Tag Archives: climate

‘As long as I keep moving, the air is a little cooler’: studying weather experiences and practices

Martin Mahony

This week, parts of the UK have been basking in temperatures around 20 degrees Celsius  ‘At long last!’ many have exclaimed after a springtime marked so far by frigid easterly winds bearing cold air and snow from the still frozen interior of the Eurasian landmass. Trees have been late to blossom, crop growth has been stunted, and newborn lambs have perished under snowdrifts. Many were starting to wonder whether we would ever seen spring at all.

With climate change expected to alter weather patterns in many parts of the globe, a growing band of researchers across geography and the social sciences have started to explore how individuals experience and relate to the weather in their everyday lives. These researchers are interested in how people deal with extremes of heat and cold, or wet and dry, and in how even the most banal changes in the weather impact on our everyday lives. For example, Russell Hitchings has investigated the ways in which office workers deal with the seasonality of the weather, with interesting conclusions for thinking about how we interact with the elements when many of us spend most of out time indoors, in climates regulated by air conditioning and central heating.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Studying these practices is challenging. While many of us remember extreme weather events like heat waves and blizzards for some time, we might struggle to remember how we dealt with the intricacies of the weather on a typical British Spring day, where sunshine and showers alternate in step with the opening of umbrellas and the packing away of raincoats. Some of these methodological challenges are dealt with by Eliza de Vet in a new paper in Area, where she compares the use of interviews, diaries and participants’ photographs in research on weather experiences and practices.

Drawing on a research project looking at weather practices in Darwin and Melbourne, Australia, de Vet argues that interviews may be the most effective way for researchers to reconstruct the everyday practices of, for example, keeping cool and comfortable in the tropical heat. Interview techniques can be usefully supplemented by asking respondents to keep diaries and to take photographs which capture their own ways of dealing with the weather. However, de Vet points towards the importance of considering “participant fatigue” in such projects, as asking too much of respondents – especially about usually banal things like the weather – can lead to disengagement. Projects investigating people’s experiences and practices of weather therefore need careful management, but they can yield fascinating insights into behaviours which many of us take for granted, but which might become hugely significant under a changing climate.

globe42 Spring: where has it gone? The Guardian, March 30


Russell Hitchings, 2010, Seasonal climate change and the indoor city workerTransactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 35, 2, 282-298

books_icon Eliza de Vet, 2013, Exploring weather-related experiences and practices: examining methodological approachesArea, DOI: 10.1111/area.12019


Forest decline in the eastern U.S.?

Covering much of central New York State is a mosaic of forest, pasture, and cornfields punctuated by lakes, small towns, rural residences, and sometimes wind turbines (© Peter Klepeis)

Covering much of central New York State is a mosaic of forest, pasture, and cornfields punctuated by lakes, small towns, rural residences, and sometimes wind turbines (© Peter Klepeis)

by Peter Klepeis

Most news coverage of forests tends to focus on deforestation. And for good reason. The Food and Agricultural Organization concludes that from 2000-2010 upwards of 13 million ha of forest per year were converted to other uses or lost to natural causes. Most of the clearing occurs in the tropics, and the resultant biodiversity loss, carbon dioxide emissions, and threats to local inhabitants are among the reasons to be concerned.

Global trends in forest cover hide regional differences, however. Many temperate and rich-country contexts have been experiencing forest recovery for decades. In the eastern United States, for example, cleared areas reached their peak in the mid-to-late 19th century, but this was followed by widespread natural forest regeneration. This forest expansion is celebrated for increasing carbon sequestration and improving water quality, reducing flood risk, decreasing soil erosion, expanding wildlife habitat, and providing opportunities for recreation and extractive industries. But it is not entirely positive. As described in Jim Sterba’s new book Nature Wars, extensive forest cover, a decline in hunters, and a lack of natural predators has led to a boom in wildlife – and deer in particular – with tick-bearing disease, auto accidents, and munched veggie gardens among the negative consequences.

Regardless of its positive or negative impacts on nature and society, what explains the shift from net forest loss to net gain? In the early 1990s the geographer Alexander Mather started to develop forest transition theory: economic development, the abandonment of lands marginal to agriculture, and the movement of rural inhabitants to urban areas tend to stimulate forest recovery. The theory captures fairly well the recovery trends seen in the U.S. and Europe over the past few hundred years. But the theory is not without its critics. Forest change is dynamic, non-linear, and the factors involved are linked to specific places and time periods. Not surprisingly, therefore, recent scholarship documents how – after decades of net gain – forest cover in the eastern U.S. started to decline in the 1970s.

In a new article in the journal Area, my co-authors and I use aerial photographs to evaluate changing forest cover between 1936 and 2008 for a town in central New York State. As expected, a decline in the farming sector and changing life and livelihood goals within farming families led to 25.8 % of the town reforesting. Two new trends emerge, however. First, there is a pronounced increase in the percentage of forest recovering on prime agricultural soils, which holds the potential to diversify habitat and increase biodiversity. Prior to 1994, reforestation on high quality soils was rare. Second, alternative land uses and invasive species, such as the Emerald Ash Borer (Agrilus planipennis), represent possible new forms of forest disturbance. Landowners are starting to develop wind power and natural gas, and practice silviculture. Also, there is steady growth in amenity-oriented land use and rural residential development. These new dynamics challenge theories of forest change, and raise questions about the prospects of sustainable land and forest use in the region.

The author: Peter Klepeis is Associate Professor of Geography at Colgate University, N.Y., U.S.


