NASA’s InSight mission: detecting ‘earthquakes*’ on the surface of Mars

NASA’s InSight mission: detecting ‘earthquakes*’ on the surface of Mars

(This blog was commissioned by EGU’s Geolog. Please go to the site for the original)

In three days’ time, NASA’s InSight Lander is expected to plunge through Mars’ atmosphere before parachuting down to a controlled landing on the flat plains of the Elysium Planitia.

Once the dust has settled, a solar powered robotic arm will painstakingly unload the precious instruments stored onboard onto the planet’s surface, carefully guided by scientists back on Earth.

(Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

These instruments are designed to penetrate further into Mars’ subterranean secrets than any mission before. While previous Martian landers have monitored the planet’s surface and atmosphere, the goal of InSight, short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, is to explore Mars’ interior using three specialised tools.

These include a heat probe which will measure the heat flow near to the surface, a radio science instrument which will measure how Mars wobbles on its axis, and a seismometer which will tell us about Mars’ deep interior. Scientists hope this will lead to new information on the formation of the planets in our solar system, perhaps even illuminating more detail on how our own planet came about.

Seismometers detect seismic waves, vibrations that travel through the ground after an event such as fault movement or meteorite impact. The type of wave and the speed at which it travels can provide important details about the material through which it moves. On Earth, a global network of seismometers has provided vital information about the structure of the planet’s core and mantle.

Robert Myhill, a seismologist at the University of Bristol, is part of a large international team of scientists who have been preparing for data returned by InSight’s seismometers (known as SEIS). Until recently, Myhill has been investigating how SEIS will be affected by Mars’ regolith (its shallow soil surface)[1].

Now that SEIS is en route to its Martian home however, Myhill and colleagues are getting ready for the next phase: receiving the data. “We hope to be able to use the waveforms from marsquakes and/or impacts to image the interior structure of the planet for the first time, including the thickness and structure of the crust, and the composition of the mantle and core,” Myhill explains.

“We’ve also been investigating how we can combine the geophysical data returned by InSight with existing geochemical data to tell us about the history of Mars and the continuing evolution of the planet’s deep interior.”

The data they will receive comes from two different types of sensors, a ‘very-broad-band’ (known as ‘VBB’) seismometer and three tiny short-period seismic sensors which are about the size of a Euro coin. The different sensors can detect various types of seismic wave, depending on the size and location of the seismicity.

Gathering the information needed to achieve the mission’s goals presents numerous challenges. For starters, unlike Earth, which has a network of seismometers that can be used together, InSight will be the only active geophysical station on the Red Planet. Two previous seismometers, mounted on NASA’s Viking Landers in the 1970s, experienced technical faults and design limitations and are no longer in action. As a result, researchers have had to come up with novel ways to gather information from the lone InSight lander [2] [3].

The mission’s designers have also developed new technology to reduce noise and ensure the equipment can operate in Mars’ harsh environment. The seismometer will be mounted on a levelling system close to the Martian surface to minimise tilt and reduce the effect of wind. Once levelled, the lander’s robotic arm will place a wind and thermal shield over the top of the instruments, sheltering the sensitive instruments from extreme temperatures and buffeting by the Martian winds.

Despite the increased protection afforded by the wind and thermal shield, there remain challenges for InSight. “We hope that during the lifetime of the mission, we don’t have a prolonged dust-storm. Although InSight would not be damaged by such an event, it does need solar energy for all its instruments and for data transmission,” said Myhill.

(Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

From 26 November, he and the others involved must wait with bated breath to see their hard work come to fruition. “We should receive the first data from the instrument deck not long after landing, but full deployment of SEIS (including the wind and thermal shield) is not scheduled until early January 2019,” he explains.

“The timing of first results really depends on the level of seismicity, which is currently very poorly known. In fact, determining the rate of seismic energy generation is one of the primary goals of the InSight Mission. But of course, we’re all hoping to see something soon after deployment.”

For the most up to date information on the mission, as well as more details in the lander’s other exciting capabilities see NASA’s InSight website.

