British Council Institutional Links project – Environmental Health in Kazakhstan

April 9, 2015

BritishCouncilI recently found out that I’d been successful with Newton-Al Farabi Institutional Links grant. Go me!

It should be really interesting and will involve a lot of collaboration with a couple of universities out in Kazakhstan. I’ll also be working with a larger team here at Brunel than I normally would. I’m sure there’ll be more posts here once the project is up and running properly.

In the meantime, here’s a little summary from the Brunel press release for the grant award:

A team of academics from Brunel University London have been given a prestigious award to help reduce health risks and environmental damage in Kazakhstan.

The cross-disciplinary group received the £157,000 grant from the British Council’s Newton Institutional Links programme, with the aim of developing evidence-based recommendations for policy-makers in the central Asian country.

The two-year project, titled “A multi-dimensional environment-health risk analysis system for Kazakhstan”, will begin in April 2015. The research will bring together two universities in Kazakhstan (Kokshetau State University and Pavlodar State University) with Brunel staff from the College of Health and Life Sciences, College of Business, Arts and Social Sciences and College of Engineering, Design and Physical Sciences.

Project lead Dr Andrew Russell, from the Institute for Environment, Health and Societies, said: “Kazakhstan is a really interesting place from an environment and health perspective.

“GDP is quite high, mostly due to natural resources, but health levels are generally quite poor. Environmental degradation plays a large role in this ‘health lag’ as there have been many years of lax environmental control going all the way back to Soviet era nuclear tests.”

The project will employ “Big Data” techniques and scientific knowledge will be applied to health and environment data to identify important relationships. This will enable the development of efficient and robustly tested solutions.

 

Health risks on the Antarctic Peninsula – what’s happening with the ozone hole, UV exposure, environmental change and funding for Antarctic science?

April 3, 2015

ResearchBlogging.org

I recently had a paper published in Antarctic Science – I don’t think that it’ll set the world on fire but it was quite interesting in how it came about so I thought I’d write a blogpost about it.

The study

The measurements for the study were taken by a team who sailed across the Drake Passage and then then spent some time on and around the Antarctic Peninsula. They deployed a small “badge” each day that responds to sunlight in a way that allows you to subsequently work out how much UV radiation they were exposed to. From these measurements we concluded that the UV exposure experienced was comparable to temperate, mid-latitude locations in the spring/late summer. Obviously the team was very well covered as it’s cold down there but this can nonetheless have impacts on the eyes and exposed skin.

This is quite important as the ozone “hole” over Antarctica is likely to be about as bad as it will get before recovering over the next few decades and exposure risk might increase in this region if there are significant environmental changes (e.g. further warming, ice sheet retreat). This paper represents something of a pilot study so I’d love to get a more rigorous experiment up-and-running one day.

The BSAE team on the Antarctic Peninsula. The badges were mounted on one of the sledges. Photo taken by Martin Densham.

The BSAE team on the Antarctic Peninsula. The badges were mounted on one of the sledges. Photo taken by Martin Densham.

The study’s origins: networking on social media

The idea for the experiment and the paper first came about on twitter. Someone I’d never previously worked with (or met) invited me along to a planning meeting for the 2012 British Services Antarctic Expedition (BSAE) simply because I had a twitter account where I posted interesting stories about Antarctica.

I then cobbled together a tiny bit of money from the Royal Meteorological Society and the Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers) to get the badges produced and analysed at the University of Manchester.

I was quite impressed that we managed to get a relatively interesting bit of work done with so little resource. Which brings us on to…

…funding for Antarctic science

Budgets for science have not been increasing recently so perhaps it’s time that we have to start thinking of less traditional ways of getting work done. My example might not be particularly useful as it all happened largely by accident! However, there’s an interesting piece in The Conversation by Adrian McCallum about the role of private funding in Antarctic research that is probably more informed on this topic. Might be worth a read if you’re thinking of this type of thing.

Reference

Russell, A., Gohlan, M., Smedley, A., & Densham, M. (2014). The ultraviolet radiation environment during an expedition across the Drake Passage and on the Antarctic Peninsula Antarctic Science DOI: 10.1017/S0954102014000790

How to stay below 2°C…

February 4, 2015

A quick post to draw attention to the Global Calculator, which is an excellent and simple tool looking at how different actions will change greenhouse gas emissions out to 2100. The tool is from DECC and I think that’s it’s a follow up from something they launched a few years ago (but I don’t remember being particularly impressed with that first version).

In contract, this one is really easy to use and has lots of background information. It’s a nice teaching tool as well and sparked a lot of interesting discussions with our students.

