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Out in Geography’s The Coming Out Stories, to celebrate IDAHOBIT: International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia & Biphobia

Posted by Ajay Chauhan at May 17, 2021 10:56 AM |

Homosexuality was removed from the WHO’s  International Classification of Diseases as a mental disorder on 17th May 1990, with 10s of 10000s of individuals and groups marking the day since 2004 to raise awareness against homophobia. Transphobia was specifically added to the campaign in 2009, and biphobia in 2015.

The International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia is now one of the largest global campaigns to raise awareness of, and campaign against, the violence faced by sexual and gender minorities around the world. It is also a celebration of diverse sexual orientations, gender identities and expressions. Events are held world-wide, including countries which still consider just being LGBTQI+ illegal, sometimes punishable by death.

At UCL Geography, we are proud of our diverse LGBTQI+ community of students and staff. Their network, Out in Geography, organises events every year, such as LGBTQI+ themed Wikithons. This academic session is of course different, with Covid19 and social distancing preventing face-to-face meet ups. Therefore, to mark #IDAHOBIT, we are launching a new series called “The Coming Out Stories”. Our idea is to have a bank of stories from students and staff from around the world sharing their own experiences of coming out, and giving advice for students who are still uncertain about taking the leap. Here we introduce 6 coming out stories from current members of Out in Geography, each incredibly personal and all ultimately uplifting, to celebrate May 17th.



International Day of Women and Girls in Science, 11 February

Posted by Ajay Chauhan at Feb 11, 2021 05:00 PM |

By Helene Burningham, co-chair of the UCL Women in Physical Geography network

20181107_Mallorca_1676.jpgBack in October 2019, we had the inaugural meeting of what would become the Women in Physical Geography network. Our Departmental EDI committee had run a staff survey that summer, and although not explicitly considered in the survey, we became acutely aware of the fact that despite there being over 150 female scientists across our taught and research student programmes (and far more female students than male), we had just 3 female academic staff (relative to 15 male). Not only did the challenge of supporting those students seem overwhelming, the well known 'leaky pipeline' was all too evident. The 'leaky pipeline' metaphor has been widely used to express the fall off in the representation of women as you move through the hierarchy of careers, particularly those associated with STEM subjects. In physical geography at UCL, we are a textbook example - the gender balance at the student level is firmly skewed toward female, but at Professor level, the skew is significantly toward male. That makes us part of the problem - if there is limited evidence (or precedence) of women reaching the senior positions in academia, how can we promote and encourage our female students to persevere in our discipline?

Roll on 18 months, and we are almost a year into the Covid-19 pandemic - a global event that is regularly in the headlines, not just because of the devastation it has caused, but because of the gender inequalities in its impact. Women have been more likely to a) lose their jobs [1], b) be in higher risk, front-line jobs [2], c) suffer from increased risk of gender-based violence [2], and d) prioritise care at home over their career and suffer longer-term consequences for pay and career development [3,4]. Bring in the intersections of different minority groups, and the negative impacts increase.

Our Women in Physical Geography network has been meeting regularly, providing a space to discuss some of these emerging issues, but to also understand more about what we can do to improve the equity in all aspects of our lives. A few of us recently attended (virtually) a private screening of the film 'Picture a Scientist'. Released in 2020, this film follows the experiences of female scientists in the US, chronicling the inequalities that they have endured in their careers - from sexual harassment to inherent, embedded gender discrimination. The film delivered a number of stark, and at times deeply upsetting messages about the treatment of women in science and academia. I use the work 'treatment' quite specifically here. We have often discussed in our network that UCL Geography seems like a friendly department, where we assume that sexual harassment doesn't arise, and women aren't 'treated' badly. But the film opens a door that, once opened, can't be closed. We are introduced to the iceberg analogy; the overt sexual discrimination and harassment that we would be aware of is only the tip of an iceberg that captures an almost endless array of micro-aggressions, passive bullying and exclusion, unconscious discrimination, and the imposition of male ideas on what a scientist or a professional ‘looks like’, and how career ambition and aspirations should be displayed ... At this point in the film, you realise that much of the discrimination that women scientists face is completely hidden.

Harvard psychologist Professor Mahzarin Banaji shows an example of the implicit association test, asking a class to link various words relating to scientific careers vs. words associated with the home - to male and female respectively. The class start shouting out, mostly in unison and the task is complete. Next, she asks for them to place the scientific career words to female, and home words to male. The response is muddled, confused and slow. The outcome - everyone in the class, male and female alike, found it far easier to associate scientific career words to ‘male’ than ‘female’. Everyone. Prof Banaji reflected on this - “the feeling you get as you take this test is one of utter despair. I ought to be able to associate female and male equally with science. I am, after all, a woman in science”.

Despair is a good word here, but I would like to think that we are not hopeless. We all have a part to play in improving equity in all communities. And we all need to be educated in the implicit biases that exist and how they have and are impacting women in science. Our Women in Physical Geography group is perhaps just a small step to support our collective of female scientists, but it is a step in the right direction. We welcome you to join us in future meetings to continue the conversation, and to positively and constructively educate, inform and reshape the world around us.

