Community volcano monitoring

Original blogs on this topic can be found on the Bristol Public Engagement website and the Cabot Institute blog.

 

Volcan de Fuego (Volcano of Fire) is an active volcano close to the Guatemalan city of Antigua. The volcano is one of the most active volcanoes in central America with a lively history of life-threatening eruptions.  It is thought that around 60,000 people are currently at risk from the volcano.

Monitoring the volcano is challenging with a limited availability of resources in the developing country. Bristol volcanology PhD student Emma Liu and colleagues are currently in Guatemala implementing a novel program to monitor ash fall from the volcano using community involvement. Volcanic ash is a hazard to human health, as well as to aviation. Additionally it holds vital clues into the activity of the volcano that can help us to understand past eruptions and predict what it may do in the future.  Once ash falls to the ground it is easily blown or washed away meaning lots of valuable information is lost in the hours and days after an eruption. Collecting ash as it falls can be challenging over a large area so Emma is roping in the local population to help.

 

Her cleverly designed ‘ashmeters’ are made almost entirely from recycled plastic bottles and are being installed in the gardens of local schools and houses around the volcano.  The components are easily replaceable and can be found locally. The ash falls into the meters and can be then collected and bagged by the residents. So far the meters have been installed in nine locations all around the volcano allowing Emma and her team to sample ash from almost any possible type of eruption.  As well as being indispensible from a scientific perspective, Emma hopes the scheme will help to improve the relationship between scientists and the volcano’s residents as she explains; ‘By engaging local communities directly in volcano monitoring, we hope to improve the two-way dialogue between scientists and residents, thereby increasing resilience to ash hazards’.

The scheme so far has been a great success, with the ashmeters being welcomed into people’s homes and attached to roofs and fencepost. Within a week of the ashmeters being deployed, they were tested by a large eruption on the 1 March 2016. Three ashmeters were installed during this eruption, all of which successfully collected ash. The Bristol volcanologists have now been able collect the ash which will be brought back to the University of Bristol for analysis.  The Bristol group will remain out in Guatemala for another few weeks in the hope they will able to distribute more ashmeters and gather more vital information for the management of volcanic hazard in the area. Emma received funding from the Bristol Cabot Institute Innovation Fund to set up this project.

Why does the UK care about volcanoes?

The University of Bristol’s volcanology group has been awarded the Queen’s Anniversary Prize for its contribution to research excellenceThe Queens Anniversary Prize is the most prestigious form of national recognition an institution can receive. When I tell members of the public that, not only am I a volcanologist, but that I am part of the one of the largest and most successful volcanology groups in the world, the first reaction is always surprise: ‘Why is the UK interested in volcanoes? We don’t have any of our own!’

They are right of course, the Bristol volcanology group spends its time travelling all over the world to address volcanic risk in many countries, from the first to the third world. When one looks back on volcanic eruptions in recent history, especially the big, memorable ones like Mount St Helens, Eyjafjallajokull andMontserrat one realises that Bristol volcanologists were there at every stage.

There are, of course, many layers to handling a volcanic crisis. First there’s initial monitoring; will this volcano erupt at all? Often this involves going to volcanoes that have been little studied in remote places, or monitoring them from satellites: something which Bristol volcanology has taken in its stride, by trailblazing projects on understudied African volcanism.

InSAR image showing volcanic uplift in the Great Rift Valley as part of research by Bristol volcanologist Juliet Biggs

Then there’s handling eruptions as they happen. Who will be affected? What are the primary risks? How should we respond to the media? Bristol has a glowing history of aiding in volcanic crisis by supplying the information when the world needs it. During the 2010 Eyjafjallajokull ash and aviation crisis, Bristol led the way in supplying expert opinion on managing the situation.

Still there is no rest for our volcanologists. Afterwards there’s the post-eruption work: Working out what made the volcano erupt and understanding the physical processes surrounding an event. How does it fit into the wider setting? Are the volcanoes linked? These questions have been asked and answered by our volcanologists who have also reached out to form a global database with other institutions. This has resulted in more cohesion in the community, and a greater understanding of how volcanoes interact.

A wealth of different specialities have populated the group since it was started by Professor Steve Sparks including petrologists, geophysicists and geochemists. It is a result of this diverse environment that Bristol has been able to excel in so many areas. With natural hazards occurring on a near-daily basis, it’s safe to say the group has played its part in reducing the uncertainty of volcanic hazard across the globe.  The Queen’s Anniversary Prize is an amazing recognition of the work that has been done over the years and a well-deserved reward for the hard work of the Bristol volcanologists.