In particular, the role of food was really interesting – some scenarios can massively reduce greenhouse gas emissions just by controlling global calorie intake and reducing meat production!

Anyway, go and have a play! (And there’s a long post over on The Carbon Brief about the calculator.)

News Year’s Honours: Eric Pickles still sucks; and well done Tim Palmer!

December 31, 2014

I just had a quick look through the New Year’s Honours list and was surprised and happy to see quite a few (6 or 7) people with a link to flood management, including a few from the Environment Agency.

I thought that this was significant as it wasn’t that long ago that Eric Pickles (the Communities Secretary) was questioning the EA’s expertise, which was stupid. And it seems that the UK Honours Committee doesn’t agree with him either. So good on them.

Also good news that Tim Palmer (Professor in Climate Physics at Oxford) got recognised too (OBE). I love Tim’s papers and it was his work that largely inspired me to go into climate research.

Is the public debate on climate change turning a corner?

September 23, 2014

When I started this blog in late 2009, things were not good with climate change in the media: the UEA/climategate emails had just been leaked and COP15 in Copenhagen didn’t go so well.

A couple of years before that, though, I felt that there was quite a lot of optimism. IPCC AR4 and the Stern Review had made a real splash. It felt like there could be some significant, global action on climate change. But that didn’t happen.

However, maybe we’ve turned a corner in the last week or so.

The obvious focal point is the really successful People’s Climate March, which took place at many locations around the world and attracted far more people than were estimated in advance. I went along to the London one and there was a good atmosphere and loads of people, somewhere between 20,000 and 40,000 according to different estimates. I think the prediction beforehand was for around 10,000 people turning out.

400,000 at the climate march in New York

400,000 at the climate march in New York

But that’s not the only positive news.

The Rockerfeller family have decided to withdraw their investments in fossil fuels. The Guardian describe this as a big “symbolic boost” for the fossil fuel divestment movement in general. I suppose I should investigate our investments at Brunel University and see if we can do anything on this front as well.

And Google’s chairman, Eric Schmidt, has used some strong words in announcing their decision to leave the American Legislative Exchange Council lobby group, who also work to stifle progress on positive climate change responses. The choice quote from Schmidt being:

The facts of climate change are not in question anymore. Everyone understands climate change is occurring, and the people who oppose it are really hurting our children and our grandchildren and making the world a much worse place. And so we should not be aligned with such people — they’re just, they’re just literally lying.

So hopefully this means that there’ll be lots of people watching the UN Climate Summit today and expecting something positive.

I won’t be holding my breath but I’m feeling more confident than I have done for a few years.

Book review: Brunel by LTC Rolt

January 30, 2014

LTC_ROLTShort review
Excellent read on 2 levels: the actual biography is really enjoyable and authoritative because of Rolt’s access to Brunel’s papers; and the introduction describing how Rolt’s hatchet job of John Scott Russell (the “other” engineer on the failed SS Great Eastern project) is probably unfair is fascinating from a historical/interpretation point of view. Overall, I came from a position of relative ignorance about Brunel’s life and work and was surprised at how unsuccessful Brunel was a commercial engineer (though his innovation is almost unrivalled).

Long review
Somehow, I have now been a lecturer at Brunel University for 3.5 years. It seems like only yesterday that I was starting this blog as a postdoc at the University of Manchester. In those 3.5 years my responsibilities have expanded (at home and at work) so, as I said in my last post, blogging has taken a backseat, which is a shame as I quite enjoy it.

The point of a brief autobiographical introduction is that my knowledge of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s life and work was relatively low when I took the job here at Brunel University. I knew he was an official, BBC advocated “Great Briton” but that was about it.

I did have a little go at addressing the conflict of being a climate scientist at a university named after one of the fathers of the Industrial Revolution on my work blog recently (and in a talk for the London Science Festival) but I still felt that I really needed to find out more.

So I picked up a relatively old biography – LTC Rolt’s Isambard Knigdon Brunel, first publsihed in 1957 – which is still considered authoritative as Rolt had unprecedented access to the Brunel archive.

I’m glad I did. It’s really well written and has a nice mix of quotes from contemporary documents and descriptions of the engineering projects alongside important personal events. It flows really well too, which is surprising given the temporal overlap of much of Brunel’s work: I’ve tried to summarise this overlap in a little timeline that you can see below.

A timeline of Brunel’s major projects. Bridges and tunnels are shown in blue; railways in black; ships in red; and other projects in green. Start and end dates are not definitive. I’ve washed out the shading where a project continued without Brunel’s intense contribution. Brunel died in 1859.