International Day of Women and Girls in Science, 11 February

Picture a Scientist (2020), directed by Ian Cheney and Sharon Shattuck

[1] BBC News

[2] Unicef

[3] The Guardian

[4] Standford Clayman Institute for Gender Research



Outdated carbon credits from old wind and solar farms are threatening climate change efforts

Posted by Ajay Chauhan at Jan 20, 2021 12:15 PM |

By Mark Maslin, UCL and Simon Lewis, UCL


chuyuss / shutterstock

French global energy giant Total recently announced it had delivered its first shipment of “carbon neutral liquid natural gas”. Natural gas is, of course, a fossil fuel and so can’t itself be carbon neutral. Instead, emissions from transporting the cargo were partly “offset” by investing in a wind farm in China.

But here’s the problem: that wind farm has been operating since 2011 and has already issued more than 2 million tonnes of these so-called “carbon credits”. A project like this clearly happened nine years ago without the additional funding from selling credits to Total, so it is highly unlikely that the recent purchases resulted in additional removal of carbon from the atmosphere.

These kinds of projects are why many scientists and environmentalists remain sceptical of companies buying credits to reduce emissions elsewhere in the world instead of reducing emissions themselves. This is why Mark Carney, the former governor of the Bank of England, has set up a private sector taskforce to establish a “credible” carbon offsetting market in 2021 so buyers can have confidence that their investments really will remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

We teamed up with climate data analysts at Trove Research to feed into Carney’s taskforce. Our new report shows that the market already contains hundreds of millions of tonnes of poor quality credits. If changes are not made the market could be flooded with them, resulting companies paying money, but failing to meaningfully reduce carbon dioxide emissions. New rules are needed to exclude older credits from the market.

Why the carbon market is growing

More than 1,000 firms across the world have made pledges to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050. Many have pledged to go even further. For example, Microsoft has an ambitious target to go carbon negative by 2030. By 2050 it wants to remove all the carbon pollution from the atmosphere that the company and its supply chain have emitted since it was founded in 1975.

At least 15 airlines including EasyJet, British Airways and Emirates have announced major carbon offset schemes. Even BP has declared that it will be carbon neutral by 2050 by eliminating or offsetting over 415 million tons of carbon emissions (although the devil is always in the detail).

A huge waterfall surrounded by forests
Total also offset its carbon neutral gas by investing in a forest protection project in Zimbabwe. mbrand85 / shutterstock

Companies need to get their emissions down fast, but getting to absolute zero is hard. Some companies are committed to reducing their emissions and use carbon offset credits to lower their effective emissions by investing in projects around the world that reduce emissions elsewhere or that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

These projects include wind or solar farms, planting and growing new forests or protecting existing forests. But some companies could be investing in the very cheapest available credits, with little regard to their credibility, simply to launder their reputations as “green”.

The integrity of the carbon offset concept relies wholly on additionality – whether the money paid for the offsets is actually used to reduce emissions or capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere that would not have happened otherwise. Our report found some worrying problems with a significant reserve supply of old, poor quality carbon credits.

Old carbon credits could swamp the market

The carbon offset market looks set to grow: our report projects that by 2050 the carbon offsets market will probably be worth more than US$90 billion (£67 billion) and maybe as much as US$480 billion – at least a 200-fold increase on the US$0.4bn spent in 2020.

The bad news is that the expansion may not actually reduce emissions because, at the moment, 600 million to 700 million tonnes of old carbon credits could be claimed in the carbon offset market – seven to eight times the current annual demand. Were these all to be claimed it would swamp the market, meaning companies buying cheap credits from projects with little or no additionality, and so little or no climate benefit.

Graph showing significant annual rise in carbon credit surplus since 2004, explained in caption.
More carbon offsets are available than have been purchased, leading to a big ‘surplus’ (in grey, million of tonnes of CO₂ equivalent). The surplus is getting bigger every year as the retirement and cancelling of offsets (red line) is not keeping up with the oversupply. To remove the surplus and make offsetting more effective we’ll have to retire lots more old renewable energy offsets. Trove / UCL, Author provided

The situation could be even worse – as lead author of the study Guy Turner points out – if old carbon credits from the past ten years of the UN Clean Development Mechanism are allowed. This would produce an additional 7,000 million tonnes of carbon dioxide representing 50 to 60 times current annual demand. If allowed into the voluntary market these CDM credits would effectively make the voluntary market redundant as a mechanism for reducing global carbon emissions.

This means companies, including world leading consumer brands, could unwittingly be claiming carbon offset credits for projects that have been operational for several years, and were approved under previous, less stringent conditions. As in the case of Total and the Chinese wind farms, this would effectively mean their carbon offsets would create no new removal of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

The study is not all doom and gloom. We’ve also presented the Mark Carney taskforce with a number of ways to make the carbon market actually reduce emissions. The world needs an independent international body to oversee and carefully regulate the market. This would have to ensure the registries of verified carbon credits only hold high quality projects. Finally buyers need to be empowered to demand credits that will clearly make a real difference.

