Category Archives: General

PAGES young scientists find mountains, reservoirs and inspiration

by Yoshi Maezumi and Vachel Carter

IMG_6114They came by land, sea and air. The Spanish city of Zaragoza was hit by poster tubes, rubber-tipped keens and rapid-wicking travel clothes – the garb of a scientist. It was a sunny May morning as 80 early-career researchers from 23 countries, including us – Yoshi Maezumi and Vachel Carter – congregated in the Plaza de Pilar for the 3rd PAGES Young Scientists Meeting (YSM). We met our bus convoy en route to the remote eco-village of Morillo de Tou in the foothills of the Spanish Pyrenees. Our journey that day wound through the picturesque olive groves, farmlands and vineyards of the Aragón region. Upon arrival in Morillo de Tou, the crisp mountain air refreshed us, white clouds of cottonwood fluff blew in the breeze, and the glacial blue waters of the Mediano reservoir glistened in the afternoon sunlight. It was a paradise found.


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EGU 2017: New atlas shows polar seabeds

by Liz Kalaugher

Frost polygons: This polygonal or geometric patterns on the shallow seafloor (10-17 m water depth) here shown on a side-scan sonar image, were formed when the area was emergent (land) during the last glacial and was permanently frozen but not covered by glaciers.

Frost polygons: This polygonal or geometric patterns on the shallow seafloor (10-17 m water depth) here shown on a side-scan sonar image, were formed when the area was emergent (land) during the last glacial.

Wednesday saw a team of geophysicists at the EGU meeting present their new Atlas of Submarine Glacial Landforms. Four years in preparation, the atlas is the work of more than 250 marine geologists and glaciologist and is the most comprehensive and high-resolution atlas to date of the seafloor of both polar regions. The last such atlas was created 20 years ago.

Kelly Hogan, one of the Atlas editors, detailed at a press conference how the atlas reveals how ice has shaped the sea floor. Scientists will use the atlas to interpret the history of Earth’s large ice sheets and examine how environmental change reshaped continents.

Iceberg ploughmark showing rotation amongst a field of pockmarks from the central Barents Sea. Red 240 m water depth, purple 252 m.

Iceberg ploughmark showing rotation amongst a field of pockmarks from the central Barents Sea. Red 240 m water depth, purple 252 m.

The atlas assembles images of the sea floor that together cover an area the size of Great Britain. Modern acoustic mapping from onboard ship can image glacial landforms that are as much as five times smaller than earlier methods. Multibeam bathymetry, for example, creates a fan of sound and measures the return time of each ping to measure water depth across the fan. The researchers also used seismic reflection to look at sediment and remotely operated vehicles to take pictures from the seafloor.

These techniques revealed permafrost patterns on the floor of the Laptev Sea that became submerged when sea-level rose. The patterns are well-preserved because of the absence of weathering and human activities like road-building. In the Barents Sea the atlas shows ploughmarks on the seabed caused by the keel of an iceberg, in what’s one of Hogan’s favourite pictures.

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Are scientists at EGU telling stories?

by Liz Kalaugher

“It’s sitting by the campfire telling stories 15,000 years later.” Those were the words of Rolf Hut of Delft University of Technology in The Netherlands, explaining how playing Dungeons and Dragons as a teenager taught him how to create narrative structures for his research that makes it appeal to the media. He was speaking as part of a PICO interactive poster session at the European Geosciences Union (EGU) general assembly.

Hut’s media exploits include wearing a suit at this year’s EGU made of a recycled academic poster, simulating an escape from Alcatraz, and donning a pair of “smart” angling waders rigged up with a thermocouple in the EGU poster halls in 2015.

The classic pyramid structure for news stories, which starts with the essential information before following up with background, is the opposite of a research paper, Hut said. Scientific papers provide the background first “to weed out readers who are not interested” and only details results later. But “your science is not news”, Hut told delegates – today it’s more likely to appear in the weekend papers or on TV. And that requires a narrative structure, more like that of a movie, with an inciting incident, action that reaches a crisis, a climax and a denouement.

That’s where Dungeons and Dragons comes in – Hut reckons he had six years’ practice telling stories in basements. To prove his point, at the end of the session Hut, together with Sam Illingworth of Manchester Metropolitan University, UK, who’s authored an IOP ebook on science communication that at the time of writing is free to download, enticed researchers at the PICO session to play a story-telling game called No Sleep Tonight, where they had to create narratives on the fly using word-prompts.

Earlier in the session, delegates heard tips and tricks from other researchers, some of whom had jumped in at the deep end of communicating their science.