The Uncertain World Summit

The following was written after the ‘Uncertain World Summit’ hosted by The Cabot Institute. Original blog can be found here:

 

(Note to the reader: I’d like to mention that, from this point forward, I shall try not to use the word ‘uncertainty’. Not because it isn’t important to talk about, but because I didn’t want this blog to be absorbed by recognising it. There were many things that came out of the Uncertain World Summit that I felt were rather certain and I’ll try to focus on those for a change).

The Uncertain World whiteboard – full of notes and ideas!

The two-day event was replete with bite sized chunks of climate science and policy making, washed down with group discussions and (at the end) Somerset wine.  The attendee list was a vibrant jumble of scientists, philosophers, policy makers and industry leaders gathered together to discuss climate change. To do justice to the wealth of talks would be impossible in a short blog; there were contributions from a range of sectors including health, defence and agriculture as well as from climate researchers on topics such as sea level rise and land use change. Instead of reporting on the presentations, I thought I would focus on some of the recurring themes I noted from the discussions.

The first discussion I want to chalk up on the blogging-blackboard is the issue of science falling into the void between the scientific community and policy makers. The chain of decisions that propels a scientific revelation out of the lab and into the lives of ordinary people is convoluted and confused. How can we expect the world to save itself when the world doesn’t know what it needs saving from? The methodical production of scientific progress wrapped up in a safety blanket of statistical error is hard to chew on for the policy makers and even harder to digest by the general public. This became somewhat of a theme as I moved through the discussion groups (and now I see also in Adam Corner’s blog – it is clearly something that needs to be addressed at the base level).

The second issue to make it onto my summit-summary was how to best assimilate the objectives of climate change prevention into the everyday lives of the population. There was a unanimous resolution that, in order to elicit any modifications in people’s everyday routines, the impetus should be positive rather than negative: Employing threatening forecasts of apocalyptic temperature rise (however true they may be) simply isn’t an effective motivation when the effects aren’t yet tangible to the majority of the population. Instead, communicators should be painting the picture of the switch to green as a platform for economic growth facilitating more job prospects and greater social equality.

The mechanisms to power this change were harder to isolate. There was recognition that, in order to stimulate a universal response, reviving and utilising national (and international) pride is essential. The argument drew from examples of past regional and global cooperation particularly the World Wars and the first man on the moon. If, as occurred in these examples, a country unites with a mutual aim it can transcend social divisions to become a more efficient machine. Of course, the challenge lies in putting climate change prevention on a sufficiently glamorous pedestal as to evoke such a response. To achieve this there were a host of creative solutions including setting up community food schemes and mobilisation the Woman’s Institute to the cause.

More generally, the discussion wavered around the best ways to implement the outcomes of the discussion, whether through legislation or communication. In a problem so laden with political and economic bias it is unsurprising the current global responses are flavoured with self-interest. Overcoming this, in my opinion, will be the biggest challenge of all. On a brighter note, I found the summit an amazing experience that broadened my thinking on climate change. Despite the gloominess of the situation, I went away from the event feeling that problem-solving had triumphed over defeatism and that there are several paths we can take that can lead us towards a greener future. We just need to persuade everyone to take one
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A shower of change with gusts of discontent

The following blog was written after the BBC revealed it would not be renewing its contract with the Met Office. The original  blog can be found here.

“This is 2LO calling, the London station of the British Broadcasting Company calling. This is 2LO calling”

Such was the first broadcast ever issued by the BBC on 14th November 1922 from the organisation’s 2LO Office in London. The message was received by any radio within a 30 mile radius and was the inaugeration of the British Broadcasting Corporation.  Integrated in the announcement was a weather bulletin prepared by the Met Office which marked the beginning of a partnership which has supplied the British public’s appetite for weather-related conversation for 93 years.

Despite the longevity of this relationship, it was not immune to the BBC’s ever-tightening pockets and last month it was announced the Met Office is to become the latest casualty of the corporation’s modernisation. The BBC blames the split on the Met Office’s uncompetitive price, while rumours suggest that the problem runs deeper with a difference of opinion over the way the forecast should be communicated to the public. Those who are hoping the Met Office will be in the running for the re-tendering process are likely to be disappointed. The early rejection of the Met Office’s offer implies that more was at stake than just the money and any hope of a renewal is a low probability.

Whatever the outcome, the BBC weather forecast, which spans local news to the world service, is estimated to reach a quarter of a billion people weekly and the changes are certain to have an impact on how the world watches the weather. The Met Office is ranked as the world’s most accurate forecasting body, so is the BBC sacrificing it’s credibility on the alter of austerity? Or could there be a sunny outlook?

There are plenty of alternatives to the Met Office, with Dutch and New Zealand firms rumoured to be in the running for the £35.2 million contract. This, it seems, is adding insult to injury for some disgruntled members of the British public with cries of discontent along the lines of ‘Heaven forbid a foreign firm should predict the British weather; how could they possibly understand it’s temperamental disposition?’ (the fact that the majority of the UK’s weather is governed by global climate systems seems to be irrelevant in this). Even if the BBC resolves to look closer to home, there is a reasonable list of UK alternatives; The Weather Channel, Net Weather and The Weather Outlook to name a few although whether they have the capability to handling the BBCs expansive demands is a different matter altogether.

As the storm clouds gather over BBC HQ, the new provider will be announced next year after the tendering process. In short, it is uncertain who will be giving Britons their daily weather-fix although there is no doubt the BBC will be battening down the hatches to endure yet another tornado of discontent from license payers when the replacement made. Personally, I’ve never felt the weather pays much attention to the forecast regardless of the provider: In fact, the element of surprise is what makes being caught in the rain in my flip flops and snowed on in my swimsuit part of the paradoxical joy of inhabiting this country. Long may it continue I say.

The great climate communication clash

The following was written after I attended at debate at the University of Bristol entitled ‘Cultural cognition vs. consensus messaging: Challenges of climate communication in a polarized world’. The original blog can be found here:
If anyone attending the Cabot Institute debate between science communication researchers Dan Kahan and Stephan Lewandowsky last Wednesday was hoping for a relaxing, passive glance into the word of climate communication then they were in for a shock.
Attending the event, which was moderated by Climate Outreach director Dr Adam Corner, was like being thrown into a politically-fuelled hurricane of communication and miscommunication. The mildly terrifying, albeit engaging, debating style of Dan Kahan meant there was never a dull moment as the two world-leading cognitive scientists locked horns over their opinions on how science should communicate climate change to the public. 
The evening was kicked off by Kahan, whose invasive debating style saw him thundering into the audience to deliver his messages, a style which certainly drew attention if not support. The greatest focus of his message seemed to be in addressing the motivations of climate sceptics. Kahan claimed that the climate change consensus delivered by the scientific community is polarising opinion; those who are sceptics are not misinformed, their scepticism is fuelled by how they identify themselves. To put simply, the side of the climate change war they fight is supported more by culture than learning.
If this is the case, then increasing the budget powering the scientific consensus won’t help. Indeed, as Kahan expressed, the expensive climate change communication campaign in the U.S. hasn’t made any difference to the opinions of the public. His message? Stop trying to change who we are and do something proactive with the budget instead.
Next Lewandowsky stepped up to the floor. His argument is pro-consensus, defining the consensus as a few simple facts; that climate change is happening, is caused by humans and is problematic.  His theory is that people respond to education and change their opinions based on the information available to them. This, he claims, is based on testing trials performed in Australia where participants found themselves more concerned about climate change after being exposed to the general consensus. In Lewandowsky’s words “consensus is the gateway to belief’.
Underpinning his argument is the relationship between the layman and the expert. Lewandosky claims that in times of uncertainty, people defer to the expert; “If 97% of engineers delivered a consensus that the bridge was unsafe to cross, would you cross the bridge?”. 97% of climate scientists believe global warming is an issue, so we submit to the opinion of the expert. The idea works in theory but, according to Kahan we aren’t submitting to the expert, in fact, public opinion is unchanged.
So where does the answer lie? Despite lengthy discussions on the climate consensus, no communication consensus was reached. After the discussion was opened up to the audience, the complexities of the task at hand became apparent: while the ‘yes’ versus ‘no’ controversy is clearly polarised, audience members suggested there are degrees of ‘yes’. Is climate change part man made and part natural? Should we be spending more money on adaption rather than mitigation as Kahan suggested? To what extent is politics contributing to the miscommunication; how can we disentangle the issue of left-wing environmentalism as an opponent of capitalism? The list goes on.
My opinion of the outcome was that the path forwards was a hybrid of the opinions present. Yes, we shouldn’t focus on ‘converting’ the minority of sceptics. The consensus should focus on revaluating the options and behaviour of the supporters. How can we make reducing climate change an economic option for free market capitalism, rather than just trying to close it down. Maybe, as Kahan suggests, instead of aggressive PR campaigns that polarise opinion, we should be working on strengthening the knowledge of the ‘believers’. Indeed making the outcome of the consensus more attractive to those who are in support of climate change, to me, seems like a more progressive step forward.

