The Anthropocene

August 30, 2016

There’s some press today about the recommendation for the declaration of a new epoch – the Anthropocene – by the International Geological Congress. The basic argument is that humans have changed the Earth system to such an extent that it is identifiable in the geological record. The evidence presented ranges from the impacts of nuclear test and global warming to the proliferation of plastic pollution and chicken bones.

Whilst the definition being accepted would change nothing physically about the Earth system, I think that it would be a powerful statement about our ability to make long-lasting changes to our environment.

Indeed, this was the reason for including the term “Anthropocene” in 2nd Year title of our new BSc Environmental Sciences. Even if the new epoch is not accepted then the examination of the evidence by our students will give them experience of critically analysing scientific findings and thinking about the implications for science and society.

Of course the real problem is to work out how to solve the environmental problems caused by humans that led to the Anthropocene. We’ve left that to the 3rd Year of the degree…

Back to Kazakhstan – a British Council Institutional Links project workshop

August 24, 2016

One of the other things that’s been keeping me busy recently – I mentioned being busy with the BSc degree I’ve been developing in my last post – is my British Council Institutional Links project. (I guess I’m trying to make excuses for not blogging much recently!)

The project research team looking pretty cool over in Kazakhstan in August 2016.

The project research team looking pretty cool over in Kazakhstan in August 2016.

I’ve recently come back from a project research meeting and it’s been a real learning experience. Not only is the project cross-disciplinary (we’ve got environmental scientists, computer scientists, epidemiologists, toxicologists and social scientists involved) but we’re also working across nations.

One of the big challenges so far has been data. I’m quite used to be able to get hold of lots of different types of data from the UK and, if it’s not available, being able to get out there and collect new data. This has, for various reasons, been a little more challenging in Kazakhstan.

I’m pretty sure that we’re still going to get some good results (watch this space!) but it’s been harder work than I thought it would be.

Thinking more broadly (and I’ve not mentioned Brexit on the blog so far) I wonder if this has implications for a shift away from EU funding/collaborations, which might occur post-Brexit, and towards work in developing nations, assuming that the Global Challenges Research Fund expands and takes off. Whilst there is probably more scope for impact in developing nations, that work might be more difficult because the research infrastructure (including data archiving) is not so well developed.

BSc Environmental Sciences at Brunel University – a new course for September 2017

August 14, 2016

I’ve been busy over the last year!

We decided that the time was right for Brunel University to develop a new degree in Environmental Sciences and I put myself forward to lead it – I’d refreshed a few of our MSc degrees recently so thought the time was right to take on a bigger challenge.

And it was hard work… but a lot of fun too.

The team that developed the degree took a fresh look at how to structure an undergraduate programme and we came up with the idea of a story that develops throughout the 3 years.

In the first year we’ll work on a theme of “Dynamics of Natural Environments”. The students, who could come from a wide range of backgrounds, will spend this year learning about the interdisciplinary principles and processes that govern the environment. This will include the physical, chemical and biological knowledge required to develop a holistic Earth system perspective.

In the second year the degree moves on to focus on “Environmental Change and the Anthropocene”. Here, students will examine how Earth systems have changed over time, with a particular focus on human influences. This includes a lot on the “grand challenges” of environmental science such as climate change, pollution, biodiversity loss, land-use change and sustainability. We’ll also look at the effect of these changes on environmental and human health will be investigated.

In the final year, we’ll start to look at “Environmental Solutions”. Students will analyse and evaluate potential solutions to environmental problems. This will involve a lot of creativity and application of the knowledge from the previous years. (We have an MSci as well where the 4th year look at “Environmental Practice”.)

There’ll also be all the other things you’d expect – UK and overseas field trips, work placements, lab work, computing sessions, embedded professional development, problem based learning, optional modules – but I really like this idea of developing a narrative through the degree.

I’ll write more about these other aspects as we finalise them and when we run them for the first time over the coming years.

30th Anniversary of Farman et al. (1985) – the ozone hole paper

May 15, 2015

It’s been 30 years since Farman et al. published their paper on the ozone “hole”. (Well, I’m a day early but who posts on Saturdays, eh?)

Farman_abstract

It had a huge impact: it’s been cited nearly 3,000 times and accelerated the negotiations that resulted in the Montreal Protocol, which helped phase out the chemicals that were damaging the ozone layer. Those chemicals can stay in the atmosphere for a very long time so the ozone “hole” is far from fixed, which can sometimes cause confusion over the effectiveness of the Montreal Protocol. It’ll probably be decades still until the “hole” is fixed (see the Annual Records at the bottom left-hand side of this NASA page for historical data.)

This slow recover particularly interests me at the moment as I recently did a little bit of work on the health risks associated with the hole at its peak for those living and working in Antarctica. This may become a more important problem in the future if further warming and ice sheet retreat make regions like the Antarctic Peninsula easier to inhabit, work in and/or exploit. Hopefully I’ll get to a bit more work on this soon.

And I’ve always had a real soft spot for the paper as the ozone “hole” was the first time that I remember being aware of an environmental issue, despite being pretty young at the time (I was at primary school 30 years ago). I suspect that it played a large in shaping my view of the world and my career direction so I thought I should note the anniversary.

So, Happy Birthday Farman et al. (1985)!

If you want to get deeper into the ozone “hole” then Chapter 7 in Volume I of “Late Lessons from Early Warnings”, written by Joe Farman, is quite nice and the chapter in Merchants of Doubt is a good read on this as well. [Update, 15/5/2015 0937] There also a BBC “Costing the Earth” episode on the 30th anniversary of the ozone hole but I’ve not listened to it yet (thanks to @jimmcquaid on twitter for pointing me in that direction).

Reference

Farman, J., Gardiner, B., & Shanklin, J. (1985). Large losses of total ozone in Antarctica reveal seasonal ClOx/NOx interaction Nature, 315 (6016), 207-210 DOI: 10.1038/315207a0

Electoral reform in the UK?

May 9, 2015

We had a General Election in the UK this week. We use a first-past-the-post system in our General Elections, which isn’t particularly representative.

I’m not going to say too much about this but I thought it was interesting to see how many votes each party received in relation to the number of parliamentary seats they got…

Party Seats Votes Votes per seat
Conservative 331 11,334,920 34244
Labour 232 9,347,326 40290
Scottish National Party 56 1454436 25972
Liberal Democrat 8 2,415,888 301986
Democratic Unionist Party 7 184260 26323
Sinn Fein 4 176,232 44058
Plaid Cymru 3 181,694 60565
Social Democratic & Labour Party 3 99809 33270
Ulster Unionist Party 2 114935 57468
UKIP 1 3881129 3881129
Green Party 1 1157613 1157613

image

 

Update Places to do something about it: Electoral Reform Society; Avazz.

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.


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