Hubert Savenije of Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, in a talk about the tightrope between drawing media attention and exaggeration, described what happened after his inaugural professorship lecture at IHE Delft in 1995. During the lecture, Savenije discussed the flooding of the Maas river in The Netherlands in 1993 and criticized the government’s water management. Even though he’d sent out a press release, Savenije’s comments did not attract media attention at the time.

But when more flooding took place, the release caught the eye of a reporter. An interview with Savenije appeared on the front page of a Dutch newspaper and the following week was “as if all hell broke loose”. The scientist came under pressure from the Dutch ministry to rectify his comments. “I had overdone it,” he said. But media attention can have advantages too, he explained, despite causing jealousy amongst colleagues. Getting your name known can give you the opportunity to write longer follow-up articles that detail the full picture. Savenije’s tips for others? Ask to see the article before publication to avoid misinterpretation, don’t overdo it, and be aware of topical events that may give your work additional exposure.

A topical event – the German drought in the summer of 2015 – brought exposure to Kerstin Stahl of the University of Freiburg, Germany. Stahl was approached by the media, she said, as she was listed on her institution’s experts service and had had two new projects on drought risk funded that year. Stahl found that the media questions were often specific, referring to times, places and dates. Her research, in contrast, tended to produce generalised messages and weigh up different factors.

From drought to flood: Louise Slater a flood risk researcher from Loughborough University, UK, recommended ensuring that you’re easily findable when journalists google key words, by maintaining a personal website and using Twitter. Slater also suggested asking for the journalists’ angle and their questions in advance, being able to convey your main message in 15 seconds, and preparing three key points and having a personal example for each point. Slater, for instance, talks about how the weeds in her local river are boosting the probability that it will flood.

When Jan Seibert of the University of Zurich, Switzerland, and Uppsala University in Sweden found that his students had hit the news for accidentally colouring a river too green, he was able to turn the coverage into an explanation of the research. Siebert is now looking to boost participation in his CrowdWater citizen science project and is building its exposure in social media as well as creating a MOOC on water in Switzerland. His team found that a personal approach – asking for help with their PhDs – worked better than asking people to help save the planet.

Tom Gleeson of the University of Victoria, Canada, who blogs for the EGU and AGU, recommended scientists have their own “research brand” and an Excel spreadsheet listing their communication goals and priorities. Gleeson aims to use real, natural language, without acronyms, and practices science communication on people he sits next to on the ferry near where he lives. He thinks scientists should be humble, honest and engaging, and suggests that they have one to three key points, keep a media network on another Excel spreadsheet and use their institution’s media relations team (although experience has shown him that not every paper warrants a press release),. Despite being a “smartphone hold-out” Gleeson recommends finding a community on social media – his Twitter handle is @water_undergrnd.

Anna Solcerova of the Delft University of Technology, who hit the media on Monday after taking part in an EGU press conference, has language tips too. Solcerova picked a short and snappy title for her abstract – “How cool is uchimizu?” – rather than describing it as a measurement study of the cooling effect of direct evaporation of water on urban pavement. She believes this may have been instrumental in EGU press officer Bárbara Ferreira selecting this paper for extra attention. Solcerova also recommended talking in short, quotable sentences and taking lots of photos of your research.

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Shout-out for famous painting at EGU meeting

by Liz Kalaugher

According to psychologists, the vivid orange, red and turquoise sky in Munch’s famous Scream painting of the late 19th and early 20th century may represent his emotional state. But meteorologists argued that it depicted a colourful sunset caused by the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883. Now a team from Norway has proposed that rather than painting the results of volcanic ash, Munch was inspired by unusual “mother-of-pearl” clouds high up in the stratosphere.


“We are natural scientists so we tend to look for answers in nature whilst the psychologists have looked for inner torment,” said Helene Muri of the University of Oslo, speaking on behalf of meteorological consultant Svein Fikke at a press conference at the European Geosciences Union General Assembly in Vienna.

These “mother-of-pearl” clouds, otherwise known as nacreous clouds or polar stratospheric clouds type II, form when the stratosphere is both unusually cold (-85°C compared to its average of -60°C) and humid. Such conditions typically occur in high latitudes during the winter, often near mountains. The clouds contain small ice crystals – about 1 micron across – and sit at 20-30 km, well above the heights clouds normally form. They often have a wavy appearance because of the lee-waves behind mountain ranges.

