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Changing departments – the pros and cons of being away from home discipline(s)

Posted by Ajay Chauhan at Sep 21, 2017 01:00 PM |

by Muki Haklay

Last weekend, I updated my Linkedin page to indicate that I’ve now completed the move between departments at UCL – from the Department of Civil, Environmental, and Geomatic Engineering to the Department of Geography. It’s not just me – the Extreme Citizen Science group will be now based at the Department of Geography.

With this move, I’m closing a circle of 20 years – in September 1997 I came to the Department of Geography at UCL to start my PhD studies at the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis (At the time, CASA was an inter-departmental centre with links to the Bartlett, Geography, and Geomatic Engineering). At the end of my PhD studies, in 2001, after four years of self-funding the PhD by working as a sysadmin in Geography, research assistant in CASA, and few other things, I was looking for opportunities to stay in London for a while.

Today, the plight of EU academics in the UK due to Brexit is a regular feature in the news. In a similar way, as a non-EU person, I had to take into account that every job that I’m applying to will require organising job permit, and consider how long it will last. This ‘silent’ part of the academic experience that was there for many people is becoming common knowledge, but that’s another story…

With that in mind, I have applied to quite a diverse range of jobs – and finding myself shortlisted at urban planning at MIT, Geography at Leicester, Geography at LSE, Geography at the Hebrew University (where I’ve done my BSc and MA), and Geomatic Engineering at UCL, in addition to management consultancy, and a GIS software company. The MIT, LSE and the commercial jobs weren’t successful, and Leicester offer came too early in the write-up process. In the end, UCL Geomatic Engineering materialised at the right time and this is where I ended.

I found myself staying at the department (including its merger with Civil and Environmental Engineering) for 15 years until it became clear that it is time to move because an incompatibility between the direction that my research evolved and the focus of the department. I did consider staying within the faculty of Engineering – some of my work is linked to computer science, and to interaction with geographical technologies which is related to Human-Computer Interaction, but it felt just as incompatible – after all, most of my work is appearing in journals and conferences that are not valued by computer scientists but by geographers. It was good to discover that my interest in moving to the Department of Geography was welcomed, and now the process is complete. So what have I learned in these 15 years of being a geographer (geographical information scientist) in a civil engineering department? and what reflections do I have about being a researcher of one discipline but having an academic position in another?

Straddling fences

Let’s start from my own position – Nadine Schuurman & Mike Goodchild interview from 1998:

NS Some of the human geographers have partially built their careers upon writing critiques of GIS. How meaningful is participation in these debates for people in GIS?
MG Quite meaningful for geographers interested in GIS. If I were advising a new graduate student on how to succeed in geography these days, my advice would be to try to straddle that fence. It wouldn’t be to come down on either side of it because you have to be able to talk to the rest of the discipline and yet you have to be able to use the technology (Schuurman 1998, emphasis added)

This matched also recommendations that I received before starting my PhD, and my own interest from previous studies in linking social aspects in the environment and society interface with GIS and technology. During my PhD, I was lucky to be linked to three areas of studies at UCL – CASA, with its focus on GIS, computer modelling and visualisation, the Environment and Society Research Unit (ESRU) in Geography, and Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) and Usability Engineering expertise in the department of Computer Science. The result was that my PhD thesis had both a technical part, as well as social-theoretical part. It also demonstrated in papers that I wrote collaboratively during the PhD – for example, a technical paper about the use of agent-based modelling, was followed by a social theoretical paper about the methodological individualism that is embedded in the models at the time.

The technical part of my academic identity was part of the reason that Geomatic Engineering accepted me, and at least at the beginning I tried to fit in – e.g. by directing my attention to technical aspects of GIS data and processing representations and supervising a PhD on 3D data storage. However, participatory aspects of GIS continue to interest me – so I seized opportunities to develop this area. For example, once I heard about OpenStreetMap, I directed my research effort towards it, or when I learned about London 21 Sustainability Network effort to create a London Green Map, I offered help and designed MSc projects to support it. Since 2007, my research became more concentrated on participatory mapping and citizen science. As a result, the work that is linked to geomatic engineering (i.e. surveying, precise measurements, photogrammetry) shrank, as well as relationships with other areas of work in the department, this eventually led to where I am now.

Considering that I have found myself as an interdisciplinary researcher in a department that is completely outside either my ‘home’ disciplines (either Geography or Computer Science), had benefits and challenges.


The most important benefit, which eventually paid off, was the disciplinary freedom. While at the point of promotion applications, or specific evaluators for a research applications and such, I did provide a list of people who relate to my area of work (Geographic Information Science), on the day to day work I was not judged by disciplinary practices. Shortly after securing the lectureship, Paul Longley introduced me to the 3Ps – Publications, Pounds (grant money), and PhD students as criteria that you should pay attention to in terms of career development. Because of my involvement with London Technology Network, I’ve learned about the fourth P – Patents (as in wider impacts). With this insight in mind, I was aware that around me, people cannot evaluate my research on its merit so they will check these general matrices, and as long as they are there, it does not necessarily matter what I do. This freedom provided the scope to develop the combination of technology development which is embedded in social science research which I enjoy doing.

Disciplines do set which journals you should publish in, what conferences you’re expected to present in, and similar aspects of an academic career. Being outside a discipline means that I could publish sometimes in computer science (my top cited paper) and sometime in geography and urban studies (my second top cited paper). Noticeably, I don’t have a single publication in a pure geomatic engineering journal. This allowed for exploring different directions of research that if I was inside a disciplinary department, I would not necessarily be able to do.

