Mark Lunt, from the University of Bristol's Atmospheric Chemistry Research Group.  Mark's main area of research is in the estimation of greenhouse gas emissions from atmospheric measurements.

Mark Lunt

Friday, 5 February 2016

Natural Systems and Processes Poster Session

Natural Systems and Processes Poster Session 2015. Image credit Amanda Woodman-Hardy
The Natural Systems and Processes Poster Session (NSPPS) is, it appears, now quite an establishment in Bristol: 2016 will be the event’s ninth year. What is it, and what has secured its place in the University of Bristol calendar for all these years?

Well, as the name suggests, it is an academic poster session welcoming pretty much anything relating to the science of the natural world. It turns out this description covers a lot of science, with representatives from Earth Sciences, Geographical Sciences, Physics, Life Sciences, Engineering, Chemistry and Mathematics. It’s a fascinating melting pot of ideas with some quirky and abstract topics on show, but each being a tiny, crucial cogwheel in the Earth’s system. The range of topics can show off the University’s diverse scientific community, spark collaborations and simply baffle all at the same time.

Besides the ‘boring’ scientific part of the event, NSPPS is a great occasion. Set in the Wills Memorial Building Great Hall, there is a plentiful stock of free food and drink and the social side of the event is great. Often the people carrying out the research are even more colourful than the science itself (especially after some free drinks). The social side also ensures the whole event is very relaxed, making it a great opportunity to get some practice and early feedback on your poster and presentation skills before taking on external conferences. Maybe you’re thinking of going to EGU in April? Then this is the perfect warm up. Added to that, there is healthy competition with entrants battling it out for a series of prizes from staff and student votes for the best posters. They’re proper prizes too (I can verify, last year I won an Acer tablet for the staff vote), so it’s definitely worth entering!

So here’s why NSPPS is still live and kicking after 9 years: diverse science, diverse people, laid back atmosphere, prizes and (of course) free food and drink.

Where? When? Great Hall, Wills Memorial Building. 2 pm - 5 pm, Monday 7 March.
Abstract submission deadline: midnight, Friday 29 February.
Full details at
This blog is written by Alan Kennedy from the School of Geographical Sciences at the University of Bristol.  This blog post was edited from Alan's blog post at Ezekial Boom.
Alan Kennedy

Thursday, 28 January 2016

Ancient ‘dead seas’ offer a stark warning for our own near future

Bristol during the pleiocene as envisaged by Lucas Antics.
The oceans are experiencing a devastating combination of stresses. Rising CO2 levels are raising temperatures while acidifying surface waters.  More intense rainfall events, deforestation and intensive farming are causing soils and nutrients to be flushed to coastal seas. And increasingly, the oceans are being stripped of oxygen, with larger than expected dead zones being identified in an ever broadening range of settings. These dead zones appear to be primarily caused by the runoff of nutrients from our farmlands to the sea, but it is a process that could be exacerbated by climate change – as has happened in the past.

Recently, our group published a paper about the environmental conditions of the Zechstein Sea, which reached from Britain to Poland 270 million years ago. Our paper revealed that for tens of thousands of years, some parts – but only parts – of the Zechstein Sea were anoxic (devoid of oxygen). As such, it contributes to a vast body of research, spanning the past 40 years and representing the efforts of hundreds of scientists, which has collectively transformed our understanding of ancient oceans – and by extension future ones.

The types of processes that bring about anoxia are relatively well understood. Oxygen is consumed by animals and bacteria as they digest organic matter and convert it into energy. In areas where a great deal of organic matter has been produced and/or where the water circulation is stagnant such that the consumed oxygen cannot be rapidly replenished, concentrations can become very low. In severe cases, all oxygen can be consumed rendering the waters anoxic and inhospitable to animal life.  This happens today in isolated fjords and basins, like the Black Sea.  And it has happened throughout Earth history, allowing vast amounts of organic matter to escape degradation, yielding the fossil fuel deposits on which our economy is based, and changing the Earth’s climate by sequestering what had once been carbon dioxide in the atmosphere into organic carbon buried in sediments.
Red circles show the location and size of many dead zones. Black dots show Ocean dead zones of unknown size. Image source: Wikimedia Commons/NASA Earth Observatory
In some cases, this anoxia appears to have been widespread; for example, during several transient Cretaceous events, anoxia spanned much of what is now the Atlantic Ocean or maybe even almost all of the ancient oceans. These specific intervals were first identified and named oceanic anoxic events in landmark work by Seymour Schlanger and Hugh Jenkyns.  In the 1970s, during the earliest days of the international Deep Sea Drilling Program (now the International Ocean Discovery Program, arguably the longest-running internationally coordinated scientific endeavor), they were the first to show that organic matter-rich deep sea deposits were the same age as similar deposits in the mountains of Italy. Given the importance of these deposits for our economy and our understanding of Earth and life history, scientists have studied them persistently over the past four decades, mapping them across the planet and interrogating them with all of our geochemical and palaeontological resources.