*Astute readers of this blog may have noticed the error in the title. There is no such thing as an earthquake on Mars… instead InSight will be monitoring ‘marsquakes’.






NASA’s Juno mission reveals Jupiter’s magnetic field greatly differs from Earth’s

This blog was written for EGU’s blog, the original post can be found on Geolog.

NASA scientists have revealed surprising new information about Jupiter’s magnetic field from data gathered by their space probe, Juno.

Unlike earth’s magnetic field, which is symmetrical in the North and South Poles, Jupiter’s magnetic field has startlingly different magnetic signatures at the two poles.

NASA’s Juno mission reveals Jupiter’s magnetic field greatly differs from Earth’s

The Juno probe flew 2.8 billion kilometres between its launch from earth and insertion into orbit around Jupiter. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The information has been collected as part of the Juno program, NASA’s latest mission to unravel the mysteries of the biggest planet in our solar system. The solar-powered spacecraft is made of three 8.5 metre-long solar panels angled around a central body. The probe (pictured above) cartwheels through space, travelling at speeds up to 250,000 kilometres per hour.

Measurements taken by a magnetometer mounted on the spacecraft have allowed a stunning new insight into the planet’s gigantic magnetic field. They reveal the field lines’ pathways vary greatly from the traditional ‘bar magnet’ magnetic field produced by earth.

The Earth’s magnetic field is generated by the movement of fluid in its inner core called a dynamo. The dynamo produces a positive radiomagnetic field that comes out of one hemisphere and a symmetrical negative field that goes into the other.

The interior of Jupiter on the other hand, is quite different from Earth’s. The planet is made up almost entirely of hydrogen gas, meaning the whole planet is essentially a ball of moving fluid. The result is a totally unique magnetic picture. While the south pole has a negative magnetic field similar to Earth’s, the northern hemisphere is bizarrely irregular, comprised of a series of positive magnetic anomalies that look nothing like any magnetic field seen before.

“The northern hemisphere has a lot of positive flux in the northern mid latitude. It’s also the site of a lot of anomalies,” explains Juno Deputy Principal Investigator, Jack Connerney, who spoke at a press conference at the EGU General Assembly in April. “There is an extraordinary hemisphere asymmetry to the magnetic field [which] was totally unexpected.”

NASA have produced a video that illustrates the unusual magnetism, with the red spots indicating a positive magnetic field and the blue a negative field:

Before its launch in 2016, Juno was programmed to conduct 34 elliptical ‘science’ orbits, passing 4,200 kilometres above Jupiter’s atmosphere at its closest point. When all the orbits are complete, the spacecraft will undertake a final deorbit phase before impacting into Jupiter in February 2020.

So far Juno has achieved eleven science orbits, and the team analysing the data hope to learn more as it completes more passes. “In the remaining orbits we will get a finer resolution of the magnetic field, which will help us understand the dynamo and how deep the magnetic field forms” explains Scott Bolton, Principal Investigator of the mission.

The researchers’ next steps are to examine the probe’s data after its 16th and 34th passes meaning it will be a few more months before they are able to learn more of Jupiter’s mysterious magnetosphere.

World-changing volcanic 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: ‘APOCOLPYTIC 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 a pattern, which, assuming nothing has changed, can give us clues about the future. This can be done for a range of eruption sizes, but this paper focusses on the biggest of the lot. It turns out they have happened more frequently than previously thought. Yes, it’s surprising. No, you don’t need to worry.

Here’s how they did it: 

In reality, supplying the kind of information needed for a study like this is an enormous task. Generations of volcanologists have found evidence of volcanic material from thousands of past eruptions scattered all over the world. Key bits of information on these eruptions has been collected across many years by hundreds of geologists and collated in one place called the LaMEVE database.

The database essentially turns each volcanic eruption into a statistic based on when it erupted and the eruption size. These statistics are the fuel for the study by statistician Prof Jonty Rougier and three volcanologists (and Cabot Institute members), Prof. Steve Sparks, Prof. Katharine Cashman and Dr Sarah Brown.