Klepeis P, Scull P, LaLonde T, Svajlenka N and Gill N 2013 Changing forest recovery dynamics in the northeastern United States Area DOI: 10.1111/area.12016


Mather A S and Needle C L 1998 The forest transition: a theoretical basis Area 30 117-24


Grainger A 1995 The forest transition: an alternative approach Area 27 242-51


Mather A S 1992 The forest transition Area 24 367-79


Sterba J 2012 America gone wild Wall Street Journal 2 November


Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations 2012 State of the world’s forests FAO, Rome

Adding Fuel to the Fire: Australia’s Heatwave and Bushfire Epidemic

By Jen Dickie

Bushfire in Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory, Australia by Thomas Schoch.  This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic licenseWhilst the UK suffered its wettest summer in 100 years and is currently under a blanket of snow, pictures showing the devastating effects of the epidemic of bushfires that have hit Australia, linked to a record breaking heatwave this January, have been appearing in the news.  In The Observer last Saturday, Alison Rourke reports how firefighters are struggling to control what have been described as the “most atrocious fire-fighting conditions in 30 years”.  A combination of high temperatures and strong winds have resulted in the situation being given a fire danger rating of ‘catastrophic’, the highest possible rating.  In a special climate statement released by Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology (BoM) on Monday, the heatwave event is described as being persistent and widespread, affecting large parts of central and southern Australia.  The combination of dry conditions since mid-2012 and a delay in the monsoon are thought to have exacerbated the susceptibility of the landscape to bushfires.

While Tim Flannery from The Guardian argues that these “raging wildfires are forcing many to rethink their stance on climate change”, the immediate focus is largely on the improvements in communication, weather prediction and management of the outbreaks, particularly since the tragedy in Victoria in 2009 where 173 people lost their lives.

In a paper for Geography Compass, Christopher O’Connor, Greg Garfin, Donald Falk and Thomas Swetnam review trends in human pyrogeography research, where they discuss the interactions among of fire, climate and society.  In particular, they highlight that geographers have the necessary tools to “change operational management actions and societal preparedness” and advance the study of the complex nature of pyrogeography.  They investigate, among other themes, the frequency and extent of wildfires, the role climate plays as a driver of fire occurrence and the impacts of human modification of the landscape; however, they emphasise that our current understanding of the interactions needs to be improved if we are to predict what might happen in the future.  Whether you believe in climate change or not, it seems that there have been more and more extreme weather events hitting our headlines over recent years; however, as the understanding of the complex relationships among fire, climate and society improves, hopefully society will become increasingly more prepared to deal with them in the future.

books_icon Christopher O’Connor, Gregg Garfin, Donald Falk, Thomas Swetnam, 2011, Human Pyrogeography: A New Synergy of Fire, Climate and People is Reshaping Ecosystems across the Globe, Geography Compass 5, 329-350

60-world2 As Australia heatwave hits new high, warning that bushfires will continue, The Observer, 12th Jan 2013

60-world2 As Australia burns, attitudes are changing. But is it too late? The Guardian, 11th Jan 2013

60-world2 Extreme January heat, SPECIAL CLIMATE STATEMENT 43 – INTERIM, Climate Information Services – Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology, 14th Jan 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

Content Alert: Geography Compass, Volume 6, Issue 6 (June 2012) is Available Online Now

Volume 6, Issue 6 Pages i – 383, June 2012

The latest issue of Geography Compass is available on Wiley Online Library.

Click past the break for a full list of articles in this issue.

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Geography Compass Atmosphere & Biosphere Section: Invitation to Contribute

Wiley-Blackwell’s Geography Compass has established itself as a key reference for up-to-date peer-reviewed research reviews in all facets of geography. We hope to strengthen the Atmosphere & Biosphere section with a new round of articles that continue the excellence in publication from scholars including Marshall Shepherd, Thomas Knutson, Andrew Comrie, Kristin Dow, Steven Quiring, Julie Winkler and others.

We are currently looking for material on the following themes:

  • Synoptic meteorology
  • Tropical meteorology
  • Polar meteorology
  • Agricultural and forest meteorology
  • Forecasting and modeling
  • Mesoscale processes
  • Weather hazards
  • Climate systems and dynamics
  • Climate change
  • Climate variability
  • Air-sea-land interactions
  • Applied meteorology and climatology
  • Weather, climate, and society
  • Hydrometeorology and hydroclimatology

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Art and geography

Monet Houses of Parliament at Sunset

Houses of Parliament, Sunset. Claude Monet (1902).

I-Hsien Porter

One of the most instantly recognisable paintings in the world is Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Painted in the early sixteenth century, the many ambiguities in the picture – the identity of the subject, the subject’s expression – have led to continuing fascination with the work.

Recently, an Italian art historian claimed to have identified the location of the painting. A bridge, with a reference to the date of a devastating flood, was spotted in the background. Art historian Carla Glori believes that this ties the image to a specific place on the River Trebbia, Italy.

In a paper in Area, Soraya Khan and others examine Monet’s London Series of paintings. The position of the Sun in the paintings, along with the knowledge of the exact location of the paintings (from London landmarks), was used to date the images.

This form of historical dating opens an opportunity for interdisciplinarity between human and physical geography. In environmental studies, the artist’s depiction of the atmosphere gives insights into the physical climate of London. Likewise, art also offers insights into the social mood of the time.

Khan, S. et al. (2010) “Monet at the Savoy.” Area 42 (2): 208-216

The Daily Telegraph (10th January 2011) “Mona Lisa landscape location mystery ‘solved’.”