The government's Tree Health and Plant Biosecurity Expert Taskforce has released a report calling for better security at UK borders to stop diseased plant material entering the country, as well as a national plant health risk register, to help control the spread of the invasive tree diseases and pests that have already done for iconic tree species - most famously, elms in the 60s and 70s - and now threaten to devastate several more.
Sadly it's too late to keep out several tree diseases and parasites already spreading across the UK, including ash dieback, sudden oak death and oak processionary moth. But we may be able to find ways to restrict the spread of these pests and pathogens, whether by controlling their most favourable hosts or breeding plants selectively to help them resist infection. And even if we can only manage the problems we already have, we can certainly do our best to avoid picking up new ones.
NERC recently announced it's joining the Living With Environmental Change (LWEC) Tree Health Initiative, a multidisciplinary programme aimed at finding new ways to control existing epidemics and prevent new ones. It brings together researchers in fields as disparate as plant pathology, ecological modelling and remote-sensing technology, as well as NGOs, government bodies and professional foresters. It will support ground-breaking projects that range from better screening tactics and technologies at ports to genetic research into the basis of disease resistance and perhaps even satellites and drones that can monitor forests and plantations for signs of disease, letting foresters keep an eye on large areas without having to slog across the countryside at ground level.
There's some incredibly interesting work going on in the field, and NERC is involved with a lot of it on one level or another, alongside our fellow research councils. I'm working on a feature about the future of biosecurity, which should be able to provide a lot more insight into these questions.
Posted on 20 May 2013 | Comments (0)
A new report, published by the ice2sea programme, has made new estimates for how much melting ice sheets will contribute to sea level rise.
It suggests melting ice sheets may add around 36.8cm by the year 2100; meaning total sea level could rise no more than 69cm by the end of the century.
The new estimates of total sea level rise are 10cm higher than those made by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2007, which were regarded as highly optimistic.
Those estimates showed the scientific community that large uncertainties remained in projections of how much ice sheets would add to global sea level, and led to the new report.
To develop their own projections the team used computer models which simulate glaciers and ice sheets based on the physical processes happening within them. Their models suggest lower overall contributions from melting ice to sea-level rise than many previous studies, and show European coastlines will experience a rise of up to 20 per cent less than the global average.
Inevitable uncertainties remain both in how the climate is expected to change over the century, and in the ice sheets' response.
To explore these remaining uncertainties, ice2sea has used a less-formal approach of an "expert elicitation." This method concluded that there is a less than 1-in-20 risk of the contribution of ice sheets to global sea-level rise exceeding 84cm by 2100.
"It is likely that some future ice-loss and sea-level rise is now unavoidable. But nevertheless, understanding why changes are occurring today and how they could increase in the future is the first step in maintaining the security of our coastal regions for future generations," says Professor David Vaughan, from NERC's British Antarctic Survey, who coordinates the ice2sea programme.
Posted on 15 May 2013 | Comments (0)
A new smartphone app from the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH) will make it easier for people all over the UK to help scientists monitor the health of native ladybird populations, and the spread of the invasive Harlequin ladybird.
The free iRecord Ladybirds app lets anyone easily contribute to the UK Ladybird Survey, whose results have already shown that native species like the two-spot ladybird are in trouble because of the voracious newcomers, first spotted in England a decade ago. Last year was a particularly bad one for most insects, and both native and Harlequin ladybirds suffered population declines, with the only exception being the mildew-eating orange ladybird, whose numbers remained stable. The team want to know how well indigenous ladybirds bounce back, and how the Harlequin's invasion continues in 2013.
Thousands of citizen scientists have already reported sightings to contribute to the survey, whether by email, online recording, Twitter or just with pen and paper. But the new app makes it even simpler to spot a ladybird and tell the scientists behind the survey about it. Each of these records is very simple, but enough of them together provide a goldmine of information for ecologists. The app includes distribution maps for different ladybird species, together with photos and a simple species guide to aid identification.
The app was developed by CEH scientists working with the Nature Locator team at the University of Bristol.
It's currently available for iPhone only, but an Android version will be launched shortly. To find it, search for 'iRecord Ladybirds' in the App store.
Posted on 10 May 2013 | Comments (0)
Over the coming century climate change could devastate the most widespread plants and animals, say scientists.
A new study, published today in Nature Climate Change, looked at 50,000 of the most common species and found that by 2080 almost 70 per cent of the plants and 50 per cent of the animals studied would have their numbers halved. Plants, reptiles and amphibians were shown to be particularly at risk.
The research, from University of East Anglia, showed sub-Saharan Africa, central America and Australia would be hardest hit, whilst south eastern Europe, north Africa and central Asia would still suffer major losses.
The NERC funded study comes in the wake of a new report, which shows UK wildlife is already feeling the effects of climate change.
The Terrestrial Biodiversity Report Card is the first in a series of reports commissioned by the Living With Environmental Change Partnership , led by NERC with Defra , the Environment Agency and Natural England .
The report showed many species are now found further north and at higher altitudes than in previous decades, while climate change may also be making it easier for invasive species to thrive.
Both studies make it clear that, unless something is done to slow down climate change, its effect on global biodiversity – the amount of different species we have on the planet - could be severe.
The scientists also stress that there would be knock-on effects for humans, since these species are also important for things like water and air purification, flood control and eco-tourism.
But, this latest piece of research suggests that acting quickly to mitigate the effects of climate change could make a difference and buy species an extra 40 years, and possibly a chance to adapt to the harsher conditions.
'Prompt and stringent action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions globally would reduce these biodiversity losses by 60 per cent if global emissions peak in 2016, or by 40 per cent if emissions peak in 2030, showing that early action is very beneficial,' says Dr Rachel Warren from UEA's school of Environmental Sciences and the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research . 'This will both reduce the amount of climate change and also slow climate change down, making it easier for species and humans to adapt.'
Posted on 10 May 2013 | Comments (0)
Who says environmental science and glamour don't mix? The key to turning round Chester Zoo's efforts to breed one of the world's most endangered animals turned out to be rhino dung, and lots of it.
A NERC-funded PhD student, Katie Edwards of the University of Liverpool, made an impact on efforts to breed black rhinos by spending years monitoring the hormones in females' dung to work out the best time to introduce them to potential suitors. And after a decade with no rhino births, there have now been four in as many years.
In fact the BBC report that the project's been so successful that the team, led by Dr Sue Walker, is now working with zoos all over Europe.
Edwards is on a NERC CASE studentship, in which a PhD student divides their time between their academic institution and an external partner, which can be a company, NGO or other organisation and which contributes some of the funding.
They work on a research project that's important to the CASE partner, often trying to solve a serious problem they confront on a daily basis. The student gets experience grappling with real problems and gets to make a difference, and if all goes to plan the partner gets real science that solves their difficulty.
Posted on 9 May 2013 | Comments (0)
The Mid Ocean Ridge has long been known to support an abundance of life, and vast Marine Protected Areas have been put into place along the length of the underwater mountain range to safeguard it.
The wealth of life creates a rich feeding ground which supports dolphins, whales, birds and fishes. But just how much more life does the Mid Ocean Ridge host than other parts of the oceans?
The answer is...none.
An international team of scientists have today published research showing that if the Mid Atlantic Ridge didn't exist then the corals, burrowing worms and starfish that currently colonise it would be replaced with jellyfish, squid and luminescent fishes.
This is because the amount of food created at the surface, by things like photosynthesising plankton, would remain the same.
'We have come up with a rule stating that for a given amount of food falling from the surface, the amount of deep sea life below is the same, whether it floats, swims, burrows or sits still,' says Professor Monty Priede, of the University of Aberdeen, who led the study.
The team looked at the productivity of the surface using satellite data and then measured how much food was transported down through the water using sediment traps.
The 3.7 million square kilometres of Mid Atlantic Ridge do help underwater life in other ways though, almost doubling the area of ocean which the animals are normally confined to.