The paper highlights that overwhelming majority of these eruptions have been fairly small (think Eyjafjallajökull*, think Stromboli), a smaller proportion have been a bit more lively (heard of Krakatau? Mount St. Helens?) and a really very tiny proportion are so big they might be described as ‘civilisation ending’ if they occurred today. I can’t give a well-known example of one of these as we, fairly obviously, haven’t had one in human timescales.

To give you a flavour, here are some statistics from the Toba super-eruption that occurred about 75 thousand years ago. The eruption produced a minimum of 2800km3 of material.. That is equivalent to covering the entire area of the UK in a 12-meter-thick layer of volcanic material, or filling the O2 arena a million times. It is thought the corresponding ash and aerosols that circled the earth cooled the surface temperature by between 3 and 10oC. The reduction in the sun’s radiation would see the death of the majority of plant species, and consequently human’s primary food source.

It paints a rather grim picture. The alarming part of the new study is that eruptions such as Toba might not be as rare as previously thought. Earlier reports have suggested that these eruptions occur every 45-714 thousand years. The new paper revises this range down to 5.2 -48 thousand years with a best guess of one every 17 thousand years. According to geological records, the most recent super eruptions were between 20 and 30 thousand years ago (Taupo 25 ka, Aira 27 ka).

Given that humans started to use agriculture around 12 thousand years ago, it seems as though our modern civilization has flourished in the gap between super eruptions. As Prof.Rougier commented: “on balance, we have been slightly lucky not to experience any super-eruptions in the last 20 thousand years.” A little scary perhaps?

Here’s why you shouldn’t worry: 

The really important part of all this is uncertainty. There is a huge amount of statistical leeway either side of these estimates. Trying to put an exact number on the recurrence interval of something so naturally complex is a bit like trying to estimate the final score of a football match without knowing exactly who the players are. You know how well the team has performed in the past, but you don’t know who will play in the future, or if the same player will behave the same way in every game. There are also a whole range of things that could happen but probably won’t- perhaps the whole match will get rained off?

Volcanoes aren’t much different. Just because a volcano has exhibited one pattern in the past, doesn’t necessarily mean it will do the same in the future. Volcanic systems are infinitely complicated and affected by a huge range of different variables. Assuming perfect cyclicity in eruption recurrence intervals just isn’t realistic. As Prof. Rougier said ‘It is important to appreciate that the absence of super-eruptions in the last 20 ,000 years does not imply that one is overdue.  Nature is not that regular.’

On top of that, our records of volcanic eruptions in the past are far from perfect. Sizes of prehistoric eruptions are easily under or overestimated, and some are simply missing from the record. Generally, the further you go back in time, the hazier it gets. While Rougier and his co-authors have done their best to account for these uncertainties, it is impossible to do so completely.

If that wasn’t enough to put your mind at rest, it is important to remember that geological timescales are a lot bigger than human ones. Whether a volcano erupts every 200 thousand years or 202 thousand years is a very small difference in the context of a volcano’s period of dormancy. But the extra few thousand years encompasses the last two millennia and the hundreds of human generations that have lived within it.

When it comes down to it, the real risks from volcanoes come not from the super-eruptions, but from the smaller, frequent, more locally devastating eruptions. Ultimately, when volcanoes like Agung in Bali erupt, it isn’t us who will suffer. It is those who depend on the volcano for their homes and livelihood who will have to uproot and leave. The real value in this research is not in scare mongering, or in a dramatic headline, it’s developing new techniques that further our understanding of these unpredictable natural phenomena.

(*Remember in 2010 when a volcano in Iceland erupted and shut European airspace? Eyjafjallajökull: Pronounced ‘eye-yafiyat-la-yerkitle in case anyone’s interested)

CABOT BLOG:The Bristol Volcanology Group: Managing Britain’s volcanic crises

When Professor Steve Sparks moved to Bristol from Cambridge in 1989 to take up the Chair of Geology in the School of Earth Sciences little did he know what was in store for him. His time at Bristol would see him advise the government and become one of the most cited scientists of all time.