Companies need to reduce their own emissions first, but there are currently few alternatives to fossil fuels for some uses – for example, the transport of goods by sea or air. Hence carbon offsets can be justified if they are part of a portfolio of measures to get emissions to zero and stabilise Earth’s climate. Yet, cleaning up and tightly regulating the voluntary carbon market is needed to ensure that real emission reductions are achieved.

Total did not respond to The Conversation’s request for comment.The Conversation

Mark Maslin, Professor of Earth System Science, UCL and Simon Lewis, Professor of Global Change Science at University of Leeds and, UCL

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.






Coffee: here's the carbon cost of your daily cup – and how to make it climate-friendly

Posted by Ajay Chauhan at Dec 31, 2020 12:00 AM |

By Mark Maslin, UCL and Carmen Nab, UCL



For many of us, coffee is essential. It allows us to function in the morning and gives a much needed boost during the day. But in new research, we revealed the effect that our favourite caffeine hit has on the planet.

Weight for weight, coffee produced by the least sustainable means generates as much carbon dioxide as cheese and has a carbon footprint only half that of one of the worst offenders – beef. And that’s all before adding milk, which carries its own hefty environmental baggage.

Over 9.5 billion kg of coffee is produced around the world each year, with a total trade value of US$30.9 billion. Global coffee demand is expected to triple production by 2050, raising pressure on forests and other habitats in the tropical regions where it’s grown as farmers look for new land to till.

Fortunately, there are greener ways of growing coffee. In our study, we calculated and compared the carbon footprints of conventional and sustainable Arabica coffee – the beans baristas use to make a high-quality brew – from two of the world’s largest producers, Brazil and Vietnam. We found that changing how coffee is grown, transported and consumed can slash the crop’s carbon emissions by up to 77%.

Read more: Coffee: 60% of wild species are at risk of extinction due to climate change

Decarbonising a cup of coffee

Growing a single kilogram of Arabica coffee in either country and exporting it to the UK produces greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to 15.33 kg of carbon dioxide on average. That’s raw, pre-roasted beans (otherwise known as “green coffee”) produced using conventional methods. But by using less fertiliser, managing water and energy use more efficiently during milling and exporting the beans by cargo ship rather than aeroplane, that figure falls to 3.51 kg of CO₂ equivalent per kg of coffee.

The average cup of coffee contains about 18g of green coffee, so 1 kg of it can make 56 espressos. Just one espresso has an average carbon footprint of about 0.28 kg, but it could be as little as 0.06 kg if grown sustainably.

But what if you like your coffee with milk? Lattes have a carbon footprint of about 0.55 kg, followed by cappucinos on 0.41 kg and flat whites on 0.34 kg. But when the coffee is produced sustainably, these values fall to 0.33 kg, 0.2 kg and 0.13 kg respectively. Using non-dairy milk alternatives is one way to make white coffee more green.

A graph comparing the carbon footprint of different types of coffee beverages.
Opting for oat milk or other non-dairy alternatives can help coffee drinkers lower their carbon footprint. Nab & Maslin (2020), Author provided


There are plenty of other ways to shrink the carbon footprint of sustainable coffee even further, like replacing chemical fertilisers with organic waste and using renewable energy to power farm equipment. Roasting coffee beans in their country of origin makes them lighter during transport too, so vessels can burn less fuel transporting the same amount of coffee.

Of course, it’s not just carbon emissions that leave a bitter taste. The coffee industry is plagued by human right abuses and other environmental issues, such as water pollution and habitat destruction. Certification schemes exist to ensure coffee meets a minimum ethical standard during its journey from crop field to shop shelf. These schemes need constant improvement as the industry grows. One way to do that would be including our recommendations for growing more climate-friendly coffee, so that people can buy certified coffee with confidence that their daily luxury isn’t costing the Earth.The Conversation

Mark Maslin, Professor of Earth System Science, UCL and Carmen Nab, PhD Candidate in Environmental Science, UCL

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.





Invasive species: why Britain can't eat its way out of its crayfish problem

Posted by Ajay Chauhan at Nov 19, 2020 11:55 AM |

by Eleri G. Pritchard, UCL



Marek R. Swadzba/Shutterstock



Invasive species pose a major threat to global biodiversity. In the UK, one of the most notorious of these invaders is the signal crayfish, Pacifastacus leniusculus. Introduced from the US in the 1970s to be reared in farms for restaurants and food shops, this species quickly became established in the wild. Accidental and intentional releases helped them spread throughout British rivers and streams and today, they’re prevalent across the UK and continental Europe.

Signal crayfish have been so successful at invading because they produce a lot of offspring and eat almost anything, from detritus and aquatic plants to small invertebrates, fish and even each other.