The second important benefit was to learn how to communicate with engineers and people who do not see the research from the same perspective as you. Because I was in an engineering department, I was applying to the Engineering and Physical Science Research Council (the categorisation of my research on EPSRC website are interesting – and I know that they are not what I entered to the system!) and that meant that I needed to think about the reasons that someone who reviews my applications or judges them on a panel will see the benefits from their perspective. I had to learn how to think about structuring research applications, or submissions to REF so they are convincing and relevant to the reader – there was no point in going over the philosophy of technology reasons for researching VGI because this does not help in convincing the reader that my research is worth funding. Highlighting the technical advances and the potential for wider societal impact was more important.

Third, the position that I found myself in was pushing my interdisciplinary understanding further. Not only I had to get used to the engineering mindset and support engineering education (to a very minor extent), I also was in a position that I was doing participatory action research but within an engineering department, which made it more palatable for various researchers in the natural sciences and engineering to approach me while applying for funding. They needed a “safe” person to carry out a participatory part of a wider research project, and I guess that being based in an engineering department made it look this way.  Over the years, I had discussions if the group that I led can be considered as “social scientists” on a project, because of the departmental affiliation. I found it puzzling, but I guess that for reviewers who look less at the details of each applicant’s background, and used to look at affiliations, this worked.


The most obvious downside of being out of a disciplinary department is the issue of resources – this was frustrating while also understandable. Many requests for resources, such as appointing a lecturer in my area, were turned down. Throughout the whole period, the activities that I was carrying out were interesting, or even one that worth highlighting at a departmental level from time to time. When it came to the hard decisions on investment and resource allocation, the activities were not part of the core mission of the department and therefore not fundable. This left me with a continual need for bootstrapping and figuring out ways to secure resources.

The second downside is a version of the imposter syndrome that I started calling  “the hypocrite syndrome”. This is the downside of the communication across disciplines (and therefore epistemologies and ontologies) that I mentioned above. It is the feeling that while what drives the research is a social theory, the process of writing an application is about dampening it and emphasising technical aspects. A good example for this is in my paper about data quality of OpenStreetMap – if you read carefully the paper, it’s fairly obvious that my main reason to carry out quality assessment is so I can have a measure that will help me to show the social justice aspect of the project. Most of the papers that cite this work take it as a paper about data quality. It was a useful way of developing my research, but it doesn’t make you feel that you have provided a holistic description of what your aims are.

A third downside is the additional effort that was required to keep in touch with the development of the discussions in your home disciplines – I frequently went to geography conferences and followed the literature on HCI and computer science, but this is not a replacement for attending regular departmental seminars or even noticing discussions during departmental meetings, that keep you up to date with the general development. In Geography, I was lucky to be on the board for a leading journal (Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers) for about 5 years, and that provided another way to keep in touch and learn about the discipline.

Overall, I don’t regret the decision to go for an engineering department. The journey was interesting, I have learned a lot through it, and have developed my academic career this way. In hindsight, it did work well. What will happen next? I don’t know – I’ll probably need to reflect in 5 years what were the impacts of joining a disciplinary department…


“People perform better when they can be themselves” Stonewall

Posted by Ajay Chauhan at Sep 19, 2017 04:50 PM |

by Anson Mackay and Helene Burningham

The Department has set up a new Equalities, Diversity and Inclusion Committee (EDInC), which builds on our Athena Swan bronze award, but with a much broader remit. Allied to this, Helene Burningham and I have decided to set up a Geography LGBTQ group called Out in Geography, to create a welcoming and inclusive environment in the department for all LGBTQ students and staff.

Why is this group necessary? At school, 55% of young LGB people experience homophobic harassment (Stonewall 2012), while at university, 20% LGB students and 33% trans students experience at least one form of bullying on campus (NUS 2014). At university, LGBTQ students are at a significantly higher risk of depression, anxiety and other mental health issues (METRO Youth Chances 2014), and tend to amass higher levels of risky debt than their heterosexual counterparts (NUS 2014). These factors result in high numbers of LGB students seriously considering dropping out of university, which rises to more than 50% for trans students. Unfortunately, LGBT students are less likely to talk to their tutor about issues related to their sexuality for fear of discrimination (ECU 2009). Issues of discrimination are not of course restricted to students; in UK universities over a third of LGBT staff have experienced negative treatment on the basis of their sexuality or gender identity. Nationwide, attacks on LGBTQ people have increased by almost 80% in the past few years.

While UCL Geography is a great place to work and study, we think that we can proactively make it one of the most welcoming departments for LGBTQ staff and students in the country. For example, students arriving from school may not yet have gone through the stress of ‘coming out’ to their friends and families. Schools are often seen as places of relative intolerance for LGBTQ people, so the onus is on us as a department to make a conscious break with that environment and to make being LGBTQ at university a positive experience.

The NUS has a number of recommendations for universities in general, but we think that we can adopt many of these department-wide immediately. These are intended to complement existing UCL LGBTQ networks, including the Equality Advisory Group, out@UCL and UCLU’s LGBT+ Student Network.

