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How I evolved from being a UCL Geography graduate to a marine scientist in the Galápagos

Posted by Ajay Chauhan at Nov 21, 2017 11:20 AM |

This is the first in a series of blog posts from UCL Geography alumni, talking about how their degree led them to where they are now….

by Salome Buglass

Salome Buglass-1

Fig 1: Salome in front of Darwin’s Arch at Darwin and Wolfe Islands, the most northern islands of the Galápagos. Waters here harbor one of highest biomass of sharks and top predator fish species (photo credit: Salome Buglass - Charles Darwin Foundation)

When I decided to do a BSc in geography at UCL, I never imaged that would end up being a marine ecologist working in the Galápagos Islands, as part of the first ever characterisation of deep-sea seamount ecosystems in the archipelago. I definitely never thought I would be tagging tiger sharks to study their movements in the marine reserve.

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Fig 2: Seeing tiger shark swim off after successfully tagging it with a satellite and acoustic tag (photo credit: Harry Reyes- Charles Darwin Foundation/Galapagos National Park)

In July 2016 I touched down in the Enchanted Islands and dodged iguanas as I crunched up the gravel path to meet the team and start my new job as a marine ecologist at the Charles Darwin Foundation. My work here focuses on researching key questions on inter-tidal and deep-sea ecosystems, commercial fisheries and shark populations to support informed decision making for the Galapagos Marine Reserve. When I’m asked how I got this job, my short answer is “Saw the ad, applied, got lucky!”

The long story is …. I studied geography. I have always been interested in organisms, nature, conservation, people, and development, particularly in the context of Latin America and the Caribbean, as my maternal roots come from this region. No other degree except the multi-disciplinary subject of geography enabled me to mix and match courses such as ecology, palaeoclimatology, hydroclimatology and coastal systems, with courses on people and cities, development and poverty, natural resource management conservation and livelihoods. For my BSc thesis I did a baseline study on water quality and macroinvertebrates communities of a high-altitude river catchment in the Andes (with Anson Mackay as my supervisor) and collaborated with Cuenca’s (Ecuador’s third largest city) environmental management department.  And this, fortuitously, 8 years later, proved to be a key stepping stone to the Galapagos, as it provided me with a letter of recommendation from an Ecuadorian institution underscoring my scientific and Latin-American credentials.  However, there were a few more serendipitous detours before all the stones lined up to create my water-logged path here.

I graduated from UCL at the peak of the global economic crisis in 2009. A time when the word firing was more commonly heard than hiring across the UK and Europe, principally in the environmental non-profit and public sector. So, I went to try my luck in the job market of the twin island nation Trinidad and Tobago. This wasn’t random. I’m part Trinidadian, I had a student loan, and no savings, and I needed a free roof. I was lucky enough to join my parents, who had just moved there for my mum’s work. I ended up living in Port of Spain for three years, working as a brand analyst in a major marketing firm after unsuccessfully trying to find paid work in my field. While I welcomed the chance to pick up a complete new skill set, one that I value to this day, I continuously sought opportunities or ways to be involved in some environmental or nature related activity. From supporting the Green Film Festival and assisting the set-up of a plastic recycling non-profit, to training as a diver and volunteer coral reef surveyor in Tobago.

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Fig 3: Salome distracted by a curious sea lion while counting macro invertebrates along a transect line for the ecological monitoring project (photo credit: Patricia Marti Puig - Charles Darwin Foundation)

It turned out that reef checking experience was exactly what my future supervisor was looking for and it was my ticket to being accepted for a two-year master’s research degree in climate change at the Geography Department of the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Canada. I also have to thank Coca Cola, because working on their marketing campaign to get more kids drinking sugar across Trinidad schools made it clearer to me than ever that I had to find my way back into my true calling in science and conservation.