In my own work, I have used the by-products of certain bacterial pigments to interrogate the extent of that anoxia.  The organisms are green sulfur bacteria (GSB), which require both sunlight and the chemical energy of hydrogen sulfide in order to conduct a rather exotic form of bacterial photosynthesis; crucially, hydrogen sulfide is only formed in the ocean from sulfate after the depletion of oxygen (because the latter yields much more energy when used to consume organic matter). Therefore, GSB can only live in a unique niche, where oxygen poor conditions have extended into the photic zone, the realm of light penetration at the very top of the oceans, typically only the upper 100 m.  However, GSB still must compete for light with algae that live in even shallower and oxygen-rich waters, requiring the biosynthesis of light harvesting pigments distinct from those of plants, the carotenoids isorenieratene, chlorobactene and okenone. For the organism, this is an elegant modification of a molecular template to a specific ecological need. For the geochemist, this is an astonishingly fortuitous and useful synthesis of adaptation and environment – the pigments and their degradation products can be found in ancient rocks, serving as molecular fossil evidence for the presence of these exotic and diagnostic organisms.

And these compounds are common in the black shales that formed during oceanic anoxic events.  And in particular, during the OAE that occurred 90 million years ago, OAE2, they are among the most abundant marker compounds in sediments found throughout the Atlantic Ocean and the Tethyan Ocean, what is now the Mediterranean Sea.  It appears that during some of these events anoxia extended from the seafloor almost all the way to the ocean’s surface.


Today, the deep sea is a dark and empty world. It is a world of animals and Bacteria and Archaea – and relatively few of those. Unlike almost every other ecosystem on our planet, it is bereft of light and therefore bereft of plants.  The animals of the deep sea are still almost entirely dependent on photosynthetic energy, but it is energy generated kilometres above in the thin photic zone. Beneath this, both animals and bacteria largely live off the scraps of organic matter energy that somehow escape the vibrant recycling of the surface world and sink to the twilight realm below. In this energy-starved world, the animals live solitary lives in emptiness, darkness and mystery. Exploring the deep sea via submersible is a humbling and quiet experience.  The seafloor rolls on and on and on, with only the occasional shell or amphipod or small fish providing any evidence for life.
"Krill swarm" by Jamie Hall - NOAA. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
And yet life is there.  Vast communities of krill thrive on the slowly sinking marine snow, can appear.  Sperm whales dive deep into the ocean to consume the krill and emerge with the scars of fierce battles with giant squid.  And when one of those great creatures dies and its carcass plummets to the seafloor, within hours it is set upon by sharks and fish, ravenous and emerging from the darkness for the unexpected feast. Within days the carcass is stripped to the bones but even then new colonizing animals arrive and thrive. Relying on bacteria that slowly tap the more recalcitrant organic matter that is locked away in the whale’s bones, massive colonies of tube worms spring to life, spawn and eventually die.

But all of these animals, the fish, whales, tube worms and amphipods, depend on oxygen. And the oceans have been like this for almost all of Earth history, since the advent of multicellular life nearly a billion years ago.

This oxygen-replete ocean is an incredible contrast to the north Atlantic Ocean during at least some of these anoxic events. Then, plesiosaurs, ichthyosaurs and mosasaurs, feeding on magnificent ammonites, would have been confined to the sunlit realm, their maximum depth of descent marked by a layer of surprisingly pink and then green water, pigmented by the sulfide consuming bacteria.  And below it, not a realm of animals but a realm only of Bacteria and Archaea, single-celled organisms that can live in the absence of oxygen, a transient revival of the primeval marine ecosystems that existed for billions of years before more complex life evolved.

We have found evidence for these types of conditions during numerous events in Earth history, often associated with major extinctions, including the largest mass extinction in Earth history – the Permo-Triassic Boundary 252 million years ago.  Stripping the ocean of oxygen and perhaps even pumping toxic hydrogen sulfide gas into the atmosphere is unsurprisingly associated with devastating biological change.   It is alarming to realise that under the right conditions our own oceans could experience this same dramatic change.  Aside from its impact on marine life, it would be devastating for us, so dependent are we on the oceans for our food.