  • Encourage staff members to become a Friend of Out@UCL to expand the growing network of LGBTQ+ friends, allies and advocates. This network is open to all UCL staff, and training sessions are provided once a term.
  • Helene and I would like to encourage out LGBTQ Geography staff and students (from undergraduate to MSc to PhD) to act as mentors for other LGBTQ people in the department – if you would like to volunteer, please contact me directly for more details.
  • Establish points of contact in the department so that students and staff can easily report acts of harassment or bullying against themselves or someone else. Helene and I are happy to take on this role in the first instance, but if anyone else would like to volunteer, that would be great.
  • Include LGBT provision and positive content in prospectuses and open day literature
  • Provide a range of social activities, e.g. attend OutThinkers events, participation in LGBT History Month, museum and cinema visits with LGBT themes that occur both in and outside of campus etc
  • Through UCL ChangeMakers, work towards including LGBT perspectives in the Geography curriculum, whether this be related to content or known LGBT researchers

We have also set up a UCL Out in Geography Facebook group where notices will be posted, relevant literature held etc. If you have any queries, please drop us a line.

References cited:

ECU (2009) The experience of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans staff and students in HE. London: Equality Challenge Unit.

METRO Youth Chances (2014) Survey of 16-25 year olds: first reference report. London: METRO.

NUS (2014) Education beyond the straight and narrow: LGBT students’ experience in higher education. London: NUS.

Stonewall (2012) The School Report: The Experiences of Gay Young People in Britain’s Schools in 2012. London: Stonewall.


Viv Jones in Russia

Posted by Ajay Chauhan at Aug 30, 2017 04:45 PM |

by Professor Viv Jones

In August I spent two weeks in the remote Arctic region in the Nenets Zapovednik (Nature reserve) situated in the Pechora Delta; one of the largest wetlands in Northern Europe (see map below).  It is a remote area and only accessible by boat, taking about 5 hours to reach from the nearest town, Naryan Mar. The area is an important summer breeding ground for migratory birds with important populations of waders, swans and geese.  One species, the Bewick’s Swan is of particular interest since birds migrate from the Russian tundra, across Europe to the UK with wintering populations at reserves such as  WWT (Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust) Slimbridge.  The numbers of Bewick’s has fallen by about 30% since the 1990s with effects of climate change, increased hunting and wetland habitat loss, and fatalities caused by power lines and wind turbines, all being thought to have adversely affected the populations.  Last year their migration route was tracked by Sacha Dench who flew with the swans in a paramotor supported by a land-team, and this year the aim of this expedition was to complete the filming, monitor the Bewick’s and other swans, and characterise the lakes and wetlands.


Over 10 days, colleagues from the Nature Reserve and the WWT helped by myself, PhD student Hannah Robson and the media team caught nearly 100 swans which were then rung and measured for biometrics such as weight. We sometimes captured birds that had been previously sighted in Slimbridge and other wetlands on their migratory route, and caught one Dutch bird which had been tagged with a GPS last year.


Hannah and I spent most of the time on the numerous shallow lakes which make up the delta (see photo below).  We collected zooplankton, algal samples and water chemistry samples from about 15 lakes from 3 different regions of the area to characterise their biology and also collected lake sediment cores from 10 lakes. The lakes were quite shallow (less than a metre deep) but surprisingly varied with some being fully fresh and other showing high conductivities, meaning they are connected to the tidal (salty) river systems. The lake sediment cores will give us a record of past changes and will enable us to investigate whether the lakes in the wetlands have been affected by recent environmental changes such as climate warming and long distance pollution.  In the next few months the cores will be radiometrically dated to determine how old the sediment is and then analysed for geochemistry to see if there is any evidence of pollution and also a variety of plant and animal fossils will be examined. We hope that the results will enable us to determine if the lakes have changed in the recent past and whether such changes might be detrimental to the swan populations.



Al Gore Q&A and video interview: Fixing democracy to combat climate change

Posted by Ajay Chauhan at Aug 23, 2017 12:55 PM |

by Mark Maslin, UCL

It is more than ten years since Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth brought climate change to the masses. At its heart, it showed the former US vice-president giving a comprehensive global warming slide show – warning of the dire consequences if we do nothing about the climate crisis.

The film grossed US$24m in the US and US$26m internationally. Not only was the film a financial success but it was also a critical success and won two Oscars. An Inconvenient Truth has been credited for raising international public awareness of climate change and re-energising the environmental movement. The documentary has been included in science curricula in schools around the world. It was also instrumental in Al Gore sharing the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

A decade on, Gore has made a follow-up entitled An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power. This film updates us on the major changes that have occurred over the past decade; including the accelerated retreat of the ice caps, extreme weather events and the historic signing of the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015.

The sequel is different to the first film – it is much more biographical and focuses on how Gore became the great climate change communicator and what he has been doing with his charities to build awareness and train future climate change leaders around the world.

Had this film been released a year ago, its optimistic tone would not have seemed out of place. It is almost as if the filmmakers had assumed there would be a different election result. The film has been hastily edited to include Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. The end of the film seems out of kilter with the optimistic tone of the rest of the film, which occasionally borders on triumphant.

I interviewed Al Gore and we mainly focused on politics and how to deal with bipartisanship. We both believe that it will be in the political realm where the fight to solve climate change will be won or lost.

Watch the interview here



Mark Maslin: It’s clear that the first film had a huge impact. So what is the motivation behind you doing a sequel?

Al Gore: When we reached the ten-year anniversary of the first movie it seemed like an appropriate time to present what’s new in the previous decade – and there have been two very big changes and a third that occurred during the filming of the movie.

