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Showing posts from September, 2013

Measuring our world: Notes from the V.M. Goldschmidt Conference

‘Measure what is measurable, and make measurable what is not so.’ - Galileo Galilee
Science is measuring.
Of course, it is about much more than measuring.  The scientific approach includes deduction, induction, lateral thinking and all of the other creative and logistical mechanisms by which we arrive at ideas. But what distinguishes the ideas of science from those of religion, philosophy or art is that they are expressed as testable hypotheses – and by testable hypotheses, scientists mean ideas that can be examined by observations or experiments that yield outcomes that can be measured.
Earth scientists use astonishingly diverse approaches to measure our world, from the submolecular to the planetary, from bacterial syntrophic interactions to the movement of continental plates. A particularly important aspect of observing the Earth system involves chemical reactions – the underlying processes that form rocks, fill the oceans and sustain life. The Goldschmidt Conference, held this year…

Jared Diamond: The World Until Yesterday – What can we learn from traditional societies?

On 27 September, Pulitzer Prize-winning polymath, author Jared Diamond, gave the first talk in the Bristol Festival of Ideas series, in conjunction with the Cabot Institute, to promote the paperback release of his new book “The world until yesterday”. The book surveys 39 traditional societies and their attitudes to universal problems such as bringing up children, treatment of the elderly and attitude to risk. The aim of the book is neither to idealise nor disparage these traditional societies, but to investigate what lessons can be learned from unindustrialised peoples.
Constructive paranoia
One such tribe was the Dani whom Diamond lived with while studying local ornithology in Papua New Guinea. He opened his talk with a tale of the fear and trepidation that the New Guinean tribe showed when he suggested making camp under a dead tree in the jungle. Their “constructive paranoia” – while completely at odds with Diamond’s own Western attitude – was essential to their survival in an ecos…

Will global food security be affected by climate change?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has just released an important report outlining the evidence for past and future climate change. Unfortunately it confirms our fears; climate change is occurring at an unprecedented rate and humans have been the dominant cause since the 1950s. Atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO₂) has reached the highest level for the past 800,000 years, which has contributed to the increased temperatures and extreme weather we have already started to see.
As a plant scientist, I’m interested in the complicated effects that increased temperatures, carbon dioxide and changes in rainfall will have on global food security. Professor David Lobell and Dr Sharon Gourdji wrote about some of the possible effectsof climate change on crop yield last year, summarised below alongside IPCC data.
Increased CO₂
Plants produce their food in a process called photosynthesis, which uses the energy of the sun to combine CO₂ and water into sugars (food) and oxygen (a rather use…

Is ash dieback under control?

European ash tree is an important component of British woodlands. It has been stayed popular and recommended for planting due to its economic and aesthetic value, also the fact that its resistance towards grey squirrels. In UK, it has been estimated that among all the 141000ha big woodlands (>0.5ha), 5.4% of their composition is ash trees. However, since its first discovery in Poland in 1992, the ash dieback disease, caused by fungus Chalara fraxinea, has spread over the European continent and devastated ash populations in certain areas. On 19.Sep, Rob Spence for Forestry Commission came to Bristol to talk about thecurrent stage of ash dieback control in England.
Chalara fraxinea is the asexual stage of Hymenoscyphus pseudoalbidus, and also the infectious stage. Ascospores are produced from fruiting bodies on the dead branches in the litter, and can be transmitted by wind to more than 10km. Ascospores are not durable, thus its infection window is limited to summer months. The spore…

Power within the rift

Lying just under the Earth’s surface, the East African Rift is a region rich in geothermal resources. Exploitation of this clean and green energy source is steadily been gaining momentum. What is the geological mix that makes the Rift Valley ripe for geothermal power and how is it being tapped?
The East African Rift, stretching from Djibouti to Mozambique, marks the trace of a continent slowly tearing apart. At rates of about 1-2 cm per year, the African continent will one day split into two separated by a new ocean.
When continental rifting occurs, volcanism shortly follows. As the continent steadily stretches apart, the Earth’s crust thins allowing an easier path for buoyant magma to rise up. Where the magma cracks the surface, volcanoes build up. Dotting the Rift Valley are many active, dormant and extinct volcanoes. Famously active ones include Nyiragongo in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ol Doinyo Lengai in Tanzania and the bubbling lava lake at Erta Ale volcano in Ethiopia.
Ho…

Welcome from the new Director

I became the second Director of the Cabot Institute on the 28th of July, taking over from Paul Bates and planning to continue making Cabot one of the world’s premier environmental institutes. The past month has been rather exhilarating in terms of the breadth and quality of my interactions. My experiences have cemented my reasons for assuming this role - the Cabot Institute represents hundreds of brilliant people, working together and working with equally brilliant government, NGO and industry partners to better understand our environment, our relationship to it and the challenges of our co-dependent future. The central aspect of my job as Director is to continue to support those individuals and especially those collaborations.