The work was carried out on five ships, including NERC's two research vessels, the RRS Discovery and RRS James Cook.
Posted on 3 May 2013 | Comments (0)
The BBC had a great story last week about scientists' discovery that there was a lynx on the loose in the southwest of England near the turn of the twentieth century.
Their paper in Historical Biology describes how they analysed a stuffed cat that's been stored at Bristol Museum after being shot in Devon and donated in 1903. It sat unregarded in the stores until it was finally noticed by Max Blake, then a biology student at the University of Bristol, the study's lead author. The multidisciplinary team analysed the animal's skin, bones and teeth to conclude it was probably a Canadian lynx, although plain-coated bobcat is another possible identity.
The UK has a long tradition of reported sightings of predators that shouldn't be there – so-called Alien Big Cats (ABCs) - and debate still rages; some see them as evidence that beasts from pumas to jungle cats are prowling these islands, while others reckon they prove nothing more than that most people struggle to tell a big cat from a domestic moggy or even a dog. If nothing else, the lynx shows that at least some ABC reports are true.
Darren Naish, a palaeontologist who's affiliated with NERC's National Oceanography Centre at Southampton, prolific blogger at Tetrapod Zoology and one of the paper's authors, has a fascinating post about the discovery, the scientific methods used and what it all means. He doesn't think it's too unlikely that the odd feral big cat could be roaming the countryside – apart from anything else, the lynx findings are only the latest good piece of evidence to support the idea. We already had plenty of photographic evidence, tooth pit data, tracks, scat, kills, hairs, DNA and even the odd carcass.
Naish writes: 'Seeing as feral animals of just about every sort have been abroad in the British countryside, seeing as cats are sought after for collections and are consummate escape-artists, and seeing as cats are unquestionably able to survive in the UK, the occasional and perhaps even persistent presence of non-native species in the UK is not especially surprising.'
Posted on 2 May 2013 | Comments (0)
Scientists are celebrating the 75th anniversary of a vital breakthrough in grasping how our actions affect the climate.
Global warming didn't become widely known until at least the 1980s, but the first research showing that Earth's climate is getting warmer was published in 1938 by a British amateur researcher, Guy Stewart Callendar, who demonstrated that the planet had heated up by about 0.3°C over the previous 50 years and suggested CO2 could be partly to blame.
Dr Ed Hawkins of the National Centre for Atmospheric Science at the University of Reading and Professor Phil Jones of the University of East Anglia re-analysed Callendar's results, publishing the results as a paper in the Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society – the same publication the original study appeared in.
In Callendar's day, few scientists believed humans could change a system as vast and complex as the Earth's climate, and his paper didn't get the recognition it deserved. The new study tries to set the record straight, drawing attention to a true pioneer in the field.
'In hindsight, Callendar's contribution was fundamental,' says Hawkins. 'He is still relatively unknown, but in the history of climate science his paper is a classic. He was the first scientist to discover that the planet had warmed by temperature measurements from around the globe, and suggested that this warming was partly related to man-made carbon dioxide emissions.
Hawkins and Jones show that Callendar's estimates for the amount of warming have stood up remarkably well, especially considering the limited data he was working with, as well as the fact that with no access to computers he had to do all his calculations by hand. Some of his estimates of the effects of CO2 were crude by today's standards. And his take on the phenomenon wasn't entirely in agreement with that of modern climate scientists – he thought a warming world would prove to be a good thing, as it would boost crop production at high latitudes and prevent the return of the glaciers.
Nevertheless, despite these handicaps he managed to measure the temperature change of the planet – or at least the bits of it over the land, away from the poles – to within modern estimates of uncertainty. Not bad for someone who spent his days as a steam engineer.
Posted on 25 April 2013 | Comments (4)
Today is DNA day and this year sees the 60th anniversary of the first description of the double-helix, in a Nature paper by James Watson and Francis Crick.
It might have seemed a world away from the practice and applications of environmental science at the time, but today many environmental researchers are using genetics to tackle issues that have big implications for all of us.
You won't have missed the news about ash die-back, the fungal disease that's threatening the UK's 80 million ash trees. Environmental scientists and researchers from other disciplines have begun work to sequence the ash tree genome, to identify the genes that bestow resistance to the disease in some trees and work out how to breed a more resilient ash population.
Other researchers are using genetics to identify subtly distinct species and have seen how genetically modified material might move through the environment. And genetics has shown us evolution in action, enabling environmental scientists see organisms adapting to changing environments in extraordinary ways – earth worms that can live in contaminated soil that should be deadly for example – and to start to understand the implications for other species of coping with environmental change.
And right now DNA fingerprinting which is being used to tackle illegal fishing and will prove a massive benefit in the detection of mislabelled fish products in our supermarkets.
Posted on 25 April 2013 | Comments (0)
Last week Radio 4's Costing the Earth covered the work of Dr Anson Mackay from University College London on Lake Baikal, the world's oldest and deepest lake.
You can still listen to the programme on the BBC website. It describes how Anson's team are drilling into the lakebed to recover records showing thousands of years of environmental and climate history. It also talks about the modern threats to the lake's unique ecosystems from pollution and rising local populations.
If you prefer to read than to listen, Anson wrote an article for Planet Earth a few issues ago about his work at Baikal, touching on many of the same topics.
Posted on 22 April 2013 | Comments (0)
This striking new satellite image shows the white plume of ash produced by an on-going eruption of Mount Etna in Sicily, one of the world's most active volcanos.
Mt Etna from space.
Summit eruptions of this kind are extremely common at Etna; this is the ninth already this year.
This type of eruption very rarely poses a threat to nearby towns and villages. The main challenge presented by this latest flurry of activity is keeping the local roads clear of ash.
Flank eruptions, blasting out material from the sides of the volcano, are much more dangerous but, thankfully, less frequent – the last one happened around 10 years ago.
The image was provided by the NERC Earth Observation Data Acquisition and Analysis Service from the Satellite Receiving Station at the University of Dundee.
Posted on 17 April 2013 | Comments (1)
Want to know how much the North Sea will warm over the 21st century, and how this will affect cod? Or whither the hake of the Bay of Biscay?
A new online atlas of Europe's seas may be just what you need, presenting this kind of information in an easy interactive format. It's intended help manage our marine environments more effectively and shed light on how they'll change in the future.
Developed by the EU project Marine Ecosystem Evolution in a Changing Environment (MEECE), the MEECE Model Atlas covers the main sea regions around the continent and provides scenarios for how ecosystems will respond to different scenarios for environmental change, in a form that's readily accessible to policy-makers, fisheries officials and other users of marine science.
It combines the outputs from several ecosystem models for the first time, providing a holistic view of the continent's marine resources. It represents the marine ecosystem at all levels, from the physics that underlie it to plankton, fish and human activities.
Posted on 10 April 2013 | Comments (0)
Fewer nutrients are being transported into the Arctic Ocean than are being transported out, scientists have shown in a recent study.
The back of the ice breaker making a circular opening in the ice at a sampling station.
Researchers from the National Oceanography Centre calculated the amounts entering and leaving the oceans of three key nutrients – nitrate, phosphate and silicate. These dissolved nutrients are essential for organisms like microalgae- the plants at the bottom of marine food chains.
The scientists also measured their transport across the main Arctic gateways such as the Bering Strait, Fram Strait and the Barents Sea Opening.
These nutrients are mostly injected into the oceans at rivers mouths from melted permafrost and lost as they make their way to the North Atlantic. Nitrate can also be lost when it undergoes a process called denitrification to become nitrogen which is absorbed into the atmosphere.
The strong lights are to spot and avoid icebergs and also to find leads where the ship could move faster.
The first-of-its-kind study, published in the Journal of Geophysical Research, discovered that while the same amount of nitrate comes out as goes in, more silicate and phosphate is transported out of the Arctic Ocean to the North Atlantic than is originally put in.