The first is that unfortunately the climate-related extreme weather events have of course become far more common and more destructive. Mother nature is speaking up in a very persuasive way.

The second big change is that the solutions are here now. A decade ago you could see them on the horizon but you had to have the technology experts reassure you that they’re coming, that they’ll be here – well now they’re here. And for example electricity from wind and solar has fallen so quickly in price that in many regions it’s much cheaper than electricity from fossil fuels and soon will be almost everywhere.


Electric cars are fast becoming the new normal.
Nadezda Murmakova via Shutterstock


Electric cars are becoming affordable. Batteries are now beginning to decline sharply in price which will be a real game-changer for the energy industry. LEDs and hundreds of new far more efficient technologies are helping to stabilise and soon reduce emissions.

I was struck in the middle of your film by a profound statement: “To fix the climate crisis we need to fix democracy”. And then the film moved on to another topic. How do you think we can fix our democracies now in the 21st century?

Well, big money has hacked our democracy even before Putin did. And it accompanied the transition from the printing press to television, when all of a sudden candidates – especially in the US – were made to feel they have to spend all their time begging rich people and special interests for money so they can buy more TV ads and their opponents.

And that’s really given an enormous unhealthy and toxic degree of influence to lobbyists and special interests. Now just as television replaced the printing press, internet-based media are beginning to displace television and once again open up the doorways to the public forum for individuals who can use knowledge and the best available evidence.

If you believe in democracy as I do and if you believe in harvesting the wisdom of crowds, then the interaction of free people exchanging the best available evidence of what’s more likely to be true than not will once again push us toward a government of by and for the people. One quick example. Last year the Bernie Sanders campaign – regardless of what you might think about his agenda – proved that it is now possible on the internet to run a very credible nationwide campaign without taking any money from lobbyists and special interests or billionaires. Instead, you can raise money in small amounts from individuals on the internet and then be accountable to them and not have to worry about being accountable to the big donors.

There was a poignant moment in the film when you’re sitting in front of the Senate hearing – and there’s a Republican senator and he’s just not hearing what you’re saying. In a two-party system, how do you reach out to those Republicans – and some of the Democrats – that still don’t to get climate change?

Well, part of it is related to the changes necessary in the financing of campaigns. A famous journalist in the US, over a century ago, Upton Sinclair wrote: it is difficult to get a man to understand something if his salary depends upon him not understanding it. And if you substitute campaign finance for salary, you get part of the answer.

But I know for a fact that there are many Republican members of the Senate and House who know that what they’ve been advocating is wrong and would like to crawl back from the end of the limb they’ve put themselves on. And as more and more people express the passionate view that we’ve got to solve the climate crisis that can give them the backbone to change their position, some of them already have.

There’s a new Noah’s Ark caucus the Climate Solutions Caucus in the Congress – a reference to the biblical deluge but also a reference to the fact that they only can join by twos one Democrat one Republican – and more Republicans are now switching sides.

You’ve done a great job at communicating climate change around the world – but perhaps you being a very prominent, highly respected liberal Democrat has incensed some Republicans and actually hardened their view against climate change. Do you feel that’s fair?

I don’t think that’s fair at all and in fact there’s been a great deal of social science research that shows that’s completely inaccurate. You may know Joe Romm – a great climate blogger – he has compiled all that research. For two and a half years after the first movie, bipartisanship increased significantly on this issue. The Republican nominee in 2008, John McCain, had a very responsible position on this issue.



But what happened was in the wake of the Great Recession the carbon polluters launched the Tea Party movement – some of them joined on their own, but they actually provided the seed money and insisted that climate denial be a part of that political movement. The polluters have done exactly what the tobacco companies did years ago when they hired actors and dressed them up as doctors and put them on camera to say there are no health problems with cigarettes – 100m people died as a result.

Well, now the carbon polluters have taken that same approach hiring the same PR firms spending more than a billion dollars to put out pseudo science and false information. They’re not necessarily going to win the debate. They just want to give the appearance that there is a debate – in order to paralyse the political process. But people are seeing through it now.

What struck me about the interview – and also the film – is that Gore is making two very clear points. First is that now all the solutions to climate change exist. There is a wonderful sequence in the movie where he meets Dale Ross, the mayor of Georgetown in Texas. The mayor describes Georgetown as the reddest city in the reddest county in Texas – and he’s a conservative Republican. But he sees moving toward renewable energy, as just making sense. As his job is to deliver the best value for money to his taxpaying citizens and wind and solar are the cheapest energy source.

The second is that Gore makes the profound statement that Western democracies are broken and in order to solve the climate crisis they need to fix democracy. In the interview, Gore suggested that big business has bought many politicians and this must be unpicked so that they are free to make informed unbiased decisions.

He sees social media as the great leveller as campaigns can be run on much smaller budgets reducing the power of party donors. He also suggests in the film that educating both politicians and the electorate on the damages of climate change will make a significant difference. But this is the same rhetoric we here from intellectuals all the time – if the poor people were properly educated they would make the correct political decisions.

In the post-truth era this neatly sidesteps issues of growing inequality, poverty and a general feeling of disenfranchisement.

In this way, An Inconvenient Truth was the right movie at the right time and An Inconvenient Sequel is the wrong movie at the wrong time. At the end of the film, Gore makes an impassioned rally speech – part Winston Churchill and part Martin Luther King – which even the hardened sceptic couldn’t help but admire. He finishes by declaring the tag line of the film: “It’s time to fight like your world depends on it.”

