Tag Archives: Earth Observation

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.

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

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

Antarctica: Frozen Diplomacy

600px-Antarctica_6400px_from_Blue_MarbleBy Benjamin Sacks

On 18 December 2012, William Hague, the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, announced that the southern portion of the British Antarctic Territory, spanning from the southern edges of the Ronne Ice Shelf to the South Pole, had been renamed in honour of Queen Elizabeth II. In celebration of the Diamond Jubilee, the 169,000 square mile, unpopulated region is twice the United Kingdom’s land area. There is considerable precedent for ceremoniously naming parts of Antarctica. Britain had previously named the the region near the Dumont d’Urville Sea George V Land, and Princess Elizabeth Land near Prydz Bay and the Amery Ice Shelf. Norway, which along with Britain was the chief explorer of Antarctica in the early twentieth century, named a large swath of the continent after its monarchs.

The legal framework behind Britain’s decision to rename a portion of its Antarctic territory is, to pardon the pun, ‘frozen’. Britain’s claim to much of West Antarctica is, like the claims of six other states, held in permanent limbo under the terms of Antarctic Treaty, safeguarding the continent against future development, which became active on 23 June 1961. As such, although Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, Chile, France, and Norway all made territorial claims, their respective holdings are not necessarily recognized by any other state, and all countries are free to conduct scientific research in any part of the continent.

It is important to keep in mind how little the world knew about Antarctica at the beginning of the twentieth century. In June 1963, Griffith Taylor, a surviving member of Robert Scott’s 1910 expedition, wrote in The Geographical Journal of some of the changes international teams had noted since his perilous journey over fifty years previously. Taylor recalled explorers’ differing geographical accounts, particularly over the length and breadth of continental mountain ranges and ice shelves. Other areas, including the Filchner Shelf, were all but unknown in 1910-14. Finally, and somewhat ominously, he predicted, but did not elaborate upon, the continent’s ‘probable disintegration’ (pp. 190-91).

Although uninhabited, Antarctica was long (and, indeed, continues to be) described within a colonial vocabulary. In part, this was because still so little was actually understood about the continent’s interior. In 1951, famed explored Vivian Fuchs described post-war British efforts in the region. The British were not simply exploring Antarctica, but rather a somewhat indeterminate British Antarctica, stretching vaguely down from the Falkland Islands. The maps, including that of Marguerite Bay, took on a creative, even farcical quality normally associated with the faded charts of early exploration (see. p. 402, for example).  But Fuchs’ report was also a clear piece of authoritative legitimation, a systematic chronology of British expeditions since 1945 acknowledging the United Kingdom’s Antarctic interests. Successive generations, including the (1984-85) Joint Services expedition, have continued this role to the present.


Griffith Taylor, 1963, Probable Disintegration of Antarctica, The Geographical Journal 129 190-91.

books_icon Vivian E Fuchs, 1951, Exploration in British Antarctica, The Geographical Journal 117, 399-419.

books_icon Chris Furse, 1987, Joint Services Expedition to Brabant Island, Antarctica, 1984/85The Geographical Journal 153 1-10.

60-world2 UK to name part of Antarctica Queen Elizabeth Land, BBC News, 18 December 2012.

60-world2 The Antarctic TreatyNational Science Foundation: Office of Polar Programs, accessed 20 December 2012.


“Geography is a Great Adventure”

By Catherine Waite

December 2012a AntarcticaGeography is a great adventure” is the widely quoted opinion of the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG)’s out-going President, Michael Palin. The discipline has long been associated with exploration and expeditions have taken place for hundreds of years in the pursuit of new geographical and scientific knowledge. This association is just as relevant now as it was, for example, in the late 15th Century when Christopher Columbus first sailed to the Americas. December 6th 2012 saw the start of what has been described as “The Last Great Polar Challenge”, an expedition by Sir Ranulph Fiennes and a team of five other explorers who hope to cross Antarctica, a journey of 2,000miles, during the Antarctic winter.