Scientists are now investigating where this is coming from. Some evidence indicates that it might be from dissolved organic matter - the decaying remains of microorganisms in the ocean in soils deposited by river loads.
Posted on 10 April 2013 | Comments (0)
The British Geological Survey, one of NERC's research centres, has made much of its archive of historical geological maps available online.
From 1835 until 1905, it was known as the Geological Survey of Great Britain and Ireland, and its remit covered the whole of the British Isles.
Over the same period, its entire mapping output at the basic scale of 1:63 360 or an inch to a mile was produced as engraved sheets that were then hand-coloured – this was before the widespread introduction of colour printing.
The archive is both beautiful and fascinating to browse – for instance, take a look at this zoomable image of the rocks beneath part of the Thames valley south of Oxford.
Posted on 5 April 2013 | Comments (0)
Foul weather made last year one many of us would like to forget, but spare a thought for the UK's embattled butterflies.
According to the UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme, 2012's wet, cold conditions meant 13 species suffered their worst year on record, and populations of 52 of the 56 surveyed declined to some extent. The much-loved insects had trouble finding food, shelter and chances to mate; overall butterfly abundance plummeted as a result.
For instance, the critically endangered High Brown Fritillary fell 71 per cent and the Black Hairstreak, one of the UK's rarest species, saw a population drop of 98 per cent.
Many more common species didn't do much better; Large Whites and Small Whites (together colloquially known as 'cabbage whites') fell in number by more than half, while garden favourite the Small Tortoiseshell continued its decline, losing 37 per cent of its population compared to 2011.
These declines weren't exactly coming from a healthy starting-point, either; scientists were already concerned at butterflies' long-term decline at the start of the year. Many more species are now in very real danger of extinction in parts of the country. Only a handful of damp-loving species flourished; for instance, Scotch Argus populations rose by 55 per cent.
The survey is run by the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, Butterfly Conservation and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee. It depends on data collected by more than 1500 volunteers from over 1000 sites across the UK. Check out the table of changes for much more detail on how different butterfly species fared; the full report will be out soon.
Posted on 26 March 2013 | Comments (0)
Biologists from the University of Southampton and the Natural History Museum (NHM) have made the first ever discovery of a whale skeleton on the ocean floor near Antarctica.
Whale bones on the seabed.
The chance finding was made as the scientists explored an undersea crater near the South Sandwich Islands in the southern Atlantic Ocean, using a remotely operated vehicle called Isis. They noticed some pale-coloured blocks in the distance on Isis's images, which alerted them to something unusual. The blocks turned out to be whale vertebrae.
Scientists have previously studied what happens to whale carcasses by sinking whole bodies and skeletons. Only six natural whale skeletons have ever been discovered on the seafloor, none of them in this region.
When a whale dies, scavengers strip its flesh and the bones are colonised by other organisms that live off the nutrients in the skeleton. The team surveyed the whale skeleton using high-definition cameras to examine the deep-sea animals living on it, and collected samples to analyse once they got back on land.
When they examined these samples the scientists also discovered several new species of deep-sea creature living on the whale's remains, including a whale-bone eating 'zombie worm'.
The article's lead author Diva Amon, who is studying for her PhD with University of Southampton and the NHM, was also involved in the recent discovery of the world's deepest hydrothermal vents whilst on board NERC's RRS James Cook.
A correction was made to this article on 21st March 2013 to clarify that Diva Amon's PhD is funded by Southampton University and the Natural History Museum.
Posted on 19 March 2013 | Comments (0)
Scientists investigating the deepest ocean trench on Earth have discovered an unusual abundance of microscopic life.
The team, part-funded by NERC grants, sent sensors and sample collectors right down to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, 11,000 metres below the surface.
Dr Robert Turnewitsch from The Scottish Association for Marine Science is one of the study's authors.
'The deepest parts of the deep sea are certainly not dead zones,' he told the BBC.
The trench's steep walls make it very effective at trapping decomposing marine life, which tumbles down to the deepest point in murky avalanches.
The nutritious muddy mass that forms at the foot of the trench provides a feast for microscopic life.
'The amount of food down there and also the relative freshness of the material is surprisingly high - it seems to be surprisingly nutritious,' says Dr Turnewitsch.
The deepest ocean is a hostile place for life, where pressure is 1100 times that at the surface, temperatures are below freezing and light is unable to penetrate.
For those reasons, it was once thought that life couldn't exist there. But this research adds to a growing body of work suggesting life can thrive in even the most inhospitable of Earth's environments.
Last year James Cameron, director of blockbusters Titanic and Avatar, became the first person travel to the bottom of the Mariana Trench for 50 years.
Posted on 18 March 2013 | Comments (2)
Always nice to see the research and training NERC supports making a difference out in the wider world. Project MAYA is a non-profit eco-enterprise aimed at making society more sustainable and promoting the principles of permaculture through training, research and campaigning. It's founded by former NERC-funded scientists, who met and honed their entrepreneurial skills on our Environment Young Entrepreneurs Scheme before striking out on their own.
Their latest project is selling wildflower-based seedballs, inspired by the work of one of my favourite green thinkers, Masanobu Fukuoka, pioneer of no-till farming and re-greening degraded and desertified landscapes. The idea is that rather than trying to decide which species to plant where and then going to all the trouble of digging holes and nurturing young plants, you just wander about in the general areas you want to grow plants in, throwing handfulls of seed balls hither and thither.
The balls contain lots of kinds of seed that are suited to a range of conditions, so wherever the balls end up there should be something that can thrive. They are wrapped in clay and compost to provide early nutrients and protection, as well as a little chilli powder to keep hungry animals away. Fukuoka used them for everything from restoring damaged land to growing large amounts of food with very little effort. They're particularly beneficial in dry conditions, since the clay protects them until rain comes and softens up the clay. You can easily make them yourself, of course, but not everyone has the time or inclination for afternoons spent rolling up clay and seeds into little spheres.
Project Maya staff hope people will use their seedballs to create new urban meadows, helping out bees, butterflies and other pollinators, and they're working with another non-profit enterprise, River of Flowers, to help things along.
Posted on 14 March 2013 | Comments (1)
Albatrosses are most likely to successfully raise a chick if they are breeding for the last time, say scientists.
Albatross and chick.
A study of the birds conducted by scientists from the British Antarctic Survey and University of Edinburgh set out to untangle how reproductive performance changes with age.
Lots of studies show that animals' reproductive performance gets worse as they get older – called senescence . But this contrasts with the idea that as animals age, they should invest more energy into their offspring to offset their worsening prospects for survival.
The researchers found that whilst a female albatross's ability to care for its young declines after it reaches 14 years old – very young considering an albatross can reach 50 – its capacity to raise chicks improves again when it has its final chick.
This is because they are trying to make the most of their last opportunity to pass on their genes before they die.
Wandering albatrosses are known for putting a lot of energy into bringing up their chicks. They lay just one egg at a time and can spend a whole year protecting it and then raising the hatchling. If the egg is lost, broken or eaten they have lost an entire breeding season and won't get another chance for two years.
The study used data collected over 30 years from BAS's research station at Bird Island off South Georgia.
Posted on 13 March 2013 | Comments (0)
Our sister research council BBSRC just announced a £2.4 million investment in science aimed at helping fight the invading ash dieback disease.
The money will pay for urgently-needed research into the fungal infection and into the genetic differences that let some ash trees resist it.
Scientists in the Nornex consortium will study the process by which Chalara fraxinea infects its plant host in climate-controlled facilities, and will sequence the genomes of up to 30 different varieties of the disease. They'll also use computer models to predict how the disease will spread across the UK.
The consortium brings together specialists in tree health and forestry, genetic sequencing, biological data and imaging technologies. It's led by Professor Allan Downie at the John Innes Centre, and includes scientists Sainsbury Laboratory, East Malling Research, the Genome Analysis Centre, Forest Research, the Norwegian Forest and Landscape Institute and the the universities of Edinburgh, Exeter and Copenhagen.