The ConversationGiven the forces of big business and Trumpism aligned against climate action, we all need to be as passionate, optimistic and committed to a new safer cleaner future as Gore – because he is right, the world does depend on us acting now.

Mark Maslin, Professor of Palaeoclimatology, UCL

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

Why I'm bringing centuries-old 'ghost ponds' back to life

Posted by Ajay Chauhan at Jul 21, 2017 09:00 AM |

by Emily Alderton

File 20170713 12477 t9q3tx

Emily Alderton, Author provided
Emily Alderton, UCL

Over the past century half of the world’s ponds and wetlands have been destroyed, with many being filled in and turned into agricultural land. However, all is not lost, and it is possible to “resurrect” these buried habitats from the seeds and eggs stored within their historic sediments. A new conservation approach pioneered by the UCL Pond Restoration Research Group can restore aquatic habitats lost to the landscape for centuries.

Ponds can be extremely biodiverse. They support more aquatic species than any other freshwater habitat and provide important food sources for farmland birds and bats.

At the start of the 20th century there were an estimated 800,000 ponds in England and Wales – now, it is thought that fewer than a quarter of these remain. Similar levels of pond loss have occurred across farmland in Europe and North America, associated with increasing intensification of agriculture. Pond and hedgerow loss are often linked as hedges are uprooted and used to fill in ponds, before ploughing over the entire area.

A ghost pond in north Norfolk prior to resurrection. Emily Alderton, Author provided

Many lost ponds leave behind a “ghostly” mark in the landscape – visible as damp depressions, areas of poor crop cover, or changes in soil colour. Colleagues and I have recently discovered that these buried “ghost ponds” are not completely lost, but can be resurrected from historic seeds lying dormant underneath intensively cultivated agricultural fields.

These ghosts are an abundant yet overlooked conservation resource. Resurrecting them would of course mean more ponds, which in turn links up aquatic landscapes as plants and animals jump from pond to pond and species are able to thrive in larger populations. But the main advantage of a ghost pond, compared to a new pond, is the historic seed bank buried below the surface. This provides a source of local native species, speeding up the process of colonisation, and potentially restoring lost populations or even locally extinct species to the resurrected pond.

We already knew that aquatic seeds were able to survive dormant for centuries within existing lakes and wetlands. Scientists recently tested 13 lakes in Russia, for instance, and found stoneworts (a keystone species in aquatic habitats), could grow from 300 year-old spores collected from lake sediments.

However, our recent paper, published in the journal Biological Conservation, is the first to demonstrate this astonishing survival ability within habitats which had been assumed lost to agriculture. In our study, we resurrected three ghost ponds in north Norfolk, eastern England. These ponds were similar in type, location and surrounding land use to the 8,000-plus ghost ponds buried across Norfolk and many more across the UK. While buried, ghost ponds are subject to the typical stresses of intensive agriculture (soil compaction, fertiliser and herbicide use), making the long-term survival of their aquatic seed banks particularly astonishing.

Our three study ponds had been buried for around 45, 50 and 150 years. Each was re-excavated down to the pond’s historic level, which was easily distinguished from the overlying topsoil by its dark colour, silty texture, and even its distinctive “pond smell”. This layer of sediment was left mostly undisturbed to provide the source of historic seeds and eggs within each pond.

The ‘resurrection’ of a ghost pond; a) First, a trench is dug to locate the historic pond b) aquatic and wetland plant seeds found in the historic sediment then rapidly colonise the pond c) one year after ‘resurrection’ Emily Alderton, Author provided

All three ghost ponds were colonised within six months by native plant species. In total, 12 species of aquatic plant colonised the ghost ponds and eight of these species proved to have originated from the seeds that had lain dormant below the ground. To check these plants really had grown from the ghostly remains of the previous pond, and hadn’t been carried in by the wind or seed-eating birds, we kept some of the historic sediment in sealed aquariums. There, even under controlled conditions, the same species still grew out of this centuries-old sediment.

Species recolonising from the historic seed bank included stoneworts, which are important for maintaining water quality but are increasingly threatened in farmland, and floating leaved pondweeds, which provide key habitat for dragonflies and damselflies. We also found crustaceans including Daphnia (water fleas), and copepods (tiny invertebrates which swim in a jumpy motion using their antennae), were able to hatch from eggs buried in the ghost pond sediment samples.

a & b) Stoneworts and broad leaved pondweed growing from 50-year old sediment c) A germinating rush seed, sieved from 150-year old sediment. Emily Alderton, Author provided

Although only common species were resurrected from the sediments of our three ghost ponds, these included seeds of all different sizes and types – from a variety of aquatic plant species. This suggests that a wide range of plants, including potentially rare or even locally extinct species, could potentially survive within the buried sediments of ghost ponds. The boost to recolonisation speed and diversity from the historic seed and egg bank may also reduce the risk of invasive species becoming established.

The ConversationGhost ponds represent abundant yet overlooked biological time capsules. Their restoration could facilitate the rapid return of wetland habitats and aquatic plants into the agricultural landscape. This process could play a significant role in reversing some of the habitat and biodiversity losses caused by the global disappearance of agricultural wetlands – and I urge conservationists to make use of this valuable yet hitherto little considered resource.

