Cabot Institute blog

Find out more about us at www.bristol.ac.uk/cabot

Thursday, 25 February 2016

Why is the UK interested in volcanoes? We don’t have any of our own!

Eruption column from the explosive phase of the Eyjafjallajokull eruption drifting over a farm  - image by Bristol volcanologist Susanna Jenkins
The University of Bristol’s volcanology group has been awarded the Queen’s Anniversary Prize for its contribution to research excellenceThe Queens Anniversary Prize is the most prestigious form of national recognition an institution can receive. When I tell members of the public that, not only am I a volcanologist, but that I am part of the one of the largest and most successful volcanology groups in the world, the first reaction is always surprise: ‘Why is the UK interested in volcanoes? We don’t have any of our own!’

They are right of course, the Bristol volcanology group spends its time travelling all over the world to address volcanic risk in many countries, from the first to the third world. When one looks back on volcanic eruptions in recent history, especially the big, memorable ones like Mount St Helens, Eyjafjallajokull and Montserrat one realises that Bristol volcanologists were there at every stage.

There are, of course, many layers to handling a volcanic crisis. First there’s initial monitoring; will this volcano erupt at all? Often this involves going to volcanoes that have been little studied in remote places, or monitoring them from satellites: something which Bristol volcanology has taken in its stride, by trailblazing projects on understudied African volcanism
InSAR image showing volcanic uplift in the Great Rift Valley as part of research by Bristol volcanologist Juliet Biggs
Then there’s handling eruptions as they happen. Who will be affected? What are the primary risks? How should we respond to the media? Bristol has a glowing history of aiding in volcanic crisis by supplying the information when the world needs it. During the 2010 Eyjafjallajokull ash and aviation crisis, Bristol led the way in supplying expert opinion on managing the situation.

Still there is no rest for our volcanologists. Afterwards there’s the post-eruption work: Working out what made the volcano erupt and understanding the physical processes surrounding an event. How does it fit into the wider setting? Are the volcanoes linked? These questions have been asked and answered by our volcanologists who have also reached out to form a global database with other institutions. This has resulted in more cohesion in the community, and a greater understanding of how volcanoes interact.

A wealth of different specialities have populated the group since it was started by Professor Steve Sparks  including petrologists, geophysicists and geochemists. It is a result of this diverse environment that Bristol has been able to excel in so many areas. With natural hazards occurring on a near-daily basis, it's safe to say the group has played its part in reducing the uncertainty of volcanic hazard across the globe.  The Queen’s Anniversary Prize is an amazing recognition of the work that has been done over the years and a well-deserved reward for the hard work of the Bristol volcanologists.
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This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Keri McNamara, a PhD student in the School of Earth Sciences at the University of Bristol.
Keri McNamara

Why is there a difficult absence of water demand forecasting in the UK?

Image credit: Ralf Roletschek, permission from - Marcela auf Commons.
From August 2015 to January 2016, I was lucky enough to enjoy an ESRC-funded placement at the Environment Agency. Located within the Water Resources Team, my time here was spent writing a number of independent reports on the behalf of the agency. This blog is a short personal reflection of one of these reports, which you can find here. All views within this work are my own and do not represent any views, plans or policies of the Environment Agency.

In a world away from Melanie Phillips and David Bellamy, it is widely accepted that the twinned-spectres of climate change and population growth will likely affect levels of water availability in England and Wales, whilst also exposing the geographic imbalance of water supply-demand dynamics within the country. The Environment Agency has utilised a number of socioeconomic scenarios to predict total demand to change at some point between 15% decrease (if the nation undergoes a transition towards sustainability) to a 35% increase (in a scenario of continued and uncontrolled demand for the resource).

It is within this context that the need to understand future patterns of water demand has become essential for the future resilience of the nation’s water. The Labour government’s Future Water strategy (signed-off by Hilary Benn) 2008 set a national target of reducing household water consumption by 13%. This plan was further incentivised by Ofwat’s scheme to reward companies that reduce annual household demand by one litre of water per property, per day in the period 2010/11-2014/15.

What does our future household water use look like? Whilst per capita consumption will decrease, the number of people using the water grid will increase: resulting in a growth of overall demand. 22 predictions related to public water supply projected a median change of +0.89%. However there are additional complexities: as certain uses of water will decrease, others will increase; as appliances become more water efficient, they will be more likely to be used; and as one business closes, another may join the grid. It is this complexity that creates a great deal of uncertainty in gauging the future water demand of the sector.
Image credit: Nicole-Koehler
But, there exists a problem. Whilst the legally-mandated water management plans of the public water suppliers provide us with a wealth of forecasts of the future water usage within our homes, there exists a lack of available information on the current use of water within many other sectors and how such usage may shift and transform in the years between today and 2050.

