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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.

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tree diversity and carbon storage

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Unique characteristics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Ambroise Baker
https://ambroisebakerresearch.wordpress.com/

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Geographical Association awards by Chris Brierley

Posted by Ajay Chauhan at May 05, 2017 04:44 PM |

by Chris Brierley

Learned societies are an important part of academia. Whilst two of the most well-known may be The Royal Society and the British Academy, there are many others, often with bases in London. The Royal Geographical Society is next to the Albert Hall and always has a good, free exhibition on. Learned societies act as a mouthpiece for the academic community and certify "chartered" professionals. I am part of the Royal Meteorological Society, which has responsibility for climate science.

Last year, I was chatting to colleagues at the annual general meeting (after an interesting panel discussion on the Paris Climate Agreement). I discovered that a revision of the school geography curriculum meant that teachers now needed to explain the climate of the past few million years. This was one of several new topics that wasn't really covered in existing textbooks; and it was worrying the education officers of the relevant learned societies. The Royal Meteorological Society has taken on the task of creating some resources on past climate changes, to complement their offering on weather in schools (via www.metlink.org). We collected a series on up-to-date facts and figures from paleoclimate science (such as CO2 reconstructions). My contributions were case studies on (a) the mid-Pleistocene Transition (b) the "Green Sahara" and (c) ongoing debates about the Anthropocene. These resources are available at http://www.metlink.org/past-climate-resource-modules/

The website went live at the beginning of the academic year, and I must confess that I'd completely forgotten about them. I was therefore very rather surprised to discover that it had been highly commended by the Geographical Association. The Geographical Association is a society dedicated to the teaching geography – rather than research like the Royal Geographical Society. It gives commends educational resources for a variety of uses and school levels. Our past climate materials were considered to be a very useful resource “pitched at a high level to stretch GCSE and A-Level students”. I got to collect the award at the Geographical Association’s Annual Conference immediately after the public lecture, which was fittingly given by the weather presenter Peter Gibb. Two former members of UCL Geography also received awards: Dr Charlotte Lemanski (former staff), and Adrian Manning (PhD) – who won the “Annual Award for Excellence” to loud applause.

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Links

You might want to consider joining a learned society. Student membership is often very reasonable,  and you get to go to many free events.

Going fishing? Don’t bring back an invader!

Posted by Ajay Chauhan at Mar 29, 2017 12:50 PM |

Fishing abroad is becoming increasingly popular amongst UK anglers. Change of scenery, some nice weather (hopefully) and of course, the chance to catch some different fish or beat your PB. However, research being undertaken by the Angling Trust indicates that we could be unintentionally catching more than we bargained for whilst fishing overseas. Emily Smith, Angling Trust’s Invasive Species Manager, explains

By Emily Smith

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Invasive non-native species cause substantial damage to our aquatic environments; clogging waterways, decreasing native biodiversity and accordingly impacting our fish populations. Once established, species can often be impossible or costly to eradicate. Consequently, the Check Clean Dry campaign was launched in 2011 to attempt to minimise the spread of invasive species. This provides advice on simple biosecurity measures that recreational water users can take to minimise their risk of unintentionally moving invasive species between water bodies. Supported by a range of stakeholders including the Angling Trust, anglers have readily engaged with this guidance with around 45% of anglers undertaking regular biosecurity in 2015. There is still further progress to be made. However, this shows there has been substantial improvement in managing and preventing the spread of established invasive species between water bodies within the UK.

Looking overseas

Our long-term goal is to minimise the risk of new invasive species being introduced to the UK. There are several routes through which this could occur such as in ship ballast water, contamination of imported goods or attached to damp angling equipment. Each of these different routes warrants further investigation which the Angling Trust has been leading for angling.

Over the summer last year, I visited over 30 different fisheries in northern France to investigate the plant and invertebrate life within the lakes. Twenty of the fisheries (59%) contained at least one invasive aquatic plant or invertebrate, totalling 12 different plant, shrimp, and mollusc species. This included the Caspian slender mysid (Limnomysis benedeni), a high alert species which is not currently present in the UK. In addition to this, three different crayfish species and the highly aggressive top mouth gudgeon and black bullhead were also discovered.