The initiative complements another NERC-funded project at Queen Mary University of London, announced before Christmas, to sequence the ash tree's genetic code. In Denmark, a small percentage of ash trees seem to be immune to the disease, and researchers hope to find out why. This could help with efforts to breed new resistant strains that can be used to replenish the UK's ash population.
Named for the three Norns who tend the ash tree of life Yggdrasil in Norse mythology, the consortium will upload its results to an open-access website where it can be used by reasearchers all over the world.
Posted on 6 March 2013 | Comments (0)
A new science initiative has kicked off today with the aim of creating a detailed and comprehensive picture of the UK's greenhouse-gas emissions. This will help track progress on government commitments to cut emissions by 80 per cent by 2050, compared to 2000 levels.
The Greenhouse Gas UK and Global Emissions (GAUGE) project is led by scientists from the University of Edinburgh. Funded by NERC, it will measure gases from various sources in the UK, including industry, landfill sites and farms.
An Edinburgh team will take to the air in a research aircraft to measure levels of CO2, nitrous oxide and methane; other sensors on a ferry in the North Sea will monitor offshore concentrations, while atmospheric towers all over the nation will take readings closer to the ground. And measurements from London's BT Tower and another platform in southeast England – still to be built – will enable the first long-term study of the capital's greenhouse-gas emissions.
All this data will be combined with the results from European, US and Japanese satellites to produce a detailed inventory of UK emissions in their global context, taking account of seasonal changes such as fluctuations in agricultural emissions.
Also taking part are scientists from the universities of Bristol, Cambridge, Leeds, Leicester and Manchester, and from the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, the Met Office and the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory.
Posted on 1 March 2013 | Comments (0)
Our new Planet Earth magazine is out now and will be with subscribers in the next week or so. In the meantime you can read the e-mag version or download PDFs of the features.
Planet Earth Spring 2013.
The whole edition is devoted to food systems – the contribution of environmental science to our food. How what we eat gets produced is obviously part of this, but the food system goes far beyond farming. It includes everything from making sure food supplies are secure and reducing the carbon footprint of producing and distributing what we eat to ensuring it doesn't make us ill.
Most of the articles will be appearing here over the next few weeks, but if you can't wait, check the whole magazine out at the link above.
Posted on 1 March 2013 | Comments (0)
The UK's energy system must change radically if we're to meet our carbon emissions targets by the middle of the century. Among other things that'll mean the death of household gas boilers and petrol engines in vehicles.
These are among the arguments of The UK Energy System in 2050, a new report from the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC). It compares various scenarios to project their implications for the nation's carbon emissions in mid-century, concluding that big changes are needed by 2030 if we're to have any hope of meeting our statutory commitment to 80 per cent emissions cuts by 2050.
It makes lots of interesting points on what's needed to do to meet these mid-century targets. A few highlights:
- We need to cut the electricity system's carbon intensity by at least 80 per cent by 2030, compared to the 2000 level of 500 grammes of CO2 emitted per kilowatt-hour.
- There's likely to be plenty of natural gas to meet our power-generation needs in both 2030 and 2050. But unless we can develop effective carbon-capture and storage systems to offset the CO2 emissions this would create, this can only be a minor source of energy to back up low-carbon energy.
- Gas boilers in every home will be a thing of the past by 2050, replaced by heat pumps, biomass and solar thermal energy.
- Vehicles will be very different; those that still use internal-combustion engines will run on biofuels, but most will be powered either by electric batteries or hydrogen fuel cells.
- The National Grid will have to be re-tooled so it can carry biomethane or hydrogen.
The authors argue that policymakers need to consider a 2030 carbon-intensity target to allow the UK to meet the existing 2050 commitments - if we get to 2030 without having made major progress in decarbonising the energy system, the longer-term target will be effectively imposssible.
Check out the full report on the UKERC website for much more detail.
Posted on 28 February 2013 | Comments (0)
The female praying mantis and black widow spiders who eat their mate after sex have helped to create the femme fatale stereotype that proliferates in human culture.
But can a scientist studying nature's sexual cannibals – animals who eat their mate after or during copulation – maintain objectivity, even when these stereotypes seem so engrained?
A new study from the University of St Andrews looked at how scientists employ gender stereotyping when writing about their research, particularly in the case of sexual cannibalism.
They found that often biologists colour their data by using biased words that promote stereotypes.
Normally, when describing sexual conflict, the female is depicted as a passive participant who follows sheepishly in her partner's forceful footsteps.
But the study found, when scientists write about sexual cannibalism specifically, they describe the girls using active words. Words like voracious and predatory, which imply the female is aggressive and manipulative. These terms are just as negative as the passive ones used in other sexual conflict research and paint females in just as bad a light.
Males though are often described using words like suicide and sacrifice. These loaded terms make the males out to be noble and selfless, evoking emotions that have little to do with the research.
There would be nowhere near the same emotions attached to the statement: 'a movement made during copulation which enables the female to feed,' compared to: 'the male sacrifices himself for the sake of his offspring by bending to put his hindquarters in reach of the ravenous and predatory female's jaws.' Some even argue using these words renders the science imprecise.
Basing science on stereotypes can mean we miss vital evidence, but the study accepts seeing patterns and rules is imperative to good science, and can lead to great breakthroughs. The researchers caution that there is a difference though between finding patterns and imposing stereotypes, but only history will tell if we get the balance right.
Posted on 26 February 2013 | Comments (0)
UK scientists have stumbled upon an extraordinary set of hydrothermal vents on the Caribbean sea floor.
The vents, at almost 5000 metres below the surface, are the deepest ever discovered.
'More than half the world's oceans are deeper than 3000 metres and yet much of the seafloor is still to be explored,' says Leigh Marsh of the National Oceanography Centre, one of the scientists on the expedition.
The team, from NERC's National Oceanography Centre, is exploring the sea floor using a Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV), specially designed to plunge to depths of up to 6500 metres.
The ROV, with high-definition cameras and precise control mechanisms, allows scientists to explore the depths of the oceans from a control room aboard the RRS James Cook.
The BBC's science editor, David Shukman, has been on board the ship with the team this week. His report, with underwater video footage from the ROV, is available here.
The live images beamed back to the ship have unveiled a fascinating array of wildlife, including worms and shrimps unique to sea vent environments.
Hydrothermal vents form as water under the immense pressure of the deep ocean seeps through the sea floor into the hot rock below.
The water is then rapidly heated and expelled back into the ocean above, creating an underwater plume of super-heated water reaching temperatures of more than 400ºC.
The rich mineral content of the water makes it dark in colour, giving the vents the appearance of industrial chimney plumes. They measure up to ten metres high.
'I think it is crucial that we make the inaccessible deep ocean accessible to the public,' says Marsh.
'As a consequence of the isolated nature of the deep ocean, many people are not aware of the weird and wonderful life that exists on our deep-sea floor.'
Follow news of the voyage on Twitter, using the hash-tag #deepestvents.
Posted on 22 February 2013 | Comments (0)
An expedition in search of hydrothermal activity has found an unusual volcanic feature in Antarctica, near the South Shetland Islands.
Hydrothermal vents like this are normally teeming with life
Underwater springs of hot gas and water, called hydrothermal vents, are known for the wealth of life that surrounds them – nourished by chemicals dissolved in their hot water. So scientists from the National Oceanography Centre were shocked to find one of these vents barren and leaking cool water instead.
The team went looking for a vent in this area, expecting to see the usual animal menagerie, but when they didn't find it, they were alerted to something much more unusual.
Images from the underwater camera they were towing behind the research ship showed a haze seeping out across the seafloor, like the shimmer you see near the ground on hot days. These iridescent horizons occur where water of two different types meet, so water from the vent has to be very different to the Antarctic waters it's pumped into.