A timeline of Brunel’s major projects. Bridges and tunnels are shown in blue; railways in black; ships in red; and other projects in green. Start and end dates are not definitive. I’ve washed out the shading where a project continued without Brunel’s intense contribution. Brunel died in 1859.

The timeline also demonstrates how Brunel’s work was very intense (in a relatively short life – 1806-1859) and covered a wide range of areas: tunnels, bridges, railways, ships and other projects.

As an academic, I was quite interested in Brunel’s “impact”. What surprised me was that relative few of his projects were successful commercially. His ships were all failures commercially. The Thames Tunnel was a death trap that was never used for its intended purpose. The Great Western Railway’s legacy is somewhat tarnished by the “Gauge Wars”.

Perhaps this is a harsh summary of his work but it made me feel a bit closer to him: he wasn’t a great businessman but he was a successful innovator and researcher. His ideas were ahead of their time and were difficult to monetise in that period. His longer term legacy was much more important and changed the way that engineering was done globally.

Perhaps the most interesting passages in the book are those relating to John Scott Russell, who worked on one of Brunel’s biggest failures: the SS Great Eastern. Rolt tries to argue that Scott Russell was the villain in that piece and deliberately tried to undermine Brunel’s ship. However, the excellent introduction (by RA Buchanan) highlights some of the flaws in Rolt’s argument and supposes that Rolt’s position was driven by his desire to absolve Brunel of the SS Great Eastern’s failure and was biased by the contents of the Brunel archives.

Overall, highly recommended reading.

Thunderstorms in the IPCC AR5

January 28, 2014

It’s been a while since I blogged; I hope you didn’t think I’d forgotten you! My workload has “shifted” recently and I’m doing a bit more teaching/supervision/management these days. Blogging has taken a bit of a backseat. So I’m a bit late on this one but thought that it was still interesting. Anyway, enough of the excuses…

I’ve often thought it was odd that the potential changes in frequency and/or intensity of small scale severe storms/thunderstorms – one of my areas of research – was absent from the IPCC TAR, AR4 and SREX.

This has been put right in the IPCC AR5, which was published in late 2013 but, if anything, it highlights some of the problems with the slow and rigidly structured IPCC process.

So here’re a few sentences from IPCC AR5 that deal with severe thunderstorms:

The large-scale environments in which [severe thunderstorms] occur are characterized by large Convective Available Potential Energy (CAPE) and deep tropospheric wind shear (Brooks et al., 2003; Brooks, 2009). Del Genio et al. (2007), Trapp et al. (2007; 2009), and Van Klooster and Roebber (2009) found a general increase in the energy and decrease in the shear terms from the late 20th century to the late 21st century over the United States using a variety of regional model simulations embedded in global-model SRES scenario simulations. The relative change between these two competing factors would tend to favour more environments that would support severe thunderstorms, providing storms are initiated.

Overall, for all parts of the world studied, the results are suggestive of a trend toward environments favouring more severe thunderstorms, but the small number of analyses precludes any likelihood estimate of this change.

It’s a pretty good, concise summary of work in this area up to 2012/13. (I’ve not included some of the text on examples and the few studies outside of the US, you can find the full text here towards the end of section 12.4.5.5 Extreme Events in the Water Cycle. There’s another bit in 2.6.2.4 Severe Local Weather Events as well.)

However, whilst the IPCC report was being published, this paper came out:

Diffenbaugh, N. S., Scherer, M. and Trapp, R. J. (in press) “Robust increases in severe thunderstorm environments in response to greenhouse forcing” PNAS, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1307758110

They say:

We use an ensemble of global climate model experiments to probe the severe thunderstorm response. We find that this ensemble exhibits robust increases in the occurrence of severe thunderstorm environments over the eastern United States. In addition, the simulated changes in the atmospheric environment indicate an increase in the number of days supportive of the spectrum of convective hazards, with the suggestion of a possible increase in the number of days supportive of tornadic storms.

It’s a much more up-to-date and robust analysis of the problem and even uses the CMIP5 climate projections that form the backbone of the IPCC AR5. (I’ve been working on something similar for the Northern Hemisphere but not quite finished it yet!) I guess that this paper must have been accepted for publication after the deadline for the IPCC process so it isn’t mentioned. It’s a shame as a citation to this paper would have added something to the argument.

And this seems to be a problem with the IPCC. Climate science research is a much bigger area now than when the IPCC process started in the late 1980s/early 1990s. So a whole area of research (e.g. severe thunderstorms in a changing climate) becomes a couple of sentences with the most up-to-date paper missing.