Many of the fisheries surveyed required anglers to arrive with dry nets, or in some cases the fishery dipped the anglers’ equipment in disinfectant before they could start fishing. However, there was no obligation to clean or dry the equipment upon leaving the lake. This raises concern as many aquatic invasive species have been shown to survive for over a fortnight on damp angling equipment (Anderson et al., 2015). With frequent ferry and Eurotunnel links between France and the UK, if equipment is not thoroughly cleaned and dried following a trip abroad, invasive species could be inadvertently transported back into the UK and introduced into a British water body on the next fishing outing.

Although individually the risk of catching a viable invasive species in a net appears small, the high volume of anglers repeatedly fishing abroad increases the possibility of these events occurring. Many aquatic plants reproduce asexually, and fertile female shrimps such as the killer shrimp can hold up to 200 eggs in their pouch. The introduction of a single viable specimen could therefore enable establishment within a lake and in the long term result in substantial, often irreversible, changes to our aquatic environments such as those at Grafham Water in Cambridgeshire.

While this survey focused on fisheries in France, many other popular fishing destinations have invasive species of major biosecurity concern to the UK. In particular, there are at least 10 aquatic invasive species of note in the Netherlands, as well as the salmon louse Gyrodactylus salaris in Norway which is having a devastating impact on their salmon fisheries.

It is therefore essential that after a trip abroad anglers thoroughly clean their equipment following the Check Clean Dry guidelines to minimise the potential for more invasive species or parasites to be introduced.

To find out more on invasive species, please head to the Non-native Species Secretariat where they have free guidance on identifying invasive species and conducting biosecurity.

Emily Smith
Invasive Species Manager, The Angling Trust

Find the Angling Trust on Twitter: @AnglingTrust

Emily's post is funded as part of the London Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) Doctoral training partnership, with the Angling Trust fulfilling the role of an 'industrial CASE partner'. In this arrangement Emily will gain work experience while undertaking her PhD. As part of her employment, Emily has been managing the Angling Trust's ‘Alien Attack’ Environment Agency contract.

References:
Anderson, L.G, A.M. Dunn, P.J. Rosewarne and P.D Stebbing (2015) ‘Invaders in hot water: a simple decontamination method to prevent the accidental spread of aquatic invasive non-native species’, Biological Invasions, 17(8):2287-2297. doi:10.1007/s10530-015-0875-6.

This blog post was originally published on the Wildlife and Countryside Link site

 


Life in an Arab-American community under Trump’s ‘Muslim ban'

Posted by Ajay Chauhan at Feb 24, 2017 03:50 PM |

by Tom Brocket

Image 20170202 28018 1tqeiro
Tom Brocket
, UCL

Life goes on for the parents who drop off their children at homework club, or those rushing in late for embroidery class. As usual, the community centre where I’m doing my fieldwork in northern New Jersey is filled with the piercing screams of toddlers trying to keep up with the older kids. But something in the atmosphere is different.

At the front desk, a pile of letters from an immigrant rights group explain the terms of the executive order in English and Arabic, brutally stating in capital letters that those affected “SHOULD NOT TRAVEL OUTSIDE THE UNITED STATES for any reason”.

Standing by the community centre’s front desk is Zainab, a Syrian refugee. Her husband’s aunt, a green card-holder born in Iraq, is currently flying from Dubai to Newark Airport; her fate is unknown. The air of uncertainty and confusion surrounding the executive order and its practical implementation by federal agencies obscures any clear prediction of what will happen to her. Will she meet the same fate as two Yemenis who arrived in the US on January 28, who were reportedly talked into signing away their green cards and put on the next flight back?

Yet, Zainab exudes an air of resigned optimism. As her relative hurtles towards the US, she says there is little to do other than wait and hope.

Unlike Zainab and her aunt, the majority of the community centre’s patrons are Muslim Palestinian-Americans. As most are American citizens, and have ties to Palestine and Jordan – not included in the ban – the executive order doesn’t directly affect them. But for those I speak to, this is the most shocking and scary moment since Trump entered the presidential race, perhaps aside from his election victory. The letters piled at the entrance remind those who enter that this is no longer a time of primaries and debates, of rhetoric and promises.