The scientists expect that the volcanic vent has a different salt content to the Antarctic seawater, and its cooler temperatures prevent's it rising up like a classic vent would.
The newly named Hook Ridge Vent may once have been warmer, like its better known counterparts, as shown by a derelict pipe of minerals that its waters once flowed through. But this proves it is too changeable to support life, even life used to these hostile conditions.
The animals that are extreme enough to survive on these dark and dangerous vents could help us understand how life evolved, even when the Earth was inhospitable.
Posted on 14 February 2013 | Comments (0)
Scientists from around the world have called for laws to tackle the growing problem of plastic waste.
Writing in Nature magazine, the team calls for some plastic items of waste to be classified as hazardous because of their effects on people and wildlife.
'We feel the physical dangers of plastic debris are well enough established, and the suggestions of the chemical dangers sufficiently worrying, that the biggest producers of plastic waste - the United States, Europe and China - must act now,' reads the report.
Research has shown that ecologically and commercially important species, such as mussels, corals and salt-marsh grasses, can either eat or become entangled in plastic waste.
There is also concern that plastic waste could allow chemical pollutants into the human food chain, as pollutants latch on to plastics eaten by seafood species.
Last month, I reported on research which showed more than a third of fish caught in the English Channel contained tiny fragments of plastic debris.
The author of that study, Professor Richard Thompson of Plymouth University, contributed to the Nature report.
'Working with the Convention on Biological Diversity we have shown that over 370 species, including some that are critically endangered, ingest or become entangled in plastic debris,' says Thompson.
'The Nature report builds directly on our previous research, together with that of other leading world experts, and asks that we acknowledge these problems by reclassification of plastic waste as hazardous.'
'Acknowledging the problems associated with plastic waste is, in my opinion, a fundamental step toward achieving lasting solutions.'
Earlier this year, Unilever announced that it will cut plastic 'microbeads' from all of its personal care products by 2015.
But the scientists, based in the UK, United States, Japan and Greece, say that it's time for governments to take action.
'With a change in plastics categorisation, numerous affected habitats could immediately be cleaned up under national legislation and using Government funds,' they say.
Posted on 13 February 2013 | Comments (1)
Researchers funded to the tune of nearly £1 million by the Natural Environment Research Council aim to find out when and where dogs were first domesticated.
The findings may finally settle a long-running argument surrounding the subject.
The earliest conclusive evidence for dog domestication is around 14,000 years ago. But archaeologists have found human and dog remains from numerous sites across Europe and Asia dating back to 15,000 years ago.
Some researchers even think Ice Age Palaeolithic hunters may have tried to tame dogs as early as 32,000 years ago.
Now, Dr Greger Larson from Durham University and colleagues plan to end the debate by analysing DNA, teeth and bones from the ancient remains of both dogs and wolves from across Europe and Asia.
Knowing when people shifted from hunting and gathering to an agricultural existence is key to understanding the origins and rise of human civilisation.
'Such a fundamental change in human existence could not have been possible without the domestication of selected animals and plants. Dogs are crucial in this story, because they were the first ever domestic animal,' says Larson.
Not just that, but dogs are the only animals that were domesticated by hunter-gatherers thousands of years before the appearance of farming.
Scientists have a good idea about when and where cows, sheep, goats and pigs were domesticated. 'But we don't have the first clue about dogs,' says Larson.
Larson hopes to be able to answer several questions during the project, including: 'Were dogs domesticated independently on several occasions across the Old World, or were they domesticated just once, and then spread across Asia and Europe alongside late Stone Age hunter-gatherers?'
He and his colleagues will use a combination of genetics and statistical analysis of the shapes of ancient bones and teeth to gain a deep insight into the biology of dog domestication.
He'll use techniques applied in a similar study, in which he unravelled the complex story of pig domestication. In that study, he and a team of researchers found that pigs were domesticated lots of times and in lots of places. They also worked out the migration routes that pigs took alongside farmers across Europe and into the Pacific region.
Posted on 11 February 2013 | Comments (2)
The hole in the ozone layer above Antarctica was the smallest for a decade in 2012, satellite data reveals.
The new data from the European Space Agency demonstrates the benefits of international agreements to cut the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), in particular the Montreal Protocol.
Loading...Animation courtesy of the European Space Agency. Copyright KNMI.
In large quantities at the Earth's surface, ozone can be dangerous. But high in the Earth's atmosphere it provides us with a natural protective blanket from the Sun's harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays.
The British Antarctic Survey has measured ozone levels since 1956. In the 1980s, they discovered a giant hole in the ozone layer over the South Pole.
The hole forms throughout the southern spring from September to November, leaving populations in the southern hemisphere dangerously exposed to cancer-inducing UV rays.
In 1987 the international community responded with the Montreal Protocol. This commited nations to phasing out the use of CFCs, identified as the cause of the damage.
This has led to dramatic reductions in CFCs in the atmosphere since 1990 and the overall trend is towards a closing of the ozone hole.
But CFCs in the atmosphere are long-lived, and the hole in the ozone layer is unlikely to be fully repaired until at least 2070.
The weather also has an influence. The potential of CFCs to do damage changes with temperature and wind, leading to pronounced fluctuations in the size of the hole from year to year.
Posted on 11 February 2013 | Comments (0)
Britain's new Halley VI Research Station is now fully operational, planted on the floating Brunt Ice Shelf.
Halley VI Research Station
Operated by NERC's British Antarctic Survey (BAS), the new base replaces the 20 year-old Halley V station. Like its forebear, the new base sits on hydraulic legs to keep it above the accumulated snow throughout the year; unlike it, though, the stilts have skis at the end so it can be towed inland if it's at risk of being stranded on an iceberg and floating off to sea.
That's just one of the innovations that make Halley VI a remarkable feat of engineering; it's designed to stand up to some of the most ferocious conditions on Earth while providing a comfortable environment in which scientists and technicians can carry out cutting-edge research, much of it into how Antarctica is responding to environmental change. Building it was no picnic either; activity had to be split over four Antarctic summers, with workers toiling amid still-freezing conditions to fit what needed to be done into intense nine-week periods of activity before the weather again made major outdoor operations impossible.
As its name suggests, the new base is the sixth to be built on the site, with the first one set up in 1957 for a Royal Society expedition. This established the location's credentials as an important site for studying the Earth's magnetic field and upper atmosphere; the evidence that led to the discovery of the ozone hole came from readings taken by BAS scientists at Halley.
Posted on 6 February 2013 | Comments (0)
Moth populations have crashed in the UK, according to a survey carried out by Butterfly Conservation and Rothamsted Research.
The State of Britain's Larger Moths 2013 says three species have gone extinct in the last decade alone - the Orange Upperwing, the Bordered Gothic and the Brighton Wainscot. These join another 62 more that died off over the twentieth century.
Meanwhile species like the V-moth, Garden Tiger and Spinach, which were once a common sight in UK gardens, have lost 90 per cent of their populations and are now at real risk of extinction. Overall, two thirds of common and widespread bigger moths have declined in the last forty years.
Elephant hawk moth.
The report's authors think the main cause is one that's depressingly familiar - loss of habitat due to development and changes in farming methods. The picture is much bleaker in the south of Britain than the north, with average population declines of 43 per cent compared to 11 per cent. This may be because of different rates of habitat loss and effects from climate change.
It's not all bad news though; more than 100 new species have been recorded for the first time in Britain over the last century, and 27 since the millennium, as climate change makes conditions more favourable for moths that once wouldn't have been able to survive there.
Moths don't attract as much attention as their more colourful relations, but many perform equally important roles in the wider ecosystem, whether as pollinators or as links in the food chain. NERC didn't provide funding for this report, but our sister organisation the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council did via Rothamsted, and it fits in with many of our research programmes, such as the Insect Pollinators Initiative.