As good as the IPCC has been over the years, perhaps it’s time to move on. The SREX example seems to be a good one: a multi-disciplinary, timely analysis of an important area. I think that a series of special reports like SREX would be a better use of valuable time than an AR6.

MOOCtual Assured Destruction

July 15, 2013

Similar to MAD, where every state feels they need nuclear weapons simply because every other state does, perhaps every university needs a MOOC simply because their competitors do.

So the question “How do we make money from MOOCs?” becomes moot. The MOOC (nuke) is of no real use to the university (state) but not having it is a disadvantage.

Some thoughts on MOOCs

July 3, 2013

Coursera-LogoI’ve recently finished a Coursera Massive Online Open Course, or MOOC, called Introduction to Sustainability, which was run by the University of Illinois.

I completed it as a student, that is; as far as I can tell, Coursera MOOCs, whilst being “open” from the student side of things, appear quite elitist from the delivery end. So Brunel University might not meet their requirements as a provider, although I think they say that they consider providers outside their preferred group on a case-by-case basis. So maybe, what with my department – the Institute for the Environment – winning the Queen’s Anniversary Prize recently, we could be seen on Coursera one day! (And other platforms are out there: EdX; FutureLearn.)

Anyway, I’m very proud of myself for getting through the course as it involved quite a bit of work over an 8 week period when I was, amongst other things, delivering two MSc modules as a lecturer, going to China for 10 days and doing all the usual lecturer-type research and admin things. Phew!

I then foolishly started another 2 MOOCs as a student, including Climate Literacy. One of these I completed and the other I dropped out of (that was Climate Literacy – it was good but I had too much other stuff on to be able to complete it).

So the point of this post is to share some thoughts on the course, provide some signposts to other interesting looking climate related MOOCs that I might have a go at and perhaps think about how MOOCs might fit into the future of Higher Education.

Money

One of the key issues with MOOCs is how to make money from them and there’s a list of “Eight Possible Coursera Monetization Strategies” that I’ve seen in a few places. These seem to be direct monetisation techniques where I would have thought that the most obvious route would be via increasing awareness of your university’s courses and increasing recruitment that way. Indeed, the first message I received from the Sustainability MOOC organiser following completion was an invitation to another course that had a fee.

And why not? It clearly takes a lot of time and effort to put these courses together and if you have a group of potential students who are interested in what you’re teaching then perhaps I’m surprised that paid-for courses weren’t mentioned earlier and/or more often. (In fact, one of the other MOOCs I’ve started since completing the Sustainability one [not Climate Literacy, I might add] were much more aggressive with promotion for their paid-for courses. Unfortunately, their MOOC was a lot less slick than Sustainability [e.g. quiz questions incorrect, delay in starting] so I can’t imagine it’s a great advert for them.)

Sus_stateStill on the money theme, I almost stumped up the $39 for the “Signature Track” which is offered with the Climate Literacy MOOC – this requires you to jump through some hoops every time you do an assessment to prove that it’s you taking the tests. I’m not quite sure of the advantage of this. I suppose the current “Statements of Accomplishment” would be pretty easy to copy if you really wanted to – see mine to the right – and if the Signature Track gives you something that can be more rigorously linked to your profile then that would be nice. But then this could be solved by making user profiles public with grades of the MOOCs you’ve completed, which I don’t think they do right now. Either way, I’m glad I kept my $39 as I didn’t finish that particular course anyway!

MCQs

MOOCs naturally rely heavily on Multiple Choice Questions for assessment as they can be marked with no human effort. However, I quite often found the questions to be ambiguous – especially when I knew quite a lot about the topic of the question; this was true for both the Sustainability and Climate Literacy MOOCs. Naturally, the instructors want to set questions that require some thinking. For example, one of these question and answers sets is better than the other:

Who is the current Secretary General of the UN?

a) Kofi Annan
b) Ban Ki-moon
c) Tony Blair
d) Surakiart Sathirathai

Who is the current Secretary General of the UN?

a) Banana
b) Ban Ki-moon
c) Sponge Bob Squarepants
d) 42

The next level of question would be where there isn’t one indisputably “right” answer but where the question requires some thinking and is open to some interpretation. This requires even more thinking on the part of a student (and instructor) as an answer that the instructor deems as wrong could be right in certain circumstances (or vice versa). There then becomes an element of second guessing the instructor to put answer that you think they would say was “right” rather than the answer you think/know to be “more right”.

