Category Archives: Geomorphology

Rapid land-use changes are creating the geology of the Anthropocene

By Eli Lazarus

Deforestation, palm oil plantations, and erosion in Kalimantan, Borneo, Indonesia.

Deforestation, palm oil plantations, and erosion in Kalimantan, Borneo, Indonesia. Image courtesy of the NASA Earth Observatory.

From a historical perspective, land grabbing – deals involving acquisitions of large-scale land assets – is not a new global phenomenon. But it is a resurgent one. Investigative journalists and non-governmental organisations have been reporting on land grabs with particular attention since 2008, when a market-driven spike in food prices triggered a widespread geopolitical crisis over food security. The crisis is ongoing, further complicated by conflicting interests in land for water access, biofuel production, timber, mineral wealth, industrial expansion, environmental conservation, and the protection of local and indigenous peoples’ rights. Academic researchers have begun to examine the social, political, and institutional dynamics of land grabbing, but such expansive land-use transitions can also have profound, lasting effects on physical landscapes. In my article, published in Area, I consider land grabbing as a peculiar force of change in human–environmental systems.

Through agriculture, construction, resource extraction, and other activities, humans move around a lot of dirt. In terms of mass, we displace more of the planet’s surface on an annual basis than any natural agent of geomorphic change, including rivers, glaciers, wind, hillslopes, and waves. Sediment cores from Central America reveal erosion signals coincident with land clearing by Pre-Columbian empires. Lakes across the western US retain the sedimentary record of the catastrophic 1930s Dust Bowl, which followed the introduction of industrial agriculture to the Great Plains. Environmental historians suggest that humans have caused thus far three global-scale pulses of soil erosion in our time on Earth, and the volume of soil and rock we have moved since early millennia BCE has increased nonlinearly as a function of population and technology.

What makes land-use transitions driven by land grabbing so remarkable is their scale: no natural process of environmental change (aside from a cataclysmic event) operates as rapidly over such vast areas and in so many settings. Global landscape changes driven by human activities are the precursors to what will become the geology of the Anthropocene, an epoch characterised by the legacies, material and indirect, of our built environment. Could this new era of land grabbing ultimately register in sedimentary records around the world? Much as past climates have left their own geologic signatures, humans are already leaving our own in the volume of sediment we move – and in the astounding rates at which we move it.

About the author: Dr Eli Lazarus is a Lecturer at School of Ocean Earth Sciences at Cardiff University.

open-access-icon Lazarus E D 2014 Land grabbing as a driver of environmental changeArea, 46: 74–82. doi: 10.1111/area.12072

60-world2 Image of the Day: Kalimantan, Borneo, Indonesia NASA Earth Observatory, 7 July 2012

60-world2 Lakhani N, World Bank’s ethics under scrutiny after Honduras loan investigation The Guardian, 13 January 2014

60-world2 MacFarquhar N, African farmers displaced as investors move in The New York Times, 21 December 2010

60-world2 Vidal J, How food and water are driving a 21st-century African land grab The Guardian, 7 March 2010

60-world2 Vidal J, Major palm oil companies accused of breaking ethical promises The Guardian, 6 November 2013

Adapting to coastal change: understanding different points of view in coastal erosion management

by Mark Tebboth

The devastating flooding in central Europe is a powerful example of the destruction that extreme weather can cause. Yet, finding agreement on the best way to protect citizens, infrastructure and nature from the sort of events witnessed in Germany, Hungary and the Czech Republic is a difficult, sometimes impossible, balancing act. As an article published in February in The Guardian newspaper put it ‘Floods kill, wreak havoc and cost billions. And we know they’re coming. So why aren’t we doing anything about them?’ Happisburgh, a small village on the East Anglian coast, is typical of some of the issues highlighted in The Guardian article. The village has lost a number of homes and other structures in recent years (compare the pictures from 1996 and 2012) and is suffering from the consequences of coastal erosion. However, despite the urgency of the situation, it has not been possible to arrive at a solution that is acceptable to all involved.