Their extensive burrowing has eroded river banks throughout the UK, and they pose a grave threat to native wildlife, including Britain’s only native crayfish species, the white-clawed crayfish (Austropotamobius pallipes). Signal crayfish carry a disease known as crayfish plague, which is 100% lethal to the native white-clawed if contracted. But even signal crayfish free of the disease tend to outcompete their native counterparts over time. Pollution also threatens white-clawed crayfish across much of their range, and as a result, they have suffered tremendous declines, estimated at over 90% in some English counties, leaving them vulnerable to extinction.



A small crayfish with a white underbelly is pinched between a thumb and forefinger above a gravelly river bed.
Also known as the European freshwater crayfish, the white-clawed crayfish is endangered. Eleri Pritchard, Author provided



One method that’s used to try and control signal crayfish is trapping. Baited traps, similar to lobster pots, are placed in rivers to catch and remove them from the environment. Conservationists and well-meaning members of the public have been doing this for decades. Given signal crayfish arrived in the UK as food, the “eat them to beat them” strategy would seem to make sense. Even celebrity chefs have encouraged this kind of wild foraging, but does it actually work? In a new study, we found an answer.

No rock unturned

Before we could understand if trapping worked, we needed to find out exactly how many crayfish were living in a stream and what these populations looked like. This was no easy task. Trapping tends to gather large, roaming males and spare the smaller, more cautious females, giving a skewed impression of the population.



A large crayfish sits atop a black trap, similar to a lobster pot.
Traps like this one are used to catch and remove signal crayfish throughout Britain’s rivers. Eleri Pritchard, Author provided



We had to develop a whole new method, and we tested it at a rocky upland stream in the Yorkshire Dales where signal crayfish were illegally introduced in the 1990s. We completely drained short sections of streams and removed all the boulders and cobbles from the river bed, exposing any invasive crayfish in the process. We drained and re-wetted the area three times using pumps, and caught fewer crayfish each time.

As their numbers were depleted, we could accurately measure the total number of crayfish and estimate how many were likely still hiding in the riverbed. This method revealed densities of up to 110 crayfish per square metre in places, far exceeding any previous record for British waters.

Perhaps most surprising was the overwhelming number of small crayfish we found. In fact, less than 2.5% of all the signal crayfish we recorded were large enough to be caught in conventional traps. This species reaches breeding age before they’re “trappable” size, so populations can still reproduce and proliferate despite our best efforts to trap them. Large signal crayfish have been shown to cannibalise and eat small crayfish, so removing these larger cannibals with traps could inadvertently allow the population to grow even bigger.



A crayfish with lots of eggs beneath the abdomen is held between a thumb and forefinger.
Signal crayfish can carry up to 250 eggs at a time. Eleri Prtichard, Author provided



Trapping causes other problems too. Many otters have drowned after being caught in illegal crayfish traps. There are also concerns that signal crayfish, crayfish plague and other invasive species could hitch a ride between waterways on the surfaces of these traps. Our research adds to mounting evidence that trapping invasive crayfish is probably causing more harm than good.

As with many invasive species, the best thing we can do for now is to prevent their further spread by meticulously cleaning equipment and following best practice when around freshwater habitats. It’s disappointing that we’re no closer to a solution. But the idea that eating tasty crayfish helps control their numbers in the wild is sadly too good to be true.The Conversation

Eleri G. Pritchard, PhD Candidate in Freshwater Ecology, UCL

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Next slide please: data visualisation expert on what's wrong with the UK government’s coronavirus charts

Posted by Ajay Chauhan at Nov 19, 2020 08:45 AM |

by James Cheshire, UCL

“If you can’t convince them, confuse them.” If you watched the UK government’s COVID-19 briefing to announce and England-wide lockdown, you might have been reminded of this quote by Harry S Truman. Following slide after slide of maps and charts, there was growing frustration about the way nationally important statistics were being presented to the public.

Getting these things right is important. We’ve seen previously and in this pandemic that trust in government influences whether people follow public health guidelines. And in a UK survey earlier this year, those who had low levels of trust in the government’s ability to handle the outbreak were twice as likely to think its response had been confused and inconsistent. While a set of confusing slides won’t alone dictate how people behave, these things add up.

We don’t need high production values, or even much polish – it’s nice to feel like we’re seeing the latest data rather than something endlessly adjusted – but being comprehensible and looking professional will help support the message. At the moment, these slide decks are reminiscent of rushed conference presentations pieced together while the previous presenter was speaking. Here’s how to fix that.

Explain your working

Perhaps the biggest betrayal to an audience eager to understand is the phrase “as you can see”. It’s repeated many times at these briefings, and it’s too quickly followed by “next slide please”. The information shown is complex and takes a moment to digest. The presenters – the UK government’s chief medical adviser Chris Whitty and its chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance – need to slow down.

On the map below from briefing in question, how many of us noticed that the weekly case rates per 100,000 people didn’t increase by the same amount each time in the key? We had intervals of 25 for the first two categories, but then jumps of 50 until 200+. The map’s design also failed to show that the rate far exceeded 200 cases per 100,000 people in some areas. Wigan, for example, had 622 cases per 100,000 people.