Rainy London had prepared me well for Vancouver, aka Raincouver, where I researched climate change impacts on tropical marine ecosystems with Dr Simon Donner. I got to lead my own field study in Tobago to investigate the resilience of coral reefs to mass bleaching events driven by  sea surface temperatures whilst also affected by terrestrial pollution. Apart from all the fascinating science at UBC, and earning extracurricular scientific diver certificates (which later set me apart from the competition to help “land” my job as marine scientist), I also got a good handle on the complex relationships between coastal communities and their seascapes.

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Fig 4: School of endemic salemas dodging hungry sea lion (photo credit: Salome Buglass - Charles Darwin Foundation)

However, tying up my thesis was followed once again with having to face the daunting task of securing a permanent job. I definitely felt a bit of professional identity crisis at the time. I entered full job-search mode, selling myself as many things, e.g.  aquatic ecologist or environmental scientist to suit many different job openings, everything except geographer. I worked for six months as a junior ecologist consultant for a river health assessment programme, followed by working at an NGO on water resource management and governance. Both jobs were excellent experiences, but I was hoping to find full time employment in Vancouver. Due to the economic downturn in Canada this was turning out to be a tough nut to crack. I also applied for fantasy jobs, like marine ecologist in the Galapagos. Additionally, I followed my supervisor’s advice to take advantage of not being too busy (a euphemism for being between short-term contracts), to publish my thesis in a journal as soon as possible after graduating. Thanks Simon, because it turned out to be a major must-have for getting my current job.

As I had applied for so many jobs and some time had passed, I was gobsmacked when the good news arrived from the Charles Darwin Foundation. At the beginning, I admit I felt a bit like an imposter, having the marine biologist dream job, though technically I was a geographer (if titles mean anything really). However, after being here for over a year doing applied research to improve policies and management in the Galapagos Marine Reserve, I realized that my multidisciplinary background is actually a great fit for working in this place. The Galapagos Marine Reserve is one of the largest and most famous marine protected areas in the world and faces major challenges related to problematic governance, the exponential growth of visitors, pressures from legal and illegal fishing, El Niño events -- and all of this superimposed by current and future effects of climate change (interesting right? Read UCL’s Peter Jones’ paper for more info on these intricacies).  Now when I find myself bouncing from fisheries management planning meetings, to doing logistically challenging field work to assess marine habitats, to writing papers on spatial and temporal distribution of species, or in a climate change workshop, I have really come to appreciate having studied geography as it could not have served me better.

For more details about the work I am currently doing, please do visit my website: https://salomebuglass.wordpress.com/

To expand your personal network and connect with UCL alumni like Salome please join the UCL Alumni Online Community https://uclalumnicommunity.org

What it means to raise the Palestinian flag in today's America

Posted by Ajay Chauhan at Nov 03, 2017 04:25 PM |

by Tom Brocket

 

File 20170922 17241 pmod7.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1

 

 

As American as anyone. scottagunn via Flickr, CC BY-NC
Tom Brocket, UCL

 

It is a wet and dreary February afternoon in Union City, the compact and densely populated township sitting on the New Jersey bank of the Hudson River. The rain leaves the streets deserted. Outside the North Bergen mayor’s office, a group of some 50 people cower under their umbrellas and crowd around the flagpoles to the left of the main entrance. The American flag is already raised atop the most prominent pole on the small patch of grass.

A new flag runs up the post behind immediately behind it. The crowd cheer and clap. When it reaches the summit, some climb onto the elevated bank and take selfies with their friends or children. The low wind takes some time to coax the flag from its entanglement, but eventually, the white, green and black stripes and the red triangle of the Palestinian flag are revealed.

Over the past five years, these Palestinian flag-raising ceremonies have become an annual fixture in several New Jersey towns with prominent Palestinian-American communities, such as North Bergen, Clifton and Paterson. I spent the majority of my time between these towns while conducting research on second-generation Palestinians living in the state.