The report is based on continuous monitoring records running from 1968 to 2007.
Posted on 1 February 2013 | Comments (0)
A team of scientists have identified a new type of volcanic eruption.
Most people have seen images of Mt. Vesuvius' explosive eruptions , or the oozing lava of Hawaii's effusive volcanoes . But there may be several shades of eruption style in between.
Previously it was thought finding pumice near volcanoes identified an eruption as explosive , whether it occurred on land or underwater. The small holes in pumice are the product of gas bubbles inside magma, which is under huge pressure underground.
When this pressure is released during an eruption this gas rich magma rushes to the top and explodes out – like the froth at the top of a shaken fizzy drink. The erupted foam cools to form the very light rock which we use to buff our feet, pumice.
This study, published in Nature Geoscience, looked at the pumice found near the underwater Macauley Volcano . The researchers, including scientists from the National Oceanography Centre, saw there was something different about it. The holes where the gas used to be were distorted, suggesting they couldn't have formed from a highly explosive eruption. But they couldn't have formed from a slow moving lava flow either.
The scientists suggest that instead, the rising gas in the magma chamber caused the frothy lava to rise up to the seafloor, where it then detached to form balloon like forms of pumice. These balloons were like balls of aero chocolate – still bubbly and molten in the centre but with a hard crust formed on contact with the cool water. As these gas-filled balloons floated to the water surface the pressure dropped and the bubbles expanded, forming the unique structure seen in the samples, like a real life lava lamp.
The scientists proposed this new, in-between eruption style be named Tangaroan , after the Maori god of the sea.
Posted on 30 January 2013 | Comments (0)
An exciting project is just starting - the first UK and US scientific collaboration using an unmanned robotic aircraft to collect high altitude atmospheric data.
NERC (Natural Environment Research Council) has joined forces with NASA to explore the region where the Earth's air enters the stratosphere. This region is where pollutants and greenhouse gases are transported into and out of the atmosphere, and can potentially influence our climate.
NASA's Global Hawk, for long-endurance environmental science missions.
The science teams will be using one of NASA's Global Hawk drones to reach some of the most climate-sensitive and difficult to reach regions, close to the equator.
The Global Hawk is a fantastic science platform. It can remain airborne for 30 hours and travel 20,000km without refuelling - that's a distance equivalent to half the Earth's circumference. And it can reach twice the altitude of a commercial passenger jet.
Dr Neil Harris from the University of Cambridge, who is leading the UK research, told me that the data coming from the project (which is called Coordinated Airborne Studies in the Tropics, or CAST) should improve knowledge about how pollutants moving through the atmosphere can influence the way our climate behaves.
The first flights won't be starting until early next year but the plans sound quite dramatic. In January and February each year there are usually some very big storms over the Pacific Ocean and South East Asia. According to Neil Harris, these will be scientifically ideal for the CAST project.
To complement the Global Hawk, which will gather data at very high altitudes, one of the UK's dedicated Atmospheric Research Aircraft will also be flying. The FAAM Bae-146, which is stuffed full of specialist research equipment, is used to flying into and around violent storms to find out what makes them tick. It will set off from Guam in the Pacific Ocean and then land on the island of Chuuk for refuelling before flying to the equator and back.
I shall be watching with interest to see what happens next...
Posted on 25 January 2013 | Comments (0)
Asthma sufferers have to know what sparks their attacks, which means I've always known thunderstorms were one of the triggers that sets my asthma off.
At the merest hint of a lightning bolt my chest gets tight and out comes my inhaler, but if you didn't have asthma would you link any sudden breathing problems to a storm outside?
The Health Protection Agency has published a report officially recognising the link between breathing difficulties and thunderstorm occurrences - a phenomenon known as Thunderstorm Asthma .
The updrafts produced in a storm are strong enough to whip up pollen grains, fungal spores and a variety of other airborne allergens that can cause people to have attacks. Many non-asthmatics may be left confused when storms make them tight chested and render them gasping for breath. But it has been shown that the concentration of pollens and spores is high enough to even affect those without previous lung conditions, like asthma.
The study showed cases of lung-related illnesses admitted to hospital rose from 2 per cent to 17 per cent on thunderstorm days - with hayfever sufferers particularly at risk. This sudden increase in patients can create an unexpected workload for health services, but if storms are recognised as a trigger for respiratory illness then future cases can be predicted and planned for.
The report suggested implementing an early warning system, where weather reports could prompt those with pre-existing conditions to stay inside.
Posted on 24 January 2013 | Comments (0)
A new study based on research by hundreds of thousands of amateurs sheds new light on what's living in neglected corners of the urban landscape.
The Community Environment Report includes some unexpected nuggets. More earthworms turn out to live in domestic gardens than anywhere else, for example - in fact, these habitats tend to be richer in living things than other environments investigated, including woodlands. Urban gardens are also a good thing for invertebrates, with plenty of bare soil, turf and other tempting habitats. On the other hand, city ponds are less healthy than rural ones and contain more rubbish. The full dataset will be published in due course after it's been analysed.
The Open Air Laboratories (OPAL) project, led by researchers at Imperial College London, has drawn in more than half a million people from all over England to investigate the diversity of life around them.
The result has been more than 25,000 sites across the country have been surveyed, many of them green spaces in deprived urban areas that hadn't received any serious research before. For many of the participants, it was their first encounter with carrying out any sort of nature survey.
OPAL is now preparing to launch more citizen science projects, including a survey of ash dieback, the invasive disease that's threatening one of the UK's most common and best-loved broadleaf trees.
The project was funded primarily by a £14m Big Lottery grant, with further support from the Living With Environmental Change (LWEC) partnership, part-funded by NERC. The Centre for Ecology & Hydrology and the British Geological Survey also made important contributions.
Posted on 23 January 2013 | Comments (2)
Plumes of hot rock from deep within the Earth are lacing rock beneath the Atlantic Ocean with gold, scientists have discovered.
The team, led by Alex Webber from the National Oceanography Centre, looked at a region along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a volcanic spine running along the floor of the Atlantic where Europe and Africa slowly drift apart from the Americas.
The study looked at the sea floor surrounding Iceland, where a plume of hot rock from deep within the Earth rises to create a hot spot of volcanic activity.
Towards the centre of the plume, the team found up to ten times more gold than would otherwise be expected.
The Earth's interior is structured with several distinct layers. The outer layer on which we live is known as the crust, a thin veneer around the bulk of the Earth a bit like the skin of an apple.
Earth's interior structure
Hot plumes originate from the edge of the core, our planet's white-hot centre about 1800 miles deep. They travel through a thick layer of mostly solid rock lying between the core and the crust, known as the mantle. On arrival at the crust, they bring heat and volcanism.
Such plumes exist beneath many sites around the world including Hawaii and East Africa. Scientists believe those sites might also be enriched with precious metals.
The paper is published in Geology and was funded by a NERC PhD studentship.
Posted on 22 January 2013 | Comments (1)
UK tides could provide more of the UK's electricity than previously thought.
Until now, the Department for Energy and Climate Change estimated that tidal energy could help to provide up to 12 per cent of the UK's electricity, but a new paper, published in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society reports that it is probably closer to 20 per cent.
Tidal resources are considered to be more reliable than other sources of renewable energy, like wind or solar, due to the predictable nature of tidal changes. However, the two known methods used to turn this reliability into useable energy are notoriously difficult to implement efficiently.
These methods include either damming tidal estuaries with turbines turned by the ebb and flow of the tides, or by offshore turbines placed in fast flowing tidal areas. There are eight main sites around Britain where tidal dam power stations could be built, including the Severn, Dee, Solway and Humber estuaries. Together, due to their proximity to electricity grids and customers, these provide the UK with an unparalled resource that could amount to as much as 10 per cent of the tidal energy available worldwide.
