Tag Archives: Hydrology and Water Resources

Let’s get a proper grip on flooding

By Edmund Penning-Rowsell, Middlesex University, London

Flooded Riverside Worcester 2007. Photo Credit: Philip Haling under CC BY-SA 2.0

Flooded Riverside Worcester 2007. Photo Credit: Philip Haling under CC BY-SA 2.0

The floods in winter 2013 show the damage and disruption such events can cause. Spurred on by this flooding the government is moving to secure ‘affordable’ flood insurance arrangements, after a bruising ‘battle’ with the insurance industry and the prospect that the scheme will be vetoed in Europe. Flooding remains highly political!

But the total flood risk that England and Wales is facing has been exaggerated by the Environment Agency for over a decade, as this paper shows (Penning-Rowsell, 2014a). I am not saying that this country cannot suffer from serious flood events (as in 1947, 1953 and 2007). What I do say is that the average economic losses from fluvial and coastal flood are being exaggerated some 3-4 fold by the current national assessments, and that this is not a good basis for wise evidence-based decision making.

The annual average losses are not over £1bn as suggested by the Environment Agency (in NAFRA 2002), reaffirmed by Foresight in 2004, repeated again in the Agency’s Long Term Investment Strategy (LTIS, in 2009), cited in the National Audit Office report in 2011, and repeated once more in the Adaptation Sub-Committee’s 2012 report. The real annual average economic loss value is more like one quarter of that sum: my thinking is that flood depths are being exaggerated, as is the likelihood of existing flood defences being breached.

And the 2013/14 flooding supports this argument. Figure 1 shows that the years 2012 and 2013/14 are indeed above the average, but that the mean of £0.146 billion is actually lower than the mean for the years 1998 to 2010 (£0.147 billion). This is because the year 2011 saw relatively few floods, with a total flood insured loss of no more than £52 million (Penning-Rowsell, 2014b). Grossing up to total losses we get total annual average loss/compensation of c. £0.294bn. Again this is less than one quarter of the figure recently quoted in the Climate Change Risk Assessment.

Figure 1.  Insured flood losses to residential properties in England and Wales 1998-2014

Figure 1.
Insured flood losses to residential properties in England and Wales 1998-2014

The results of this research should help the Environment Agency improve its evidence base for the decisions that it has to make: better data equals better decisions. But for this we need a radical overhaul of the Agency’s methodology and data sources: what we have now is simply not good enough (as many involved privately admit). The results also need proper peer review – hitherto minimal – and a willingness to accept that risk may be much lower than those oft-quoted figures that appear now to have become embedded. We want flood risk to be taken seriously, but not at the expense of rigour and transparency.

About the author: Edmund Penning-Rowsell OBE is a Professor of Geography at the Flood Hazard Research Centre, Middlesex University, London. Edmund is currently Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research at Middlesex University and is currently a member of the Defra/Environment Agency Research Sponsoring Board. He was awarded the O.B.E by the Queen for services to flood risk management in May 2006.

 Penning-Rowsell, E. C. (2014), A realistic assessment of fluvial and coastal flood risk in England and Wales. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. doi: 10.1111/tran.12053

 Penning-Rowsell, E C 2014b The 2013/14 floods: what do they tell us about overall flood risk in England and Wales? Circulation. Forthcoming.

60-world2.jpg (15×15) DEFRA 2013 Water Bill Flood Insurance: Flood Re – Finance and Accountability (pdf)

60-world2.jpg (15×15) Ross, T New flood insurance tax ‘could breach EU law’ The Telegraph 26 August 2013

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, climateprediction.net

Ordering vulnerability: transitions in flood risk management

By Helen Pallett 

Hemsby flooding

Picture from the Guardian

On Thursday December 5th the east coast of the UK was battered by high winds and rain, causing a tidal surge which flooded many homes and caused wide-spread travel disruption. It is estimated that 1400 properties were flooded, with some of the worst damage being experienced on the Norfolk coast where several towns were evacuated and where seven houses were lost to the sea in the village of Hemsby.

Like earlier extreme flooding and tidal surge events, the most recent storm raises pressing questions about the relative responsibilities of the government, private insurance companies and individual home-owners for both assessing and managing the risks of flood damage. Memories of the 1953 North Sea flood, where a tidal surges over-topped sea defences and led to the deaths of more than 300 people, have been frequently evoked this week. It was after this flood that British government was forced to reassess its responsibilities towards those living in areas vulnerable to future flooding and storm surges, and consequently embarked on a programme of constructing flood and sea defences across the country.