When these events are reported on via news articles and Facebook posts, they are usually met with angry comments from the wider community. Many criticise the town halls for flying a non-American flag; some voice concern that flying the Palestinian flag endorses a nation of terrorists, or even fret that raising the flag of a majority-Muslim nation implies America is losing parts of its territory to religious and ethnic enclaves.

At the heart of these reactions is a belief that retaining such ties to countries of origin is antithetical to becoming American – an analysis upheld for many decades by literature on migrant “assimilation” in the US. But it is not simply an affiliation to an “elsewhere” that can explain the incensed reaction. After all, St Patrick’s day celebrations just across the Hudson pass without critical commentary, and the claiming of Irish, Scottish or Italian heritage by post-immigrant generations rarely leads to an accusation of being un-American, at least not today.

The point is that unlike those white European nations, the “elsewhere” to which Palestinian-Americans “belong” is an Arabic and majority-Muslim nation – and one that has for several decades been painted as a terrorist enemy of the US and its values.

Refuge and opportunity

In my own research, I argue that these flag-raising ceremonies are occasions for Palestinian-Americans to pay homage to their dual national loyalties and their transnational, diasporic identities, while making a bid for belonging and recognition in the US. As one community leader who organised the largest ceremony in 2016 told me emphatically:

[These days] aren’t political … they aren’t about the city of Clifton recognising the State of Palestine or Palestinian Authority. They are about recognising the contribution of the Palestinian community to that town. It could be Palestinians, or people from South American, European or Asian countries. All these different groups raise their flags here, like us.

 

 

A flag-raising ceremony in Paterson, New Jersey. B. C. Lorio via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

 

 

Back in Union City, a figure in a local Palestinian rights group stood up and said:

I want to thank the town of North Bergen for this event recognising the Palestinian community. We are both proud Americans and proud Palestinians. Our fathers came here and found refuge and opportunity, and for that we are grateful. Later generations were born in and nurtured by this country, and woven into its fabric, and for that, we love it.

A local school teacher speaking next offered a similar sentiment:

We as Palestinians … all of us, from the halls of Congress to the halls of academia, we have contributed in substantial positive ways to this country, we are able to flourish as a community in America, here in North Bergen and across this great country. And today’s raising of the flag is a clear reflection of all we have accomplished today. God bless North Bergen, God bless America and God bless Palestine and its amazing people.

These events are ultimately less about the raising of the Palestinian flag, but raising it alongside the American flag. Packed with second and third-generation Palestinian-Americans who have grown up between both of these worlds, flag-raisings are rare opportunities to reconcile two seemingly incompatible identities.

Side-by-side

There is a storied tradition of American thought that sees dual identities not as a threat to a cohesive national identity or antithetical to the process of “assimilation”, but as the very definition of America itself. As the progressive intellectual Randolph S. Bourne wrote in 1916: “America is … not a nationality but a trans-nationality, a weaving back and forth, with the other lands, of many threads of all sizes and colours.”

Today, the raising of the Palestinian flag is a way to celebrate the contributions of an immigrant Muslim and Arab community against, as one speaker at the Union City flag-raising put it, “a backdrop of pervasive Islamophobia and discrimination in America”. His words rang true after Donald Trump’s first “Muslim ban”, the suddenly imposed travel restrictions that rocked Palestinians in New Jersey only a couple of months before, and the atmosphere of racialised nationalism that has hung in the air ever since Trump began his campaign in the summer of 2015.

The ConversationTo borrow a term from the anthropologist Thea Abu El-Haj, flag-raisings are also “bids for citizenship” – a way for Palestinian-Americans to demand inclusion and recognition in a country whose politics and culture have long positioned them as outsiders. To see the Palestinian flag raised alongside the American flag is to receive affirmation and recognition from their American towns – and to pay homage to the dual loyalties that have shaped Palestinian-American generations from the day they were born.

Tom Brocket, PhD Candidate in Geography, UCL

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

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.

Benefits

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.

Downsides

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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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 http://disneytls.blogspot.co.uk/

 

 


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).

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.