Map showing infection rates per 100,000 people across England, with different shades of purple marking severity




One goal of a map maker is to reveal patterns that may exist in the data, and colouring is key to this – they have to decide when to move from one colour to another. In some cases it’s preferable to split up a narrow part of the distribution into lots of colours and then assign the rest to a few. Or you might assign each part of the distribution equally. Either is fine, but it needs to be explained, or else it’s a nuance that will get missed or misinterpreted.

The choice made for this map overemphasises small leaps in small numbers at the expense of big leaps in large numbers. Unless the values up to 25 and those between 25 and 50 had significance in policy, they could have been lumped into 0-50. Likewise, the map suggests anything greater than 200 doesn’t really matter – that a rate of 201 deserves the same colour as a rate of 601. This doesn’t seem right to me. But the point is, this system needs to be explained, because choosing different intervals can create a very different impression.

Consider the following graphs. The top left is the same as the government’s purple one above, whereas the others present exactly the same data, just with different sized intervals.




Four maps of England based on the same data as the graph above, but using different keys and showing different patterns Author provided




On this point as well, the presenters made their lives hard by using national maps when most of the action is in cities. These are hard to see at this scale. The maps pulled out London, but should have done the same for other urban areas.

Presentation matters too

On this map, we were supposed to focus on the dark brown areas – these are bad news. But instead our eyes can’t resist the greens. Whitty had to tell us that the brown areas were what we should be looking at.




Map showing changes in infection rate across England, with brown showing increases and green decreases




These greens and browns are an industry standard colour palette, but more intuitive alternatives exist, such as light blues for slowing rates and darker reds for the increasing ones.

Many people online also complained that the slides didn’t fit the screen. This was an error seen on the BBC only, which had set them up wrong, and wasn’t the government’s fault. However, it does suggest the government isn’t considering what devices people will use to view the press conferences. They appear to be designing for the 50-inch television they are viewing and not for the many people streaming or catching up on their phones.

It’s always a risky strategy to push content right to the edge of slides, as things can get cut off. The layout also failed to account for the chyrons that appear at the bottom of news broadcasts, which could easily have been anticipated and designed for.

Try and keep it simple

“This is a complicated slide,” said Sir Patrick Vallance as he drew things to a close, forgiving us for not fully understanding it. But this slide was crucial. It was the climax to the case for lockdown. The 16 maps and graphics that came before were just preamble. The two graphs on this slide told us that the NHS would likely run out of capacity to treat the sickest patients in only a few weeks if we didn’t act. It was all he needed to show.




Graph projecting when NHS bed capacity would run out during the second wave




Unfortunately, the dates were misaligned on both graphs (the one on the right takes us to the end of the year, the left mid-December). It’s splitting hairs perhaps, but it demonstrates again that no one took a breather to dot the Is and cross the Ts.

The abundance of acronyms and specialist language is also symptomatic of trying to throw too much at a general audience to build credibility through complexity. This approach risks alienating the audience – when actually there was one key message on Saturday: without lockdown we’ll run out of hospital beds within a few weeks and people we could otherwise save will die.

I want to be clear that I have tremendous respect for the teams of people involved in creating these maps and graphics. I also have sympathy with the scientific advisers themselves, who are treading the increasingly strained tightrope between science and politics. The fact that they are showing such a rich array of data in some quite interesting ways is a really good thing, and we need more of it.

But data visualisation and communication is different to epidemiological modelling. It’s hard to do well, even harder under pressure, though it is possible. Unfortunately, if the government briefings are anything to go by, it remains an overlooked and undervalued skill.The Conversation

James Cheshire, Professor of Geographic Information and Cartography, UCL

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Seabed fossils show the ocean is undergoing a change not seen for 10,000 years

Posted by Ajay Chauhan at May 06, 2020 04:52 PM |

by Peter Spooner

Oskari Porkka / shutterstock
Peter T. Spooner, UCL

Changes in ocean circulation may have caused a shift in Atlantic Ocean ecosystems not seen for the past 10,000 years, new analysis of deep-sea fossils has revealed.

This is the striking finding of a new study led by a research group I am part of at UCL, funded by the ATLAS project and published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. The shift has likely already led to political tensions as fish migrate to colder waters.

The climate has been quite stable over the 12,000 years or so since the end of the last Ice Age, a period known as the Holocene. It is thought that this stability is what allowed human civilisation to really get going.

In the ocean, the major currents are also thought to have been relatively stable during the Holocene. These currents have natural cycles, which affect where marine organisms can be found, including plankton, fish, seabirds and whales.

Yet climate change in the ocean is becoming apparent. Tropical coral reefs are bleaching, the oceans becoming more acidic as they absorb carbon from the atmosphere, and species like herring or mackerel are moving towards the poles. But there still seems to be a prevailing view that not much has happened in the ocean so far – in our minds the really big impacts are confined to the future.

Looking into the past

To challenge this point of view, we had to look for places where seabed fossils not only covered the industrial era in detail, but also stretched back many thousands of years. And we found the right patch of seabed just south of Iceland, where a major deep sea current causes sediment to pile up in huge quantities.

