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Unless we regain our historic awe of the deep ocean, it will be plundered

In the memorable second instalment of Blue Planet II, we are offered glimpses of an unfamiliar world – the deep ocean. The episode places an unusual emphasis on its own construction: glimpses of the deep sea and its inhabitants are interspersed with shots of the technology – a manned submersible – that brought us these astonishing images. It is very unusual and extremely challenging, we are given to understand, for a human to enter and interact with this unfamiliar world.The most watched programme of 2017 in the UK, Blue Planet II provides the opportunity to revisit questions that have long occupied us. To whom does the sea belong? Should humans enter its depths? These questions are perhaps especially urgent today, when Nautilus Minerals, a mining company registered in Vancouver, has been granted a license to extract gold and copper from the seafloor off the coast of Papua New Guinea. Though the company has suffered some setbacks, mining is still scheduled to begin in 2019.

This mark…
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New research by Cabot Institute members reveals super eruptions more frequent than previously thought

I’m sat in my office in the Earth Sciences department reading a research paper entitled ‘The global magnitude-frequency relationship for large explosive volcanic eruptions’. Two lines in and I can already picture the headlines: ‘APOCOLYPTIC VOLCANIC ERUPTION DUE ANY DAY’ or perhaps ‘MANAGED TO GET OFF BALI? YOU’RE STILL NOT SAFE FROM THE VOLCANOES. The temptation is to laugh but I suppose it’s not actually very funny.   

The paper in question, produced by four Bristol scientists and published in Earth and Planetary Science Letters on Wednesday, uses a database of recorded volcanic eruptions to make estimates about the timing of large world-changing eruptions. It is the first estimate of its kind to use such a comprehensive database and the results are a little surprising. 
In case you’re in a rush, the key take-home message is this... When it comes to rare volcanic eruptions, the past is the key to the future. Volcanoes have erupted in the past. A lot. These past eruptions establish…

My Reflections on COP23 – challenges, inspiration, and hopes for the future

I had the great pleasure of attending COP21 in Paris, 2015. The air was full of anticipation, hope and a clear sense of urgency. The achievements of the conference were remarkable and as a climate scientist I felt a degree of reassurance (albeit uneasy reassurance) that there was now a serious global commitment that may lead to a turning point in climate action.

Two years on, I was therefore excited to attend COP23 in Bonn as part of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) delegation, to see how things were progressing.

I was immediately struck by the difference. The negotiations here were largely focussed on how to implement the Paris Agreement. The discussion were necessarily more technical, but less awe-inspiring, ‘nuts and bolts’. Without the big deadline and the huge public pressure to sign a global agreement, it seems things in the negotiations moved slowly, and there was an air of frustration amongst some negotiators and campaigners.

Despite the slow pace in the …

How to turn a volcano into a power station – with a little help from satellites

Ethiopia tends to conjure images of sprawling dusty deserts, bustling streets in Addis Ababa or the precipitous cliffs of the Simien Mountains – possibly with a distance runner bounding along in the background. Yet the country is also one of the most volcanically active on Earth, thanks to Africa’s Great Rift Valley, which runs right through its heart.

Rifting is the geological process that rips tectonic plates apart, roughly at the speed your fingernails grow. In Ethiopia this has enabled magma to force its way to the surface, and there are over 60 known volcanoes. Many have undergone colossal eruptions in the past, leaving behind immense craters that pepper the rift floor. Some volcanoes are still active today. Visit them and you find bubbling mud ponds, hot springs and scores of steaming vents.

This steam has been used by locals for washing and bathing, but underlying this is a much bigger opportunity. The surface activity suggests extremely hot fluids deep below, perhaps up to …

Olive oil production in Morocco: so many questions

No standard salad would be complete without olive oil. Our friends the lettuce, tomato and cucumber now come automatically accompanied by the vinegar and the oil, the oil and the vinegar. Perhaps in a bottle, perhaps in a sachet, perhaps in some kind of over complicated vinaigrette processed by a supermarket near you, along with lots of salt and some corn syrup, a 21st century salad in the Western world would be naked without an olive dressing.

This weekend, after an intensive academic seminar in Morocco[1], we studious seminar attendees were rewarded with a field trip. So I was taken out to visit three agricultural holdings in action. They all grew olives, but apart from that, had little in common. These three: large, medium and small producers in turn gave us a hugely insightful opportunity to witness agricultural change in action. Since the turn of the millennium the large site, on previously colonial, then state-held land had been an apple orchard and had now turned to olive oil.…

Green Capital: Student Capital – mobilising Bristol’s students for city sustainability

In 2015, Bristol was the UK’s first European Green Capital. During the year, HEFCE’s Catalyst Fund backed an initiative between the University of Bristol and the University of the West of England Bristol to promote student involvement in green activities.

In cities and communities across the world, students form a significant, but often neglected part of the population. Seen as transient, they are easy for cities to ignore. Yet in Bristol they form nearly 10% of the population, offering vision and energy to the city. In a unique collaboration between the two universities in Bristol, student unions, the Bristol City Council and a network of over 800 local organisations, Green Capital: Student Capital was designed to unleash the power of Bristol’s students. 

Green Capital: Student Capital initiated, promoted and celebrated student engagement with sustainability across the city region. Much of the work comprised novel initiatives co-created by students with community groups and SMEs suc…

A celebration of the research and achievements of Professor Willy Aspinall

‘A celebration of the research and achievements of Professor Willy Aspinall’ was a one-day celebration organised by the Cabot Institute to commend the career of a valued UK scientist and Bristol Professor.

Professor Willy Aspinall CMG is retiring after a 60-year career that has seen him travel the world, advise governments and receive some of the highest accolades a scientist can receive. Over 50 people attended the one-day event, which comprised a light-hearted mix of history, science and personal reminiscence.
Willy is possibly best known for his use of the ‘expert elicitation’ technique. The method involves synthesising the opinion of experts, which can then be used as a mechanism to help predict the occurrence of a typically-rare event. The technique has been used in policy making for a range of natural hazards such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, and has been an integral part of decision making in numerous crises around the globe.

Many of these crises will be familiar to t…