Just by signing the order, Abdullah tells me incredulously, Trump immediately turned more than 100 airplane passengers from valid visa and green card holders into illegal travellers, welcomed not by friends and family but by detention and coercion. “Have you ever seen political bureaucracy work so fast?”, he asks me. In the words of Palestinian-American poet and activist Remi Kanazi, “with a pen stroke, a wedding is missed, a eulogy isn’t spoken, a job is not taken, a family is left broken, safety isn’t found”.

For members of the community, the ban is unprecedented – not because it targets Muslims and Arabs, and (green card-holding) Muslim- and Arab-Americans, but because of its open and unabashed intention to do so.

Flying while Muslim

The Arab-American community has endured decades of government infringements on their civil liberties: as far back as 1972, President Nixon launched Operation Boulder, a clandestine FBI operation that spied on thousands of Arab-Americans. But the sharpest uptick, of course, came in the aftermath of 9/11.

Almost immediately after the events of that day, Arab-Americans quickly found themselves collectively punished with detention, deportation and surveillance – in spite of the fact that none of their number were involved in the attacks. (One Palestinian-American tells me, half-joking, that in the months after 9/11, there were more FBI agents than real customers in the Arab restaurants in this New Jersey town.)

In terms of international travel, many have experienced first hand the humiliating difficulties of what they call “flying while Arab” and “flying while Muslim”, and the enhanced security attention this entails. In past years, several airplane passengers simply speaking, reading or writing in Arabic have been pulled off flights in the US and Europe.

Yet this order is not secret or unofficial: it is meant to be seen. Photos and videos of Trump sternly signing the necessary papers in the Oval Office, then holding them up for cameras, have been endlessly circulated (and mocked) over the past week. The spectacle of Trump’s executive orders is part and parcel of his performative politics.

It’s not lost on the young children who come to homework club. As their attention span expires, they rush to the lectern standing empty at the front of the room and begin to imitate their president. “I am Donald Trump, and I hate Muslim people,” says one child in Arabic. Between fits of self-conscious giggles, another declares: “I will not let Muslim people into this country.” A final Trump impressionist takes his homework up to the podium and signs it with great concentration – and then holds his giant signature up for the audience: “Here is my signature for not letting people in!”

Older members of the centre find comfort in sharing stories of small acts of kindness from other Americans. A fellow tutor relates an encounter over the weekend: walking alone in the street wearing a hijab, a large man approached her. She expected the worst – but instead, he offered words of support and protection.

During a meeting that evening, several participants discussed how a neighbour, a colleague or a boss had knocked on their door, phoned them, or sent them an email of support and friendship. One tells me that they are fortunate to live in northern New Jersey, a diverse urban area with few Trump supporters and in a state with one of the largest Muslim populations in the US. Muslim- and Arab-Americans elsewhere in the country might not be so fortunate.

The Conversation

Tom Brocket, PhD Candidate in Geography, UCL

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

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Introducing Tom Bailey: Leverhulme Artist in Residence in the Migration Research Unit

Posted by Ajay Chauhan at Feb 07, 2017 11:14 AM |

by Tom Bailey

Hi,

My name is Tom Bailey and for the next year I’ll be Leverhulme-supported artist in residence with the Migration Research Unit at UCL’s Geography Department. I’m delighted to be working within the department and I’ve already began to find inspiration from the many meetings, workshops, seminars going on within UCL. I studied English here (2004-2007) so it’s great to be back and see how things have changed.

I’m a theatre director and performer by trade, and run my own independent theatre company, The Mechanical Animal Corporation (www.mechanimal.co.uk).  My reason for coming to the MRU is that last year I was involved with a charity called Good Chance Theatre. This was a theatre space set up within the Calais ‘Jungle’ migrant camp. Across 2015-2016 I visited several times to run workshops and make performance with the many refugees who used the space.