My first month also confirmed that we have vital, illuminating and challenging ideas to share and we will all benefit from improved communications. Hence, this blog post and the many to follow it.  There are many buried treasures, both clever insights and matu…

Warming up the poles: how past climates assist our understanding of future climate

The early Eocene epoch (56 to 48 million years ago), is thought to be the warmest period on Earth in the past 65 million years. Geological evidence from this epoch indicates that the polar regions were very warm, with mean annual sea surface temperatures of > 25°C measured from geological proxies and evidence of a wide variety of vegetation including palm trees and insect pollinated plants found on land. Unfortunately, geological data from the tropics is limited for the early Eocene, although the data that does exist indicates temperatures only slightly warmer than the modern tropics, which are ~28°C.  The reduced temperature difference between the tropics and the poles in the early Eocene and the implied global warmth has resulted in the label of an ‘equable’ climate.

Simulating the early Eocene equable climate with climate models, however, has not been straightforward. There have been remarkable model-data differences with simulated polar temperatures are too cool and / or tropi…

Why the Pliocene period is important in the upcoming IPCC report

Critical to our understanding of the Earth system, especially in order to predict future anthropogenic climate change, is a full comprehension of how the Earth reacts to higher atmospheric CO2 conditions. One of the best ways to look at what the Earth was like under higher CO2 is to look at times in Earth history when atmospheric CO2 was naturally higher than it is today. The perfect period of geological history is the Pliocene, which spans from 5.3 – 2.6 million years ago. During this time we have good evidence that the Earth was 2-3 degrees warmer than today, but other things, such as the position of the continents and the distribution of plants over the surface, was very similar to today.

There is therefore a significant community of oceanographers and climate modellers studying the Pliocene, many of whom were in Bristol last week for the 2nd Workshop on Pliocene climate, and one of the main points of discussion was the exact value of CO2 for the Pliocene.

The imminent release of t…

Neonicotinoids: Are they killing our bees?

The UK government has announced that whilst it accepts the European Union ban on neonicotinoid pesticides, it does not believe that there is enough scientific evidence to support this action.
In April, the EU banned the use of neonicotinoid pesticides for two years starting in December because of concerns over their effect on bees.  The use of these pesticides will not be allowed on flowering crops that attract bees or by the general public, however winter crops may still be treated. Fifteen countries voted for this ban, with eight voting against it (including the UK and Germany) and four countries abstaining.
Neonicotinoids were originally thought to have less of an impact on the environment and human health than other leading pesticides. They are systemic insecticides, which means they are transported throughout the plant in the vascular system making all tissues toxic to herbivorous insects looking for an easy meal. The most common application in the UK is to treat seeds before they …

Don’t change horses midstream: the impact of EMR on low-carbon electricity producers

The way low-carbon electricity is supported by the government is changing drastically. For the last decade, electricity generators have used an emissions trading system known as the Renewable Obligations (RO) scheme. Current plans are to phase this scheme out completely by 2017, replacing it with a form of feed-in tariff scheme instead. These changes present the industry with an entirely new range of challenges and uncertainties.
On September 10th, Alon Carmel of the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) presented their case for the new policies to the major players in the South West’s low carbon energy industry. The event, hosted by RegenSW and Osborne Clarke in Bristol, set out to allay the concerns of the industry, and to give electricity generators a chance to voice their opinions ahead of the final implementation of the new scheme in 12 months’ time.
Generators have a choice between 2014 and 2017, as both the RO scheme and the new Contract-for-Difference (CfD) feed-in t…

Sharing the world’s natural resources

In discussions about climate justice, one particular question that receives a lot of attention is that of how to share the global emissions budget (that is, the limited amount of greenhouse gases (GHGs) that can be released into the atmosphere if we are to avoid ‘dangerous’ climate change). A popular proposal here is ‘equal shares’. As suggested by the name, if this solution were adopted the emissions budget would be shared between countries on the basis of population size – resulting in a distribution of emission quotas that is equal per capita. Equal shares is favoured not only by many philosophers, but also a wide range of international organisations (it is the second essential component, for example, of the prominent Contraction and Convergence approach).  
I became interested in the equal shares view because it is often put forward with very little argument. Some people seem to think it obvious that this is the best way for parties to the UNFCCC to honour their commitment to deal …