The conventional wisdom has been that such extreme anoxia in the future is unlikely, that Cretaceous anoxia was a consequence of a markedly different geography.  North America was closer to Europe and South America only completely rifted from Africa about 150 million years ago; the ancient Atlantic Ocean was smaller and more restricted, lending itself to these extreme conditions.

And yet questions remain.  What was their trigger?  Was it really a happenstance of geography?  Or was it due to environmental perturbations? And how extensive were they? The geological record preserves only snapshots, limiting the geographical window into ancient oceans, and this is a window that narrows as we push further back in time. In one of our recent papers, we could not simulate such severe anoxia in the Atlantic Ocean without also simulating anoxia throughout the world’s oceans, a truly global oceanic anoxic event.  However, that model can only constrain some aspects of ocean circulation and there are likely alternative mechanisms that confine anoxia to certain areas.


Over the past twenty years, these questions have intersected one another and been examined again and again via new models, new geochemical tools and new ideas.  And an emerging idea is that the geography of the Mesozoic oceans was not as important as we have thought.

That classical model is that ancient oceans, through a combination of the aforementioned restricted geography and overall high temperatures, were inherently prone to anoxia.  In an isolated Atlantic Ocean, oxygen replenishment of the deep waters would have been much slower.  This would have been exaggerated by the higher temperatures of the Cretaceous, such that oxygen solubility was lower (i.e. for a given amount of oxygen in the atmosphere, less dissolves into seawater) and ocean circulation was more sluggish. Consequently, these OAEs could have been somewhat analogous to the modern Black Sea.  The Black Sea is a restricted basin with a stratified water column, formed by low density fresh water derived from the surrounding rivers sitting stably above salty and dense marine deep water. The freshwater lid prevents mixing and prevents oxygen from penetrating into deeper waters. Concurrently, nutrients from the surrounding rivers keep algal production high, ensuring a constant supply of sinking organic matter, delicious food for microbes to consume using the last vestiges of oxygen.  The ancient oceans of OAEs were not exactly the same but perhaps similar processes were operating. Crucially, the configuration of ancient continents in which major basins were isolated from one another, suggests a parallel between the Black Sea and the ancient North Atlantic Ocean.

But over the past twenty years, that model has proved less and less satisfactory.  First, it does not provide a mechanism for the limited temporal occurrence of the OAEs.  If driven solely by the shape of our oceans and the location of our continents, why were the oceans not anoxic as the norm rather than only during these events? Second, putative OAEs, such as that at the Permo-Triassic Boundary occur at times when the oceans do not appear to have been restricted.  Third, coupled ocean-atmosphere models indicate that although ocean circulation was slower under these warmer conditions, it did not stop.

But also, as we have looked more and more closely at those small windows into the past, we have learned that during some of these events anoxia was more restricted to coastal settings.  And that brings us back to the Zechstein Sea. We mapped the extent of anoxia at an unprecedented scale in cores drilled by the Polish Geological Survey, and we discovered an increasing abundance of GSB molecular fossils in rocks extending from the carbonate platform and down the continental slope, suggesting that anoxia had extended out into the wider sea.  But when we reached the deep central part of the basin, the fossils were absent.  In fact, the sediments contained the fossils of benthic foraminifera, oxygen dependent organisms living at the seafloor, and the sediments had been bioturbated, churned by ancient animals. The green sulfur bacteria and the anoxia were confined to the edge of the basin, completely unlike the Black Sea.  This is not the first such observation and this is consistent with new arguments mandating not only a different schematic but also a different trigger.  And perhaps that trigger was from outside of the oceans.

If the trigger was not solely a restriction of oxygen supply then the alternative is that it was an excess of organic matter, the degradation of which consumed the limited oxygen. A likely source of that organic matter and one that is consistent with restriction of anoxia to ocean margins is a dramatic increase in nutrients that stimulated algal blooms – much like what is occurring today.  And that increase in nutrients, as elegantly summarized by Hugh Jenkyns, could have been caused by an increase in erosion and chemical weathering, driven by higher carbon dioxide concentrations, global warming and/or changes in the hydrological cycle, all of which we now know occurred prior to several OAEs. And again, similar to what is occurring today.

It is likely that today’s coastal dead zones are due not to climate change but to how we use our land and especially to our excess and indiscriminate use of fertilisers, most of which does not help crops grow or enhance our soil quality but is instead washed away to pollute our rivers and coastal seas. And yet that only underscores the lessons of the past.  They suggest that global warming might exacerbate the impacts of our poor land management, adding yet another pressure to an already stressed ecosystem.
Runoff of soil and fertiliser  during a rain storm. Image source: Wikimedia Commons 
The Zechstein Sea study is not the key to this new paradigm (and that ‘paradigm’ is far from settled).  There is probably no single study that marked our change in understanding.  Instead, this new model has been gradually emerging over nearly 20 years, as long as I have been studying these events. New geochemical data, such as the distribution of nutrient elements, suggest that many of these anoxic episodes, whether local or global, were associated with algal blooms.  And other geochemical tools, such as the isotopic composition of trace metals, provide direct evidence for changes in the chemical weathering that liberated the bloom-fueling nutrients.