Scientists gathered fossils from an area with lots of seabed sediment. Peter Spooner, Author provided

To get our fossil samples we took cores of the sediment, which involves sending long plastic tubes to the bottom of the ocean and pushing them into the mud. When pulled out again, we were left with a tube full of sediment that can be washed and sieved to find fossils. The deepest sediment contains the oldest fossils, while the surface sediment contains fossils that were deposited within the past few years.

One of the simplest ways of working out what the ocean was like in the past is to count the different species of tiny fossil plankton that can be found in such sediments. Different species like to live in different conditions. We looked at a type called foraminifera, which have shells of calcium carbonate. Identifying them is easy to do using a microscope and small paintbrush, which we use when handling the fossils so they don’t get crushed.

Electron microscope image of the tiny fossil plankton G. bulloides, a type of foraminifera found during the study. Alessio Fabbrini, UCL, Author provided

A recent global study showed that modern foraminifera distributions are different to the start of the industrial era. Climate change is clearly already having an impact.

Similarly, the view that modern ocean currents are like those of the past couple of thousand years was challenged by our work in 2018, which showed that the overturning “conveyor belt” circulation was at its weakest for 1,500 years. Our new work builds on this picture and suggests that modern North Atlantic surface circulation is different to anything seen in the past 10,000 years – almost the whole Holocene.

The effects of the unusual circulation can be found across the North Atlantic. Just south of Iceland, a reduction in the numbers of cold-water plankton species and an increase in the numbers of warm-water species shows that warm waters have replaced cold, nutrient-rich waters. We believe that these changes have also led to a northward movement of key fish species such as mackerel, which is already causing political headaches as different nations vie for fishing rights.

Members of the team collect ocean sediment. Ian Hall, Cardiff University, Author provided

Further north, other fossil evidence shows that more warm water has been reaching the Arctic from the Atlantic, likely contributing to melting sea ice. Further west, a slowdown in the Atlantic conveyor circulation means that waters are not warming as much as we would expect, while furthest west close to the US and Canada the warm gulf stream seems to be shifting northwards which will have profound consequences for important fisheries.

One of the ways that these circulation systems can be affected is when the North Atlantic gets less salty. Climate change can cause this to happen by increasing rainfall, increasing ice melt, and increasing the amount of water coming out of the Arctic Ocean. Melting following the peak of the Little Ice Age in the mid 1700s may have triggered an input of freshwater, causing some of the earliest changes that we found, with modern climate change helping to propel those changes beyond the natural variability of the Holocene.

We still don’t know what has ultimately caused these changes in ocean circulation. But it does seem that the ocean is more sensitive to modern climate changes than previously thought, and we will have to adapt.The Conversation

Peter T. Spooner, Teaching Fellow in Earth Sciences, UCL

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.



Gibraltar and Its Strange Relationship to Empire

Posted by Ajay Chauhan at Mar 05, 2020 12:19 PM |

by Jason Dittmer
Originally posted on Colonial Hangover Magazine, The Univerity of Warwick

What is Gibraltar, and how can we understand its complicated relationship to empire?

Conquered by an Anglo-Dutch force in 1704, the fortress of Gibraltar was officially ceded to the United Kingdom by the Spanish in the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. As this was done at gunpoint, Spain has never felt particularly bound by the treaty, and laid siege to Gibraltar twice more in the 18th Century. However, the famous Rock of Gibraltar underpinned the defences, allowing for the fortress to hold out until help came in the form of the Royal Navy.

Why was the UK so determined to keep this rocky outcrop?

Its location at the mouth of the Mediterranean gave the Royal Navy a convenient place from which to re-supply the Mediterranean fleet and ensure that commerce was unmolested by pirates or hostile powers in the area. In the latter half of the 19th century, the opening of the Suez Canal in the eastern Mediterranean made Gibraltar even more crucial; the logistics of the British Empire now ran through the Mediterranean to Suez, and then on through the Red Sea to India and on to Australia. Maintaining the flow of ships through the Strait of Gibraltar was crucial to maintaining the defence of the empire and the flows of goods that enriched the UK and fuelled its industrial expansion.

During this period, Gibraltar’s civilian population grew as various merchants, fishermen and laborers from all over the Mediterranean arrived to provide goods and services to Gibraltar’s fortress and fleet. The 1930s and 1940s would shape their political views in two ways that still resonate today.

First, during World War 2 the Gibraltarians were evacuated from the territory, under the assumption that the fortress would be attacked, and sent to London, Northern Ireland, and Jamaica, among other places. Repatriation began in 1944, but it took until 1951 to get them all back to Gibraltar. The Gibraltarians’ experience as second-class citizens of the Empire confirmed their sense of being a specific nation, with rights to self-governance in a de-colonising empire.

