Skip to main content

CAKE: In memory of Dr Caroline Williams

Image credit: Archivo General de Indias
It all started with a picture.

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

Over the intervening years, we pursued several academic collaborations with students (one PhD and two MSc) that not only brought us together on questions of science and historical records, but also grew into a deep CAKE friendship, with shared dinners and social events in addition to a shared Dropbox folder and co-authored publications. Caroline taught us (the scientists) that the methodologies employed by data-driven historians are very similar to those used by scientists - find more than one source for an event, understand the perspective of that source and their reason for recording a story - and that historical archives are a vast and under-utilised source of information about past natural disasters and their impacts on local populations.

At the same time, we taught Caroline the value of accounts of the weather, or earthquakes, or volcanic eruptions, which she laughingly said that she had previously passed over in search of the real history, that related to the interactions of indigenous people and the Spanish.

Together we became increasingly committed to exploring and encouraging cross-disciplinary work between the humanities and the sciences, including not only shared methodology but also finding common ground in the questions that we were asking.

We saw it as a measure of achievement that by our first joint CAKE publication we had extended so far beyond any of our previous research that we were unable to self-cite (Observations of a stratospheric aerosol veil from a tropical volcanic eruption in December 1808: is this the Unknown ~1809 eruption? Guevara A. Williams C. A. Hendy E. Rust A. C. & Cashman K. V. (2014) In : Climate of the Past. 10 5 p.1707-1722;

With a ratio of 3:1 scientists:historian, however, we recognise that Caroline travelled farther, academically, into our territory than we did into hers… we regret that we don’t have the time now to complete that voyage. We do note that she was starting to become well known among social-minded volcanologists in the UK, and that more than one scientist reached out to her to establish collaborations on volcano-related research. Similarly, with the climate modelling and meteorology data rescue communities in the UK and US.

We miss her greatly.

This blog has been written in memory of Dr Caroline Williams who passed away recently. It was written by Dr Erica Hendy, Dr Alison Rust and Professor Kathy Cashman.

Caroline’s funeral will be held on Wednesday 2 October and a prize fund set up in her name. Further details are available on the tribute site:

Donations: ‘The Caroline Williams Prize in Latin American Studies’ has been set up and this leaflet indicates the various ways in which you can contribute to this. Please note the collection plate that will pass during the service is for donations to the Cathedral only.

Popular posts from this blog

Converting probabilities between time-intervals

This is the first in an irregular sequence of snippets about some of the slightly more technical aspects of uncertainty and risk assessment.  If you have a slightly more technical question, then please email me and I will try to answer it with a snippet. Suppose that an event has a probability of 0.015 (or 1.5%) of happening at least once in the next five years. Then the probability of the event happening at least once in the next year is 0.015 / 5 = 0.003 (or 0.3%), and the probability of it happening at least once in the next 20 years is 0.015 * 4 = 0.06 (or 6%). Here is the rule for scaling probabilities to different time intervals: if both probabilities (the original one and the new one) are no larger than 0.1 (or 10%), then simply multiply the original probability by the ratio of the new time-interval to the original time-interval, to find the new probability. This rule is an approximation which breaks down if either of the probabilities is greater than 0.1. For example

1-in-200 year events

You often read or hear references to the ‘1-in-200 year event’, or ‘200-year event’, or ‘event with a return period of 200 years’. Other popular horizons are 1-in-30 years and 1-in-10,000 years. This term applies to hazards which can occur over a range of magnitudes, like volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, tsunamis, space weather, and various hydro-meteorological hazards like floods, storms, hot or cold spells, and droughts. ‘1-in-200 years’ refers to a particular magnitude. In floods this might be represented as a contour on a map, showing an area that is inundated. If this contour is labelled as ‘1-in-200 years’ this means that the current rate of floods at least as large as this is 1/200 /yr, or 0.005 /yr. So if your house is inside the contour, there is currently a 0.005 (0.5%) chance of being flooded in the next year, and a 0.025 (2.5%) chance of being flooded in the next five years. The general definition is this: ‘1-in-200 year magnitude is x’ = ‘the current rate for eve

Coconuts and climate change

Before pursuing an MSc in Climate Change Science and Policy at the University of Bristol, I completed my undergraduate studies in Environmental Science at the University of Colombo, Sri Lanka. During my final year I carried out a research project that explored the impact of extreme weather events on coconut productivity across the three climatic zones of Sri Lanka. A few months ago, I managed to get a paper published and I thought it would be a good idea to share my findings on this platform. Climate change and crop productivity  There has been a growing concern about the impact of extreme weather events on crop production across the globe, Sri Lanka being no exception. Coconut is becoming a rare commodity in the country, due to several reasons including the changing climate. The price hike in coconuts over the last few years is a good indication of how climate change is affecting coconut productivity across the country. Most coconut trees are no longer bearing fruits and thos