Happisburgh in 1996, 2006 and 2012 during which time it has lost a number of sea front properties (copyright Mike Page)

Happisburgh in 1996, 2006 and 2012 during which time it has lost a number of sea front properties (copyright Mike Page)

The inability of stakeholders to agree a way forward can be explained, in part, by the different ways in which the issue of coastal erosion is framed. For example, the Coastal Concern Action Group (CCAG), a local pressure group based in Happisburgh, highlights the problems caused by a lack of investment in sea defences. Conversely, the UK Government tends to emphasise the inevitability of coastal erosion, citing causes such as nature or climate change. By highlighting different causes as primarily responsible for coastal erosion these two stakeholders gravitate towards different solutions: increased and more appropriately targeted investment if a lack of investment is the problem and a different management approach if coastal erosion is inevitable. How is it that these two stakeholders, with access to similar information can have such different perspectives?

The different views held by institutions such as CCAG or the UK Government are, in part, determined by their implicit beliefs or how they think the world works. These beliefs help institutions to make sense of the world around them and can act as short cuts when to trying to understand complex issues. In the case of Happisburgh, this might explain why dredging is seen as a critical issue for one party (CCAG) but is barely on the radar of the other (UK Government).

In policy conflicts, revealing some of the more underlying beliefs that stakeholders rely on to support a particular point of view can helpfully inform governance and communication approaches leading to more realistic, acceptable and better designed solutions. For Happisburgh, this could mean a reframing of the issue of coastal erosion to focus on the more recent successes that have been realised through the Pathfinder Programme, rather than past failures. Such an approach offers potential to rebuild trust and understanding between the different stakeholders, increasing the chances of a more positive outcome.

The author: Mark Tebboth is a PhD student at the School of International Development affiliated with the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, University of East Anglia.

books_iconTebboth M 2013 Understanding intractable environmental policy conflicts: the case of the village that would not fall quietly into the sea The Geographical Journal doi: 10.1111/geoj.12040

60-world2Harvey F 2013 Floods: a disaster waiting to happen The Guardian 2 February

60-world2North Norfolk District Council 2012 Happisburgh North Norfolk Pathfinder

60-world2Weeks J 2013 Floods cause chaos across Europe – in pictures The Guardian 6 June

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

Skiing and snow: a novel proxy for better science communication

By Daniel Schillereff

The first snowfall on the peaks of Snowdonia could be observed from my University building today, I have received the first ‘snow dump alerts’ for a number of alpine ski resorts (see Webcam link below) and televised ski competitions have kicked off for the 2012/13 season. These events inspire personal feelings of elation and excitement every year associated with snow and skiing. Imagine my delight when I discovered the keywords ‘ski’ and ‘geomorphology’ attributed to the same paper this week! These are applied to an Early View paper in Area by Voiculescu and Onaca examining the frequency and magnitude of snow avalanche risk over recent decades at the Sinaia ski resort, Romania, using dendrogeomorphological techniques.

Their approach employs high-precision visual examinations of tree rings in order to identify damage delivered by severe avalanches. The annual growth rings enable the specific year in which each avalanche occurred to be confirmed. They subsequently apply frequency statistics to these data to estimate return periods for the most hazardous snow avalanches. Using such historical data to improve avalanche risk estimation will be invaluable for developing mitigation strategies and preventing future disasters, considering the fatalities which occur due to avalanches each year.

There would be considerable value for this post to examine the techniques they use in greater detail, but I think there are more widespread implications also, of which this is one example.  Many scientific blogs feature practising academics or other experts offering explanations of recent peer-reviewed research using terminology more accessible to any reader and a better understanding of complex analytical techniques by the public has widespread implications. A great number of people poorly understand science presented on such crucial topics as climate change and extreme events, for example, and this can be the result of either insufficient explanation or, more concerning, intentional misinterpretation.

The Leveson report, released on Thursday November 29th, 2012 and featured prominently in the recent news, repeatedly highlights false balance in media reporting on GM crops and climate change, for example. Blogs, by definition, are an avenue for personal opinion to be put forward; nevertheless, they offer opportunities for the public to easily access expert knowledge on highly relevant topics. As a result, provided science blogs ensure the professional qualifications and experience of contributors can be easily verified by readers, blogs will become an increasingly important method for effective communication of complex science relevant to the public.

  M Voiculesco, A Onaca, 2012, Snow avalanche assessment in the Sinaia ski area (Bucegi Mountains, Southern Carpacians) using the dendrogeomorphology method, Area DOI: 10.1111/area.12003.

 Real-time Val d’Isere Webcam: http://www.val.co.uk/webcam.htm

 Leveson report: ‘I cannot recommend another last chance saloon for the press’,  The Guardian, 29 November 2012

 Leveson Inquiry: Culture, Practice and Ethics of the Press report available here: http://www.levesoninquiry.org.uk/about/the-report/

Communicating Science: Applying Local Lessons on a Global Scale?