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Prior to going to Calais, I was preparing to develop a project exploring bird migration on a bird wetland near Glastonbury. The more I explored bird migration, the more I became fascinated how the migratory capacity of species differs greatly. Aware of the growing current global human migrant crisis, and looking to do something to help, I figured that an exploration of bird migration and human migration might be a compelling subject for a work of performance, and offer public audiences an interpretation of what is happening amid this mass movement of people.

During my residency I’m looking to increase my understanding in many areas, but specifically the cultural and ideological frameworks that construct/ exclude the identity of a ‘refugee’ or ‘migrant’. Considering that for several years explorations of climate change and evolutionary biology have underpinned my work, I’m also looking to explore biological/ cognitive aspects of how humans migrate, or make journeys – I’ve already had a very fruitful discussion with UCL neuroscientist Dr. Hugo Spiers in this regard.

I love connecting ideas and working in an interdisciplinary way, so I will hopefully be connecting with a lot of different researchers across the university. Besides personal research, my plan for this year is to run a series of workshops exploring performance and migration (for staff and students), to present an audio project exploring bird and human song at UCL’s Grant Museum of Natural History, and to develop a work-in-progress theatre performance (to be completed beyond the scope of this residency). All information about these events will be disseminated via the Geography Department, so please do keep an eye out!

Adventures with a laser scanner: Historic London trees

Posted by Ajay Chauhan at Jan 27, 2017 03:08 PM |

by Mat Disney (Blog)

We've been looking at working a little closer to home recently. Not that tropical forests, ancient woodlands and the like aren't interesting enough, just that in an old city like London, there are some pretty incredible trees. These are tied intimately to the history and development of the city itself. The availability of new data sources, in particular the UK's Environment Agency open sourcing their extensive airborne lidar over urban areas, has led to us thinking about how we can use this.

London has a *lot* of trees, many of them large and spectacular London Planes,  Platanus x hispanica. This is arguably THE iconic London tree, with its mottled bark, huge leaves and (sometimes problematic!) seed pods. They line so many streets, parks and avenues, providing shade, cooling and habitat for birds and insects. They can occasionally take a chunk out of unwary double decker buses too.

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We're looking at using the EA lidar data, in conjunction with colleagues at fusiondatascience.com in Liverpool, and the GIS Unit at Kew Gardens, to identify and measure trees across London, and then use our ground-based lidar scanning to assess the size, volume and structure of a range of these. We're interested to see whether we can apply the same methods we do to tropical trees to urban/street trees in London, with their wide range of managed histories and shapes. We'd like to assess the amount of Carbon they store, their structure and how this relates to their environment.

As part of this work, we've started close to home, looking at trees in Camden, in collaboration with the Camden Council tree department. The first tree we've looked it is amazing - not a Plane, but an Ash. It's in the cemetery of St. Pancras Old Church, a very old (C11th) church tucked away behind the very modern and redeveloped Kings Cross. The Church history is interesting in itself, but there's an Ash tree in the yard with a very unusual back story. The railway being built in the mid C19th led to part of the cemetery needing to be excavated. A young Thomas Hardy was (supposedly) put in charge of moving displaced headstones, and placed them around the trunk of an Ash tree by the church. The tree and the headstones are now entwined, leaving a strange and rather haunting growing monument. The tree is struggling a bit, partly due to the unusual roots but also due to footfall around it. We are using our NERC NCEO-funded Riegl and ZEB-REVO lidars to scan the tree to build a detailed 3D model snapshot of it to help the Camden team plan their management in order to preserve this historic tree.

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Scanning the "Hardy Tree". The railway line, and the modern world, is behind the wall.

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A view of the scan data collected by Phil, of the whole church yard with the Hardy Tree to the front centre.

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The tree, with the hedgerow surrounding it.

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A closer view of the strange, leaf-like headstones around the trunk of the tree.

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And this is how it looks 'for real'. Image: David Edgar.

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Phil's path around the churchyard, carrying the ZEB-REVO handheld scanner. The Hardy Tree is the one at the front left of the Church with the loops around it.