According to a recent paper by Tom Ball, Alan Werritty and Alistair Geddes in the journal Area, this paradigm of hard-engineered flood defences was dominant until 2004, when a number of factors such as the projected impacts of climate change, the unexpected impacts of certain engineering solutions and the prohibitive cost of sustaining flood defences around all vulnerable settlements led this approach to be de-emphasised. The approach moved towards bolstering the resilience of vulnerable communities, rather than offering comprehensive protection, creating a much greater role for the insurance industry in mediating flood risk and vulnerability, along other ‘softer’ management approaches.

This transitional arrangement between the Government, private insurers and home-owners shifted again with the 2007 summer floods in the UK which are thought to have cost insurers £1.7 billion. In the aftermath of the floods the Government intervened to encourage insurance providers to agree to a ‘Statement of Principles’, where they committed to adopting a cross subsidy between homes in low and high risk flooding areas, rather than simply refusing to ensure or charging astronomically high premiums for those most vulnerable to flood damage. The relevance of this fragile settlement to the most recent storm, is that this Statement of Principles expired in June of this year, creating the possibility for yet another transition in how the burden of risk and vulnerability management is shared between our three central actors.

Following last week’s floods, the Observer newspaper reported on the Government’s new flood insurance scheme, which is designed to cater for houses in high risk flooding areas which will no longer be covered by conventional private insurance schemes. As Ball et al point out in their paper, the UK is unusual in not having had provision for state-subsidised flooding insurance until now. However, as the Observer reported, this new government insurance scheme seems unlikely to produce any long-lasting settlement in the management of flood risks and vulnerabilities, as it proposes to cover only 500,000 homes; a much smaller figure than the number of homes projected to experience a high risk of flooding in the 2020s by the Government’s own climate change impacts assessment.

The history of approaches to flood risk and vulnerability over the last 60 years alerts to the ways in which the methods, rationalities and bureaucratic arrangements have shifted substaintially over time. However, it is also important to be attentive to how these moves have interacted with changing relationships between the state, insurance providers and ordinary citizens in the face of the threat of flooding, and the different degrees of responsibility and financial burden these sometimes subtle changes place on each actor.

books_icon Tom Ball, Alan Werritty & Alistair Geddes 2013  Insurance and sustainability in flood-risk management: the UK in a transitional state Area, 45(3): 266-272

60-world2 Half a million homes at risk are not covered by flood scheme Observer, 7 December

60-world2 UK flood defences praised for saving lives and property on east coast Guardian, 6 December

60-world2 Storms, floods and tidal surge devastate the UK’s east coast in pictures Guardian, 6 December

60-world2 Norfolk floods: seven Hemsby homes badly damaged by waves BBC News, 6 December

New perspectives on an aquacultural geography

Boy holding a pangasius catfish (photograph by Ben Belton)

Boy holding a pangasius catfish (photograph by Ben Belton)

by Ben Belton and Simon Bush

So how many people realise that more than half the fish eaten by human beings will very soon come from aquaculture? The answer may well depend on where you live, which raises a series of questions about the geography of where and how farmed fish are produced and consumed.

The rise of aquaculture over the last four decades has been as uneven as our understanding of its development. Our recent paper published in The Geographical Journal, explores this apparent deficit in knowledge about aquaculture by asking whether geographers have responded in any substantial way to a call to arms published by Barton and Stanifordt in Area in 1996 urging them to do just this.

Our results are not as positive as one might hope. While a potential global deficit in food fish has been averted by the growth of the industry, geography’s contributions to understanding patterns of aquaculture development have been less expansive. Work has focused largely on species exported from, and areas  exporting to, the global North, rather than on the more significant production, trade and consumption that occurs in the South. In other words, why focus on ‘booms’ in catfish from Vietnam or shrimp from Thailand which end up on dinner plates in North America or Europe, when other fish consumed in the South make up more than 90% of the world’s production? A geographical attention deficit is clearly evident.

What then should an aquacultural geography look like? In addition to the big questions of politics and trade that have been asked of export crops, researchers should be unpicking the intricacies of everyday food production and consumption. In spite of globalisation, domestic (often urban) markets in the South remain the main sites of global consumption. Overlooking the importance of these markets and the production systems which feed them, means ignoring some of the most important trends in food production for the coming decades.