Emily Alderton, PhD student in Aquatic Ecology, UCL

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


Life and death on your lawn

Posted by Ajay Chauhan at Jul 18, 2017 12:45 PM |

by Dr Mathias Disney

The new BBC4 documentary on Britain's Gardens that we featured in aired last night (available on iPLayer until August 2017). And slightly melodramatic title aside, it was excellent (despite me being in it) - really well-put together, thoughtful, and with some beautiful footage. Beyond the usual British garden staples - hedgehogs,  foxes, blue tits - there were some fascinating bits on snails, spiders and pond-dwellers.

The 3D fly-through that Phil produced from our lidar data looked really good on screen. Various HD versions of them are on vimeo:

LiDAR scan of back garden featured in BBC 4’s “Life and Death on the Lawn” from Phil Wilkes on Vimeo.

LiDAR scan of back garden featured in BBC 4’s “Life and Death on the Lawn” from Phil Wilkes on Vimeo.

LiDAR scan of back garden featured in BBC 4's "Life and Death on the Lawn" from Phil Wilkes on Vimeo.

And the resulting garden model, with RGB from the lidar camera, is on sketchfab:

Welwyn Garden City back garden by kungphil on Sketchfab

Not bad for a day out in Welwyn!

Originally published at



Palaeotoxicity: Using lake sediments to assess historical pollutant impacts on aquatic organisms

Posted by Ajay Chauhan at Jun 27, 2017 04:55 PM |

by Neil Rose and Simon Turner

Over 100,000 chemicals are in use around the world today and many more are added each year. Many of these will be released either accidentally or deliberately into the environment, but the scale and extent of the threat they pose to ecosystems remains unclear. Lakes act as natural sinks for contaminants both deposited from the atmosphere and transported from upstream sources. As a result, real-world exposure of lake-dwelling organisms is to a cocktail of contaminants, usually at low concentrations, but extending over the whole of the organism’s life-time. This cocktail includes a wide range of chemicals including trace metals (such as mercury and lead) and also persistent organic pollutants (POPs) from industrial, agricultural and domestic sources. These contaminants are now largely regarded as ubiquitous and a number of studies have explored the scale of pollutant burden in both lakes and rivers (Figure 1).


Figure 1: The concentrations of mercury (Hg) and a flame retardant (TBBP-A) in fish, water and sediment from Chapman's Pond in Hampshire, UK, undertaken as part of the OPAL project

In order to determine the risk that contaminants in lake sediments pose to freshwater organisms, Sediment Quality Guidelines (SQGs) have been developed. These generally comprise two levels: Threshold Effects Concentrations (TECs) which are defined as contaminant concentrations below which harmful effects on sediment-dwelling organisms would not be expected, and Probable Effects Concentrations (PECs) above which harmful effects would be expected to occur frequently due to that pollutant alone. However, SQGs only consider the impact from individual pollutants on their own and so, because a pollutant is only ever likely to be present as part of a mixture, predictions of an organism’s exposure are usually underestimated.

What is also important though is to know whether the overall pollutant burden for aquatic organisms is getting better or worse, and the rate at which any change is occurring. The lake sediment record can provide a natural archive of contaminant inputs to lakes over decades and centuries and so, by measuring the concentrations of different pollutants in sediment cores and comparing these with SQGs to get a “relative potency factor”, we can reconstruct their combined effects through time, what we have called the lake’s ‘palaeotoxicity’.

We presented our first results on palaeotoxicity at the SIL Conference in Turin last year, with data from a range of rural and urban lakes across the UK. Using an approach called Probable Effects Concentration Quotients (PEC-Qs) which assesses the relative potency of each pollutant by comparing its measured concentration to its PEC we were able to track the likely impacts of a wide range of pollutants through time at each lake. Intriguingly, this shows how the impacts of trace metals are declining as a result of emissions reductions, but that the rapid increase in concentrations of POPs maybe compensating for this such that detrimental effects to aquatic biota are now increasing once again (Figure 2). Similar patterns were observed in a number of our study lakes.


Figure 2: Reconstructed palaeotoxicity for Edgbaston Pool in central Birmingham, UK. The detrimental effects of metals peaked in the 1970s and are now declining, but rapid increases in POPs mean that the overall likelihood of toxicity is increasing once again. The red line represents a PEC-Q of 2.0 considered a harmful threshold for aquatic organisms.

Now, in the NERC-funded Hydroscape project we are measuring a suite of trace metals in sediment cores from 24 lakes in three ‘lake districts’ of the UK (Cumbria; Glasgow and Norfolk) (Figure 3). One of our aims is to use the palaeotoxicity approach to see how differences in connectivity amongst lakes can influence the scale of contamination in lakes through time from which we can also reconstruct the likelihood of detrimental effects to aquatic biota. Furthermore, there is growing evidence that pollutants previously deposited from the atmosphere and stored in soils are now becoming remobilized as a result of climate-enhanced soil erosion. Metals and POPs are being transferred from soils to aquatic systems such that pollutant inputs to lakes may remain high despite emissions reductions. We hope the palaeotoxicity approach can be used to identify the scale of threat to aquatic biota as well as highlighting those chemicals most likely to be causing harm.


Figure 3: Easedale Tarn in the Lake District, UK. One of our Hydroscape study sites.



Why did humans evolve such large brains? Because smarter people have more friends

Posted by Ajay Chauhan at Jun 23, 2017 11:40 AM |

by Mark Maslin

File 20170608 32402 17qtwj4
Sergey Nivens / shutterstock

Humans are the only ultrasocial creature on the planet. We have outcompeted, interbred or even killed off all other hominin species. We cohabit in cities of tens of millions of people and, despite what the media tell us, violence between individuals is extremely rare. This is because we have an extremely large, flexible and complex “social brain”.

