Author Archives: dschillereff

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/

Towards improved drought awareness

By Daniel Schillereff

The copyright on this image is owned by Peter Bond and is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.

While recent years have been typified by intensely dry spells interspersed with severe flooding in many parts of the UK, this year (2012) will be remembered by many for the occurrence of both meteorological extremes. This shift was of a ‘magnitude never seen before’, according to experts at the Centre for Ecological and Hydrology (CEH), quoted in a recent Guardian article. The current issue of Area (December 2012, Volume 44, Issue 4) includes a Special Section comprising a number of articles focusing on water management and climate change, which is clearly timely.

While interaction between scientists, local residents and decision makers is commonplace when flood-risk mitigation strategies are being developed, such cooperation and communication is rarer when addressing droughts, despite the severe negative ecological, financial and societal impacts of prolonged dry periods. The media coverage of the spring drought was extensive, however drought generating mechanisms and the historical record of drought frequency and intensity were rarely discussed and public knowledge of these mechanisms appears limited. The Rahiz and New paper in this section deals specifically with meteorological drought in the UK and therefore deserves special attention.

Their paper includes a summary of historical drought literature for the UK which should be a first port of call for all readers. Among the principal findings of their study is confirmation that the North Atlantic Oscillation is an important driver of UK droughts as well indicating that the severity of drought events exhibits significant variability in different regions across the UK. If these points are considered by decision makers at water summits, similar to that which took place in Kent this month as mentioned on the BBC, there is scope for more informed responses to be implemented in the future to address water security. The public also have a vital role in water resource management and the updated drought information on the Environment Agency website and their social media feeds will hopefully lead to greater understanding among citizens when water rationing is instigated in the future.

  M Rahiz, M New, 2012, Spatial coherence of meteorological droughts in the UK since 1914, Area 44 (4) 400-410.

  ‘Water summit’ in drought-hit South East, BBC News Online, 3 November 2012

  UK’s year of drought and flooding unprecedented, experts say, The Guardian, 18 October 2012

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