This trip is not simply an adventure and a chance to conquer this polar challenge. The team are also running a major fundraising initiative for the ‘Seeing is Believing’ charity who help fight avoidable blindness across the world. However, perhaps the most important aspect of this event is its scientific potential. As soon as the expedition’s ship left from London’s Tower Bridge bound for Antarctica, data gathering commenced. In the course of the journey the team hope to collect data on oceanography, meteorology and marine biology. On arrival in Antarctica the extreme conditions will test the existing knowledge and scientific expertise that was required to prepare the equipment for this expedition, as the team will experience temperatures as low as -90oC and most of the trek will take place in complete darkness. Yet, the trip also provides a unique opportunity to collect data from locations previously inaccessible to humans and it is hoped the data set will include information on the true surface-shape of the ice sheet, the composition of the snow and ice, atmospheric dynamics over the ice and any bacterial life that exists at the heart of Antarctica.

It is clear that this is very much an adventure, yet one that is accompanied by the opportunity for ground-breaking research. This relationship between expeditions, exploration, science and education is one that has been recently discussed in Couper and Ansell’s (2012) paper in Area entitled “Researching the outdoors: exploring the unsettled frontier between science and adventure”. Fieldwork and outdoor research is likely to continue to be at the forefront of the quest for new geographical knowledge and whilst it may not be possible to classify all fieldwork as adventurous or an expedition, this trip by Sir Ranulph Fiennes and his team most certainly is!

books_iconCouper, P. and Ansell, L. 2012 Researching the outdoors: exploring the unsettled frontier between science and adventure Area 44 14–21

world_iconSir Ranulph Fiennes’ ‘coldest journey’ begins BBC News 6th December 2012

world_iconViewpoint: The last great polar challenge BBC News 17th October 2012

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/

Who’s Behind our Maps?

Jen Dickie

Map of the world, prepared by Vasily Kipriyanov From http://libraries.theeuropeanlibrary.org/RussiaStpetersburg/treasures_en.xml Begining of the 18th century Category:Old maps of the worldThe headlines this week demonstrate how ubiquitous maps have become; yesterday alone there were at least 5 maps being used by The Guardian and the BBC to illustrate information to their audience.  It is clear that both the type of information and the way it is being visualised are evolving but also that map makers and map users are diversifying.

With the Gaza conflict dominating the news, The Guardian is using data provided by reporters, officials and the general public alike to create a current, interactive Google Map of airstrikes and explosions in the war zone, which is constantly being updated as information unfolds.  This emerging method of data collection, known as ‘crowdsourcing’, is largely facilitated by social media and is, notwithstanding accuracy and reliability issues, concurrently increasing in popularity and accessibility.

However, it is not only quantitative data that can be mapped effectively; an interactive Google Map published by The Guardian yesterday depicts their news coverage of the ‘Sahel food crises’ over the past year.  Whilst this form of representation and design may give professional cartographers nightmares, this method of visualisation opens up new ways of identifying spatial and temporal connections and relationships from qualitative data sources.

In an article for Transactions, Rob Kitchin, Justin Gleeson and Martin Dodge argue that cartographic theory has seen a shift from a “representational to a processual understanding of mapping” and discuss what this means for cartographic epistemology.  Using their experience of mapping ‘ghost estates’ in Ireland, a public geography project, Kitchin et al. demonstrate how maps “unfold through a plethora of contingent, relational and contextual practices” and show how maps are being made (and re-made) in diverse ways as solutions to everyday problems and tasks.

Cartographic theory is evolving and maps are becoming fashionable again.  To me, one in particular highlights the exciting developments and opportunities maps can provide – Paul Butler’s map of Facebook connections.  This does not map Facebook membership or borders and boundaries, yet the world, albeit a slightly distorted one, is clearly visible – a map of human relationships.  As the journalist, Simon Garfield, states in his book ‘On the Map’  – “It was a map of the world made by 500 million cartographers all at once”.

 Rob Kitchin, Justin Gleeson and Martin Dodge, 2012, Unfolding mapping practices: a new epistemology for cartography, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-5661.2012.00540.x

 Sahel food crisis – how the Guardian is covering the story, The Guardian, 19th November 2012

 Gaza-Israel crisis 2012: every verified incident mapped, The Guardian, 19th November 2012

 Simon Garfield, 2012, On the Map: Why the world looks the way it does, Profile Books Ltd, London