Science can move in monumental leaps forward but more typically it evolves in small steps. Sometimes, after years of small steps, your understanding has fundamentally changed. And sometimes that change means that your perception of the world, the world you love and on which you depend, has also changed.  You realize that it is more dynamic than you thought – as is its vulnerability to human behaviour.
This blog is by Prof Rich Pancost, Director of the Cabot Institute at the University of Bristol
A shortened version of this blog can be found on The Conversation.

Prof Rich Pancost
This blog has also appeared in IFL Science and The Ecologist.

Monday, 25 January 2016

We just had the hottest year on record – where does that leave climate denial?

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
At a news conference announcing that 2015 broke all previous heat records by a wide margin, one journalist started a question with “If this trend continues…” The response by the Director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, Gavin Schmidt, summed up the physics of climate change succinctly: “It’s not a question of if…”

Even if global emissions begin to decline, as now appears possible after the agreement signed in Paris last December, there is no reasonable scientific doubt that the upward trends in global temperature, sea levels, and extreme weather events will continue for quite some time.

Politically and ideologically motivated denial will nonetheless continue for a little while longer, until it ceases to be politically opportune.

So how does one deny that climate change is upon us and that 2015 was by far the hottest year on record? What misinformation will be disseminated to confuse the public?

The real deal: 2015 was the hottest year on record. Met Office, CC BY-NC-SA

Research has identified several telltale signs that differentiate denial from scepticism, whether it is denial of the link between smoking and lung cancer or between CO2 emissions and climate change.
One technique of denial involves “cherry-picking”, best described as wilfully ignoring a mountain of inconvenient evidence in favour of a small molehill that serves a desired purpose. Cherry-picking is already in full swing in response to the record-breaking temperatures of 2015.

Political operatives such as James Taylor of the Heartland Institute – which once compared acceptance of the science of climate change to the Unabomber in an ill-fated billboard campaign – have already denied 2015 set a record by pointing to satellite data, which ostensibly shows no warming for the last umpteen years and which purportedly relegates 2015 to third place.

Satellite data (green) has much more uncertainty than thermometer records (red). Kevin Cowtan / RSS / Met Office HadCRUT4, Author provided

So what about the satellite data?

If you cannot remember when you last checked the satellites to decide whether to go for a picnic, that’s probably because the satellites don’t actually measure temperature. Instead, they measure the microwave emissions of oxygen molecules in very broad bands of the atmosphere, for example ranging from the surface to about 18km above the earth. Those microwave soundings are converted into estimates of temperature using highly-complex models. Different teams of researchers use different models and they come up with fairly different answers, although they all agree that there has been ongoing warming since records began in 1979.

There is nothing wrong with using models, such as those required to interpret satellite data, for their intended purpose – namely to detect a trend in temperatures at high altitudes, far away from the surface where we grow our crops and make decisions about picnics.

But to use high-altitude data with its large uncertainties to determine whether 2015 is the hottest year on record is like trying to determine whether it’s safe to cross the road by firmly shutting your eyes and ears and then standing on your head to detect passing vehicles from their seismic vibrations. Yes, a big truck might be detectable that way, but most of us would rather just have a look and see whether it’s safe to cross the road.

And if you just look at the surface-based climate data with your own eyes, then you will see that NASA, the US NOAA, the UK Met Office, the Berkeley Earth group, the Japan Meteorological Agency, and many other researchers around the world, all independently arrived at one consistent and certain end result – namely that 2015 was by far the hottest year globally since records began more than a century ago.

Enter denial strategy two: that if every scientific agency around the world agrees on global warming, they must be engaging in a conspiracy! Far from being an incidental ornament, conspiratorial thinking is central to denial. When a scientific fact has been as thoroughly examined as global warming being caused by greenhouse gases or the link between HIV and AIDS, then no contrary position can claim much intellectual or scholarly respectability because it is so overwhelmingly at odds with the evidence.

That’s why politicians such as Republican Congressman Lamar Smith need to accuse the NOAA of having “altered the [climate] data to get the results they needed to advance this administration’s extreme climate change agenda”. If the evidence is against you, then it has to be manipulated by mysterious forces in pursuit of a nefarious agenda.