The study, which included scientists from the National Oceanography Centre, modelled the potential for UK tidal energy using a range of these methods. They found that small pilot projects using the damming technique would be the best way to begin to tap our tidal capabilities.
The UK is bound by the EU to provide 35-44 per cent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020. It is unlikely to be able to achieve this without significantly improving on its current tidal and wave resources.
Posted on 14 January 2013 | Comments (1)
Nature is valuable in lots of ways. Sometimes it's valuable by hard-edged criteria like how much money we save on defending our cities from floods - and clearing up afterwards when our defences fail - because natural wetlands absorb and slow down water, preventing floods in the first place. Or how many people don't get ill because the air pollution that could cause them breathing problems instead gets absorbed by vegetation.
Other times it's valuable in ways that are a lot trickier to quantify. People like to walk in natural environments, to go camping or just to look at wild plants and animals. It makes them happy. But how happy, and how much is that happiness worth to them?
That's what a Natalie Clark, a PhD student at the University of Reading, is trying to find out. 'Most of us say we enjoy seeing wild birds in our local environments every day be that the friendly robin visiting our garden each Christmas or ducks swimming in the local pond,' she says. 'But we have little idea of how much we value their presence and how they're contributing to our overall well-being.'
She's sent out questionnaires to people all over the UK, designed to find out how often they visit green spaces and why, as well as how different levels of bird activity around their homes affects their general wellbeing.
'We're really interested in the reasons why people visit green spaces and how important different aspects of wildlife, particularly birds, are to their outdoor experiences,' she adds. If there's a significant benefit to our wellbeing from avian wildlife, that benefit is under serious threat; numbers of many wild bird species have declined precipitously in recent decades.
Clark's giving a preliminary talk about her work at the British Ecological Survey's annual meeting at the University of Birmingham. She hopes her results will published at some point in Spring - we'll have the details as soon as we get them. The work is funded by NERC with extra support from the RSPB. Also carrying out the study are researchers from the University of East Anglia, the RSPB and the University of Chicago.
Posted on 18 December 2012 | Comments (2)
If you own a smartphone, you can help slow down the spread of invasive plant species, like Himalayan Balsam, Japanese Knotweed and Giant Hogwood, say ecologists.
To the BatMobile, Robin!
Using the PlantTracker app, which is downloadable from Apple's iTunes store and the Android market, all you need to do is take a photo of any of 14 offending plants and send it to the Biological Records Centre (BRC).
And if you can't tell your balsam from your hogweed, the app has a handy built-in photographic guide, also featuring harmless plants that look uncannily like the invasive ones to help you tell invasive plants from inoffensive lookalikes.
Another app in development, called BatMobile, lets people identify bat calls using their smartphone.
PlantTracker has already attracted 7000 downloads and alerted ecologists to a massive 2500 sites where invasive plants have got a foothold. But today, scientists will unveil an updated version at the British Ecological Society's annual meeting that will let you tell scientists about the spread of even more invasive species. It'll be available in spring 2013.
'PlantTracker sightings have already allowed removal of isolated outbreaks of Himalayan Balsam and Giant Hogweed on a tributary of the Thames, and Floating Pennywort from the Midlands and Greater London areas. And because invasive plants are being removed earlier, the app is helping reduce the cost of treatment and the amount of herbicide required,' says ecologist Dave Kilbey of Nature Locator, the project which developed the app.
Nature Locator is also developing apps to record the UK's ladybirds, butterflies, and invasive marine and freshwater organisms.
Apps like PlantTracker and BatMobile are on the rise. Not only do they help control invasive species, saving the country money, but they let anyone get involved in science.
'Engaging the public with citizen science like this has multiple benefits: it cuts the cost of collecting data; increases awareness of and educates people about conservation issues; and empowers people to make a contribution at the same time as boosting both the amount and, more significantly, the quality of the data collected,' says Kilbey.
BRC is supported by the Joint Nature Conservation Committee and the Natural Environment Research Council's Centre for Ecology & Hydrology.
Posted on 18 December 2012 | Comments (2)
No Planet Earth connection to this, but you might be interested in nominating someone – perhaps yourself – for the Climate Week Awards. The awards showcase the UK's most innovative, ambitious and effective action to combat climate change. There are 14 categories including best local initiative, best initiative by a small or medium-sized business and best Climate Ready initiative.
The closing date for entries is 25 January 2013.
Posted on 14 December 2012 | Comments (0)
Drilling started today on the exciting project to explore and sample Lake Ellsworth, an ancient lake buried three kilometres beneath the Antarctic ice.
Led by Professor Martin Siegert of the University of Bristol, the project is an unprecedented effort to recover a sample the waters of the ice-covered lake, cut off from the outside world for up to a million years, without risking contaminating them.
The 12-strong team is using a specially-designed hot water drill to bore through the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. When they reach the lake after around five days, they'll deploy a carefully-sterilised probe that will travel through the lake investigating its environment and bringing back samples.
Lake Ellsworth drill site.
These should include a selection of the unique microbes that are likely to have evolved in the lake during its long isolation from the outside world. Eager researchers will also get samples of the water at different depths and a core of mud from the lake bottom that will shed light on the ancient history of the continent and its climate.
The team is hoping to have finished drilling by early next week; retreiving the samples is likely to take a couple more days after that. And of course, making the samples give up their secrets is likely to take a lot longer.
The project draws on the work of many researchers , including many at NERC's British Antarctic Survey. The probe was designed by scientists at the National Oceanography Centre.
You can follow the action on Ellsworth Live and find lots more information about every aspect of the science on the Ellsworth project website.
Posted on 12 December 2012 | Comments (0)
Subscribers to the hard copy of our quarterly magazine can look forward to seeing it pop through the letterbox in the next week or so.
If you prefer to access it online you can read or download the Planet Earth e-magazine from here and there's always a link to the latest edition from our home page.
Posted on 12 December 2012 | Comments (0)
Many of us have an ammonite or two knocking about at home, but some of the fossils researchers work on are so precious and delicate they can't be handled by anyone else - and this can limit the experience people have when learning more about them.
The display of resin model fossils and 3D reconstructions.
Dr Imran Rahman received NERC funding to create resources to allow the public to get up close and personal with fossils. He worked with colleagues to produce digital reconstructions of the fossils, and then turned them into 3D images so that visitors could put on 3D glasses to better interact with them.
But we have five senses, and using more than just our sense of sight makes for a much more enriching experience. So not only can people now view the fossils in 3D, but Rahman has now made it possible to handle them too. He used a medical imaging technique to create resin models of the fossils to allow anyone to experience what they actually feel like.
It's just one of the new ways researchers are finding to engage people with areas of science that have traditionally been inaccessible for one reason or another.
A model of a trigonotarbid - an extinct group of arachnids that lack silk-producing spinnerets.
The models give people much more enriching interactions with the subjects of research - in this case, with long-dead organisms. Members of the public were able to handle the model fossils, view the digital reconstructions and speak with Rahman in person at the University of Birmingham's Community Day in June. The model fossils are still at the university's Lapworth Museum of Geology for others to see and use.
Rahman has written a paper about the use of this kind of 'virtual palaeontology' in engaging people with scientific research.
Some other resources that NERC-funded researchers have produced to help get their research across to the public include Sea Level Change resources (this includes a worksheet on creating a clay model salt marsh to understand changes in sea level over time), Disaster Zone posters and factsheets and Simple Science factsheets and experiments to help with some of those more commonly asked questions – questions that are actually really hard to answer!
Posted on 10 December 2012 | Comments (0)
Fishermen taking parts in trials have almost eliminated discards - the practice of throwing unwanted but edible fish back dead into the sea - according to a recent report from the Marine Management Organisation (MMO).
The trials use remote monitoring equipment and CCTV to track the fish discarded from each boat. In total the cameras recorded 500 tonnes of fish being landed; analysing a sample of these catches showed that overall, just 0.3 per cent of fish were thrown back.
