Category Archives: Climatology

Doing flood risk science differently?

By Helen Pallett

uk flooding 2007

The Summer 2007 UK foods. Image credit: Mat Fascione

A group of scientists at the University of Oxford have launched a new citizen science project to help them better understand the 2013-14 winter storms and flooding in the UK. Flooding events over the last decade have received increasing media attention and have been the object of controversies around the official responses. Debates have centred around the contribution of urbanisation to the increased frequency of flooding events, as well as the inadequacy of flood protection and flood response systems. But perhaps the most consistent topic of public debate has been the connection between (human induced) climate change and these extreme weather events.

The Oxford University project Weather@home 2014 asks whether and how much climate change has had an effect on the winter 2013-14 storms and floods and seeks to answer this question through the use of climate models. As the Guardian’s environment editor Damian Carrington explains here, running climate models can be time consuming but the more runs the team has to compare and plot, the clearer any trend will be. So the scientists invite anybody who is interested to sign up and help complete up to 30,000 climate model re-runs of winter 2013-14 with different assumptions about the influence of climate change on weather patterns.

This is an innovative citizen science project in that it expects its citizen scientists to contribute to the work of scientific analysis, rather than simply data collection (though the practice of climate modelling rather blurs this distinction). And it does seem an appropriate project in what has been labelled, ‘the year of the code’ (see for example, here). As with any citizen science project, however it has its limitations, especially in the role carved out for the citizen scientists. Assuming the participants are able to code (and clearly many people cannot), they are free to run as many model runs as they like, set within the scientific and technological framework provided by the Oxford University scientists. The participants, cannot for example, come up with competing models, do runs which seek to answer different questions about the floods, or draw on their own knowledge or experience of the winter floods in their engagement with the project. The scientific framing of this project is a highly contentious one within the climate science community, with many other scientists arguing that the task of attempting to attribute extreme weather events to climate change is impossible and unhelpful. Yet the participants have no say in this.

This shouldn’t surprise us of course, and does not prevent it from being a potentially productive and enriching experience for the both the scientists and citizen scientists involved. But another group of researchers has also been experimenting with involving non-scientists in flood-risk science in a very different way. The flood scientist Stuart Lane along with an interdisciplinary team of natural and social scientists attempted an experiment in flood management involving scientific experts and citizens with experience of flooding, but without giving them pre-defined roles. Natural and social scientists and citizens worked together to generate new knowledge about a flooding event, and to negotiate the different assumptions and commitments of each group, in order to inform public interventions in flood risk management. Thus all members of the group were seen to have relevant and useful knowledge, and efforts were made to develop collective understandings which were not differentiated between academics and non-academics. This research project contributed to scientific understandings of flood hydrology through the creation of new models for example, and also the collection of qualitative understandings and experiences of flooding. But it also helped to overcome an impasse in the management of floods in Pickering, the area under study, where no decision had been made about the appropriate use of resources for flood risk management, by helping to reconfigure relationships between the scientific ‘experts’ and local people.

These contrasting citizen science projects, both focussed on flooding, help to showcase the wide range of ways in which non-scientists can be involved in research projects. However, they also show the importance of aims and framing in determining the outcomes of the project and the ways in which non-scientists participate. The Oxford University project was framed as a conventional scientific study aiming to show how climate change had influenced recent extreme weather events, and co-opting citizen scientists as volunteers to help get the scientific work done more quickly. In the case of the Pickering flooding experiment, the researchers had no clear scientific aim, but rather were deliberately attempting to unsettle power relations between so-called experts and non-experts, and to see if this had an impact of the flood management plans people emerged with. Whilst many will claim that the scientific robustness of the knowledge and flood models generated by the latter project are undermined by the researcher’s determination to involve non-scientists at all stages, the project’s political and practical outcomes (and therefore the impacts on the citizen scientists) were overwhelmingly positive.

S N Lane, N Odoni, C Landstrom, S J Whatmore, N Ward & S Bradley 2011 Doing flood risk science differently: an experiment in radical scientific methodTransactions of the Institute of British Geographers 36(1): 15-36

Citizen scientists test influence of climate change on UK winter deluge: results poor in Guardian – Damian Carrington’s Environment Blog, March 24th

Weather@home 2014: the causes of the UK winter floods,

The Future of European Aviation?

by Benjamin Sacks

Proposed European FABs.