Phil did a great job of capturing the tree with the ZEB and Riegl, and is currently processing the Riegl data - first example of a fly-through from those data is below. We will be extracting the 3D model of the tree and looking at the structure in detail, and then revisiting over the coming months to capture it leaf on, and then over time if we can.

Climate Change Negotiations: learning through role playing

Posted by Ajay Chauhan at Jan 16, 2017 12:25 PM |

by Bernardo Bastien

Nowadays we have everything we need to deal with climate change: high resolution climate models; a global structure that allows dialogue between countries; and several technological options to generate clean energy. So, why is this problem still so difficult to face? This question can be addressed by different disciplines and in different levels of analysis. However, obtaining an absolute answer is hardly possible. One way to get closer to the answer is being part of a simulation and make decisions as if the planet was in our hands.

The World Climate Simulation is a role playing game in which the participants act as international diplomats in the climate change sessions of the Conference of the Parties, e.g. COP22 which was recently held in Marrakech. Participants have to negotiate and set up their future levels of greenhouse gases emissions, aiming to keep the global mean temperature well below 2 °C.

This was our challenge as students of the “Global Environmental Change” module at UCL. Each of us, as delegates representing countries, received an invitation to participate in the game, indicating the time and place of the negotiation and some other important information about our assigned country.

Common venue but differentiated seats

When we arrived to the venue, some differences were immediately noticeable. Whereas the representatives of rich countries could sit around tables to discuss tactics and eat cakes provided, the developing countries barely had any chairs or a place where to stand, and most had to resort to sitting on the floor. Then, we understood that this was part of the game set-up and reflected the differential funding that some negotiators have to deal with when attending the real conferences.

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The main premise for the beginning of the game could be described as follows: developed countries would be able to substantially reduce emissions as long as they don’t feel threatened by the very rapidly-growing developing countries. On the other hand, developing countries will try to postpone their emission reductions as long as they can since that would mean to keep back from potentiating their economies. Nevertheless, we all agreed that climate is drastically changing due to human activity, so we needed to find synergies to cut global emissions having in mind the global conditions and our national assessments.

Nations determined to contribute

Of course we all did our homework. Knowledge about what are our current and projected emissions, our GDP, the size of our population and the potential impacts of climate change to our country, was essential to formulate strong arguments to negotiate.

We had three rounds of negotiation in which we used our key negotiation tools to pressure others to reduce their emissions, always having in mind that we should also reduce. The negotiation tools included: economic power willing to be invested in developing countries to generate clean energy; the right of poor countries that are more vulnerable to climate impacts to ask for the great emitters to reduce their levels; and the right to ask historical major emitters to reduce their emissions due to their historical responsibility.

The strategies were diverse. Nevertheless, as time passed we realized one thing: we were not isolated countries with physical boundaries separating us one from another. We were nations sharing the same planet, and we should be determined to cooperate and find solutions within our capabilities to mitigate climate change.

Our decisions matter

There is one key feature in this simulation that maybe plays the most important role. We counted with the possibility of knowing the implications of our decisions in real-time mode. We used C-Roads, a computer simulator that projected global variables as temperature and sea-level rise consistent with the levels of CO2 that we were committing to in each round of negotiation. This was certainly the main driver that kept us looking forward to cut the global emissions. It was surprising to see that what we thought were good levels of CO2, resulted in global temperatures still close to 3 °C by the end of the century! After over 3 rounds of negotiating amongst 35 students, we almost hit our target of 2 °C.

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This exercise made us realize how individual decisions matter not only at a global scale but also as citizens able to reduce our consumption, demand the government to have strategies for adapting/mitigating to climate change and opt for cleaner energies, among others. I am sure that it has been one of the most integrated, enriching and rewarding learning experiences I’ve had.

Bernardo Bastien is a postgraduate student on the MSc Climate Change. He has two climate-related blogs: https://createclimate.com/ and http://climatebubble.blogspot.co.uk/ and can be found on twitter too @Ber_Bastien

New adventures in LiDAR: a summary of the year at UCL

Posted by Ajay Chauhan at Dec 22, 2016 02:36 PM |

by Phil Wilkes (PDRA, NCEO and Department of Geography, UCL)

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Who is hiding in the bushes? Mat Disney and the RIEGL VZ-400 scanning the BIOMASS validation plot, Ankasa, Ghana (March 2016).