Mother-of-pearl clouds are too thin to be visible during the day but appear around half an hour after sunset or before dawn, when the sun shines onto them at a low angle. Their sudden appearance in a dark sky and their changing colours can be striking, particularly if you don’t know about the phenomenon. Munch wrote in a poem in his diary between 1890 and 1892, “I went along the road with two friends – the sun set…The sky suddenly became bloodish red….watched over the flaming clouds as blood and sword….I felt this big infinite scream through nature”.

Fikke observed such clouds above Oslo in December 2014 and noticed their similarity to the sky in the 1910 version of The Scream. He and colleagues Øyvind Nordli of the Norwegian Meteorological Institute and the late Jón Egill Kristjánsson of the University of Oslo believed that Munch painted mother-of-pearl clouds rather than a volcanic-ash-enhanced sunset because colourful sunsets caused by volcanoes have a stratified appearance and don’t exhibit wavy lines. What’s more, volcanoes tend to produce frequent colourful sunsets over a couple of years whereas Munch’s diary indicates that his experience was a one-off.

Muri, an Oslo resident for around 25 years, has seen mother-of-pearl clouds only once. But the phenomenon was definitely seen in the Oslo area on the right timescale for Munch – physicist Fredrik Carl Stőrmer documented its appearance in January 1890, when he was just 16, making detailing drawings of the clouds’ shapes and colours. “They are so beautiful you could believe you were in another world,” Stőrmer wrote when he published his observations 42 years later. Munch painted four versions of The Scream between 1893 and 1910.

Fikke and colleagues published their results today in the journal Weather. An EGU session this morning was dedicated to Kristjánsson’s memory.





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ERL celebrates award winners for 2016

By Gui Wright, Publisher, ERL

Environmental Research Letters (ERL), environmentalresearchweb’s sister journal, marked a successful year by recognising key contributors to the journal in 2016.

As part of the Highlights of 2016 collection, following a hotly-contested vote amongst the ERL Editorial Board, Mary Collins (from the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, and National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center in the US) and colleagues were awarded the ‘Best Article of 2016’ prize for “Linking ‘toxic outliers’ to environmental justice communities”. Collins and her co-workers, Ian Munoz and Joseph JaJa, were interviewed by environmentalresearchweb where they discussed how a handful of super-polluters account for 90% of toxic chemical pollution in the US, and disproportionately expose communities of colour and low income populations to potential harm.

Mary Collins (credit: SESYNC)

Mary Collins group (credit: SESYNC)

The article forms part of ERL’s Focus on Environmental Justice: New Directions in International Research, a collection featuring new research on quantitative and interdisciplinary approaches to environmental justice, a field increasingly integral to the development of environmental policy.

The Editorial Board also chose to honour Kimberly Van Meter (University of Waterloo, Canada) and colleagues for their article “The nitrogen legacy: emerging evidence of nitrogen accumulation in anthropogenic landscapes”, awarding the work ‘Best Early Career Article of 2016’

Kimberly Van Meter and Nandita Basu

Kimberly Van Meter and Nandita Basu

Van Meter, Nadita Basu and the rest of the teamstudied the accumulation of nitrogen following modern-day increases in nitrogen-based fertilizer use. Much of the ‘missing’

nitrogen is stored in the post-harvest plant root residue, they found. With nitrogen management now seen as an issue of critical environmental and ecological importance, Van Meter and Basu discuss the long-term implications of their latest discovery in an ERL article video abstract and interview with environmentalresearchweb.

Congratulations to both sets of prize-winning authors, who have been awarded free open-access publication in ERL during 2017, once again proving that the reward for ground-breaking work is…more hard work!

“From the local to the global environment, this amazing collection of articles show both the value and the power of studies that investigate the frontiers of environmental change and of human-environmental interactions,” said ERL Editor-in-Chief Daniel Kammen of the Highlights of 2016 collection.

2016 also saw the launch of the IOP Reviewer Awards, with ERL recognising the contribution of our hard-working reviewers by nominating over 45 Outstanding Reviewers for the year. Our inaugural ‘ERL Reviewer of the Year’ is Shannan Sweet of Cornell University, US.

Shannan Sweet (credit: Molly Timm)

Shannan Sweet (credit: Molly Timm)

ERL continually strives to serve the environmental science community and beyond, at a time where open science and public outreach are seemingly more important than ever. Our 10th anniversary last year was a good point to reflect on milestones reached so far. Taking the time to acknowledge those authors and reviewers who gave us their support during 2016 provides a further reminder of our shared values, and our motivation to do all we can in return.

Thank you to the community, from all at ERL.

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Beyond technology: the demand side of climate change solutions

by Felix Creutzig

Can we rely on renewable energies and electric cars to win the climate race? Surely, such technologies will make great contributions, and, in fact, are absolutely necessary to achieve ambitious climate goals, such as the 2C target. Yet, they might not be sufficient.

In a comprehensive review, published in Annual Review of Environment and Resources, we investigate the role of the demand side to climate change mitigation. The review finds substantiative opportunities in particular in the food sector, and in cities. At least 20% counterfactual reductions in emissions can be achieved by reducing meat consumption, by modal shift and compacter urban form in urban transport, and in the building sector by behavioral change. The overall range is broad and uncertain, and higher contributions of the demand side are feasible.

Demand-side solutions fall into two (overlapping) classes: infrastructures and behavioural change. Infrastructures essentially form endogenous preferences and set the cost structures for consumption choices (think about the convenience of public transport or car driving in Manhattan and Houston). Behavioural change involves opportunities to change entrenched habits, partially also by modifying ‘soft’ infrastructures, e.g. by nudging.


The review also identifies key hurdles to perform assessment of demand-side solutions. Key among them is that conventional cost-benefit analysis is hard to carry out when preferences are not exogenously given. Then costs and benefits not only depend on given environmental outcomes of a specific intervention, but also on how preferences changed by the intervention. A comprehensive model of human behaviour is required (see figure above).

The demand side received only scarce attention in recent assessment reports and the reasons are not necessarily obvious. The technical difficulties certainly discourage quantitative assessments. Yet, given its likely importance, more studies should systematically tackle this challenge, notably learning from the experience in urban studies.

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ERL celebrates 10th anniversary at AGU Fall Meeting

Celebrations at the IOP Publishing booth at the AGU Fall Meeting for ERL's 10th anniversary

Dan Kammen makes a speech at ERL’s 10th anniversary celebrations at the AGU Fall Meeting. Image credit Leigh Jenkins.

Last week saw Environmental Research Letters – environmentalresearchweb’s sister product – celebrate its tenth anniversary with a party at the AGU Fall Meeting in San Francisco, US. Editor-in-chief Dan Kammen of the University of California, Berkeley made a speech thanking the environmental research community for its support, whilst ERL guests toasted the open-access publication with cake and prosecco and were able to take away copies of the journal’s 10th anniversary collection.

Earlier in the day, Kammen had participated in an AGU session on the shifting landscape for science.

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AGU Fall Meeting 2016: Norwegian research on thin Arctic ice

By Liz Kalaugher

The Arctic in winter is cold, dark and dangerous. So it’s no surprise that it’s not seen too much research. But in January 2015 the Norwegian Young Sea Ice Cruise embedded a research ship in the ice, in only the second expedition of its type. The first was 20 years ago when the SHEBA expedition monitored multi-year sea ice in the Pacific sector. The N-ICE expedition, in contrast, moored in the Atlantic sector north of Spitsbergen, where the ice was first- or second-year and thin.

“Lots of the things we experienced took us by surprise,” said Mats Granskog of the Norwegian Polar Institute, who was chief scientist for N-ICE, at a press conference. “We saw a new Arctic, with ice 3-4 feet thick that behaves differently.”

This ice moves more quickly, breaks up more easily and is more vulnerable to storms and winds, Granskog explained. Learning about it should improve weather forecasts in North America and Asia. This is one of the reasons the team went, Granskog said – to find out how well we know the Arctic and to determine the validity of the ice data in our climate models.

During the trip the researchers had to “battle the dark, the cold” and cope when the ice broke up under their feet and they had to rescue their equipment. “It was no simple ordeal,” Granskog said of the six-month long expedition.
Amelie Meyer of the Norwegian Polar Institute was a member of the kit rescue team. The equipment had been installed on an ice floe a few miles wide next to the ship. On the morning of the 19th June, the floe cracked. Fortunately no researchers were out on the ice at the time. Within a few hours, the floe had broken up into hundreds of pieces. “It was a bit epic,” Meyer said, describing her trips in a Zodiac boat to retrieve the instruments, many of which contained data.

As well as the unplanned rescue, the researchers also saw way more snow than expected, Granskog said. In places, the snow was so heavy that it caused the sea ice to float below the surface of the sea, inundating the bottom layer of the snow with salt-water. This phenomenon has been seen in Antarctica, where the sea ice is generally thinner and there’s more snow, but this was the first sighting in the Arctic.

Von Walden of Washington State University joined the trip to characterise atmospheric conditions. In winter, the Arctic atmosphere tends to be either clear or overcast. When clear, he found, atmospheric conditions were similar to those discovered by the SHEBA expedition.

But N-ICE also saw significant storms, carried from the south by an unusual jet stream. These storms brought large amounts of warmth and moisture to the Arctic, restricting sea ice growth, whilst the winds pushed the ice out. Early February 2015 saw the lowest ever winter sea ice extent. One storm brought a temperature rise from -40 F to 32 F in less than 48 hours, and winds of more than 50 miles per hour, as well as increasing moisture levels ten-fold.

Whilst von Walden examined the atmosphere, Meyer was there to examine conditions below the ice. The Arctic Ocean is relatively warm, she explained, with temperatures of 32 F below the ice and 40 F a few hundred feet below the surface. It’s generally calm beneath the ice, which isolates the water from the atmosphere. But the winter storms, Meyer discovered, made the ice drift so fast that it mixed the water beneath, bringing warm water up from the depths and melting the ice from below.

Algae bloomed early beneath the thin ice, the trip revealed. You might think that would absorb more carbon, Meyer said, but these algae didn’t sink well, so didn’t export carbon to the ocean depths.

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AGU Fall Meeting 2016: Polar bear numbers set to drop by one-third

by Liz Kalaugher

It’s highly likely that the world’s polar bear population, currently 26,000 strong, will decrease by a third within the next 35-40 years. That’s according to Kristin Laidre of the University of Washington, US, speaking at a press conference at the AGU Fall Meeting in San Francisco.

This finding supports the listing of polar bears as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, which requires projection of species population numbers after three generations. Laidre and colleagues found that the average age of a female polar bear with dependent cubs is 11.5 years so 35 years corresponds to roughly three generations.

Polar bears use ice for traveling, hunting, mating and, in some cases, for their maternity dens. From 1979 to 2015, Arctic sea ice shrank at an average rate of 53,100 square km per year.

“When we look forward several decades, climate models predict such profound loss of Arctic sea ice that there’s little doubt this will negatively affect polar bears throughout much of their range, because of their critical dependence on sea ice,” said Laidre in a press release.

There are 19 sub-populations of polar bears around the Arctic Circle, living in 4 eco-regions. Some of these populations have never been studied whilst the number of animals in others have only been counted one or two times. Two or three populations have been studied on an annual basis, Laidre explained.

Some regions of the Arctic, such as the Chukchi Sea, are highly ecologically productive. Even though sea ice cover here has decreased, polar bears in the area are in better condition than they were 20 years ago; there could be a time lag before the full effects of the ice loss kick in. In other areas, like western Hudson Bay, polar bear survival and reproduction have declined as sea ice availability has dropped.

Laidre, Eric Regehr of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and colleagues made their predictions by analysing sea ice extent from satellite observations and projecting this forward by 35 years. They evaluated three different relationships of polar bear numbers to sea ice – a decline proportional to the sea ice loss, and two changes based on previous data – before taking a median value across all three scenarios.

This revealed that the probability of a more than 30% reduction in polar bear numbers in the next 35-40 years is 0.71. The probability of a decrease in headcount of more than half was just 0.07.

Laidre and colleagues reported their findings in Biology Letters and The Cryosphere.

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Must vineyard managers choose between bees or worms?

By Liz Kalaugher

Given the option, would you help bees or worms? That’s the choice indicated by initial results presented at the European Geosciences Union General Assembly in Vienna this week by Sophie Kratschmer of the University of Natural Research and Life Sciences in Vienna.

As part of the VineDivers project, Kratschmer found that, contrary to expectations, solitary bees in vineyards in eastern Austria thrived when there was less management of the vegetation between rows of vines. This higher diversity was a surprise as disturbed ground tends to contain more flowers, a food source for bees. Since solitary bees nest underground, however, they may not appreciate tillage. The team did find a link between flower coverage and the number of wild bee species.

Earthworms, in contrast, were more diverse when there was ploughing of the earth between the vines, probably, according to Kratschmer, because it boosts the carbon content and makes the soil less compact. Plant diversity and biomass weren’t affected by the management intensity.

Both bees and worms are useful for viniculture, with bees providing pollination while earthworms help form soil and cycle nutrients.

Fortunately, when it comes to selecting management regimes for vineyards, the findings may not boil down to a difficult choice between bees and worms. Next Kratschmer will investigate a “medium” management intensity, intermediate between the low and high regimes in this study, which may work for both types of animal.

The wider VineDivers project will pool results from France, Romania and Spain and also use GIS analysis to find out the role of landscape diversity.

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