Proposed European FABs.

The eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökul volcano on 20 March 2010 demonstrated the weaknesses in Europe’s diverse air traffic control network. As a massive ash cloud up to 8 kilometres high gradually extended across western Europe, forcing the cancellation of thousands of flights and stranding millions of passengers across the entire continent. Although European air controllers correctly prioritised passenger safety above all other factors, the scenario left many airline industry commentators and journalists frustrated with the European Union’s apparent inability to swiftly and effectively act on changing meteorological and airline information. With few exceptions, the maintenance of separate airspace quadrants by each EU member, each with different processes, response mechanisms, as well as external pressures from airlines and politicians, all contributed to delayed and even contradictory responses in London, Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin, and Oslo.

In Eyjafjallajökull’s wake, the International Aviation Transportation Authority (IATA), in cooperation with the EU, proposed the establishment a single European air zone, divided into nine ‘functional airspace blocks’. Citing the current system’s woefully inefficiency – e.g., ‘With fewer air traffic controllers the United States FAA [Federal Aviation Authority] is able to deliver 70% more controlled flight hours than Europe]’ – the IATA / EU consortium called for a reorganisation, or ‘rationalisation’ of air traffic control hierarchies, technological modernisation, and substantially better (and more transparent) communication between national aviation authorities. Optimistically entitled ‘Single European Sky’ (SES), officials set a date of 4 December 2012 for its implementation.

But, as Dr Christopher Lawless (Durham University) reminds us in his March 2014 Geographical Journal commentary, 4 December 2012 came and went with little change. Only two of the nine blocks – Denmark-Sweden and UK-Ireland – had reached operational status. National-level aviation oversight bodies – intended to be the vanguard of transnational cooperation – had made little progress in communicating or facilitating with their neighbouring counterparts. Bickering, unsurprisingly, had early on replaced collaboration. At the EU Aviation Summit in Limassol, Cyprus, Siim Kallas, European Commission joint Vice President and Transport Commissioner, attacked EU states for ‘their “undue protection of national interests’” (Lawless p. 76).

Of the seven non-operational airspace blocks, two (Iberian Peninsula and Central Mediterranean) had not even progressed beyond the ‘definition stage’ (p. 77). Fearing the loss of their jobs and the complete overhaul of learned ATC procedures, French and German air traffic controllers repeatedly threatened strikes.

Lawless examined SES’s problematic history through Sheila Jasanoff and Sang-Hyun Kim’s 2009 paradigm of ‘sociotechnical imaginary’. The European SES programme sought to mix technological requirements with larger political aspirations, inevitably leading to discord between various member states. Airlines, already struggling to break even financially, balked at restructuring costs (p.80). Spatially, air spaces were eventually designed along largely existing geographical and geopolitical lines, as the UK-Ireland, Denmark-Sweden, and Italy-Mediterranean sectors clearly demonstrate (p. 78). In reality, these geopolitically-influenced air spaces make little sense with the traffic patterns of most passenger flights:

[T]he highest density region of European air traffic…spans a corridor encompassing the airspace of the UK, Belgium, The Netherlands, Luxembourg, France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Italy. Under the current arrangement, this straddles four separate FABs…(p. 78).

Lawless concludes by calling for a comprehensive inquiry into sovereign states’ concerns, risk assessments, and considerations, and re-drawing the air space landscape in a more logical (and less state-specific) manner. Ultimately, he stressed that even such ‘apolitical’ projects as SES are unfortunately ridden with politics, negotiation, and self-interests.

The SES debate will continue to fascinate observers for some time. Agonising, protracted discussions over the future of London’s airspace – the world’s busiest – between Conservative officials, led by Boris Johnson, and Labour opponents seem unlikely to end amicably, or soon. This regional crisis, combined with Britain’s current national debate over its long-term role within the EU, will only further complicate the SES’s possible re-development and implementation.    


Gertisser R, Eyjafjallajökull volcano causes widepread disruption to European air trafficGeology Today 26.3 (May-Jun.: 2010), 94-95.

books_icon IATA / EU, A Blueprint for the Single European Sky: Delivering on safety, environment, capacity and cost-effectiveness, 2011.

books_icon Lawless C, Commentary: Bounding the vision of a Single European SkyThe Geographical Journal, 180.1 (Mar., 2014): 76-82.

60-world2 Sacks B, Eyjafjallajökull: Geography’s Harsh ReminderGeography Directions, 18 February 2011.

60-world2 Q&A: EU response to Iceland volcano ashBBC News, 25 May 2011.

60-world2 Iceland volcano ash: German air traffic resumingBBC News, 25 May 2011.

60-world2 Hofmann K, French, German ATCs postpone strikes over Single European SkyAir Transport World, 24 January 2014.


A British Arctic Policy for the Twenty-first Century

by Benjamin Sacks

HMS Alert's 1875-76 expedition to the Arctic. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

HMS Alert’s 1875-76 expedition to the Arctic. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Britain retains significant interests in the Arctic Ocean, according to a recently published commentary in The Geographical Journal. To the general reader, this point may be somewhat surprising: physical geography aside, the United Kingdom’s more famous interests in the South Atlantic and Antarctica tend to make headlines. The Cold War, in particular, popularised the Arctic environment as the preserve of Russia, the United States, and Scandinavia. In 2007 and 2010 the House of Lords formally discussed Britain’s supposed lack of a coherent and tangible Arctic policy, proposing that the House of Commons, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and the National Oceanographic Centre formulate at least a mission statement outlining British objectives in the region. Britain’s intimate relationship with Canada, and increasingly with Norway, have also been cited as key motivators to both expanding Arctic goals and defining the terms of Arctic activity. Various Parliamentary committees have discussed the possibility of establishing a powerful Arctic scientific research body similar in scope and size to the British Antarctic Survey.

The Arctic has long drawn British explorers, entrepreneurs, strategists, and naval planners. The British Empire brought Canada’s vast Arctic territories into the public imagination, and the Second World War catalysed a strong bilateral British-Norwegian relationship which continues to the present. In the twenty-first century, this exploration- and defence-based relationships have been complemented with an increasing range of corporate and public interests, from environmental activism and scientific inquiry to petroleum and rare earth minerals exploration.

Yet as of present, the British government has yet to publish or promote a formal Arctic policy. Duncan Depledge (Royal Holloway) suggests that this is because London remains concerned ‘about over-committing itself where the UK’s interests are often peripheral in relation to wider global concerns’ (p. 370). But as Depledge contends, Britain’s economic and strategic interests require a strong Arctic presence.

From a defence point-of-view, Britain both retains and will need to increase its Arctic interests. In a 2012 white paper authored for the United Royal Services Institute, Depledge and Klaus Dodds recalled their first-hand experiences observing a series of joint operations between Britain and Norway. Referring to it as the ‘forgotten partnership’, the authors stress Norway’s strong reliance and confidence in its North Sea neighbour to ensure the North Atlantic’s protection in the event of conflict. Physical geography also plays an important role: extreme weather training remains as important as ever for British forces.

Scientific and corporate interests are no less important. Beyond never-ending Parliamentary quibbling over white paper naming and policy terminology (pp. 370-72), London has repeatedly claimed that it wishes to become a leader in environmental protection and rehabilitation. World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace, and BBC Earth awareness programmes have accomplished significant strides in raising public awareness for ‘saving’ the Arctic from excessive human development. Ultimately, Depledge stresses the need for clarifying British Arctic policies across defence, scientific, environmental, and corporate spheres, as well as recognising Britain’s position as a non-Arctic state. Britain will need to work with Scandinavia, Russia, Canada, and the United States to seek common ground while respecting national interests.


Duncan Depledge 2013 What’s in a name? A UK Arctic policy framework for 2013, The Geographical Journal 179.4: 369-72.

books_icon Duncan Depledge and Klaus Dodds 2012 Testing the Northern Flank: The UK, Norway and Exercise Cold ResponseThe RUSI Journal 157.4: 72-78.

Climate Change Adapatation: Greening Urban Environments

by Fiona Ferbrache


Examples of green infrastructure from an exhibition entitled ‘La Ville Fertile’ (Gaillac, 2012)

What happened to your Christmas tree at the end of December?  Did you recycle wrapping paper and Christmas cards?  Perhaps you experienced some flooding from the severe weather during the festive season?  This post explores environmental and climate change adaptation strategies – namely green infrastructure – but first a light-hearted piece of research with a festive theme.