I hope that this isn’t to confusing a point or taken as a specific criticism of the Sustainability MOOC; it is a general point that setting good MCQs is very hard (and fundamental to the success of the MOOC structure).

Instructions

I’d like to think that I’m quite good at reading instructions and following them. Despite this, I managed to incorrectly do one type of assessment (the “Forum Achievement”) 2 weeks in a row in the Sustainability MOOC. By the time I’d worked out exactly how to do it (it was a little complicated!) I’d been given too many penalties to make it likely I’d pass the MOOC via that route (there were 2 other routes, fortunately). So, my point is, that instructions need to be really clear or else people will drop out/fail through little fault of their own. Maybe this feeds in to…

Low completion rate

The Times Higher recently reported that MOOC completion rates are below 7%. I’m not really sure why you’d expect completion rates to be high: it’s free to sign up and there is no consequence of dropping out. And “drop outs” may just be people who found out what they wanted to know and then didn’t complete the assessments. Although, one MOOC they reported on had a 0.8% completion out of 83,000 starters, perhaps that’s a bit worrying. [A point as an aside: are there many stats on MOOCs made available yet? I’d like to have a look if there are but haven’t stumbled across any yet. UPDATE (5/7/2013): Katy Jordan’s analysis on this is really good!]

Massive!

Maybe I hadn’t appreciated how big these beasts are: following Week 1 of Climate Literacy I had a quick count and there were over 4,000 posts in the Discussion Forums. That is big.

“Inspiration”

I got the feeling that I was not the only lecturer/academic sitting the MOOC. A lot of the buzz around MOOCs is probably within the Higher Education sector so I’d suspect that many of us are seeing what they involve. And I was inspired by what I saw. I added a session to one of my modules that was based on some of the reading I did during the MOOC and I may even record some supplementary lectures for my modules in our Virtual Learning Environment. I think that the MOOC has given me confidence to push more of the “information transfer” sessions online and use contact time for more interactive/problem based learning. This latter area is something that I think MOOCs will always struggle with, despite…

Peer Review

As well as MCQs, a lot of MOOCs use peer review to mark work (e.g. you write a short essay and another student on the MOOC marks it). They tend to take an average of a group of peers but you’re still a little at the mercy of the random selection of peers. And with such large groups it must be very hard for moderators to deal with abusive/bad peer reviewers – there could be 10,000s of peer reviewer comments in the early weeks of a MOOC.

Overall…

…I’m quite impressed by how much the MOOCs made me think and learn and I’ll be keeping an eye on how they develop. I’d certainly be happy to see applicants to our MSc courses taking MOOCs in preparation and as evidence that they are motivated to study.

Finally…

Some other interesting looking environmentally themed MOOCs on Coursera:

Tornadoes and climate change

May 21, 2013

I’m sure you’ve already seen the sad news about the tornado in Oklahoma – it looks like it has done a lot of damage and claimed a lot of lives.

Tornadoes are not uncommon in that area and it is almost impossible to make good forecasts of where they will hit as they are too small for computer forecast models to capture. Even the scientific understanding of how they form is not great as it’s really hard to get good measurements of them in their destructive phase.

I’m sure that the discussion will now turn to the role of climate change in this particular event but, as usual, that’s a very difficult question to ask despite recent efforts on this front. At one level it’s quite easy to speculate that if the warm air heading north from the Gulf of Mexico that fed the storm that spawned the tornado was warmer than it otherwise would have been then, yes: climate change could have made this event more likely and/or stronger.

But the atmosphere doesn’t really work like that and the number of complex factors required to produce any specific tornado makes the cause and effect arguments that are wrapped up in the  “link to climate change” question very, very difficult.

But perhaps we think about this more statistically and ask whether tornadoes will get stronger and/or more likely in a warmer future climate.

Again, this is really difficult because climate models certainly don’t have the power (i.e. high enough resolution) to represent tornadoes. So you can’t just go through climate model data and count the tornadoes that it thinks will occur.

If we think statistically again, though, we can look for the change in larger scale conditions that usually produce tornadoes.

Unfortunately, this isn’t particularly clear either.

Whilst the increased warmth and moisture predicted by climate models will mean more energy would be available to developing tornadoes, the climate projections also show a decrease in the occurrence of the wind patterns that are needed to form tornadoes.

Nonetheless, one thing that does seem likely is that we can still reduce the likelihood of a stormier future world. If you compare the storminess of climate simulations with, say, “medium” and “high” greenhouse gas concentrations (as done here) then the “medium” case looks better than the “high”.


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