Archive for the ‘Research’ Category

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.

 

Advertisements

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

Antarctic sea-ice growth in Nature Geoscience

March 31, 2013

There’s a new paper on Antarctic sea-ice in Nature Geoscience so I thought it might be a good time to have a quick look at how this story has developed recently. (The short version: the small increase in Antarctic sea ice is most likely a result of a complicated coruination of: density changes in the surface layer of the Southern Ocean (a result of temperature and salinity changes), which stops warm deep water reaching the surface and melting the sea ice; changing wind patterns (partially a result of ozone depletion) that leads to ice drift increase and increased sea ice extent; and melting from the bottom of ice shelves adding cool water to the ocean surface layer that further reduces deeper warm water reaching the surface and reducing sea ice melt.)

Firstly, though, why does anyone care about Antarctic sea-ice? Well, it’s been increasing a little recently. This isn’t quite what you’d expect in a changing climate where the change is being driven by an increase in energy being retained in the system by an increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

In contrast, we often hear about sea-ice loss in the Arctic, which is often linked with climate change. However, if we compare the Arctic loss with the Antarctic gain you can see that one is clearly more of an issue than the other:

Sea ice extent in Arctic and Antarctic

Sea ice extent for the month when its at its minimum (i.e. the end of local summer) Source: James Hansen

Nonetheless, its still interesting to think about why Antarctic sea ice is increasing.

The best theory around five years ago (Zhang 2007) was that the surface layer of the Southern Ocean was changing density and that this stops the warmer water below getting to the surface and melting the sea ice. The change in density itself is driven by a couple of factors, such as increased evaporation from warmer Southern waters that increases rainfall in the seas around Antarctica and freshens the water and changes in salinity driven by the sea ice changes themselves (sea ice rejects salt as it forms).

Last year, the big advance was the use of satellite observations to show that changing wind patterns in the Southern Hemisphere (which I’ve written about here) were driving the sea ice extent increase via increased ice drift (Holland and Kwok 2012).

The new paper (Bintanja et al. 2013) shows that melting from the bottom of ice shelves – where the Antarctic glaciers flow out over the ocean – produces a layer of cold water that stops warmer water below reaching the surface and slowing sea-ice growth. Although,  Holland (of Holland and Kwok) isn’t convinced that the experiments are a good demonstration of the mechanism.

So this is quite a complicated situation to understand. However, the ocean and air temperatures around Antarctica aren’t decreasing so that isn’t the reason for the sea ice increase, even though it may seem like the most obvious. To find out the real reason you need to dig a little deeper.

Climate change and extreme events on Nature Soapbox Science

January 10, 2012

I wrote a post for the Nature Soapbox Science community blog on climate change and extreme events. If you want to take a look, it’s here. UPDATE (11/1/2012): well, I’d may as well just put the post here as well…

As I type, I have a massive chapter for the next full Assessment Report (due to be published in 2014) sitting on my desk to review and a couple of analysis routines churning their way through terabytes of climate model data. There’ll be hundreds of other people around the world focussed on similar things. The aim is to produce the 5th series of Assessment Reports since the IPCC was formed in 1988 to help decision makers, well, make decisions.

But the IPCC has been up to other things recently as well. In November 2011 it published a Special Report Summary for Policymakers on “Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation” (or SREX, the full report will be published in February 2012). Understanding how extreme events might change in the future is really important as it’s these things that will really impact people: heat waves, flash floods, hurricanes, droughts and sea level rise related inundation. This is far more useful to know than the quite abstract concept of global mean temperature change. This report looks like an advance in the IPCC procedure as it involved a far more integrated approach than usual IPCC outputs, having authors from climate science, impacts and adaptation backgrounds as well as disaster risk management experts.

Although it sounds obvious, one of the key conclusions of SREX was that the impact of extreme climatic events is greatest where vulnerability is highest. On the ground, this has manifested itself as higher fatality levels in developing nations and higher economic losses in developed countries. There’s a lot to think about here in terms of how developing nations move forward and how developed nations approach things sustainably to reduce exposure. That’s not really my area though.

From a scientific point of view, they also point out that analysing extremes is relatively difficult as they are rare and data from around the world are not always up to the job. That said, this depends a lot on the particular “extreme” being investigated – this has always struck me as slightly odd about the climate extremes community in that the only common theme is the statistics and not the science behind the phenomena.

Looking to projections, the IPCC SREX assign their highest confidence assessment (“virtually certain”) to increases in temperature extremes by 2100. This is because this is pretty much a direct response to the radiation changes forced by atmospheric greenhouse gas emissions. Everything else is a slightly more messy consequence of the temperature changes and these other fields vary much more amongst the 12 different models used in this analysis making their projections uncertain. However, it also looks likely that heavy precipitation events will increase in certain regions and that the maximum winds associated with tropical cyclones will increase whilst their total number will likely decrease.