To truly understand how the brain maintains our human intellect, we would need to know about the state of all 86 billion neurons and their 100 trillion interconnections, as well as the varying strengths with which they are connected, and the state of more than 1,000 proteins that exist at each connection point. Neurobiologist Steven Rose suggests that even this is not enough – we would still need know how these connections have evolved over a person’s lifetime and even the social context in which they had occurred. It may take centuries just to figure out basic neuronal connectivity.

Many people assume that our brain operates like a powerful computer. But Robert Epstein, a psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioural Research and Technology, says this is just shoddy thinking and is holding back our understanding of the human brain. Because, while humans start with senses, reflexes and learning mechanisms, we are not born with any of the information, rules, algorithms or other key design elements that allow computers to behave somewhat intelligently. For instance, computers store exact copies of data that persist for long periods of time, even when the power is switched off. Our brains, meanwhile, are capable of creating false data or false memories, and they only maintain our intellect as long as we remain alive.

We are organisms, not computers

Of course, we can see many advantages in having a large brain. In my recent book on human evolution I suggest it firstly allows humans to exist in a group size of about 150. This builds resilience to environmental changes by increasing and diversifying food production and sharing.

As our ancestors got smarter, they became capable of living in larger and larger groups.
Mark Maslin, Author provided

A social brain also allows specialisation of skills so individuals can concentrate on supporting childbirth, tool-making, fire setting, hunting or resource allocation. Humans have no natural weapons, but working in large groups and having tools allowed us to become the apex predator, hunting animals as large as mammoths to extinction.

Our social groups are large and complex, but this creates high stress levels for individuals because the rewards in terms of food, safety and reproduction are so great. Hence, Oxford anthropologist Robin Dunbar argues our huge brain is primarily developed to keep track of rapidly changing relationships. It takes a huge amount of cognitive ability to exist in large social groups, and if you fall out of the group you lose access to food and mates and are unlikely to reproduce and pass on your genes.

Great. But what about your soap opera knowledge?
ronstik / shutterstock

My undergraduates come to university thinking they are extremely smart as they can do differential equations and understand the use of split infinitives. But I point out to them that almost anyone walking down the street has the capacity to hold the moral and ethical dilemmas of at least five soap operas in their head at any one time. And that is what being smart really means. It is the detailed knowledge of society and the need to track and control the ever changing relationship between people around us that has created our huge complex brain.

It seems our brains could be even more flexible that we previously thought. Recent genetic evidence suggests the modern human brain is more malleable and is modelled more by the surrounding environment than that of chimpanzees. The anatomy of the chimpanzee brain is strongly controlled by their genes, whereas the modern human brain is extensively shaped by the environment, no matter what the genetics.

This means the human brain is pre-programmed to be extremely flexible; its cerebral organisation is adjusted by the environment and society in which it is raised. So each new generation’s brain structure can adapt to the new environmental and social challenges without the need to physically evolve.

Evolution at work.
OtmarW / shutterstock

This may also explain why we all complain that we do not understand the next generation as their brains are wired differently, having grown up in a different physical and social environment. An example of this is the ease with which the latest generation interacts with technology almost if they had co-evolved with it.

The ConversationSo next time you turn on a computer just remember how big and complex your brain is – to keep a track of your friends and enemies.

Mark Maslin, Professor of Palaeoclimatology, UCL

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


Africa's rainforests are different. Why it matters that they're protected

Posted by Ajay Chauhan at May 26, 2017 04:48 PM |

by Simon Lewis (UCL and University of Leeds), (University of Leeds) and


File 20170516 11959 1giwn95Corinne Staley/Flickr
Martin Sullivan, University of Leeds; Oliver Phillips, University of Leeds, and Simon Lewis, UCL


Around 2 million km² of Africa is covered by tropical rainforests. They are second only in extent to those in Amazonia, which cover around 6 million km². Rainforests are home to vast numbers of species. For example, the world’s tropical rainforests are estimated to be home to at least 40,000 tree species, with up to 6,000 in African forests. The Conversation

Yet African rainforests are poorly studied compared to those in Amazonia and South East Asia. And the continent’s rainforests are being lost to deforestation at a rate of 0.3% every year. This is slower than in Amazonia (estimated to be 0.5% per year in Brazil) and South East Asia (1% in Indonesia).

But greater losses are likely in the future if palm oil production, driven by growing global demand, expand. Another major threat is logging which is also on the rise.

Help for African rainforests may come from an unexpected source: international policies to tackle climate change.

The world’s tropical forests store 250 billion tonnes of carbon. If global temperature increases are to be kept well below 2°C this carbon needs to be kept locked away in trees rather than released into the atmosphere. Because of this, incentives to conserve forests for their carbon were officially recognised at the Paris climate summit in 2015. Examples include the United Nations REDD+ policy framework.

But our research into the relationship between the amount of carbon forests store and their biodiversity produced two interesting findings. The first suggests that carbon focused approaches like REDD+ will miss many forests with high biodiversity. This is because the forests that store the most carbon are not necessarily home to the most species.

The second is that Africa’s rainforests have unique characteristics. In particular, we found that they store more carbon than those in the Amazon. This makes designing policies that protect them all the more important, and more complex.