This is like saying that you shouldn’t cross the road by just looking because the several dozen optometrists who have independently attested to your 20/20 vision have manipulated the results because … World Government! Taxation! … and therefore you’d better stand on your head blindfolded with tinfoil.

So do the people who disseminate misinformation about climate actually believe what they are saying?

The question can be answered by considering the stock market. Investors decide on which stock to buy based on their best estimates of a company’s future potential. In other words, investors place an educated bet on a company’s future based on their constant reading of odds that are determined by myriad factors.

Investors put their money where their beliefs are.

Likewise, climate scientists put their money where their knowledge is: physicist Mark Boslough recently offered a $25,000 bet on future temperature increases. It has not been taken up. Nobel laureate Brian Schmidt similarly offered a bet to an Australian “skeptic” on climate change. It was not taken up.

People who deny climate science do not put their money where their mouth is. And when they very occasionally do, they lose.

This is not altogether surprising: in a recent peer-reviewed paper, with James Risbey as first author, we showed that wagering on global surface warming would have won a bet every year since 1970. We therefore suggested that denial may be “… largely posturing on the part of the contrarians. Bets against greenhouse warming are largely hopeless now and that is widely understood.”

So the cherry-picking and conspiracy-theorising will continue while it is politically opportune, but the people behind it won’t put their money where their mouth is. They probably know better.
The Conversation
This blog was written by Cabot Institute member, Professor Stephan Lewandowsky, Chair of Cognitive Psychology, University of Bristol.

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

Thursday, 21 January 2016

The last time Earth was this hot hippos lived in Britain (that's 130,000 years ago)

Image taken from Wikimedia Commons. Credit Paul Maritz.
It’s official: 2015 was the warmest year on record. But those global temperature records only date back to 1850 and become increasingly uncertain the further back you go. Beyond then, we’re reliant on signs left behind in tree rings, ice cores or rocks. So when was the Earth last warmer than the present?

The Medieval Warm Period is often cited as the answer. This spell, beginning in roughly 950AD and lasting for three centuries, saw major changes to population centres across the globe. This included the collapse of the Tiwanaku civilisation in South America due to increased aridity, and the colonisation of Greenland by the Vikings.

But that doesn’t tell the whole story. Yes, some regions were warmer than in recent years, but others were substantially colder. Across the globe, averaged temperatures then were in fact cooler than today.

To reach a point when the Earth was significantly warmer than today we’d need to go back 130,000 years, to a time known as the Eemian.

For about 1.8m years the planet had fluctuated between a series of ice ages and warmer periods known as “interglacials”. The Eemian, which lasted around 15,000 years, was the most recent of these interglacials (before the one we’re currently in).

Although global annual average temperatures were approximately 1 to 2˚C warmer than preindustrial levels, high latitude regions were several degrees warmer still. This meant ice caps melted, Greenland’s ice sheet was reduced and the West Antarctic ice sheet may have collapsed. The sea level was at least 6m higher than today.

Across Asia and North America forests extended much further north than today and straight-tusked elephants (now extinct) and hippopotamuses were living as far north as the British Isles.

How do we know all this? Well, scientists can estimate the temperature changes at this time by looking at chemicals found in ice cores and marine sediment cores and studying pollen buried in layers deep underground. Certain isotopes of oxygen and hydrogen in ice cores can determine the temperature in the past while pollen tells us which plant species were present and therefore gives us an indication of climatic conditions suitable for that species.

We know from air bubbles in ice cores drilled on Antarctica that greenhouse gas concentrations in the Eemian were not dissimilar to preindustrial levels. However orbital conditions were very different – essentially there were much larger latitudinal and seasonal variations in the amount of solar energy received by the Earth.

So although the Eemian was warmer than today the driving mechanism for this warmth was fundamentally different to present-day climate change, which is down to greenhouses gases. To find a warm period caused predominantly by conditions more similar to today, we need to go even further back in time.

The past 540 million years. Note the Eemian spike and the Miocene Optimum. Glen Fergus / wiki, CC BY-SA

As climate scientists, we’re particularly interested in the Miocene (around 23 to 5.3 million years ago), and in particular a spell known as the Miocene-Climate Optimum (11-17 million years ago). Around this time CO2 values (350-400ppm) were similar to today and it therefore potentially serves as an appropriate analogue for the future.

During the Optimum, those carbon dioxide concentrations were the predominant driver of climate change. Global average temperatures were 2 to 4˚C warmer than preindustrial values, sea level was around 20m higher and there was an expansion of tropical vegetation.