This report lays out an extensive review of available literature on the current and future demand of a number of sectors within the UK. It found nine studies of the agricultural sector – with a median projection of 101% increase in water usage. Three studies of the energy sector projected a median decrease of 2% on a 2015 baseline. But, it also found some gaps that restrict our understandings of future water demand.

Want to find out how much water is used in the construction sector? Tough, no chance. The mining and quarrying sector – ready your Freedom of Information request. Want to calculate the future water footprints of our food and drink – prepare to meet that brick wall. If such information is available, it is not in the public domain. Without having a publicly-available baseline, how can we even dream of predicting what our future demand may be?
Crop irrigation.  Image credit: Rennett Stowe.
Water is not just turning on the shower in the morning or boiling the kettle at the commercial break. It is present in our food, our energy and our infrastructure. As a result, it is of the utmost importance that we look to gauge the water use of sectors. Yet, in this regard, we are blind. Although there do exist academic studies and research into the future water demand of the agricultural and energy sectors, this has proved limited and relatively inconclusive, due to the nature of the studies. Furthermore, there is an absence of any such work conducted across the manufacturing and industrial sectors (with the exception of the food and drink industry). This limitation of information makes providing a confident summary of what the water demands of many of these sectors will look like in 2050 highly difficult.

Yes, the key areas of missing research identified in this document do not necessarily equal a lack of information within these sectors – just that such information is either not publicly available or is very difficult to find. It would be unwise to believe that the sectors in question have no understanding of what the future may hold, regarding their water demand. But, in a world of the interdependencies of the food, energy and manufacturing sectors with water usage – it is important for research to know how this nation’s water is used, where it is used and how this demand can be met and/or decreased in an increasingly uncertain future. The food and drink sector is heavily linked to the agricultural sector; the power industry is linked to decisions made within the extractive industries (such as those surrounding fracking); and all are linked to mains water supply and direct abstraction.

These interdependencies and lack of information provide future water demand with even greater uncertainty. Whilst carbon emissions are monitored and water quality is policed, there continues to be a lack of transparency of how certain sectors are using this nation’s water. If this continues in a world that will increasingly be formed of policy and environmental trade-offs, there is a realistic danger that any potential water crisis may be much worse than we expect. 
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This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Ed Atkins, a PhD student at the University of Bristol who studies water scarcity and environmental conflict.

Ed Atkins
Read part two of this blog series Is benchmarking the best route to water efficiency in the UK’s irrigated agriculture?


Friday, 19 February 2016

From Paris to Parliament: Is there a climate for action?

The Paris Agreement reached at the COP21 late last year was a big success, and the UK played an important, constructive role in that. But the UK is going backwards in policy terms with respect to greenhouse gas emissions.

That was the general message I took away from an event I attended last week in Parliament on behalf of the University of Bristol's Cabot Institute. In truth, this wasn't a big surprise to me. But what did strike me was the unanimity of the panellists who spoke: an MP, a scientist, an economist, a financial advisor, and an activist.* They were all more or less in agreement about the following:

  1. Paris was a big deal. There are certainly all kinds of things to be worried and dissatisfied about, and it would have been better to have had an agreement like this 20 years ago. (If you add up all the commitments national governments have made, we're nowhere near keeping climate change under 2˚.) But it really does give us a much better shot than we had beforehand. In an important sense, to quote the scientist, December 2015 was when humanity really decided that climate change was "a problem we agreed to do something about".
  2. Above all, Paris did two crucial things. First, it established a mechanism for making countries accountable to each other, and for making governments more accountable domestically. Second, it provided firms and investors with a clear steer: the world economy is going to decarbonise in this century. The private sector will appreciate the implications: some power stations will have to be decommissioned early; governments will sooner or later have to introduce policies favourable to renewables and unfavourable to fossil fuels; "climate risk" is going to be a huge issue for the financial services sector.
  3. And the private sector is not the problem. In a lot of ways, big companies are ahead of the government, and many are looking to governments to get with the programme and establish sensible, long-term targets and regulations. I found it striking that even an activist from Friends of the Earth and the former leader of the UK Green Party seemed to feel this way.
  4. Cutting carbon isn't bad for the economy. Again, I wouldn't have been surprised by a couple of the panellists saying this. But for all five to agree was impressive. They made the point in different ways. The scientist for example talked about employment growth in the clean energy sector, while the activist noted that greenhouse gas emissions have come way down in the UK in the last 25 years even as total economic activity has grown.
  5. Both of the UK's major political parties--i.e., the Conservative Party included--have been positive forces shaping the global climate regime, and UK governments led by both parties have advised other countries on how to get their emissions down. This message too was striking to me.