Oddly enough, the emissions pathway that we take in the future (the IPCC analyses different sets of projections based on different socioeconomic and technological development assumptions) has little impact on extreme events in the next 30 years or so – they don’t appear to have an impact until the latter half of the 21st Century when inter-model variability masks most of the climate signal anyway. This highlights how making projections of extreme events is a difficult game. In that spirit, here are two of the key problems as I see them relating to my area of research on severe storms in Europe:

Loading the dice or getting new dice?

If we assume that climatic quantities have a normal distribution (which isn’t always the case, especially with precipitation) then you can view the extremes as the tails at either end of the distribution e.g. hot or cold. So climate change could be viewed as like loading dice – you start rolling more sixes (or getting more hot days). However, when the climate regime changes this analogy breaks down as, instead of just rolling more sixes, you start needing to roll sevens as climate records are broken (see the figure below). This poses a problem for climate models as, like a six sided die isn’t designed to roll a seven, climate models haven’t been designed (or at least haven’t been verified against) conditions that have never been observed.

The green curve represents the distribution of Swiss summer temperatures from 1864 to 2002. Clearly, 2003 does not align well with that distribution and is an example of an extreme breaking a previous record. This figure has been taken from the IPCC AR4, for more details click the image.

We’re gonna need a smaller box.

The second problem is that some important things – like severe storms, tornados and regional and local changes such as river catchment area precipitation changes – are too small for climate models to represent or resolve. The reason for this is that these computer models split the atmosphere (and oceans) into a 3D array of boxes. The important equations are solved in each box and then they pass information to neighbouring boxes as appropriate at each model time step. These boxes usually have horizontal dimensions of around 100-400 km to allow for a convenient computational time. However, storms and tornados work on scales of significantly less than 100 km so there’s no way that the models can tell us anything about these things. This problem is particularly acute in relation to the IPCC SREX as this analysis used a suite of climate model data from a project called CMIP3, which was completed in 2006 for the last IPCC assessment and, therefore, does not use the most up-to-date and highest resolution model data. (The data currently being prepared for the next IPCC Assessment Report called CMIP5 is, however, not yet complete so perhaps this criticism is a bit unfair.)

Is this good enough?

So does this mean that analyses using these model data are not useful or reliable? When faced with this question I struggle to get past the fact that, however much they can improve in the future, these models are still the best and only tool we have for making climate projections. Beyond that, we can take comfort in the fact that the very basic physics of climate science is really well understood – even very simple energy balance models can tell us useful things about the effects of increasing atmospheric greenhouse gas changes. What we’re talking about here are the details, albeit very important details, and in that respect our current analyses are consistent with the things that we’re pretty sure of.

Useful climate tools and data sites

January 11, 2011

Here are some links to useful climate data/tools. There’re my favourite places to get simple data.

If anyone uses anything different, please leave let me know!

KMNI’s Climate Explorer – excellent tool to get loads of data and basic plots. I’ve always found the inface friendly too.

NASA’s GISS Surface Temperature Analysis (GISTEMP) – raw station data and nice plotting tool.

UEA’s Climatic Research Unit have lots of data but no plotting tools.

Daily Earth Temperatures from Satellites – if you want satellite derived temperatures from various levels, this is the place to go.

NOAA’s National Climatic Data Centre – looks like there’s lots there but I’ve never really looked through it.

The University of Wyoming’s weather balloon data – probably a bit niche for this list but this is an amazing archive of balloon data from all over the world! Surely you need to check just how strong the Antarctic inversion is today? No?

The volcano: an interesting scientific distraction.

May 27, 2010

I realise that the volcano that is currently erupting in Iceland has caused a lot of problems for a lot of people.

However, if I can see one plus side it’s all the impromptu atmospheric science that is going on around it. For example, the first paper about the volcano, which is looking at the electric charge of the ash plume from balloon measurements taken over Scotland, has just been published. [As an interesting aside, one the instruments that was used in this work uses the plastic case that holds the toy in a Kinder Egg!]

This is remarkably quick work. To collect data in April and then publish a paper in May is almost unheard of.

There’s plenty more examples of this and I’m sure lots of interesting science will emerge in the coming years as a result of this unforeseen event.

In Manchester where I work, a lot of people have put their usual work to one side to concentrate on the plume. One of my colleagues is currently in the Shetland Isles repairing an instrument that we moved up there last month to observe the plume and many others are away manning instruments on research planes that are investigating the plume or analysing the data that has been collected.

This is all an inconvenience and big projects are getting delayed but many people are working really hard to understand the ash cloud and are finding out new things along the way. So it’s not all bad.

ResearchBlogging.orgR G Harrison, K A Nicoll, Z Ulanowski and T A Mather (2010). Self-charging of the Eyjafjallajökull volcanic ash plume Environ. Res. Lett., 5