However, during the later Miocene period CO2 declined to below preindustrial levels, but global temperatures remained significantly warmer. What kept things warm, if not CO2? We still don’t know exactly – it may have been orbital shifts, the development of modern ocean circulation or even big geographical changes such as the Isthmus of Panama narrowing and eventually closing off – but it does mean direct comparison with the present day is problematic.

Currently orbital conditions are suitable to trigger the next glacial inception. We’re due another ice age. However, as pointed out in a recent study in Nature, there’s now so much carbon in the atmosphere the likelihood of this occurring is massively reduced over the next 100,000 years.
This blog is written by Cabot Institute members Emma Stone, Research Associate in Climatology, University of Bristol and Alex Farnsworth, Postdoctoral Researcher in Climatology, University of Bristol.

Emma Stone

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

Monday, 18 January 2016

New Year’s message from the Director of the University of Bristol's Cabot Institute

At the start of a new year, I wanted to acknowledge the achievements of our colleagues at the University of Bristol’s Cabot Institute over the past year and to summarise our priorities for 2016.
Cabot Institute members celebrating Cabot's 5th birthday at the University of Bristol.
2015 was a genuinely historical year for the Cabot Institute and for Bristol. I do not use that term lightly.  During the year in which the Institute celebrated its 5th anniversary, many of us worked extensively with the City to host the European Green Capital and contribute substantively to the Paris Climate summit. We raised our profile both in the city and internationally, directly showcasing Cabot Institute research to over 100,000 people – and far more if we include coverage in the national and international press.

This was happening against a background of collaborative activity that included the funding of UKCRIC (UK Collaboratorium for Research in Infrastructure & Cities) and the launch of Bristol is Open; new initiatives in Anticipation, sustainable livestock, Global Insecurities, urban pollinators, and flood forecasting; and new investment in a radiocarbon accelerator, the Nuclear Hub, and high performance computing. Collectively, these efforts and the Green Capital engagement served as the platform for solidifying the University’s relationship with our city.  It is clear that a strong partnership with a thriving and global city will be essential for UK HEIs in the coming decade, and we are proud that so many members of the Cabot Institute have contributed to that.  We have partnered in events, served on strategic working groups, consulted, advised, fostered debate and provided research that is currently being used to frame the city’s strategy and policies.

All of that occurred alongside Hugh Brady’s arrival, joining as the new Vice Chancellor (VC), and the University-wide strategic review. I cannot stress enough how impressed our new VC is with all aspects of our environmental, risk and sustainability research as well as the quality and ambition of our partners and the leadership (at all levels) in the city.  It seemed that every new initiative was followed by a new award (and particular kudos to the volcanologists! And to Eric Herring and Somalia First!  And to many others!). All of that required a huge amount of effort from many of you. Thank you and well done!  And of course, special thanks to the entire Cabot team, who achieved this while helping the university manage personnel reshuffling and while directly contributing their time to the Strategic Review.  Cabot has emerged as a central component of the University strategy and its vision; that derives primarily from the excellence of the academics working in the Cabot space (and rightly so!) but also the incredible flexibility and hard work of Hayley Shaw, Amanda Woodman-Hardy, Amanda Gray, Philippa Bayley, Mike Harris and Caroline Bird.  Thanks gang!

The University of Bristol's Volcanology team has been awarded the Queen’s
Anniversary Prize for Higher Education – the highest accolade for any academic
institution – in recognition of its world-leading research in volcanology. 
Image credit Susanna Jenkins.
Arising from that, all of us will have exciting new opportunities in 2016 and beyond.  We will support Hugh and our City. We will consolidate the partnerships initiated during the Green Capital year – not just with Bristol City Council but with numerous other local partners. Crucially, we will use this as a platform to raise our national visibility.

Having said that, we will be less ‘event-focussed’ in 2016 and put more effort into supporting Cabot’s academic community and key partners proposals and initiatives.  We did that last year, but it was impacted by the plethora of Green Capital activity; our support of your ideas will receive renewed focus this year.  This is one reason why we are so excited to have been able to keep Hayley on the team upon Philippa’s return and that we were able to extend Mike’s contract. Both will be in place to work with you to develop proposals, host visitors and secure partners.

We will also be putting renewed effort into building connections across our community. We will be building the Global Development working group and working with the other URIs to host workshops around inequality and resilience. We will be working even more closely with our Theme Leads – especially with John Beddington and a reconfigured Advisory Board – to stimulate new discussions and identify the areas where we can best support our members.
Khadir Abdi (left) from the Somali First core team with Professor Eric Herring,
who won the Engagement Awards in 2015 for their work in global development.
Finally, as Cabot contributes to the implementation of the new University Strategy, we will spend more time consulting our members, ensuring we are properly representing your priorities and making the most of the opportunities arising over the next decade.