All of the above just confirmed things I've thought for a while: That decarbonising is completely economically doable, and the reasons we're not doing it fast enough are just political. And that at this point (in some contrast perhaps to 10 or 20 years ago) the private sector isn't much of a problem politically.

What remains perplexing to me then is why the current government is not just doing so little, but actually going backwards--another more-or-less consensus view among the panellists. For example, revenues from environmental taxes have been flat or declining for years as a proportion of all tax revenues--directly contrary to what mainstream economics recommends. In the housing sector, the government has weakened energy-efficiency standards and killed off its flagship scheme to encourage better insulation. Subsidies for renewables have been cut (though the economic case for such subsidies is more equivocal). And this year's Energy Bill is strangely silent on climate change.

So... What's with the current government? I'm sure some of them are climate sceptics, but I wouldn't expect a majority are (and I don't think David Cameron is). Are they overestimating the economic costs of taking action on climate change? Maybe. But my best guess is that green issues just aren't a big concern for them personally, and they don't see the British public as too interested or supportive. As such, climate change is just constantly slipping down the agenda.

We may soon know more. The panellists noted that a number of big decisions are coming up in the UK within the next year, and in a sense this country will provide the first test of the Paris Agreement. Notably, there are questions about the climate implications of the Energy Bill, next month we will find out about funding for renewables post-2020, and we will see a new Carbon Plan by the end of the year. Let's hope for some more positive news on those fronts.

* The panellists were Caroline Lucas (MP, former leader of the Green Party); Sir David King (formerly the Government's Chief Scientific Advisor, and now Special Representative for Climate Change); Prof Michael Jacobs (various think tank and academic affiliations); Kirsty Hamilton (various finance affiliations); and Simon Bullock (Friends of the Earth). The event was a seminar of the All Party Climate Change Group (APPCCG) and Parliamentary Renewable and Sustainable Energy Group (PRASEG).

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This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Dr Malcolm Fairbrother, from the School of Geographical Sciences at the University of Bristol.  


Malcolm Fairbrother

Monday, 15 February 2016

New challenges to the UK fruit supply chain

By Colin Smith, CC BY-SA 2.0
I was lucky to write my dissertation for the MSc degree in Environmental Policy and Management on a topic that is crucial, needs thorough examination, and is of uttermost interest to me. The project explored the impact of extreme weather events on resilience of the fruit supply chain in the UK with a case study of the UK apple supply chain. This project was done under the dissertation partnership scheme and was proposed by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA).

This project drew on several other studies conducted in this field, indicating the need to assess the vulnerability of the UK food supply to climate change, and extreme weather in particular. The most recent project was performed by the Cranfield University on behalf of DEFRA and estimated the resilience of the UK wheat and potato supply chains towards extreme weather. Therefore, it was agreed that I would focus on another supply chain to contribute to the knowledge necessary for the development of adaptation strategies and delivering advice to industry.

The apple supply chain was chosen for the case study as apples are characterized by the largest UK home production among fruits grown in the UK. The main research objectives were:

  1. Explore key vulnerabilities of fruit production to extreme weather by conducting literature review. 
  2. Investigate impacts of extreme weather on apple home production.
  3. Evaluate factors affecting resilience of imports and retail of apples.   
  4. On the basis of the case study on apples, determine factors affecting supply chain resilience for other types of fruits. 
  5. Formulate recommendations on enhancing general fruit supply resilience. 

The literature review revealed several key vulnerabilities of fruit development: winter chilling (for apples, 1000-1500 cumulative chilling hours at a temperature lower than 7°C are required over winter for successful development of the fruit), spring frost, rainfall, pests and diseases. Resilience of the apple supply chain was studied using a case study as the research strategy. Interviews and questionnaires were selected as methods for data collection. Interviews were targeted at all-UK fruit growers’ organizations, major importing companies, several large farms, and UK supermarkets, which yielded altogether 17 interviews. In addition, self-administered questionnaires were targeted specifically at apple growers in the UK irrespective of the region. 20th Century Reanalysis (V2) data was used to assess the trend in winter chilling hours in the UK.