By Daniel Schillereff

L'aquila earthquake damage - Kremlin.ru [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

What do Hurricane Sandy, the earthquake in Aquila, Italy in 2011, the earthquake of British Columbia last week and climate science have in common? They have all prompted intense debate centred on the effectiveness of scientists at communicating science. A piece in The Guardian is one recent example. In particular, how can uncertainty in model projections or predictions be succinctly but accurately explained in a manner accessible to all who may be impacted by the event?

Recent commentary in the Financial Times on the Aquila earthquake criminal charges highlights the three-way relationship which exists between those who produce knowledge, those who disseminate that knowledge to others and those who desire that knowledge to be outlined to them in a non-complex, straightforward manner. In the broadest sense, these end-users are normally assumed to be the scientists, the media and the public, respectively. However, the on-going difficulties communicating climate science and the other examples mentioned in this post suggest this relationship is failing to function in an ideal manner. Of graver concern is the possibility that scientists will be unwilling to discuss or disclose their findings in the future due to risk of persecution; is a new approach required?

Although its scope is much narrower, the novel approach outlined by Lane et al., 2011 in their Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers paper, ‘Doing Flood Risk Science Differently…’ could act as a model for improved communication of science and subsequent mitigation strategies being implemented in the future on a wider scale. Their case study of flood risk around Pickering, Yorkshire, highlighted the deep understanding of local residents of the hydrological and geomorphological triggers of flood events and Lane et al. emphasise their knowledge directly contributed to a more holistic and effective model of the local flood regime. They suggest local people for whom flooding is a serious hazard should be encouraged and supported to produce knowledge as opposed to being simply involved in a focus group discussing knowledge previously generated by scientists. Provided each user group is willing to invest the necessary effort, this approach appears both sensible and practical specifically due to continued user involvement in each step of the scientific process.

 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 15-36.

  Poor information obscures emergency warningsThe Guardian, 01 November 2012

Jailing the seismic seven will cause tremors beyond ItalyFinancial Times, 24 October 2012

The Importance of Soil

By Daniel Schillereff

Severe soil erosion in a wheat field near Washington State University - This image is in the public domain because it contains materials that originally came from the Agricultural Research Service, the research agency of the United States Department of Agriculture.

A recent paper by Bilotta et al. (2012) examining the interplay between ecosystem services and soil erosion in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, published under the Boundary Crossings subheading, is an excellent example of the importance of utilizing cross-disciplinary approaches when confronting the large-scale environmental issues facing the world today.

References to ecosystem services are featuring much more prominently in the news, as the public, government bodies, academic researchers and mega-business begin to recognize the need to prioritize the natural environment as pressures from climate change, population growth and land degradation unfold.

Providing sufficient food for a growing population is a particularly pressing problem and in fact a recent UN report, quoted in the Guardian, suggests a 2.6% drop in global food yield this year. Offering a medium for food production is clearly one of the most important ecosystem services provided by soil and Bilotta et al. highlight the threat posed to food provision if the dramatic rates of soil erosion observed globally are not reversed.

The Bilotta paper discusses in some detail the biogeochemical relationships between soil erosion and soil nutrient availability, thereby reducing crop yield but more importantly, they highlight three major limitations to current assessments of soil erosion on a global scale. These are a poor understanding of soil formation rates, limited consideration of changes in soil quality alongside quantitative assessments of soil loss and off-site problems triggered by soil erosion, particularly damage to aquatic environments due to the delivery of substantial fine-grained material.

They finish by emphasising the pressing need for interdisciplinary research to ensure efforts to mitigate soil erosion are successful. As awareness of the importance of ecosystem services continue to grow in the public view, hopefully the suggestions put forward by Bilotta et al. will be taken into consideration.

  G S Bilotta, M Grove, S M Mudd, 2012, Assessing the significance of soil erosion, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 37 (3) 342-345.

  Biodiversity conservation: moving towards valuation of ecosystem services, The Guardian, 9 October 2012

Food scarcity: the timebomb setting nation against nation, The Guardian, 13 October 2012

Geography as a modern subject

Dr Sylvia Earle receiving the Patron’s Medal from Michael Palin. ©RGS-IBG/Howard Sayer

by Madeleine Hatfield

The discussion about which subjects students will be studying when the new school and academic year starts is an annual affair in the British media. This year’s news coverage featured Michael Palin, President of the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG), on geography. Michael said that ‘geography students hold the key to the world’s problems’, a statement not to be underrated in a world continually shaken by environmental, economic, political and social events.