We have learned a lot and built a very strong Institute over our first five years; we intend to use 2016 to explore Cabot members’ needs and opportunities so that we can grow the right way over the next five years.

These are exciting times in the University and we are proud to represent areas of great research strength. It is clear that the suite of environmental, risk, sustainability and future cities research that Cabot comprises will be at the heart of the University’s research strategy over the next decade – but also part of its institutional, international and teaching strategy.  We are all looking forward to working together to achieve this.
This blog is by Prof Rich Pancost, Director of the Cabot Institute at the University of Bristol
Prof Rich Pancost

Friday, 15 January 2016

Bristol is buzzing, how the city is helping pollinators

There has been a substantial amount of press coverage recently on the plight of our pollinators. They are now less abundant and widespread than they were in the 1950s. A number of threats are responsible, including habitat loss, disease, extreme weather, climate change and pesticide use.

There is not one smoking gun among these threats, but rather the combination that has endangered some species in the UK. Loss of wild flower rich habitat (due to intensive agriculture, industrialisation and urbanisation) escalates the effect of disease, extreme weather, climate change and pesticide use. Without food or shelter, pollinators are more vulnerable.

Whilst visiting the University of Bristol Botanic Garden a few weeks ago, I noticed the abundance of pollinators busily visiting many different flowers from the orchid look-a-like flower of Impatiens tinctoria to the swathes of Rudbeckia sp. and Verbena bonariensis. This year saw the 6th year of the University of Bristol Botanic Gardens hosting the Bee and Pollination Festival in September. The Community Ecology Group from Bristol's School of Biological Sciences was exhibiting and promoting their research as well as the exciting Get Bristol Buzzing Initiative.

To find out more about pollinator research at the University, I met up with Dr Katherine Baldock, a NERC Knowledge Exchange Fellow from the School of Biological Sciences and the Cabot Institute, to discuss the group’s work.

“Most people know that pollinators are important, but quite often don’t know what to do to help them, “ explained Katherine. “And this is where our research at the University comes into play”.

The aim of Katherine’s fellowship is to improve the value of the UK's urban areas for pollinators by working with various stakeholders, such as city councils, conservation practitioners and the landscape industry.

Translating science into solutions

Up until 2014, Katherine worked on the Urban Pollinators Project, which is researching insect pollinators and the plants they forage on in urban habitats.

Kath Baldock
Building upon research from this project and her current Fellowship, Katherine and her Bristol colleagues have contributed to the development of  a Greater Bristol Pollinator Strategy (2015-2020). The University research group has teamed up with Bristol City Council, the Avon Wildlife Trust, Bristol Friends of the Earth, Buglife, South Gloucestershire Council and the University of the West of England to implement this with the aim of protecting existing habitat and increasing pollinator habitat in the Greater Bristol area.

The group is also raising awareness of the importance of pollinators to a wide-ranging audience within the city and further afield. This is the first local pollinator strategy within the UK and follows closely in the wake of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs' National Pollinator Strategy launched in 2014. It will help to promote aspects of the national strategy relevant to urban areas and hopefully set a precedent for the development of other local pollinator strategies throughout the UK.

The local pollinator strategy outlines actions that will help fulfill the strategy aims, including:

  • formation of a Local Pollinator Forum intended to share knowledge and best practice,
  • establishment of a joined-up approach to pollinator conservation by linking projects through the ‘Get Bristol Buzzing’ Initiative,
  • working with the public in local areas to explain actions they can take as individuals. 

“Urban green spaces are important corridors for wildlife and help to provide linkages across the country”, explained Katherine. I envisaged a series of insect aerial motorways linking the whole of the UK, invisible threads connecting countryside, urban fringe and city centres.

The bee link-up

The Get Bristol Buzzing Initiative is doing just that, as one of its strategic aims with the local pollinator strategy for 2016-2020, is to “Map pollinator habitat and identify target sites that allow habitat networks and stepping stones to be created to enable pollinators to move through urban areas”.

Katherine talked about how engaging the public at ground level was really important to Get Bristol Buzzing. The initiative is the pollinator component of My Wild City, a project whose vision is for people in Bristol to help transform spaces into a city-wide nature reserve. A number of interactive maps have been created that allow people to add what they have been doing in their area to help wildlife. The Get Buzzing Initiative will feed into these maps. Kath said,
‘The fact that you can add yourselves onto a map makes the Get Buzzing Initiative really visually appealing to people and much more personal.”
So, what can you do at home to help urban pollinators?