However, the other event that shaped Gibraltarian views was the rise of Fascism in Spain under the dictator Franco. From 1936 until 1975, Spanish democracy just across the frontier was squashed, with violence and oppression following in its wake. While the Gibraltarians were newly aware that they had to stand up for themselves against the British authorities, who would not necessarily consider the Gibraltarians’ needs, they were equally aware that they could not trust Franco and his government, which still coveted the return of Gibraltar. To that end, Franco closed the frontier with Gibraltar, intending to throttle their economy into submission (this failed). For this reason, as well as its reliance on British military spending, Gibraltar leaned into its British-ness, never pressing for decolonisation or anything more than ministerial government. It was a happy corner of the still-extant empire.

This began to change in the 1980s as decolonisation reduced the importance of Gibraltar to the UK.

No longer was Gibraltar the Lion guarding the Strait.

Contemporary Shadows of Empire

Military spending in Gibraltar plummeted and the Gibraltarians had to re-make their economy to become more self-reliant. This they accomplished by eliminating VAT to bring in tourists interested in military history and fish and chips by the Mediterranean, and by lowering their corporate tax rates to become a centre for online gaming and financial services. Efforts by the UK government in the 1990s to negotiate shared sovereignty over Gibraltar with Spain – without consulting the Gibraltarians – led to a further erosion of confidence in the UK (and a humiliating climbdown by the Blair Government).

A final betrayal came with the Brexit referendum, which has pulled Gibraltar out of the EU despite a 96% majority in favour of remaining. The reason for this overwhelming majority is partly because EU membership meant that Spain had to keep the frontier open, the one tendril of land connecting Gibraltar to the rest of Europe, and partly because Spain is likely to use EU-UK trade negotiations as a bargaining chip to raise the question of shared sovereignty again. This is not only anathema to the Gibraltarian identity, which incorporates Britishness, but also to the Gibraltarian economy, which is based on its autonomy and ability to set its own tax rates. And so, in 2020 Gibraltar finds itself with few options but to remain the staunch proponent of – not quite empire – the ‘British family of nations’ around the world.



Tips for Getting a First in your Dissertation

Posted by Ajay Chauhan at Oct 01, 2019 01:20 PM |

by Adama Kabba - UCL Geography Graduate and Environmental Engineering MSc Student

Your undergraduate dissertation is likely your biggest academic project thus far. If you approach it right, it is your opportunity to explore your interest and display your excellence. Approach it wrong and well you’ve played yourself.

I was a UCL geography undergraduate a few months ago. I graduated with a first class honours and in all honesty getting an 80 in my dissertation was the deciding factor. In this post, I share my top tips for getting a first in your dissertation.

Tip 1: Start Early:

Don’t roll your eyes at me. The reality is that you need to give yourself the time to collect your data, process and present it and then write and edit your dissertation at first class standard! If you leave it too late you limit your ability to refine the process.

Tip 2: Start writing your methods section first:

You know the saying 0 to 100? Yeah, you’ve got to get from 0 to 12,000. Staring at a blank page until your super suave and imaginative introduction pops into your head is pointless. Start with your methods section! It’s usually the most straight forward section to write. I suggest making regular notes about your data collection process and then drawing up a draft as soon as you're done. Having 2000 or so words on paper is a real confidence boost!

Tip 3: Keep all original data copies:

Keep all written notes, all original recordings I mean everything until your final submission. Just because you’ve typed up your values from your latest lab session or you’ve transcribed that interview does not mean it’s time to bin it! You may have missed something or input your data wrong, which is very easily done when dealing with large volumes of data. It’s always better to have the option to revisit the originals.

Tip 4: Set personal deadlines and deadlines with your supervisor:

First set personal deadlines. I find that weekly deadlines are most effective. It can be hard to accurately estimate how many hours a task will take, and so rigid, daily deadlines often end in disappointment. Aim to complete a task over 7 days and if you slack on some days pick it up on others. Second, set regular deadlines with your supervisor (even if you don’t receive feedback every time) that way your less likely to default as you know someone you respect is expecting to see your progress.

Tip 5: Keep a track of all your references either manually or using referencing software:

The importance of crediting your information sources cannot be overlooked and anyway you have no choice because Turnitin will drag you through the mud. Get a handle on it from the start. Each time you interact with a source and make notes on it record the reference in a separate document conveniently named ‘References’. If that's too old school use one of the many referencing software at your disposal. Endnote and Mendeley have received glowing reviews from previous geography students and all of the strangers I blindly trust on the internet.

Tip 6: Don’t be afraid to seek guidance and advice from department staff:

You have some of the best researchers in the world happy to talk to you about your ideas. There is likely some aspect of your dissertation that someone, other than your supervisor, specialises in. TALK TO THEM. Doing this can add the nuance and quality to your dissertation that takes it from a 2:1 to a first.

Tip 7: Consider alternative data processing software:

Excel is not the only data processing software in existence. Consider all the software and programs you’ve used throughout your undergrad including R, Matlab and C2 to name just a few. Those can help turn your raw data into figures that tell the story for you.