In December, academics from Leeds University calculated Santa’s carbon footprint if he successfully delivered stockings to 7.7 million UK homes.  Travelling roughly 1.5 million km, Santa’s carbon footprint would be equivalent to 9 tonnes per stocking (UK annual CO2 emissions are roughly 7 tonnes per person).  Exploring less costly ways of delivering Christmas gifts, the scientists calculated that stockings arriving from China by container ship, and then to one’s home by van, would result in lower CO2 emissions at 800 grams per stocking.Xmas sack0001

We are asked to take environmental and climate change seriously, not least because without adequate adaptation, lives and landscapes may be put at risk.  This point is made by Jones and Somper in an Early View article exploring how climate change adaptations in London are being integrated into the landscape.  Their focus is on green infrastructure: “natural or semi-natural networks of green (soil-covered or vegetated) and blue (water-covered) spaces and corridors that maintain and enhance ecosystem services” (p.1), and how such spaces can be encouraged and used more effectively (e.g. the Green Roofs Scheme).  Jones and Somper present some examples of existing measures towards green infrastructure in the capital, and also make three key recommendations for policymakers, highlighting, among them, the need for stronger planning initiatives to turn ideals into standard practice.

Next time you visit London, you might observe what measures have been taken towards furthering green infrastructure, and consider whether such strategies might be successful in your own hometown.

60-world2  Greening Roofs and Walls in LondonGreater London Authority

books_icon  Jones, S. & Somper, C. 2013 The role of green infrastructure in climate change adaptation in London. The Geographical Journal. DOI: 10.1111/geoj.12059

60-world2  Santa’s EmissionsUnited Bank of Carbon

60-world2  “Are We Whistling in the Wind?”, Turner, B. 2012 Geography Directions 19 October


Consumption, Behaviour Change and Sustainability

Taken by John O'Neill: View from lookout hill of Japanese Gardens, Cowra, NSW, Australia.  This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.Jen Dickie

On Tuesday, the House of Commons International Development Committee published a report on global food security.  Issues around the changes in the supply and demand of food at a local and global scale are discussed and calls for food wastage to be reduced, nutrition programmes expanded and a revision of agriculturally derived biofuels are some of the recommendations made.  However, in The Guardian yesterday, Fiona Harvey focussed on a more specific warning from the MPs’ report, stating that the British public “should eat meat less often, in order to help ease the food crises in the developing world”.  Although only one of many factors contributing to the global food crises, the MPs’ suggest that by cutting down meat consumption, pressures on agricultural land will ease, deforestation and obesity will be reduced and recent food price inflation will stabilise.  The report emphasises that this is not just a national issue but a global one, highlighting that China has doubled its average meat consumption per person per year from 20kg in 1985 to 50kg today; whilst high, this consumption level is still shadowed by the UK, who averaged at 85.8kg in 2007.  However, the report recognises that simply “urging the Western world to stop consuming meat is neither feasible nor desirable”, and instead suggests a campaign for behavioural change is needed where we see meat as an “occasional product rather than an everyday staple”.    

The timing of the International Development Committee’s report is of particular relevance as it was UNEP’s ‘World Environment Day’ on Wednesday.  The theme for this year’s celebrations is Think.Eat.Save, an anti-food waste campaign that encourages you to become more aware of your food choices and the environmental impacts they may have.  Sustainable consumption is described by UNEP as being about ‘doing more and better with less’, not just in terms of food, but for all renewable and non-renewable resources.  

Whilst food consumption behaviours are the main focus of these activities, Meryl Pearce et al. report on the consumption and conservation behaviours of water in three parts of Australia in an article for The Geographical Journal.  They compared householders stated water use with their actual consumption and found that high water users knew that they were high consumers of water, and that location, household size and annual household income were good predictive factors for high per capita water use.  Interestingly, their study also found that having a healthy garden was seen as a “symbol of economic status in the neighbourhood”, and therefore more important than conserving water.  Pearce et al. suggest that successful behavioural change campaigns need to offer “alternatives that do not lead to any loss in social welfare or status” and that by promoting the growing prestige associated with sustainable living consumption behaviour could change for the better.             

books_icon Meryl Pearce, Eileen Willis, Loreen Mamerow, Bradley Jorgensen, John Martin, 2013, The prestige of sustainable living: implications for water use in Australia, The Geographical Journal, DOI: 10.1111/geoj.12016