  • Plant for pollinators. Think about what plants you have in your garden. Could you change the planting or improve on it to make it more attractive to pollinators? Think about growing species that have nectar and pollen rich flowers and let your lawn grow longer to allow plants to flower. 
  • Avoid pesticides. Most gardeners like their plants to remain pest free but avoid the temptation to use pesticides and accept the fact that you will lose some plants to pests. Instead try to encourage wildlife that will devour those pests or cultivate plants that will deter pests.  
  • Provide habitat. As pollinators need a home, you can always make your own nest boxes if you want to give your pollinating visitors a helping hand by drilling holes in a log or by bundling up lengths of hollow sticks such as bamboo. Visit the Botanic Garden's bee hotel for inspiration!
‘Setting aside a wild bit of garden can help pollinators by providing food, but provides nesting sites too’, remarked Katherine.

This blog was written by Helen Roberts.  It has been republished with kind permission from the University of Bristol's Botanic Gardens blog.

Additional information

Friday, 18 December 2015

COP21 reflections: What next for the University of Bristol?

If you have read my previous blogs on my COP21 reflections (see links at bottom of this blog), that brings us to the University of Bristol and the Cabot Institute.  I hope that this year we also have made some steps towards being a trusted participant in shaping our city’s future. I have lived here over 15 years and so I know that has not always been the case.

We must contribute via our role as a business.  With the NHS, we are the largest employer in the city and our behaviour should lead by example.  This is why we have developed a district energy strategy with BCC and the NHS.  This is why we are planting trees all over the city.  That is why we collaborate with Bristol City Council and fund community initiatives. But we do need to do more.  We will be judged on how we build our next buildings.  We will be judged on how we procure our goods. We will be judged on how we engage with the other citizens of Bristol.

We must contribute via our role as an educational institution.  We are already committed to pan-University Education for Sustainable Development (and thanks again to Chris Willmore for championing that). Now we are exploring a new initiative to build sustainability, enterprise and global citizenship across the student experience; those of us in the Cabot Institute are very excited to have been asked to play a role in translating our ambitions for multidisciplinary, challenge-driven, environmental research to our Undergraduates.
Students working with a local organisation in Bedminster, Bristol.
Of course, those students are driving us as often as we are leading them!  In the words of Hannah Tweddell of Bristol’s Student Union:
‘Our students and young people are the future. We've seen the amazing work they've done in partnership, helping Bristol Green Capital transition towards a more sustainable inclusive city. We're committed to getting 100,000 hours of student engagement with the city to help make our city more sustainable every year - real action on the ground to tackle climate change, inequality and sustainability.'
And finally, the Cabot Institute will continue to conduct ambitious research in this area. Being at COP21 with Bristol City Council showed me the power of academic contributions.  Our Mini-Stern review and the STEEP Project sit at the foundation of Bristol’s Climate Change and Energy Security Framework.  Bristol is Open was repeatedly cited as an exemplar in Future Cities thinking. These partnerships were embedded in the argument by ICLEI and others that cities must be taken seriously as partners in this endeavour. Our climate change research was also on display and invoked at key stages as ambitions were raised.

It is not all about the Cabot Institute.  Sustainability policy is increasingly linked to health issues, whether it be the benefits of cycling and walking or of cleaner air; as such, the Elizabeth Blackwell Institute is also a central part of this conversation. The Brigstow Institute will explore the role of self, identity and community in the 21st century, issues that will be central to the social transformations that the Paris Agreement requires.  And there is no doubt that Big Data will be key to understanding, managing and navigating the future city; our new Institute (currently the Bristol Institute for Data Intensive Research) is poised to make major contributions.
Our research must continue and become more ambitious because we do not have all of the solutions - yet. So we will continue to innovate, whether it be exciting new functional nanomaterials to underpin the next generation of renewable technology or the mathematical expertise that will help us best extract tidal power from the Severn. We will have to help explore new financing tools to fund a new kind of global development; and there is a role for Bristol in shaping the emerging new forms of governance and economy. But new solutions require an engaged and interested public – and we do not intend to develop them in isolation or in our old disciplinary silos.

As our train pulled into Temple Meads, Alex Minshull told me that what he took from the Conference was a renewed awareness of what he already knew – do not get ‘locked in’ to the future you do not want. We must make the right choices today, choices that do not pile future carbon debt onto the future.  We must invest in our young people today so that they are prepared to lead tomorrow.  We must invest in new technology today so that it is ready when we need it.

It starts today.

Prof Rich Pancost

This blog is by Prof Rich Pancost, Director of the Cabot Institute at the University of Bristol.  For more information about the University of Bristol at COP21, please visit

Other blogs in this COP21 reflections series include:
What have we acheived and how do we go forward?
What next for the University of Bristol?

COP21 Daily Reports