Power, policy and piranhas: Martin Bigg on energy

The following blog was written after I attended the Policy Cafe event in Bristol in May 2015. The original blog can be found here:

When it comes to energy solutions, we need to be like Martin Bigg’s favourite fish; the piranha. Why do we need to be like a flesh-eating aquatic animal to get these solutions? Because being passive isn’t working.

Such was the closing message of Bigg’s talk at the Bristol Politics Café in the kitchen of The Station. Bigg’s talk entitled ‘Energy generation, use and denial’ was a well-integrated combination of academic analysis and challenging chit-chat about the UK’s energy enigmas.

While his concluding remark was engineered to influence our future actions, Bigg cleverly began with the UK’s energy past. He walked us through the history of UK energy supply, intertwining the physical processes of production with the bureaucracy and politics.

This technique highlighted how energy has been manipulated time and time again to fulfil regulations and financial expectations. Coal fired power stations built in the 1970’s are still producing today, requiring a string of expensive modifications in an attempt to meet the demands of the modern day.

In addition, the audience was introduced to facts and figures representing current energy demand. Two things struck me as disturbing. Firstly, how small our green energy contribution is, and secondly, how coal power stations are used to fulfil our energy needs.  Many coal stations are paid huge government subsidies to remain on standby to provide energy at peak times. What is absurd is that coal power stations are the least efficient to start and stop when compared to other forms of power generation, so why are we using them?

What was more interesting, was Bigg’s presentation of green energy supply. He showed the audience real bids for green energy. Solar was the cheapest, followed by onshore wind. Offshore wind was one of the most expensive but it is the scheme the government is investing most in. The utterly nonsensical nature of the process was brought on in part by environmentalists concerned about the impact of onshore wind farms on local wildlife, particularly bird life. In reality, Bigg pointed out, CO2 emission are far more damaging to bird populations through acidification of wetlands than through wind farms.

What was reassuring, however, was that the green energy, at peak production was able to compete economically with the products of hydrocarbon-guzzling plants. The main issue was what to do when the wind stops blowing and the sun goes down. Here, Bigg admitted, there is the need for further research and development into effective energy storage.

The event was meant to not only be a talk but a discussion, and the strength of opinions bounced around the room was evident. Much of the discontent was channelled into the up-coming elections, particularly that green policies are not playing a bigger role in the political football preceding 9 May 2015. Hopefully, discussion such as these can only help expand the dialogue amongst green-minded voters in the Bristol area in the hope that a less passive attitude may start to take effect in future green policy making.

Bristol 2015 Student Day: Young people’s ideas for the future

In  April 2015 I attended a student day for the University of Bristol organised by the festival ideas. The corresponding blog is below. The original blog can be found here:
The Bristol Student Day for the Bristol Festival of Ideas was all about the future. Cabot Institute director Rich Pancost opened the day with the remark: ‘This is your planet, it is no longer my generation’s’. What he says is true; young people are soon to inherit positions as policy makers, CEOs and decision makers. Student’s visions for the future may soon become a reality, so what are their visions?

Bristol 2015: Student Day at At-Bristol. Organised by Bristol Festival of Ideas

The student day was orchestrated to produce a dialogue for the University of Bristol and UWE student’s opinions on some of the planet’s greatest problems. The thoughts generated will become part of Bristol’s message to the world in at the COP21, a global sustainable innovation forum in Paris later this year.

The discussions ranged from local cycling routes to global overpopulation. The breadth of topics covered meant discussions oscillated between worldwide concerns and university-based issues.  Regardless of scale, the prevailing desire was for increased suitability for the future generations.