I recently wrote a blog article for the BES Methods in Ecology and Evolution journal espousing the applications and benefits of LiDAR, in particular airborne LiDAR for the assessment of forest structure over large areas.  The article focused on airborne acquisitions as this has been the most prolific use of the technology in forest ecology over recent years.  However here at University College London we are now combining 3D measurements captured across a range of scales, from handheld laser scanners to (soon to be launched) spaceborne sensors on the International Space Station, to create highly detailed measurements of forest structure which are applicable to a number of contemporary environmental issues.

Over the past 12 months, the UCL team have been busy deploying instruments in Ghana, Gabon, Brazil as well as closer to home in Northumberland, Oxfordshire and Kew Gardens, for a range of projects including: NERC-funded work on GREENHOUSE and a standard grant aimed at assessing tropical forest biomass; the EU-funded METEOC-II project in conjunction with the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) developing new ways to quantify uncertainty in EO measurements; ESA-funded calibration and validation in support of the BIOMASS and NASA GEDI missions. This blog article will summarise some of the highlights.

Different scales provide different perspectives

The department have recently purchased a GeoSLAM ZEB-REVO, a handheld laser scanner used for rapid characterisation of forest structure. Being mobile allows you to wander through the forest collecting 3D measurements which are useful for quickly locating stem positions and dimensions as well as creating digital elevation models.  This has proved particularly useful in forests where dense vegetation can make more traditional inventory methods time consuming.

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A walk through Wytham Woods with a GeoSLAM ZEB-REVO. The blue track is the path taken by Kim Calders and the points are LiDAR returns which are coloured by height.

To create highly detailed 3D models of individual trees, our RIEGL VZ-400 is required. Although this takes much longer to complete a scan the level of detail acquired is exceptional and almost consistent all the way to the top of the canopy.  There are a number of uses for such detailed data including the accurate estimate of tree volume (and by extension biomass), understanding tree function as well as tree reconstruction for purposes of creating virtual forests.

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From the bottom to the top of this 35 m+ tropical tree (captured earlier this year in Ghana) the level of detail captured using TLS is high. The mean nearest neighbour (nn) distance shown here illustrates that even towards the top of the canopy returns are <4 cm apart. (Image taken from an upcoming publication on TLS field protocols).

This year we have taken our scanner across the globe to Ghana and Gabon in Africa to scan Global Ecosystem Monitoring network plots in conjunction with the European Space Agency BIOMASS project, to the Brazilian Amazon (as part of the AmazonFACE project) as well as closer to home in Northumberland and Kew Gardens. This year also saw the completion of one of the biggest TLS scanning campaigns ever undertaken where 6 ha of Wytham Woods in Oxfordshire were scanned leaf-on and leaf-off. All this work contributes to a better understanding of the function of forests with respect to their ability to mitigate climate change.

Virtual Forests

As mentioned above, 3D data captured in the real world can be transformed into a forest of virtual trees. These can then be used in 3D radiative transfer models for a number of purposes.  For example, earlier this year Dr. William Woodgate from CSIRO visited the lab where his aim was to correct imagery captured with a high temporal and spatial resolution camera for differing illumination conditions.  To do this he used the librat, a Monte-Carlo ray tracing software package developed at UCL. For anyone interested in learning the basics of librat, there is a free course delivered using Jupyter notebooks for download.

Where are we off to next year?

Next year is looking like an exceptionally busy year for our team and instruments with scanning planned for Malaysian Borneo, Peru, Brazil and California as well as closer to home on the streets of Camden. We are particularly interested in combining scanning techniques over the next year, for example, combining mobile, terrestrial and airborne LiDAR to map the biomass of London’s street trees. Using the capabilities of the different sensors (e.g. rapid assessment of the ZEB-REVO, detailed volume estimates of the TLS and synoptic capture of airborne datasets), we aim to make the first detailed inventory of street tree biomass in London.

For those of you interested in a more frequent update on our activities, I would recommend following Mat Disney’s blog.