Tip 8: Look at past dissertations for inspiration:

It can be hard to know where to start with a project of this size. Lucky for you, you’re not the first student in the department to have completed a dissertation. Make use of the store of past dissertations in the Map Room- they can inspire you when you need it most.

Finally, good luck and try to enjoy the process!

If you want a more in-depth breakdown of each tip (and memes) then check out my YouTube video:

Climate change: obsession with plastic pollution distracts attention from bigger environmental challenges

Posted by Ajay Chauhan at Feb 25, 2019 04:31 PM |

by Rick Stafford, Bournemouth University and Peter JS Jones, UCL


File 20190220 148520 1tcw1vo.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1

When temperatures rise and ice melts, more water flows to the seas and ocean water warms and expands in volume. Shutterstock

By now, most of us have heard that the use of plastics is a big issue for the environment. Partly fuelled by the success of the BBC’s Blue Planet II series, people are more aware than ever before about the dangers to wildlife caused by plastic pollution – as well as the impact it can have on human health – with industries promising money to tackle the issue.

Single use plastics are now high on the agenda – with many people trying to do their bit to reduce usage. But what if all of this just provides a convenient distraction from some of the more serious environmental issues? In our new article in the journal Marine Policy we argue plastic pollution – or more accurately the response of governments and industry to addressing plastic pollution – provides a “convenient truth” that distracts from addressing the real environmental threats such as climate change.

Yes, we know plastic can entangle birds, fish and marine mammals – which can starve after filling their stomachs with plastics, and yet there are no conclusive studies on population level effects of plastic pollution. Studies on the toxicity effects, especially to humans are often overplayed. Research shows for example, that plastic is not as great a threat to oceans as climate change or over-fishing.

Read more: Plastics in oceans are mounting, but evidence on harm is surprisingly weak

More easily fixed?

Taking a stand against plastic – by carrying reusable coffee cups, or eating in restaurant chains where only paper straws are provided – is the classic neoliberal response. Consumers drive markets, and consumer choices will therefore create change in the industry.

Alternative products can often have different, but equally severe environmental problems. And the benefits of these small-scale consumer driven changes are often minor. Take, for example, energy-efficient light bulbs – in practice, using these has been shown to have very little effect on a person’s overall carbon footprint.

But by making these small changes, plastic still appears to be an issue we can address. The Ocean Cleanup of plastic pollution – which aims to sieve plastic out of the sea – is a classic example. Despite many scientists’ misgivings about the project and its recent failed attempts to collect plastic the project is still attractive to many as it allows us to tackle the issue without having to make any major lifestyle changes.


Scientists first became aware of a potentially warming world as far back as the 1970s. Pexels


The real issue

That’s not to say plastic pollution isn’t a problem, rather there are much bigger problems facing the world we live in – specifically climate change.

In October last year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) produced a report detailing drastic action needed to limit global warming to 1.5˚C. Much of the news focused on what individuals could do to reduce their carbon footprint – although some articles did also indicate the need for collective action.

Despite the importance of this message, environmental news has been dominated by the issues of plastic pollution. So it’s not surprising that so many people think ocean plastics are the most serious environmental threat to the planet. But this is not the case. In 2009 the concept of planetary boundaries was introduced to indicate safe operating limits for the Earth from a number of environmental threats.


Planetary boundaries. The green circle indicates a safe operating space. Three boundaries have been greatly exceeded. Felix Mueller/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA


Three boundaries were shown to be exceeded: biodiversity loss, nitrogen flows and climate change. Climate change and biodiversity loss are also considered core planetary boundaries meaning if they are exceeded for a prolonged time, they can shift the planet into new, less hospitable, stable states.

These “clear and present dangers” of climate change and biodiversity loss could undermine the capacity of our planet to support over seven billion people – with the loss of homes, food sources and livelihoods. It could lead to major disruptions of our ways of life – by making many areas uninhabitable due increased temperatures and rising sea levels. These changes could start to happen within the current century.

Lifestyle overhaul

This is not to distract from the fact that some significant steps have been taken to help the planet environmentally by reducing plastic waste. But it is important not to forget the need for large-scale systemic changes needed internationally to tackle all environmental concerns. This includes longer-term and more effective solutions to the plastic problem – but also extending to more radical large-scale initiatives to reduce consumption, decarbonise economies and move beyond materialism as the basis for our well-being.

The focus needs to be on making the way we live more sustainable by questioning our overly consumerist lifestyles that are at the root of major challenges such as climate change, rather than a narrower focus on sustainable consumer choices – such as buying our takeaway coffee in a reusable cup. We must reform the way we live rather than tweak the choices we make.

There is a narrow window of opportunity to address the critical challenge of, in particular, climate change. And failure to do so could lead to massive systemic impacts to the Earth’s capacity to support life – particularly the human race. Now is not the time to be distracted by the convenient truth of plastic pollution, as the relatively minor threats this poses are eclipsed by the global systemic threats of climate change.The Conversation

Rick Stafford, Professor of Marine Biology and Conservation, Bournemouth University and Peter JS Jones, Reader in Environmental Governance, UCL

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.