Sparks’s extraordinary journey as head of the volcanology group has lead it to study volcanism on every continent and has allowed it to grow from one man to a thriving collective of staff, researchers and students. The world-class science produced by the group has resulted in it receiving the Queen’s Anniversary Prize; the highest accolade in higher education.

The eruption on the Island of Montserrat lasted from 1995 to 1997, killed 23 people and displaced several thousand.  As Montserrat is a British dependant territory, the British government was closely engaged in managing the crisis and wasted little time roping in Bristol’s volcanic expertise as Sparks explains: “Bristol was a key partner in establishing the Volcano Observatory on the island and several Bristol staff and PhD students were involved in the monitoring effort in the first few years.” This partnership has continued for the past two decades with Professors Sparks and Aspinall acting as directors of the observatory and heading up the advisory committee ever since. In addition, the research resulting from the eruption has contributed invaluable information to the science of volcanology including causes of volcanic cyclicity and eruptions.Naturally, this evolution has been heavily influenced by volcanoes.  Unlike many sciences, the progress of volcanology can be episodic- driven by key eruptions and crises. For the Bristol group, two events have defined their work which has, in turn, altered the course of the science:

More recently in 2010, the Eyjafjallajokull ash crisis cost the European economy $5 billion through the closure of airspace. In the midst of the decision-making surrounding this closure was a SAGE (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) meeting attended by six volcanologists, of which three were from Bristol. Bristol’s Professor Willy Aspinall, was one of the three called to advise, alongside Dr Matt Watson and Professor Sparks. He described the meeting as a ‘spectrum of people working in many areas from civil aviation to defence’.

Indeed, not only did it highlight the need for more applied approach to volcanology, it also prompted whole new field of research on volcanic ash involving analysis of ash deposits and advances in remote sensing techniques.  Such challenges were met head on by the group that has a huge breadth of research capabilities, from geophysics to geochemistry to petrology. The role Bristol played was pivotal in the national response and was a turning point for the group as a whole as Watson explains ‘Eyja changed how we operated. Volcanology had previously comprised mostly of research produced for other researchers, but this was the first time we could use it practically in a crisis’.

Looking to the future, the group’s challenge is to be prepared for new eruptions, wherever they may be.  The researchers are working in regions all over the world including countries such as Guatemala and Ethiopia. Bristol volcanologists hope to expand this aspect of their research through opportunities such as the Global Challenges Research Fund which will draw together expertise from all corners of the group to address volcanic challenges in less developed nations.


In recent years, Sparks has stepped down as the head of the group allowing for the appointment of Professor Kathy Cashman as AXA professor of volcanology and the group’s new lead.  Now, 27 years after it began, the group is not showing any signs of slowing down. The question is, when will next episode in the group’s history erupt?

Scanning the Horizons

This blog was written for the Cabot Institute in June 2016.

For the evening of 7 June 2016, the Watershed was transformed into vaults of the Horizon programme as Horizon editor Steve Crabtree and University of Bristol Professor Jonathan Bamber took us on an environmentally-flavoured tour of the show’s history.
The Horizon programme is one of the BBC’s longest running series. First broadcast in 1964, it provides a gloriously honest portrayal of both the evolution of television and of science. The event, organised by the British Science Association in partnership with the Festival of Nature and the University of Bristol’s Cabot Institute, meandered through the decades of footage providing a simultaneously amusing and sobering window into the progression of thinking in ecology and climate science.

The evening began with two near-identical snippets of footage; both taken from the bow of an icebreaker crashing through Antarctic sea ice but filmed 50 years apart. The older black and white version, broadcast in 1966, depicted the work of the British Antarctic Survey (BAS). The fuzzy monochrome pictures of dramatic Antarctic scenery were accompanied by Phantom of the Opera-style organ music and a narrator with an accent so archaically-British it would put the queen to shame.