60-world2 Eat less meat for greater food security, British population urged, The Guardian, 4th June 2013

60-world2 Global Food Security: First Report of Session 2013–14, House of Commons International Development Committee, accessed 4th June 2013

60-world2 United Nations Environment Programme, Think.Eat.Save.  World Environment Day, accessed 5th June 2013

Seeing glacial change: optical consistency through the camera and the archive

Martin Mahony

The Gangotri glacier in India, source of the Ganges river. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Towards the end of last year I visited an exhibition at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Museum entitled ‘Rivers of Ice: Vanishing Glaciers of the Greater Himalaya’. The exhibition presented the work of mountaineer, photographer and filmmaker David Breashears, who had recently trekked through the Himalaya to produce updated photographs of glaciers which had been caught on film by earlier explorers. The exhibition blended the scientific iconography of climate change with that of the intrepid explorer, with the ice picks and ropes of the geographic expedition juxtaposed against the graphs and satellite imagery of climate science (see here).

My interest in glaciers grew from some empirical work I’ve been conducting on the contestation between the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the Indian government over the possible rapid melting of Himalayan glaciers. In the IPCC’s 2007 report, it was asserted that the glaciers could entirely disappear by 2035. This claim was refuted by a government-sponsored review conducted by an Indian glaciologist, which reported a mixed pattern of advancing and receding glaciers and challenged “the conventional wisdom” of climate change causing rapid melting, as the Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh put it. The 2035 claim was later revealed to be ill-founded, having been picked-up from a magazine interview with a glaciologist in the 1990s and eventually finding its way into the IPCC report.

Melting ice has become a visual icon of climate change. Images of polar bears stranded on diminished ice floes and juxtaposed ‘then-and-now’ photographs of shrinking glaciers often dominate media coverage of the issue. There is something very tangible about disappearing ice, perhaps because its relationship to warming temperatures is much more direct and imaginable than the more complex causal links between global warming and the occurrence of extreme weather events. The vulnerability of ice to human-generated heat neatly captures the sense that human activities are impinging on and endangering a fragile natural world.

Scientific knowledge of melting ice is, however, deeply complex. As shown by the IPCC incident, it also sometimes the topic of heated scientific and political debate. In a recent paper in The Geographical Journal, Ulrich Kamp and colleagues provide a window onto the complex methods of detecting change in mountains glaciers, while also offering a fascinating account of how different sorts of data can be combined to produce new scientific understandings. The authors visited the RGS archives in London to access data and photographs from a 1910 RGS expedition to the Turgen Mountains in Mongolia led by Douglas Alexander Caruthers (1882-1962). After reviewing field notes and photographs from the expedition, the authors made their own way to the Turgen Mountains to reproduce the images made by Caruthers and his team.

By carefully positioning and calibrating their cameras, Kamp’s team was able to produce images suitable for detailed comparison. The anthropologist and philosopher of science Bruno Latour has often noted how much scientific knowledge production depends on achieving “optical consistency”, in order to find regular avenues through geographic space. The optical consistency achieved by the 21st century explorers enabled them to compare the pixels of their new images with scanned versions of the 1910 pictures, in order to ascertain precise measurements of ice loss. The authors are then able to conclude that glaciers on the lower slopes of the mountains have shown a marked retreated over the course of the last 100 years, and that continuing climate change will likely see that trend continue.

The image of the geographer-as-explorer has long since receded from imagination (at least those of academic geographers). However, Kamp et al.’s study demonstrates that where a key variable of scientific research is the passage time, there is great value in revisiting the archived work of geographers of old.


India ‘arrogant’ to deny global warming link to melting glaciersThe Guardian

globe42 IPCC officials admit mistake over melting Himalayan glaciersThe Guardian


Ulrich Kamp et al., 2013, Documenting glacial changes between 1910, 1970, 1992 and 2010 in the Turgen Mountains, Mongolian Altai, using repeat photographs, topographic maps, and satellite imageryThe Geographical Journal, DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-4959.2012.00486.x

The Rise of the South: Beyond Expectations or a Warning about Our Future?