Tree diversity and carbon storage

At first glance, incentives to protect forests for their carbon should also benefit biodiversity. This is because they encourage more forests to be protected. But protecting one area often diverts threats to other areas. So, protecting some forests for their carbon could increase human pressure on others. It’s therefore crucial to know the relationship between biodiversity and carbon storage to assess whether carbon-focused conservation will also protect the most biodiverse forests. That’s what we set out to research.


Africa’s rainforests have unique characteristics that distinguish them from forests elsewhere. Sophie Fauset


Previous studies have found that ecosystem functions like carbon storage increase with biodiversity. So, it may be expected that the forests with the most tree species also have the most carbon. But it’s unknown whether this positive effect of biodiversity would be evident in high-diversity tropical forests.

To see how carbon and biodiversity were related in mature tropical forests we – a team of 115 scientists from 22 countries – surveyed 360 plots situated across the lowland rainforests of South America, Africa and Asia. In each 1 hectare (100 by 100 m) plot we identified and measured the diameter of every tree. From here, we could estimate the amount of carbon the forest stored.

Surprisingly, we found that tree diversity and carbon storage were completely unrelated, even after we accounted for the effect of climate and soil.

The absence of a relationship between tree diversity and carbon storage means that strategies like REDD+ – that only promote the conservation of forests with the most carbon – will miss some high diversity forests.

That’s not to say that carbon-focused conservation isn’t still important. Conserving forests for their carbon will be vital to reducing the amount the planet warms, and programmes like REDD+ are needed if this is to happen.

But our results indicate that biodiversity has to be explicitly considered when planning protected areas, and not just assumed to automatically benefit from carbon-focused conservation.


African rainforests store more carbon than those in the Amazon. Shutterstock


Unique characteristics

Our results also contribute to the growing understanding that African rainforests are unique. For example, they store more carbon than those in the Amazon. On average, a hectare of African rainforest stores 183 tonnes of carbon compared to 140 tonnes in the same area of Amazonian rainforest - but do so with 170 fewer trees per hectare.

The extra carbon in African forests comes from trees being larger; the average diameter of a tree in an African rainforest is 1.5 times larger than that of a tree in the Amazon. Trees in African rainforests are also taller than their Amazonian counterparts.

African forests also have fewer tree species than tropical forests in other continents. If you were to identify 300 trees in an African forest you would find, on average, 65 species, compared to 109 species in the Amazon and 120 species in South East Asia. This low diversity may partly be a legacy of past climate, with dry periods in the past wiping out species that require wet conditions all year round.

African rainforests are still important centres of biodiversity despite having fewer tree species than other rainforests. Forests need to be protected to safeguard both the huge number of species that live in them and the vast amounts of carbon they store.

Our results show that it’s not safe to assume that protecting one of these will automatically protect the other. Instead, both biodiversity and carbon need to be considered when planning how to protect Africa’s rainforests.

Martin Sullivan, Postdoctoral researcher, School of Geography, University of Leeds; Oliver Phillips, Professor of Tropical Ecology, University of Leeds, and Simon Lewis, Professor of Global Change Science at University of Leeds and, UCL

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

Lake BESS results presented at the BES-BESS Symposium 2017, Cardiff, 24-26 April

Posted by Ajay Chauhan at May 12, 2017 04:25 PM |

by Ambroise Baker

BESS – Biodiversity & Ecosystem Services Sustainability – was a £15M 2011-2017 research programme funded by NERC, the UK research council concerned with the natural environment. This conference was a wrap up event co-organised with the BES, the British Ecological Society and hosted by the Water Research Institute at Cardiff University.


It was a great opportunity to present results from our Lakes BESS project, my first postdoc, and interact with a fun bunch of researchers with similar interests. It was also a chance to learn about the tremendous research advances in the field of biodiversity and ecosystem services achieved by BESS researchers and others.

The most thought-provoking talk was delivered by Kai Chan from the University of British Columbia, Canada. He defended ideas published in his 2016 PNAS paper:

Chan et al 2016. Why protect nature? Rethinking values and the environment PNAS 113 (6) 1462-1465. doi:10.1073/pnas.1525002113

His talk aimed to demonstrate that relational values drive biodiversity and ecosystem services protection, in addition to the commonly accepted intrinsic and instrumental values of nature.

Was the audience convinced? His talked certainly sparked great interest and numerous questions. For sure there is an empty gap to be filled around the classic divide between protecting the environment for its intrinsic value or for very utilitarian reasons. This simplistic intrinsic-instrumental value scheme is simply not sufficient anymore.

However, I remain to be convinced ‘relational values’ completely fill this gap – and even I remain to fully comprehend what is meant by ‘relational values’ – a notion I am not familiar enough with, as an ecologist.

The other outstanding talk I would like to highlight here is that of Elena Bennett from McGill University, Canada. She demonstrated with practical example from work carried out by her lab how ecosystem services can inform multifunctional landscape management.

She also finished her talk by reminding us about the “importance of the contributions of both nature and human action to the provision of services”, i.e. the natural environment does not simply provide us with what we need, quite the reverse ecosystem services also strongly depend on us working with nature, in a co-production.

Many other contributions could be mentioned here, including a whole session dedicated to ecological resilience. Our Lake BESS presentation was well received judging by the positive comments people shared.

My talk title was: Landscape connectivity is important for lake ecosystem function and biodiversity and I am pleased to share slides from the introduction and conclusion: