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The Final Countdown

Posted by Ajay Chauhan at Aug 06, 2018 04:46 PM |

By Angelos Angelidis

Angelos wraps up his year abroad in Toronto and has some advice for students who aren't allocated their first choice study abroad destination.

It is mid-April and I can count my last days in Canada on the tips of my fingers. The calendar on my computer is filled with events, while I am filled with pressure to make the most out of the last couple of weeks that I have in Toronto. With the arrival of spring comes the departure of Angelos and the end of a beautifully messy and enlightening year abroad.

This year has proven that it is the things you expect the least that have the most profound impact on your life. I am so used to planning everything out but I am slowly learning to appreciate the beauty of serendipity in life and allowing things to slowly unravel in front of me, rather than constantly be chasing goals and destinations. It is once you go off the beaten track that you will learn more things about yourself. And I certainly did learn a lot!

Back when I was applying for a study-abroad placement, my original “plan” was not to end up in Toronto. Somehow I did and I couldn’t be more glad. Two years ago I had no interest in Toronto whatsoever, but it is now a city with a very special place in my heart. I certainly feel like my time here is not over yet and that I need to come back at some point in the future. I associate the city with a time of my life during which I grew significantly on an emotional and intellectual level which makes my bond with Toronto very strong.

So my advice to anyone getting ready to study abroad and that is not sure what to expect from their host university and city, is to not have any expectations because this will make you limit yourself and studying abroad is the one chance you have during your undergrad to expand and absorb as many new experiences as possible. It is a year for you to test out the waters in academic disciplines and extracurricular activities that you have always deep down known that you want to try out but never had the chance to. You might not be going to the university of your first choice, but perhaps this will open up new doors for you and for your future.

Overall, this was a very short blog-post but I am soon off to Oregon in the US to carry out my dissertation research on tiny houses so I am in the process of organising that. I will be spending around two weeks in Portland doing interviews with tiny house residents and builders. My next blog post will be all about my adventure there so keep an eye out for that!

 


Urban ‘forests’ can store almost as much carbon as tropical rainforests

Posted by Ajay Chauhan at Jun 26, 2018 10:54 AM |

by Mat Disney

File 20180625 19416 1y0mho7.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1Shutterstock.
Mathias Disney, UCL

 

 

Most people would never think of London as a forest. Yet there are actually more trees in London than people. And now, new work by researchers at University College London shows that pockets of this urban jungle store as much carbon per hectare as tropical rainforests.

More than half of the world’s population lives in cities, and urban trees are critical to human health and well-being. Trees provide shade, mitigate floods, absorb carbon dioxide (CO₂), filter air pollution and provide habitats for birds, mammals and other plants. The ecosystem services provided by London’s trees – that is, the benefits residents gain from the environment’s natural processes – were recently valued at £130m a year.

This may equate to less than £20 a year per tree, but the real value may be much higher, given how hard it is to quantify the wider benefits of trees and how long they live. The cost of replacing a large, mature tree is many tens of thousands of pounds, and replacing it with one or more small saplings means you won’t see the equivalent net benefit for many decades after.

The trouble with measuring trees

Trees absorb CO₂ during photosynthesis, which is then metabolised and turned into organic matter that makes up nearly half of their overall mass. Urban trees are particularly effective at absorbing CO₂, because they are located so close to sources such as fossil fuel-burning transport and industrial activity.

This carbon storage potential is an extremely important aspect of their value, but is very hard to quantify. A 120-year-old London plane tree can be 30 metres tall and weigh 40 tonnes or more, and some of the carbon in its tissues will have originated from Victorian coal fires.

Measuring the height of a tall tree is difficult, because it’s rarely clear exactly where the topmost point is; estimating its mass is even harder. Typically, tree mass is estimated by comparing the diameter of the trunk or the height of the tree to the mass of similar trees (ideally the same species), which have been cut down and weighed in the past. This process relies on the assumption that trees of a certain species have a clear size-to-mass ratio.

But a fascinating property of trees is how variable they can be, depending on their environment. So inferring the mass of urban trees from their non-urban counterparts introduces large uncertainties.

Lidar over London

The UCL team use a combination of cutting-edge ground-based and airborne laser scanning techniques, to measure the biomass of urban trees much more accurately. Lidar (which stands for light detection and ranging) sends out hundreds of thousands of pulses of laser light every second and measures the time taken for reflected energy to return from objects up to hundreds of metres away.

When mounted on a tripod on a city street, lidar builds up a millimetre accurate 3D picture of everything it “sees”, including trees. The team are using lidar methods, which they pioneered to measure some of the world’s largest trees, and applying them to trees in the university’s local London Borough of Camden.

The UCL team used publicly available airborne lidar data collected by the UK Environment Agency, in conjunction with their ground measurements, to estimate biomass of all the 85,000 trees across Camden. These lidar measurements help to quantify the differences between urban and non-urban trees, allowing scientists to come up with a formula predicting the difference in size-to-mass ratio, and thus measuring the mass of urban trees more accurately.

The findings show that Camden has a median carbon density of around 50 tonnes of carbon per hectare (t/ha), rising to 380 t/ha in spots such as Hampstead Heath and Highgate Cemetery – that’s equivalent to values seen in temperate and tropical rainforests. Camden also has a high carbon density, compared to other cities in Europe and elsewhere. For example, Barcelona and Berlin have mean carbon densities of 7.3 and 11.2 t/ha respectively; major cities in the US have values of 7.7 t/ha and in China the equivalent figure is 21.3 t/ha.

A story to tell

Trees matter, to all of us. Recent protests in Sheffield, Cardiff, London and elsewhere, over policies of tree management and removal show how strongly people feel about the trees in their neighbourhood. Finding ways to value trees more effectively is critical to building more sustainable and liveable cities.

Measuring trees in new ways also helps us to see them from a new perspective. Some of these trees have incredible stories to tell. Just one example is an ash, tucked away in the grounds of St. Pancras Old Church, one of London’s (and indeed Britain’s) oldest Christian churches.

The tree has an extraordinary arrangement of gravestones around its roots, placed there when the railway was built from St Pancras in the mid-19th century. The job of rehousing the headstones was apparently given to a young Thomas Hardy, working as a railway clerk before going on to achieve literary fame. The UCL team’s 3D lidar data are helping monitor the state of this “Hardy Ash” tree in its dotage. This is just one of the ways new science is helping tell the stories of old trees.

Mathias Disney, Reader in Remote Sensing, UCL

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 

 

Map of the Month

Posted by Ajay Chauhan at May 08, 2018 09:00 AM |

by Nick Mann


This month we have a hand drawn fun pictorial map that depicts the day by day events that occurred on the recent fieldclass that some of our third year undergraduates went on in Greece.  The map was created by Rebecca Mason (current 3rd Year Geography Student) and was given to the course convenors as a thank you.  Rebecca has drawn some of the highlights of her trip to Lesvos (Lesbos) – I particularly like the petrified forest in the west of the island.  The Lesvos fieldclass has been running for an number of years at UCL Geography and has been very successful in getting the students to develop advanced skills in reading landscapes by understanding how physical, biological and cultural forces combine over time to shape the land.

 

 

The Geopolitics of Post-Brexit Gibraltar

Posted by Ajay Chauhan at May 03, 2018 09:00 AM |
I'm Anpu and I'm a third-year student studying Geography at UCL.

One of the UK’s fourteen Overseas Territories, Gibraltar has been under British control since 1704, and remains the subject of ongoing tension between the UK and Spain, which also claims it. Today Gibraltar is an affluent center of offshore finance, online gambling, and data management. It also retains its connection to the British military, with modern bases wedged at the base of the famous Rock of Gibraltar, whose military impregnability is the reason this polity exists at all. We went on a weeklong field course examining this unique place, with a focus on its political geography and the way that it can inform our understandings of diplomacy, territory, and political geology in today’s world.

The field class was inspired by the 2016 Brexit Referendum, which called for the UK to leave the EU. Inside the EU but outside the Schengen Area and the Customs Union, 96% of Gibraltarians voted to remain, because the EU provided a venue for diffusing tensions with Spain over UK sovereignty. Now Gibraltar confronts the possibility of returning to an ‘island garrison’ state of being, as it soon will be without the EU to maintain a relatively open border with Spain.

The full blog post and images can be viewed on Anpu's website.

Where are they now… Sophie Zielcke

Posted by Ajay Chauhan at Apr 30, 2018 12:25 PM |

Alumni Volunteer: Sophie Zielcke

Since graduating from the BA Geography (Class of 2011) Sophie Zielcke has volunteered her time to help others by being an alumni mentor through the UCL Alumni Online Community.

1. How has you career developed since graduation? Tell us more about your current role.

Since graduating in Geography from UCL in 2011, my professional focus has been on sustainability and environmental issues. After a number of internships in this field, I completed a Masters at Oxford, also in Geography. I then worked for an international environmental organisation for about a year before starting my current job at an international management consultancy. Not every project I now work on is directly linked to sustainability, but almost all my projects have a strong environmental focus and I often draw on my knowledge gained at university. As our clients come from all sectors, I have had the chance to support sustainability efforts in fashion, food, agriculture and mining.

2. What motivated you to get involved in the UCL Alumni Online Mentoring Scheme? Did you have a mentor or is it something you wish you had had?

I didn’t have a mentor at UCL, but I really wish I had. This opportunity to engage with graduates four or five years (or more) senior can really help raise awareness of all the different job possibilities out there. Often one has no idea of all the different paths that one could take. I now have a mentor in my current job and I really benefit from the guidance and advice I receive. I hope to give back a little with my engagement in the UCL Alumni Mentoring Scheme.

3. What are the benefits of acting as a mentor?

It is great to be able to give something back to UCL and to help some students explore all the different options after graduation. It also allows me to stay connected to UCL and learn from students and their ideas.

4. How do you think the scheme helps mentees?

Speaking to alumni that work in a sector of interest allows current students to informally engage with professionals. In a sector such as sustainability or environment, there is no clear or obvious career choice, unlike perhaps in law or medicine. I remember that I had little idea of what options I had after graduation, so I think mentees can benefit from experience sharing and learn about paths they hadn’t considered before. Also some mentees would like to learn more about specific companies and this way they can informally engage and find out whether a particular company is actually interesting for them and what roles they could pursue there. Particularly for women, this can be an opportunity to discover new paths and start growing a professional network early on. Women need to support each other more.

5. What would you say to someone thinking of getting involved in the mentor scheme?

Try it out! It is a rewarding experience to help someone with a similar passion to grow and find their way. Also, you never know, in a few years down the line, they might be in a position to help you or they simply become part of your professional network.

6. Are you proud to be a UCL mentor?

I greatly enjoyed my time at UCL and have fond memories of those years, and thus I am a proud supporter of the UCL alumni and mentoring network!

Join the UCL Alumni Online Community now to find your own mentor or to volunteer to share your expertise with the next generation.

 

 

Climate change is slowing Atlantic currents that help keep Europe warm

Posted by Ajay Chauhan at Apr 13, 2018 10:46 AM |

by Peter T. Spooner

File 20180412 584 n22937.png?ixlib=rb 1.1Natalie Renier/Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Author provided
Peter T. Spooner, UCL

The ocean currents that help warm the Atlantic coasts of Europe and North America have significantly slowed since the 1800s and are at their weakest in 1600 years, according to new research my colleagues and I have conducted. As we’ve set out in a new study in Nature, the weakening of this ocean circulation system may have begun naturally but is probably being continued by climate change related to greenhouse gas emissions.

This circulation is a key player in the Earth’s climate system and a large or abrupt slowdown could have global repercussions. It could cause sea levels on the US east coast to rise, alter European weather patterns or rain patterns more globally, and hurt marine wildlife.

We know that at the end of the last major ice age, rapid fluctuations in the circulation led to extreme climate shifts on a global scale. An exaggerated (but terrifying) example of such a sudden event was portrayed in the 2004 blockbuster film The Day After Tomorrow.

The recent weakening we have found was likely driven by warming in the north Atlantic and the addition of freshwater from increased rainfall and melting ice. It has been predicted many times but, until now, just how much weakening has already occurred has largely remained a mystery. The extent of the changes we have discovered comes as a surprise to many, including myself, and points to significant changes in the future.

The circulation system in question is known as the “Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation” (AMOC). The AMOC is like a giant conveyor belt of water. It transports warm, salty water to the north Atlantic where it gets very cold and sinks. Once in the deep ocean the water flows back southwards and then all around the world’s oceans. This conveyor belt is one of the most important transporters of heat in the climate system and includes the Gulf Stream, known for keeping western Europe warm.

Climate models have consistently predicted that the AMOC will slow down due to greenhouse gas warming and associated changes in the water cycle. Because of these predictions – and the possibility of abrupt climate changes – scientists have monitored the AMOC since 2004 with instruments strung out across the Atlantic at key locations. But to really test the model predictions and work out how climate change is affecting the conveyor we have needed much longer records.

Looking for patterns

To create these records, our research group – led by University College London’s Dr David Thornalley – used the idea that a change in the AMOC has a unique pattern of impact on the ocean. When the AMOC gets weaker, the north-eastern Atlantic Ocean cools and parts of the western Atlantic get warmer by a specific amount. We can look for this pattern in past records of ocean temperature to trace what the circulation was like in the past.

Another study in the same issue of Nature, led by researchers at the University of Potsdam in Germany, used historical observations of temperature to check the fingerprint. They found that the AMOC had reduced in strength by around 15% since 1950, pointing to the role of human-made greenhouse gas emissions as the primary cause.

In our paper, which also forms part of the EU ATLAS project, we found the same fingerprint. But instead of using historical observations we used our expertise in past climate research to go back much further in time. We did this by combining known records of the remains of tiny marine creatures found in deep-sea mud. Temperature can be worked out by looking at the amounts of different species and the chemical compositions of their skeletons.

We were also able to directly measure the past deep ocean current speeds by looking at the mud itself. Larger grains of mud imply faster currents, while smaller grains mean the currents were weaker. Both techniques point to a weakening of the AMOC since about 1850, again by about 15% to 20%. Importantly, the modern weakening is very different to anything seen over the last 1,600 years, pointing to a combination of natural and human drivers.

The difference in timing of the start of the AMOC weakening in the two studies will require more scientific attention. Despite this difference, both of the new studies raise important questions regarding whether climate models simulate the historical changes in ocean circulation, and whether we need to revisit some of our future projections.

The ConversationHowever, each additional long record makes it easier to evaluate how well the models simulate this key element of the climate system. In fact, evaluating models against these long records may be a crucial step if we hope to accurately predict possible extreme AMOC events and their climate impacts.

Peter T. Spooner, Research Associate in Paleoceanography, UCL

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 

 

Map of the Month

Posted by Ajay Chauhan at Apr 05, 2018 09:00 AM |

by Nick Mann

india atlas.jpg

india atlas-panoa.jpgFor this month’s map I have found a lovely sheet which originally was part of the Atlas of India. It covers the area of Pakistan north of the Sindh province just around the area of Khairpur with the River Indus running through the top left.  It is an original 1874 map with the survey general named as Sir Henry Edward Landor Thuillier.  There are additions / corrections added in 1895 and these still can be seen on the sheet.  There is a nice colour wash added to the map and would have cost an extra two Annas, the map itself was only 12 Annas. The sheet was requested by a student who wanted to use it as part of their coursework.

Another fascinating fact about Sir Henry Thuillier was not only was he the surveyor general for India at the time but he was responsible for printing the first stamp of India in 1874.

Another quirky observation is that the "Taluka Panoa" area (top right) has the lettering upside down on the sheet, the reason for this unusual typography is unclear (See the enlarged section).

 

 

 

Palestinian refugees lament as Trump funding cuts create job insecurity and a pension crisis

Posted by Ajay Chauhan at Mar 26, 2018 04:05 PM |

Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, UCL

The livelihoods and long-term futures of thousands of Palestinian refugee families across Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Gaza and the West Bank are at risk due to Donald Trump’s catastrophic decision to cut the American donation to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA).

The US president’s decision to contribute only US$60m to UNRWA in 2018 – instead of US$125m – has been widely denounced as a brutal form of collective punishment for the Palestinian people.

To fill the gap in UNRWA’s budget, on January 22, its commissioner-general, Pierre Krähenbühl, launched a major emergency fundraising campaign. The #DignityIsPriceless campaign aims to mobilise donor states and civil society worldwide to secure funds to keep open the 700 UNRWA schools that educate 525,000 Palestinian children. It also aims to ensure that UNRWA can continue providing lifesaving emergency food aid, emergency cash assistance, and essential medical services to millions of Palestinian refugees across the Middle East. Krähenbühl said: “At stake are the rights and dignity of an entire community.”

There is clearly an urgent need to fill an immediate gap to keep schools and medical services open. However, a related, unspoken crisis is also threatening Palestinian refugees’ future in another way: if services are at threat there is also a looming employment crisis for the tens of thousands of Palestinians who provide these services as UNRWA staff.

Palestinian jobs and pensions at risk

UNRWA is both an agency that provides services and assistance, and the employer of 30,000 Palestinians, including doctors and nurses, teachers, psycho-social workers and administrative and support staff.

UNRWA’s budget has been precarious since its inception in the 1950s and in December 2017 it had a deficit of US$49m. Because of this, in addition to its full-time employees on fixed-term and indefinite contracts, UNRWA has long employed thousands of people on daily contracts, often for years and even decades on end. These precariously employed “dailies” are called upon to fill short-term gaps as they arise, including as substitute teachers and doctors to cover sick leave.

Many UNRWA employees – including the Palestinian teachers, guards and sanitation workers I have been speaking with across Lebanon as part of my ongoing research – fear that their jobs and very futures are at risk. Potential redundancies in Lebanon’s educational vocational centres have already been announced. My interviewees inform me that dozens of UNRWA “dailies” have either been made redundant or have not had their contracts renewed since Trump’s announcement.

Exceptional measures and major insecurities

On January 17 2018, UNRWA headquarters in Amman, Jordan sent UNRWA employees an internal Area Staff Circular noting that, “in view of the severity of the funding shortfall that the Agency currently faces,” the commissioner-general was announcing a series of exceptional measures.

The circular – which a number of my interviewees personally showed me – announced that UNRWA would no longer grant any extension of service to those over 60-years-old, the official age of retirement, and that posts that become vacant because of retirement would not be filled “until further notice”. The conversion of fixed-term appointments to indefinite appointments was also suspended. This means that staff with ten years of continuous service would no longer automatically be eligible for an indefinite appointment.

Sara, a Palestinian teacher I interviewed in early February, told me her heart dropped when she read this circular. Born in a camp in Lebanon, Sara – whose name has been changed – was first employed as a “daily” teacher, and, for the past eight years, as a fixed-term, full-time UNRWA employee. Since 2012, she has been teaching Palestinian children from Syria who arrived in Lebanon seeking sanctuary. She explained why she felt that her future had been pulled out from under her:

If my contract is not converted to an indefinite one, I will have nothing to support me or my family after I am 60. As a ‘B’ employee [the term Palestinians use to refer to workers on fixed-term UNRWA contracts], I would only receive my own savings (tawfeer) as a lump sum, with no contribution from UNRWA.

This is because upon retirement, only UNRWA employees who are on indefinite contracts (known as “A” employees) are eligible to receive the full “Provident Fund” lump sum or what Palestinians refer to as ta’weed: the full compensation paid by UNRWA for their many years’ service.

Ta’weed combines monthly contributions that are deducted directly from Palestinian refugees’ monthly salaries (the tawfeer), plus an UNRWA contribution. As UNRWA employees receive no monthly pension after retirement, without the combined payment Sara would effectively only receive her own savings (tawfeer) in one lump sum, which would never be sufficient to support herself and her family as she grows older.

My interviewees told me they were partially relieved to receive a second UNRWA circular on January 21, stating that “the conversion of fixed-term to indefinite appointment is reinstated.”

However, they remained concerned that with UNRWA’s ongoing financial insecurity, it won’t actually be possible for fixed-term staff to be offered indefinite contracts in the coming years. And they also remain concerned about the future of their pensions.

A fair future

In light of what UNRWA itself has called the “worst financial situation in its 70-year history”, Palestinian staff members are being implored to continue serving the refugee community.

However, UNRWA employees and their families are facing increasing insecurities. They fear for what the future may hold, both for their employment prospects, and for their lives beyond retirement.

The ConversationFor each UNRWA staff member whose contract is not made indefinite, for each person made redundant or removed from the “daily” roster, for each potential employee not recruited to fill a gap left by retirement, and for each person whose full “Providence Fund” (ta'weed) may not be paid by UNRWA, an entire family’s and community’s livelihood is being undermined.

Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, Reader in Human Geography and Co-Director of the Migration Research Unit, UCL

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 

New York City Teenage Angst

Posted by Ajay Chauhan at Mar 05, 2018 09:00 AM |

By Angelos Angelidis

Over the winter break, Angelos explored New York as well as his interest in photography. Read on to hear how he is expanding his skill set and broadening the scope of his academic studies while abroad.

Angelos Angelidis1.jpg

I think that for a lot of people going through university, uncertainty with regards to our future career path is perhaps one of the major factors causing anxiety. Personally, I went into university as a physical geographer but I am currently particularly interested in working in the arts. Whether that would be in the film industry or at a museum I do not know yet and I am not even sure if this is just a phase that will eventually fade away. However, I know that as a person I cannot constrain myself in terms of what I am genuinely interested in, even if that means that I end up being a jack of all trades but a master of none. Therefore, I am embracing the multifaceted nature of my identity and I am seeing my year abroad in University of Toronto, as an opportunity to broaden my academic curriculum specifically to include art history, cinema studies and photography courses.

Angelos Angelidis2.jpgAfter having completed a “Photography 1” course and working with a film camera for the first half of the fall semester, I was very excited to shoot film in my winter break. Being a mere 12-hour bus ride away from Toronto, I went on a trip to New York City with a good friend of mine and I carried around a Kodak disposable camera (with a Kodak Max Versatility Plus 800 colour film) and a Nikon FM10 (with an Ilford 400 black & white film). We stayed in the city for six days and it was buzzing with life. The saying that New York City is the city that never sleeps was true since even behind the walls of our hotel room we could still hear cars and sirens late at night, making them an integral sonic element of the dazzling urban fabric. It was surprising to see how the metropolis that epitomises the peak of capitalist consumerism was not as “modern” as it is usually perceived to be. The old public transport infrastructure alongside the large number of skyscrapers that were built in the 20th century, give the city a sense of history deeply embedded amongst more contemporary buildings towering above one’s head. Generally, the soaring height of most buildings provides more space for architects to experiment with eye-catching designs, that create a very iconic skyline.

The most shocking aspect of the city was the large number of homeless people sleeping in the streets of Manhattan and inside subway waggons. It is so easy to make yourself immune to the sight of homeless people in New York City just to avoid accepting the falsity of upward social mobility that the American Dream promises to the masses. In a way, being able to live and survive in New York City requires you to be brutally individualistic at times. The notion of individual freedom that is so famously represented by the Statue of Liberty masks and hides an underlying obedience to the forces of capitalism.

Overall, the trip was a great experience and an opportunity for me to practise my photography skills a bit more. This coming semester I will be taking a “Photography 2” class since I felt that the “Photography 1” course allowed me to explore my creativity and gain new skills that might one day prove to be very useful in terms of pursuing the right career for me. I am still unclear as to what I want to do and new options have been put on the table, such as working in the film industry, which is stressful in terms of not feeling qualified enough to pursue my interests. However, I remind myself that I should view my anxiety about the future as a marker of privilege of having enough options to choose from rather than it being caused by lack of opportunities. Therefore, I am glad that this year abroad has given me the freedom to further broaden the scope of my academic studies and gain new practical skills.

Angelos Angelidis3.jpg

Map of the Month

Posted by Ajay Chauhan at Mar 01, 2018 09:00 AM |

by Nick Mann

This month with the "Beast from the East" hitting the UK and causing us to all to shiver - I thought it would be fun to see what the Russians were indicting in 1954.  The map is of the January average temperature from a Russian 1954 Atlas produced in Moscow that we have in our Atlas collection.

Temp-Russian-Map-20180301.jpg

Click here for more information on the Map Library.