The program explored the geology of the Antarctic, walking through the stages of continental drift before ending on the vast coal deposits that can be found in the Antarctic. The thought of coal mining in the world’s last pristine wilderness seems slightly mad by today’s standards but 1966, as Jonathan pointed out, was long before the 1991 environmental protocol was signed protecting the Antarctic from mineral exploration.

The clip was preceded by footage aired earlier this year. Apart from the addition of the swanky new Halley Research Station the only differences between the two were the colour and resolution: The Antarctic has preserved its natural habitat thanks to limited human interaction. The two clips were a great way to kick off the event and provided a stark contrast to the fast-changing world depicted in the rest of the Horizon episodes.

By far my favourite episode was from 1971 entitled ‘Due to lack of interest, tomorrow has been cancelled’. The footage taken at Lake Eerie comprised scenes of environmental devastation set to lively jazz. The combination drew a laugh from the audience and the dated feel was certainly comical in the context of today’s CGI mega-productions that air in the prime-time BBC slots.

Despite this, it was surprisingly progressive; even in the 70s the BBC was reporting the long term, global effects of human interactions with the environment with an apocalyptic twist. As someone who grew up in the 90s I felt like the worst effects have only been realised in recent years, yet footage like this reminds me that these issues have been knocking around for decades.

The Horizon clips revealed just how vital the late 60s and early 70s were in the development of the environmental movement- suddenly it was fashionable to be interested in ecology. Jonathan attributed this in part to the 1968 Apollo space mission that took the first photograph of the earth from space. After the mission astronaut William Anders said 

“we travelled all this way to explore the moon but the most important thing is that we discovered the earth“. 

In this era, Jonathan said, we developed a sense of the earth as a single place that we all inhabited; and a place we must look after. 

In a further Horizon airing in 1971 ‘Vox pops’ (short interviews with members of the public) filmed on the streets of New York revealed the scale of the environmental movement coupled with footage of marches and protests. So prevalent was this voice that in 1970 President Nixon stated that the “price of goods should be made to include the cost of producing and disposing of them without damage to the environment”. How, I wonder, have we regressed so far from these aspirations of 40 years ago?

The 80s were all about energy production. As the decade progressed, the greenhouse effect was gaining recognition and the Horizon content mirrored this. An episode in 1982 revealed impressively large wind turbines built by Boeing in collaboration with NASA as a clean and sustainable energy solution. Rather comically, Britain’s only wind turbine at this time was a slightly decrepit looking windmill which paled into turbine-insignificance in comparison to the highly engineered US turbines. A further episode later in the decade, provided a snapshot of UK’s sources of carbon emissions immersed in a description of the carbon cycle. Despite humankind being in possession of knowledge of global warming for over a 100 years, public interest grew around this time; something that Jonathan attributed to the formation of the IPCC in 1988.

Moving into the 90s and 00s, the television style underwent the change to digital content. As Steve described, special effects were now in the hands of TV-makers, not just big Hollywood producers. The appearance became more recognisable, although episodes in the early 90s definitely had an aged feel to them. The thinking was more modern, working on the assumption that climate change is already happening rather than convincing the audience of its authenticity. An episode in 2003 discussed not just the scientific implications of a changed planet, but the economic, political and social ones. The film, named ‘The Big Chill’, discussed what might happen if parts of the UK began to freeze. Steve commented that the content of the episodes was sometimes motivated by big Hollywood movies; in this case the blockbuster epic ‘The Day After Tomorrow’ was due for release the following year.

In all, the event was a wonderful glimpse into rarely seen BBC archives. While the evolution of thinking on climate change was what carried the discussions, I particularly enjoyed watching the interviews and narration from an era of television long gone. It made me realise what an invaluable tool it is in documenting past generations and I hope we are able to preserve much of the BBC content from the last five decades. As Steve pointed out, TV viewers in 40 years will probably look back at TV from today and laugh at the styles and fashions. Let’s hope they laugh at us from an even more progressive and sustainable future.  

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

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.