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Two weeks in the ‘Avenue of Volcanoes’

Workshops, conferences, field work – national and international travel is an essential part of many PhD programs. I’ve been lucky enough to see numerous new parts of the globe during my studies, and, less luckily, numerous different airport layovers (I’m currently writing this post from a corridor between terminals at Washington airport…!).

I’m on my way back to Bristol from a workshop in Ecuador on volcanic unrest, which culminated with an eruption simulation exercise. As my PhD is focused on unravelling the science behind volcanic unrest, these trips (this is the second of three with this specific aim) form a main focus for the real-world application of my research.

This workshop was split into 3 different parts. The first was a series of lectures on how volcanologists, social scientists, emergency managers, civil protection officials, and the general public interact during volcanic crises. Each specialist contributed their individual expertise, in my case as a volcanologist interp…

Do people respond to air pollution forecasts?

In 2010, the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee published a report on air quality in which they concluded that “poor air quality probably causes more mortality and morbidity than passive smoking, road traffic accidents or obesity”. Concerned that the Government was still not giving air quality a high enough priority, the Committee published another report in 2011. To date, the Committee’s main recommendations have not been implemented. Amidst new evidence on the negative effects of air pollution on health and a court case that found the UK Government guilty of failing to meet EU air quality targets, the Committee published a third report on air quality last week.

One of the Committee’s recommendations is that the Government works more closely with the Met Office, the BBC and other broadcasters to ensure that forecasts of high air pollution episodes are disseminated widely together with advice on what action should be taken. The Committee’s rationale is that information abo…

A N-ICE trip to the North Pole: Understanding the link between sea ice and climate

Imagine. It’s the bitter Arctic winter, it’s dark, cold enough to kill, and your ship is stuck in sea-ice.  There’s nothing you can do against the heave of the ice, except let your ship drift along. Out of your control. This seems like a difficult prospect today, but then imagine it happening over a century ago. 

This is exactly what did happen when Norwegian explorer, Fridtjof Nansen, intentionally trapped his ship, Fram, in Arctic sea-ice in 1893 in an attempt to reach the North Pole. For about three years, Fram drifted with the ice until finally reaching the North Atlantic. Whilst a main motivation for their extraordinary journey was to find the Pole, they also made a number of scientific observations that had a profound influence on the (at the time) young discipline of oceanography.

Scientists led by the Norwegian Polar Institute (NPI) are now – pretty much on the 120th anniversary of the original expedition – repeating the journey, this time purely in the name of science.  I’m a…

Why forests are about more than just climate change

It’s National Tree Week, and there is a plethora of talk about all the great things that trees do: encouraging biodiversity, providing a pleasant space for humans, and providing numerous ecosystem services. As well as this, there is some reference to how trees take in carbon dioxide, and the benefits of this for helping to prevent climate change. But what if trees didn’t help prevent climate change? What if actually, they increased climate change?

Afforestation (planting forests) is one of many suggestions as a way to deliberately change the earth’s climate to attempt to reverse the effects of climate change (known as ‘geoengineering’). Planting more trees seems like a an obvious, natural solution. Carbon offsetting, RED+ and lots of other schemes around the issue of climate change have been based on the preservation or increase of forests. But does it work?

We've known for some time that boreal forests contribute to climate change rather than help prevent it, because of changes …

Could retaining old coal lead to a policy own goal?

A large painting and an imposing statue of the former Speaker of the House of Commons Betty Boothroyd overlooked a busy Boothroyd Room at Portcullis House in Westminster.  Members of parliament, journalists, academics, NGOs and Third Sector organisations gathered to hear the reporting and discussion of a new report from Imperial College on the future of coal power in the UK as part of a All Party Parliamentary Climate Change Group meeting on 20 November 2014.

This report was commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund to give an idea of whether the continued operation of the eleven existing coal-fired plants in the UK is compatible with the UK’s targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

Coal-fired power stations in the UK still generate approximately 36% of the country’s electricity (WWF briefing data). I was personally amazed how large this figure is and underlines the relevance of this type of economic modelling to the future of the energy mix in the UK.

The panel was chaired by Lor…

People, planet and profit - connecting local to global

In attending the Cabot Institute Annual lecture with Professor Peter Head CBE presenting on some of the big ecological issues – and novel solutions – facing the world, it struck me that ‘big data’ and its innovative applications being put forward during the lecture provided a clear example of an older adage much loved by the green movement “think global, act local”. This is particularly important to Bristol as the city closes-in on 2015 – its year in the limelight as European Green Capital.

Moving the situation on Although we of course had to endure the oft-used explanation about the dire situation we humans have got ourselves into – with good reason, now that there is over 90% scientific certainty in accepting that human-made CO2 emissions are causal in climate change – there was a concise set of information on how we might do something positive to self-help our way to a better future.

The valid point was made during the lecture that we are living at the most exciting and critical ti…

Environmental comms: The power of emotion, non-stories and…Air Wick?