Jen Dickie

New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina: A Texas Army National Guard Blackhawk black deposits a 6,000 pound-plus bag of sand and gravel on-target, Sunday, September 4, 2005as work progresses to close the breach in the 17th Street Canal, New Orleans. (U.S. Army Corp of Engineers photo by Alan Dooley).  This work is in the public domain.On the 14th March, the United Nations Development Programme published the 2013 Human Development Report, The Rise of the South: Human Progress in a Diverse World, which describes how the “rise of the South is radically reshaping the world of the 21st century, with developing nations driving economic growth, lifting hundreds of millions of people from poverty, and propelling billions more into a new global middle class”.  Crediting sustained investment in education, health care and social programmes as well as increasing international engagement, the report states that the “world is witnessing an epochal global rebalancing”.  Whilst the UN’s press release focuses on the “massive poverty reduction” and that more than 40 developing countries have demonstrated growth beyond expectations, Claire Provost highlights some of the more negative findings from the report in her article for The Guardian.  Her article focuses on the warning from the UN that unless action is taken to tackle environmental threats such as climate change, deforestation and air and water pollution, the number of people living in extreme poverty could increase by up to 3 billion by 2050.  The report highlights that climate change is already exacerbating “chronic” environmental threats, and stresses that although everyone is affected, “they hurt poor countries and poor communities the most”.

In an article for The Geographical Journal, Nigel Clark, Vasudha Chhotray and Roger Few discuss the relationship between natural hazards and disasters and how best to address the “uneven exposure and resilience of different social groups”.  They argue that human-induced climate change and its associated impacts have further added to the already complex nature of natural disasters.  Questioning the concept of global environmental justice, they discuss issues such as the tendency of powerful political and economic actors to take advantage of disasters and how traditional coping mechanisms have been eroded by ‘global modernising forces’; however, they state that whilst aid responses can be distributional and/or rights-based, the idea of justice is likely to stem from “ordinary human virtues of care and compassion”.  Following this argument, Clark et al., offer the notion that current generations of humans may be more likely care about the environment and the challenges it, and our future generations, face if we consider ourselves as owing an incalculable debt to past generations who survived a magnitude of natural disasters and therefore made our existence possible.

As growth in developing nations continues, the challenges facing them will change.  The UN highlights that sustainable economies and societies will rely on new policies and structural changes, and that these are needed if human development and climate change goals are to be aligned.  However, it is clear that policies alone will not be enough.  If we can show the same resilience and respect for our environment as our ancestors did, and view our actions as something we ‘owe’ our future generations, perhaps attitudes will change.

books_icon Nigel Clark, Vasudha Chhotray, Roger Few, 2013, Global justice and disasters, The Geographical Journal, DOI: 10.1111/geoj.12005

60-world2 Environmental threats could push billions into extreme poverty, warns UN, The Guardian, 14th March 2013

60-world2 Press release: “Rise of South” transforming global power balance, says 2013 Human Development Report, accessed 18th March 2013

60-world2 Human Development Report 2013, The Rise of the South: Human Progress in a Diverse World, accessed 18th March 2013

Vexed Natures: Geoengineering in the UK Media

By Martin Mahony

The idea of human control over the weather is certainly not new; neither are many of the accompanying anxieties. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Geoengineering – or “deliberate large-scale intervention in the Earth’s climate system, in order to moderate global warming” (as defined by the Royal Society) – is a topic which always divides opinion in debates about how to tackle climate change. As levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere continue to rise at break-neck speed, many insist that efforts to de-carbonise our economies will not be sufficient to avoid dangerous levels of climate change. The only solution, the argument goes, is to counteract humankind’s alteration of the atmosphere’s chemistry with similarly large-scale – but planned – interventions in the operation of the earth system.

The technologies conventionally captured under the label “geoengineering” can perhaps be more usefully thought of in terms of solar radiation management (SRM) and carbon dioxide removal (CDR). SRM technologies range from the mundane to the fanciful: from painting roofs white to reflect more sunlight, to the deployment of giant mirrors between the earth and the sun to intercept solar energy before it even reaches earth’s atmosphere. Other suggestions include the artificial fertilisation of the ocean to encourage it to absorb more carbon dioxide, and the injection of reflective sulphate aerosols into the high atmosphere. The CDR category contains slightly less vaulting technological ambition; technologies here would seek to remove excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere (with things like synthetic trees and carbon ‘scrubbers’ in power stations) and squirrel it away in underground stores.