I was very curious about the project as I was feeling that my research could indeed contribute to the understanding of the influence of extreme weather on food security in the UK. It was an amazing experience to talk to farmers, fruit producers and their organisations to actually hear real stories on how climate change affects them and what can be done and what they do to adapt.

Responses from the questionnaires and interviews revealed that farmers have experienced impact of extreme weather, but it has not been detrimental to the apple growing industry so far. The conducted analysis of the winter chilling trend has revealed its current decline and indicated the same decreasing tendency for the future. Additionally, it showed that the period of the hours with the air temperature less than 7°C is becoming warmer. The breeding of low chill plant varieties (cultivars) is probably the most obvious solution to insufficient chilling, the other ones being defoliation and temperature treatments and chemical breaking. However, it is difficult to breed new cultivars, and this takes a long time.

The well-designed contingency plan, good relationship with suppliers and their diversification, as well as sound knowledge of apple growing seasons in different countries are considered to be the key factors making the apple supply chain resilient from the point of view of importers and supermarket representatives. A long shelf life and cheap transportation conditions add to the resilience. Although respondents acknowledged that they do encounter problems related to extreme weather events, they have always managed to tackle them and do not perceive them as threatening UK supply.
Pear orchard. By Jonathan Billinger, CC BY-SA 2.0
The same conclusions about the impact of extreme weather events refer to pears as they have the most similar vulnerabilities to apples in terms of extreme weather. Cherries are now increasingly grown under plastic covers, which implies that impact of hail and wind is less of a problem for them. Poly tunnel or glass protection is used for soft fruit except for blackcurrants that are grown in the field. However, protection is removed for winter, therefore, extreme rainfall and flooding and winter chilling still might be a problem. Winter chilling is projected to be more of an issue for apples, cherries, European plums, blackcurrants and raspberries, as these require a considerable amount of chilling hours (from 800 to 1500-1700).

Importers build their contingency plans for all types of fruits, and none of the respondents mentioned any problems with their supply. Given the favourable financial situation of the UK, these considerations may entail that no matter the potential impacts of the extreme weather in the UK in the future, the fruit supply chain will always be resilient for the end consumer. However, this situation is not encouraging for farmers as the predicted increase in extreme weather events will potentially mean losses in their production or even complete closure of their business. The option of moving production to the north to obtain more winter chilling does not feel feasible as orchards are very expensive and it takes several years to obtain the first yield. Moreover, there are apparent complications in terms of moving home and the whole business to another region. In order to prevent this, an increased knowledge transfer is needed between horticulture and climate scientists and individual farmers to help them prepare for extreme weather as well as enable to take the necessary measures. Financial support for purchasing advanced scab detecting and moisture sensing equipment, and taking hail insurance, might be needed.

Hail nets over apple trees, like these in France, may become more common in the UK as more extreme weather takes place. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons, Aups.
The study concludes that in general the fruit supply chain in the UK is quite resilient for the end consumer, importing industry and retail, with growers potentially having more problems in terms of the impact of extreme weather on the crop in the future. In the first place, this might be caused by a decrease in winter chilling.

Despite the fact that in general the respondents were indicating the same set of problems, which was assuring for me, there was a clear tendency for academic staff in different universities I contacted and representatives of farmers’ unions to focus more on winter chilling in comparison to individual farmers. This might be explained by the difficulty in assessing changes in winter chilling without actually conducting analysis in this field. It is very interesting to know how climate change may impact food security by altering winter chilling patterns, which is not obvious, not easy to notice or track. At the same time, if measures for development of new low-chill cultivars are not taken now, a decline in apple production may appear unexpectedly.

Certainly, the study has its limitations. These included time constraints due to the fixed time frame for conducting an MSc dissertation (there is so much more to explore on the subject!), lack of accurate extreme weather predictions linked to uncertainty in climate models and inability to make accurate attributions of an extreme event to a change in apple production unless it is an obvious event which caused immediate damage (like hail, for example). However, despite these limitations, I hope that my research will help the UK Government deliver necessary advice to industry. I have always felt that the topic of my dissertation is important, and for me it was very rewarding to know that my work is really needed.

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This blog was written by Evgeniia Kostianaia, who studied an MSc in Environmental Policy and Management in 2014-2015 at the University of Bristol.  
Evgeniia Kostianaia

Find out more about the Cabot Institute supported Community Based Learning Projects at the University of Bristol or contact cabot-cbl@bristol.ac.uk if you would like a student to conduct a research project for your organisation.

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.
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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.
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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 https://tiny.cc/nspps
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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