Communicating is what I do in my job, I’m the Cabot Institute Coordinator and I have a responsibility for looking after the website, blog and Twitter account, creating the weekly newsletter and running the Cabot Press Gang – a group of postgraduates at the University of Bristol who are keen to improve their communication skills in the context of environmental research by blogging and writing press releases.

A week ago I had the pleasure in attending Communicate, an environmental communications conference run by Bristol Natural History Consortium.  I always look forward to attending Communicate and this year has to be one of the best years yet proven by the emotive tears, the curious addition to the goody bags and some excellent talks by some of the best environmental communicators in the UK.

The non-story of climate change
One of the first speakers to take to the stage at Communicate was George Marshall, a fantastic speaker and co-founder of the Climate Outreach and Information Networ…

The conference “crashers”: What are a geophysicist, a climate modeller, and a geochemist doing at a Social Sciences conference?

On 5th November 2014 the South West Doctoral Training Centre organised their third annual conference for postgraduate students at the University of Bath. Students and staff from the Universities of Bath, Bristol and Exeter filled the conference venue with a vibrant atmosphere throughout the day, giving great insight on different methods of collaboration. The theme of the conference was in fact “Integrating Perspectives”.

The three of us – Jan Peter, Dirk, and Alice – are three PhD students part of an EU-funded Marie Curie Training Network (MEDGATE) and within our project collaboration is key. Dirk, normally based at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, is currently visiting us in Bristol to make this collaboration even more active. Even if we are not exactly social scientists, we thought that this conference would represent a great occasion to introduce the dynamics of our interaction to a broader audience. We presented a poster (“How did the sea get so salty?”) outlining the colla…

Report from a (slightly less-depressed) climate scientist on the All Parliamentary Climate Change Group meeting on “stranded assets"

Lets face it, it’s fairly depressing being a climate scientist.  The Synthesis Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was adopted by the world governments last Sunday (2 November 2014). This report drew on the three individual reports published over the last year on the Science, Impacts and Mitigation of climate change, all of which I was proud to contribute to.  Yet apart from a few comments from the global great and good on the urgency of the situation and the need to move away from fossil fuels to avoid changes that will be dangerous for mankind and nature alike, it made relatively little headlines. I was wondering if it would really make any difference to anything that anyone does. I will still dread Daily Mail-reading cab drivers asking me what I do for a living, as it’s disheartening to try and explain the science to someone who has far more pressing and immediate concerns and would rather not think about, let alone believe, what we scientists repeatedly say, s…

Are you a poor logician? Logically, you might never know

By Stephan Lewandowsky, University of Bristol and Richard Pancost, University of Bristol

This is the second article in a series, How we make decisions, which explores our decision-making processes. How well do we consider all factors involved in a decision, and what helps and what holds us back?
It is an unfortunate paradox: if you’re bad at something, you probably also lack the skills to assess your own performance. And if you don’t know much about a topic, you’re unlikely to be aware of the scope of your own ignorance.

Type in any keyword into a scientific search engine and a staggering number of published articles appears. “Climate change” yields 238,000 hits; “tobacco lung cancer” returns 14,500; and even the largely unloved “Arion ater” has earned a respectable 245 publications.

Experts are keenly aware of the vastness of the knowledge landscape in their fields. Ask any scholar and they will likely acknowledge how little they know relative to what is knowable – a realisation that …

Energy supply: Experiences of traditional and environmentally conscious growth models

This September, I travelled to Tohoku University, Japan, to take part in the RENKEI summer school programme on the theme of Energy Supply within Traditional and Environmentally Conscious Growth Models. RENKEI is a Japan-UK collaboration and six universities from each country participate in pilot projects in three key areas: technology and knowledge exchange with industry, student mobility, and universities’ social engagement. Early career researchers, PhD students and taught postgraduates work together within a supported framework to develop critical skills in a dynamic environment.

In my role of Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) Coordinator, I was interested to see the teaching and learning applications of this theme in an interdisciplinary context. I am forever indebted to the University of Bristol for supporting this extraordinary opportunity (thanks to PVC Nick Lieven for funding provided and for accepting my application).

Fieldtrips were an essential component of the ex…

Frontiers of Science: Stimulating conversations between scientists

It’s been a fantastic start to the UK-India Frontiers of Science meeting in Khandala, India. The Royal Society organises Frontiers of Science meetings to stimulate conversations between scientists of different disciplines, and between scientists from different countries. Bringing together people who don’t normally talk to each other is key: you have no idea until to you talk to them that there are other scientists out there who, for example, have developed a method that does exactly what you want to do, but in a different context. Or, equally, would benefit from your analytical method or computational model. It’s also just plain refreshing to hear about subjects that you don’t study, and how different people tackle problems. Networks while networking, and motoring on the microscopic level!Today, there were two sessions: one on statistical models and one on cellular motors. We heard about how to use networks to figure out flavour combinations in cookery (bring on Heston Blumenthal…), and …