The September issue of The Geographical Journal has further detail about this in papers currently free to access online, including Michael’s Presidential Address to the RGS-IBG at its AGM and an account of its 2011 Medals and Awards bestowed on geography’s ‘contemporary explorers’. This shows the continuing relevance of geography to world issues and the significance of contemporary geographical research, such as Dr Sylvia Earle’s on the future of the oceans and Prof. Stuart Elden’s on geopolitics. Michael’s introduction and the acceptances speeches could inspire geography students young and old, whatever their geographical interests.

Palin, M. 2011. Michael Palin on Geography: Presidential Address and Record of the RGS-IBG Annual General Meeting 2011. The Geographical Journal, 177: 275–278.

Palin, M., Earle, S., Livingstone, D., Elden, S., Lowe, J. and Owen, L. 2011. Honouring geographers and contemporary exploration: from the archive to the ocean at the RGS-IBG Medals and Awards Ceremony 2011. The Geographical Journal, 177: 279–287.

Palin, M. 2011. Michael Palin: geography students hold the key to the world’s problems. The Guardian, 18 August 2011.

Mangroves: a natural form of hazard mitigation

by Caitlin Douglas

Mangroves, a type of tropical evergreen forest growing in the intertidal zones in the tropics and subtropics (32oN and 38oS), consist of tree species well adapted to the regularly changing salinity concentrations and water levels associated with such areas. Mangroves are highly productive ecosystems of high ecological importance. Ostling et al. (2009) describe mangroves and the role they play in ecological processing and natural hazards mitigation.

The special roots of mangroves allow them to anchor themselves in this ever changing environment and therefore serve to slow tidal forces and form an important natural barrier against tropical storms and tsunamis. The presence of mangroves has been shown to increase human survival during cyclones and tsunamis as well as being more effective than alternative natural or artificial barriers (i.e. other types of trees, sand dunes, seawalls, groins etc). Mangroves also provide habitat for shrimp, crocodiles and a nursery ground for fishery stock. Currently these forests are being cleared for various agricultural, forestry and urban uses, such as shrimp aquaculture which has led to the clearing of millions of hectares of mangroves. Without the mangroves, natural fishery stocks are affected which leads to more mangroves being cleared to support more extensive and varied types of aquaculture. In light of the growing realisation of the importance of mangroves, revegetation programmes are underway in Bangladesh, Thailand, Vietnam and Tanzania.

Ostling, J., Butler, D., Dixon, R. The Biogeomorphology of Mangroves and their Role in Natural Hazard Mitigation. Geography Compass, 3(5): 1607-1624

Cancún: From mangrove paradise to polluted megasprawl. The Guardian.  9 December 2010

Is the tsunami too big to beat? The Guardian. 11 March 2011

Mangroves. BBC Nature

Eyjafjallajökull: Geography’s Harsh Reminder

Eyjafjallajökull's 2010 eruption. Wikimedia Commons.

by Benjamin Sacks

THE ERUPTION of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull on 20 March 2010 caught Europe dangerously off-guard. For two months, waves of ash closed some of the world’s busiest airspace. An estimated ten million passengers were left stranded, international train services collapsed under the heightened strain of people seeking alternate transportation, and governments were left to deal with angered airlines seeking to regain some portion of lost revenue. In total, over one hundred thousand flights were cancelled. The legal and political fallout of Eyjafjallajökull’s eruption continues today. A fundamental questions lies at the heart of this debate: why wasn’t Europe better warned or prepared? Amy R Donovan and Clive Oppenheimer (University of Cambridge) highlighted this problem in their March 2011 Geographical Journal commentary. The danger such natural events as Eyjafjallajökull pose, as Donovan and Oppenheimer argue, is that they lie outside the traditional realm of managerial governance.

Many natural events, however dangerous, lend governments two favours: first, relatively ample warning; second, comparatively localised impact. Hurricanes are an excellent case-in-point. Every summer NOAA, the United States’s oceanographic and atmospheric monitoring agency, continuously tracks existing storms and recalculates their future projectories. Excepting such hurricanes as Andrew and Katrina–most hurricanes cause damage across a limited geographic expanse before weakening significantly in strength. The snowstorms that rack the American northeast are similarly tracked in advance so that appropriate precautions can be taken (even if, in the event, those precautions prove inadequate).