Geographers are extremely well placed to develop a more considered understanding of what further growth of aquaculture will mean, not just in terms of export trade, but also in terms of both a growing urban middle class and marginalised rural communities. Given that the forecast is for a further 50% expansion of the industry simply to meet the demands of an increasingly affluent global population by 2020, the need for closing the knowledge deficit has never been greater.

The authors: Ben Belton is a Post-Doctoral Fellow at The WorldFish Center, Dhāka, Bangladesh; Simon Bush is an Associate Professor in the Environmental Policy Group, Wageningen University, The Netherlands.


Belton B and Bush S R 2013 Beyond Net Deficits: New priorities for an aquacultural geography The Geographical Journal DOI:


Barton J R and Stanifordt D 1998 Net deficits and the case for aquacultural geography Area 302 145-55

60-world2The New York Times 2013 Fish in the global balance 10 February

60-world2WorldFish and Conservation International 2011 Blue Frontiers : Managing the environmental costs of aquaculture June

60-world2BBC News 2011 Global fish consumption hits record high 1 February

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

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

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

Before the Flood: Modelling Hybridity at the Science-Policy Interface

Martin Mahony

Yesterday the UK Met Office reported that 2012 was the country’s second wettest year on record. The announcement was much anticipated, partly due to the simultaneous flooding of large swathes of rural and urban Britain which has seen everything from inundated homes to seals swimming in lakes 50 miles from the coastline. A competitive spirit seemed to grip the media, as we eagerly awaited confirmation that what had been experienced over the course of 2012 was some kind of state of exception – a radical departure from the everyday interactions of humans and their environments.

Climate change inevitably entered the debate, although recent weather events in the UK and the US (i.e. Hurricane Sandy) have meant that much of the discussion has been about adaptation to new trends and extremes, rather than about the potential to mitigate the causes of climate change (see Climate Central’s discussion of newspaper trends).  Adaptation to climate change sees the sciences of the weather coming into contact with concerns about human health, land-use change, agriculture, energy supply, and a host of other topics which have long been of interest to both human and physical geographers alike.

Scientific models which claim to offer the prospect of knowing and perhaps controlling the future exercise a particular power over such debates (see for example an analysis in Transactions by Mike Hulme and myself of a particularly widely-used regional climate model). In a new essay in Transactions, Nick Green explores the potential of agent-based modelling to inform policy-making about land-use change. These computational tools consist of various ‘agents’ representing things such as households, individuals and businesses. By simulating the interactions of these entities, the models can offer plausible pictures of how land-use patterns may change over time, thus potentially informing decisions about things like flood defences. However, the predictive skill of such models is still questionable, and the interpretation of their results requires a complex interplay of different forms of reasoning across the conventional science-policy boundary; mathematical logic must combine with personal intuition and subjective judgement if the models’ fuzzy outputs are to be used appropriately in the fuzzy world of environmental policy-making.

In a 2011 paper, Stuart Lane and colleagues report a project in which the relations between scientific models, scientists, stakeholders and members of the public were fundamentally re-ordered. After a history of failed flood management practices in Ryedale, North Yorkshire, the researchers instigated a collaborative knowledge-making exercise in which expert knowledge was combined with what was found to be widely-distributed and sophisticated knowledge of the local hydrology among Ryedale residents. New forms of knowledge emerged, some of which were codified into model form. The authors argue that in situations where trust in experts and institutions is contested, ‘science’ is not best served by seeking to extract it from ‘politics’. By embracing the hybridity of science and politics (e.g. through making destabilizing political interventions through new ways of producing scientific knowledge), political empowerment can proceed in tandem with robust environmental decision-making.

If indeed our wet 2012 is a harbinger of a wetter future, innovative approaches to knowledge production and decision-making will be central to society’s adaptation to a changing climate. Geographers can provide not only the necessary technical tools and skills, but also the broader methods needed to ensure that decision-making  is always informed, inclusive, and just.

2012 second wettest year on record for UKThe Guardian

Seal spotted swimming in flooded Cambridgeshire field 50 miles inlandThe Guardian

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

Nick Green, 2013, A Policymaker’s Puzzle, or How to Cross the Boundary from Agent-based Model to Land-use Policymaking?,  Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 38 2-6

Stuart Lane et al., 2011 Doing Flood Risk Science Differently: An Experiment in Radical Scientific MethodTransactions of the Institute of British Geographers 36 15-36