For advocates of geoengineering research and deployment, it is essential that we prepare the way for technologies which could deliver us from a full-blown climatic catastrophe. For opponents, geoengineering is another example of the kind of hubris which got us into the environmental crisis in the first place, and the technologies will simply lead us into a vicious circle of unintended consequences and even more risky and uncertain remedial actions. The geoengineering debate thus takes us to the core of deeply ideological debates about the relationship between humans and nature, about technological progress, and about the democratic governance of risk and the environment.

New research from the Science, Society and Sustainability (3S) Group at the University of East Anglia has shone some light on how these diverse normative, ideological and technological assumptions have played out in media coverage of geoengineering debates. In a paper in The Geographical Journal, Kate Porter and Mike Hulme explore the dominant framings of UK newspaper coverage of the issue. Questions of innovation, risk, governance, economics, morality, security and justice are all identified as framings which direct – implicitly and explicitly – the ways stories about geoengineering are assembled and presented to the reading public. Risk framings, for example, tend to emphasise the trade-offs between the avoidance of serious climate change and the uncertain outcomes of large scale geoengineering interventions. Morality framings, by contrast, tend to translate these calculations into a Biblical language of guilt, blame, judgement and punishment.

What will perhaps be of most interest to geographers is Porter & Hulme’s account of the different conceptions of ‘nature’ which can be traced through these diverse framings. Nature emerges, variously, as a powerful self-regulating system in need of palliative care; as something much bigger than and outside of human agency against which dreams of total knowledge and control are futile; and as something more ephemeral which is inherently threatened by geoengineering. This latter conception stands close to Francis Bacon’s notion of natura vexata - a nature once free and unconstrained, which is now oppressed and frustrated by human action. These different understandings of the relationship between the human and the nonhuman have deep roots. Any attempt at a deliberate, global modification of the planet’s energy flows will have to negotiate these competing visions. How to do this in a way which is robustly and justly democratic is a question which we are yet to come to terms with.

Any discussion of geoengineering is freighted with normative assumptions and political preferences (you’ll probably have noticed some of mine). Porter & Hulme’s work offers a preliminary guide to the rhetorical resources and ideological frames which populate the geoengineering debate, and raises further interesting questions. How do these debates play out differently in different places and cultures? Who is trusted as a source of information on geoengineering? How do different conceptions of ‘nature’, ‘risk’ and even ‘democracy’ shape the debate? These are important discussions which geographers are well-placed to contribute to.

books_icon Kate Elizabeth Porter and Mike Hulme, 2013, The Emergence of the Geoengineering Debate in the UK Print Media: A Frame Analysis, The Geographical Journal, DOI: 10.1111/geoj.12003

globe42 Rogue geoengineering could ‘hijack’ world’s climateThe Guardian

globe42 Carbon dioxide levels show biggest spike in 15 yearsTimes of India

Governing from Above: The Vertical Geopolitics of Climate Change

The laying of water pipes in Israel c. 1946. Hydrological politics are now a key site where climate change meets questions of sovereignty. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Martin Mahony

Global geopolitics have conventionally been conceived of in terms of the horizontal actions and interactions of territorially-bounded nation states. However, critical geographers have recently started giving consideration to ‘vertical geopolitics’, drawing greater attention to the spatial exercise of power in a dimension which cannot conventionally be discerned from a flat political map of the world.

Vertical geopolitics have figured prominently in the news recently, particularly as new technologies of surveillance and violence have challenged conventional orderings of vertical territory (such as the notion of sovereign ‘airspace’). In particular, the military use of drones – or unmanned aircraft – for the purposes of intelligence-gathering  and assassination has quite radically altered the political geographies of modern warfare. Meanwhile, the WWF’s recent announcement that drones will be used to help protect wildlife from poachers marks an interesting development in the sky-bound surveillance of the global environment.

Climate change offers an fascinating window through which to observe the changing dimensions of political geography. In the first instance, the science and politics of the atmosphere may seem to challenge conventional territorial forms of governance. However, research is starting to emerge which demonstrates how certain political responses to climate change represent reterritorialising moves in the ongoing negotiations over sovereignty, environment and natural resources.