The Eyjafjallajökull eruption, much like the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami and the 2010 Haiti earthquake, presents a very different scenario. Such events are difficult to forecast, even more difficult to contain, and–like other natural events–impossible to prevent. But, as The Geographical Journal commentary noted, preventative steps could have been taken. Although the Met Office’s Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre (VAAC), clearly noted the airspace risks posed by Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull volcanoes, this information was not included in the annual National Risk Register, nor did it predicate the implementation of ‘sophisticated, integrated UK or EU policy in advance of the recent volcanic activity’ (p. 2). One hopes that the Eyjafjallajökull airspace fiasco will serve as a reminder of our inability to tame the extremes of physical geography.

Jersey Tourists Lost to Volcanic Ash Disruption“, BBC News 11 May 2010. Accessed 18 January 2011.

Amy R Donovan and Clive Oppenheimer, “The 2010 Eyjafjallajökull Eruption and the Reconstruction of Geography“, The Geographical Journal 177:1 (Mar., 2011): pp. 4-11.


Flooding the system: equilibrium lost?

by Lisa Mol

Most people who read a newspaper or watch television are by now aware of the terrible floods that are currently sweeping through Eastern Australia. With the rising popularity of gap years and growing expat communities ‘Down Under’ there will be more than a few worried families, looking for information on friends and family.

How did this become such a catastrophy? There are large numbers of papers out there, proposing models, theories and experiments to help us understand how floods happen and how we can predict them. To some extent it could be said that we are flooding the reader’s mind with a plethora of possibilities and explanations. This is not at all to say that this research is meaningless or outright wrong; the vast majority of these papers hold firm academic ground and are based on solid research. But why are we now looking at footage of people surrounded by flood water, stranded on roofs while cars and trees float by?

The Guardian (12/01/11) reports that these floods are caused by an exceptionally strong La Niña event, which is wreaking havoc on the eastern Australian climatic system. This in itself is not a surprising phenomenon; the exceptional strength of it however is surprising. The real elephant in the room is therefore; could we have prevented, or at least reduced, the loss of human life and property or was there absolutely nothing that could have reduced the impact? And is there anything that can be done to reduce the impact in Brisbane, where the water appears to be heading?

There are a number of research papers available which discuss the impact of flooding on communities. Lopez-Marrero (2010) argues for example that a community at flood risk can become too complacent knowing that they are well-protected by resources and knowledge but that equally knowledge and resources are the single most important factors in reducing flood damage such as loss of human life. Gurnell et al (2007) show that in urban environments, which Brisbane is a good example of, constant changing and engineering of the river course often leads to a loss of vegetation, which could be a loss of a first barrier especially in the case of flash floods. Many of us will remember the Boxing Day tsunami and its impact on the areas where mangroves were removed versus the area where mangroves still formed a protective barrier. Maybe we should look at this situation with a similar view, looking to the natural course of the river to protect us and deal with extreme events.

However, on the other end of the spectrum there is often a good reason for influence of man on the river course. Meanders, for example, are a natural part of any river system but are often chaotic and dynamic in their development (Hooke, 2003), something that often doesn’t go well with urban development. Especially in a time when flood risk due to climate change and increasing population pressure is becoming a reality rather than a possibility for many communities it will become increasingly important to predict and map these events before the death toll rises. Australia seems to have become one of the predominant victims of changes in the climate system, enduring recurring droughts, wildfires and now extreme flooding. If there ever was an equilibrium, which is debatable in the first place according to Bracken and Wainright (2006), it seems to be well and truly disturbed.

The Guardian “Australia floods: La Nina to blame” 12/01/2011

Lopez-Marrero, T (2010) “An integrative approach to study and promote natural hazards adaptive capacity: a case study of two flood-prone communities in Puerto Rico” The Geographical Journal 176 (2) 150 – 163

Gurnell, A., Lee, M., Souch, C. (2007) “Urban Rivers: Hydrology, Geomorphology, Ecology and Opportunities for Change” Geography Compass 1 (5) 1118 – 1137

Hooke, J. (2003) “River meander behaviour and instability: a framework for analysis” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 28 (2) 238 – 253

Bracken, L., Wainwright, J. (2006) “Geomorphological equilibrium: myth and metaphor?” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 31 (2) 167 – 178