On a university level the participants expressed discontent with the institution’s reliance on fossil fuels with many agreeing they would like to see increased investment in sustainable energy for their organisations. Financial returns from green energy may be long term but if any institution can expect longevity it’s a university- why should their energy solutions not reflect that?
Waste reduction was an additional point for local improvement with participants venturing ideas such as a ban on single use coffee cups and increased recycling opportunities on campus. There was no shortage of creative ideas, the main issue was implementation and education; how can young people convince their less green-minded peers that such schemes are essential? Food waste was of additional concern, with unanimous support for schemes such as the Bristol Skipchen. The desire to see projects such as this affiliated with the university was a common vision.

Naturally, food was an issue close to the heart of many students and discussion quickly progressed to agriculture. Organic food was considered a luxury for personal health purposes, but its environmental benefit was surprisingly contentious. Many students believed that large scale, non-organic, industrialised farming is more energy efficient and produces fewer emissions, while others believe smaller organic farms are the future of agriculture.

The boundaries of the discussion were pushed both mentally and geographically as the day progressed.  The younger generation’s global responsibilities were also high priority for discussion. Overpopulation in the developing world is putting strain on resources- how can Bristol students help? Food waste reduction was high on the list of solutions, as well as the universal need for more environmentally attractive power solutions, from the first to third world.

The enthusiasm of the participants to build a better, greener and more sustainable future made the discussion both interesting and beneficial. If there is one thing the day has shown, it’s that young people have the desire for long term solutions. After all, it is the millions of small ideas such as the ones discussed in At-Bristol that will shape the future for us all.

My ‘Climate Shock’ from a talk by Gernot Wagner

In March 2015 I attended an event organised by the Bristol Festival of Ideas. The below blog relates my experience. The original blog can be found here:

Sadly, the climate change rhetoric can sometimes feel a bit like the announcements at an airport; a little monotonous and irrelevant. Most of us have been guilty of tuning out, turning a blind eye and continuing with our life thinking the announcement isn’t really for us; we’re getting a different flight.

Sitting down for the hour long talk by Gernot Wagner at @Bristol on Tuesday evening was a little like hearing the last boarding call when you’re at the other end of the airport in a day dream. It was a shock.

‘Climate Shock’ was an hour of uncomfortable truths and mind boggling economics. As a scientist I am regularly exposed to the raw figures: Temperature in degrees, CO2 in parts per million, mean sea level increase. Never before had I been faced with the human implications of climate change in such stark and uncompromising terms.

The talk was run by Bristol Festival of Ideas and supported by the University of Bristol’s Cabot Institute and slotted in comfortably with Bristol’s position as green capital of the Europe. Gernot Wagner walked us through his recent book ‘Climate shock’, co written with Martin Weitzman. At each turn of the page (or change of the slide) there was a new, fresh perspective on the climate change debate. Instead of seeing the problem and solution in science, Wagner saw it in economics.

With the cool detachment of a mathematician, Wagner attempted to communicate the uncertainties in our climate change predictions. Despite a considerable accumulation of knowledge, we are still powerless to predict the exact effect on our fragile planet. Wagner pointed out that, should temperatures rise by 6 degrees, the effects would be catastrophic. We are only a fraction of the way down the slippery slope of temperature increase and despite an escalation in extreme weather we still aren’t digging in our heels and climbing back up. With any other predictable, large-scale disasters we work tirelessly to insure and mitigate. Why, Wagner asked, are we not doing the same for climate change

$0.40

Using economics to convey the potential impacts, Wagner stated plainly that for every $1 we spend on CO2 producing activities, it is actually costing us $0.40 in future damages. We are already a planet in debt.

Wagner’s solution was atypical. Instead of sending us forth from the room as eco warriors, recycling like our lives depended on it, he emphasised a different message. He said the way to mitigate global warming is to harness the economic power of supply and demand.

$150

His case study was Sweden. He introduced it with a single figure: $150.

This is the Swedish tax on each ton of CO2: as the price of CO2 went up, demand went down. Now, Wagner claimed, Sweden is nearly carbon neutral. His argument is that policy is the way to save the world- far more so than individual effort.

The realism of his suggestions made his talk fascinating. For the first time I not only grasped the terrifying toll that climate change is taking, but also felt hopeful that there might be a solution. While the solution might be unpopular in our short sighted capitalist society, it is absolutely essential for maintaining long term economic stability.

The moral of the story? The best investment you will ever make is in our planet.