A paper I wrote recently with Mike Hulme seeks to explore the knowledge-base underlying many such moves. Regional climate prediction has become a key means of localising or even territorialising climate change, thus producing new forms of political space in which the implications of climate change can be debated. A recent paper by Michael Mason in The Geographical Journal takes this proposition further. In analysing the ‘securitisation’ of climate change in the context of the Israel/Palestine conflict, he offers a fascinating picture of the interaction of climate politics with the (vertical) geopolitics of contested sovereign spaces.

Mason argues that the specific way in which climate change has been rendered as a security problem by the Israeli government tends to reinforce vertical relations of domination over Palestinian skies and groundwater resources. By contrast, in the case of the Palestinian Authority, the threats posed by climate change have both been woven into liberation narratives and used as an opportunity to demonstrate policy competence and fitness for statehood.

Mason’s paper makes an important contribution to a growing body of literature which emphasises the multitude of ways in which climate change is securitised, normalised and politicised in different contexts and settings. The vertical geopolitics of climate change represent an important facet of this line of inquiry, and one which is only just beginning to be explored.

books_icon Michael Mason, 2013, Climate Change, Securitisation and the Israel-Palestine ConflictThe Geographical Journal, DOI: 10.1111/geoj.12007


Martin Mahony & Mike Hulme, 2012, Model Migrations: Mobility and Boundary Crossings in Regional Climate Prediction. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 37, 2, 197-211

globe42 WWF plans to use drones to protect wildlifeThe Guardian


John Brennan’s killer drones are new symbol of American in the worldLos Angeles Times

Avalanche! How Trees Hold the Secrets of the Past…

Jen Dickie

Stob Ghabhar, Scotland. This image was taken from the Geograph project collection. See this photograph's page on the Geograph website for the photographer's contact details. The copyright on this image is owned by Richard Webb and is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license. Last month, tragedy struck in the Scottish Highlands when an avalanche swept four climbers to their deaths. The experienced mountaineers were descending the Bidean Nam Bian peak on the southern side of Glencoe when the avalanche hit, causing them to fall 1000ft (c. 300m) before being buried under dense snow.  In a report for The Independent, Richard Osley describes how the tragedy occurred shortly after the Scottish Avalanche Information Service (SAIS) issued a warning that human-triggered avalanches were likely in the Glencoe area and the risk was rated as ‘considerable’.  The SAIS reported that on the day of the avalanche, there did not appear to be much depth of snow on the hills of Glencoe, however, there were areas of “mainly hard, unstable windslab” that overlay “a persistent softer weaker layer”; in these conditions more compact blocks of snow can separate from the surrounding snow resulting in a ‘Slab Avalanche’, this type of avalanche is responsible for the majority of avalanche-related fatalities.

As the popularity of the winter sports industry grows, there is increasing pressure on scientists to predict where and when avalanche events will occur.  Dedicated research centres such as the Swiss Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research are continually improving our understanding of avalanche formation and dynamics and therefore providing increasingly reliable warning services, however, they highlight that we are still unable to accurately predict “why, when and where an avalanche will be released”.

In an article for Area, Mircea Voiculescu and Alexandru Onaca describe how they have applied dendrogeomorphological methods to assess snow avalanches in the Sinaia ski region in the Romanian Carpathian Mountains.  By combining climatological and nivological (physical properties of the snow) analyses with information on disturbances recorded in tree growth, they argue that historical avalanche activity can be reconstructed, including the frequency, magnitude and return-period characteristics of the events.  This knowledge, they argue, can be used to make assessments of risk in areas such as the Carpathian Mountains, where the geomorphological understanding of local avalanches is limited.

As winter sports become more popular with non-expert communities, there is growing pressure to identify high risk areas and to provide appropriate warning systems that non-experts can understand.  It is clear that real-time observations and local knowledge are key to identifying avalanche risk, however, this research shows that by combining different techniques and approaches, we can increase our knowledge and understanding of hazards such as avalanches, and provide essential risk information to previously unmonitored regions such as newly established winter sports resorts.

books_icon Mircea Voiculescu and Alexandru Onaca, 2013, Snow avalanche assessment in the Sinaia ski area (Bucegi Mountains, Southern Carpathians) using the dendrogeomorphology method, Area 45 109–122 doi: 10.1111/area.12003

60-world2 Four climbers die in Glencoe avalanche, The Independent, 20th January 2013

60-world2 SportScotland Avalanche Information Service, accessed on 18th January 2013

60-world2 The WSL Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research SLF, accessed on the 18th January 2013