Discards of fish like sole, cod, plaice, megrim and anglerfish fell dramatically over 2012 in trials with fishermen in the North Sea and western English Channel. The results, published in the MMO's interim report on its Catch Quota Trials, suggest it's possible to cut bycatch almost to nothing if the right monitoring regime is put in place.
At present it's estimated that fishermen throw back more than a million tonnes of healthy fish into the sea every year. There are EU plans to ban the practice for a few species in 2014, but for many fish like cod and plaice that are under serious pressure from overfishing a ban may take much longer to come into effect.
The results for most individual species were encouraging. Only 0.2 per cent of North Sea cod that were caught, for example, ended up being discarded. Undersized or damaged fish that might once have been discarded were instead landed and put to uses other than feeding humans, such as being turned into animal food; these amounted to around 1 per cent of all fish landed.
There's a long way to go from this small, voluntary set of trials to reducing discards across the whole industry, but the results suggest it's at least possible to work with fishermen to cut discards almost completely, and to put monitoring systems into place that make sure they comply.
Posted on 7 December 2012 | Comments (2)
Excitement is building in Antarctica and around the watching world as scientists make their final preparations to drill down to sub-glacial Lake Ellsworth. Having lugged tons of specially designed and built equipment across the globe the Ellsworth team – including researchers from NERC's British Antarctic Survey and National Oceanography Centre, and UK universities – expect to begin drilling by 12 December.
Researcher on Sub-glacial Lake Ellsworth team
The lake is under 3km of solid ice and it will take three or four days to reach it, using a hot-water drill. By analysing water and sediment samples from Ellsworth the research team hopes to determine the presence, origin and evolution of life in the lake and to reveal the history of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. The lake remains liquid because of geothermal heat and the great pressure of the ice above.
You can watch the action as it happens on the Ellsworth Live website and find lots more information about every aspect of the science on the Ellsworth project website.
Posted on 4 December 2012 | Comments (0)
'Citizen scientists' can provide excellent scientific data at a modest cost, according to a new report. But it's not free, and needs careful design and management to ensure its full benefits materialise.
Citizen science refers to projects that draw on volunteers to collect data that professional researchers can then use. It's become increasingly popular in recent years, but there's been little systematic assessment of its achievements and limitations until now.
The authors of the Guide to Citizen Science examined 234 citizen science projects from the UK and elsewhere, ranging from small 'Bioblitz' events in which volunteers log every species they can find in a small area to large-scale and long-lived monitoring projects like the UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme. They analyse what makes for a successful citizen science project, and provide guidelines for those setting them up in future.
So far citizen scientists have mostly taken part in projects to monitor biodiversity - some 80 per cent of the projects examined fell into this category. There's probably considerable room for growth in other areas, such as weather and climate or tracking the progress of invasive species. The authors note that smartphone apps and other technological breakthroughs are revolutionising the field by making it easier for volunteers to submit data.
Use of volunteer labour allows data to be collected over large areas and long periods at much lower costs than if professional scientists had to do anything - the report estimates that in one year alone, volunteers on biodiversity-monitoring projects contributed time worth more than £20 million. On the other hand, projects providing data that's relevant to policy spent an average of between £70,000 and £150,000 a year on things like website and app development, data management, publicity material and event costs.
The study, 'Understanding Citizen Science and Environmental Monitoring', was written by scientists from NERC's Centre for Ecology & Hydrology and the Natural History Museum in London on behalf of the UK Environmental Observation Framework. Both the shorter 'Practical Guide' and the full report can be downloaded from the CEH website.
Posted on 23 November 2012 | Comments (4)
Blind taste tests at the University of Salford have shown that only 15 per cent of us know cod when we eat it.
That's surprising, given our national reluctance to contemplate having anything else with our chips. But it also suggests that it's perfectly feasible to replace these badly overexploited fish with alternatives in the nation's chip shops – if we weren't told, hardly anyone would notice.
Other fish proved more identifiable, but not by that much. 28 per cent got pollack right; hake was correctly identified by 38 per cent of tasters, and haddock by 39 per cent. Asked to choose their favourite, most people went for hake - ironically, since we catch plenty of these fish in British waters but generally ship them to Spain. (Our cod, by contrast, mostly comes from around Scandinavia.)
The test was part of the Science of Fish and Chips event in late October. Dr Stefano Mariani – a fisheries expert who's written for Planet Earth before on how science can help protect our dwindling fish stocks – asked more than 200 people to try samples of different battered fish and do their best to identify what species they came from. This was part of his work trying to give people a better idea about basic fisheries science and correct a few misconceptions about what they get from the local chippy.
Like any good guest, Mariani also brought several raw fish along, so he could test the public's ability to identify them. It doesn't seem too surprising that hardly anyone could identify a gurnard or sea bass, but there wasn't much more success identifying popular fish like haddock, cod or trout. More training may be needed if we're to raise our fish recognition game to a respectable level.
Posted on 6 November 2012 | Comments (3)
If your experience of science communication so far is purely through the written word, take a look at Sublime Residencies.
This collaboration between the University of Aberdeen and Inverness Old Town Art put two artists in residence at the university's Lighthouse Field Station over the past summer.
An image from Sublime Residencies, Lighthouse Field Station.
Mark Lyken and Stephen Hurrel investigated parallels between marine mammal and human responses to sound and light, based on the university's research on the impacts of underwater noise.
The recent BBC Radio 4 Saving Species programme gives a flavour of the results.
Stephen Hurrel is also working with social scientists at the Scottish Association for Marine Science and the Scottish Crofting Federation. Belonging to the Sea explores the roots of conflict over fisheries and marine conservation on Gaelic-speaking islands in Scotland and Ireland.
Just two of many science projects turning exploring diverse artistic approaches to outreach.
Posted on 25 October 2012 | Comments (0)
Astonishing news from Italy, where six geoscientists and a former public official have been jailed for six years on a charge of manslaughter for failing to predict the deadly L'Aquila earthquake, or rather for being too reassuring beforehand about the risks after tremors in the area.
The convicted seven were all part of the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks, and are accused of having provided "inaccurate, incomplete and contradictory" information ahead of April 2009 earthquake, which devastated the Appenine town and killed 309 people.
It's not possible to predict earthquakes with certainty; by definition the whole business is about weighing risk and uncertainty. These seismologists were doing their best to communicate an inherently uncertain situation to the public, and by all accounts their advice was just what most professionals would have given.
For a detailed account of efforts to understand how the quake happened in its immediate aftermath, check out the article Richard Philips of the University of Leeds wrote for Planet Earth a couple of years ago. Richard explains that the location of the quake was neither obvious nor easily predictable:
"Few scientists were surprised by such an event in this region, but some were puzzled by the location of the ground rupture. None of the obvious bedrock scarps appeared to have been affected and much attention was placed on scouring local faults for the signature of a fresh earthquake rupture. With the help of satellite remote sensing provided by the University of Oxford and the Istituto Nazionale di Geofisica e Vulcanologia, attention returned to a fault near the village of Paganica, east of L'Aquila.
Initially, surface evidence of the earthquake was limited to ground cracks, sometimes just a few millimetres wide that snaked through the village and across fields. Following more detailed investigation, geologists discovered ground ruptures displaying up to 15cm of vertical movement. Despite the lack of dramatic surface rupture, this fault was responsible for the devastation in surrounding towns, of which L'Aquila and the village of Onna fared the worst. "
It's possible the seven will be freed on appeal. For the time being, though, this episode means the rest of the Italian geoscience community will almost certainly be a lot cagier about sharing their expertise with the public in future. If making predictions that turn out to be wrong will land you in jail, the result won't be better predictions; it'll be no predictions at all on any subjects that aren't completely certain. It's only a matter of time before there are more quakes in the area; in the effort to protect its people, few things could be less helpful.
Posted on 23 October 2012 | Comments (3)
There's been a great deal of debate over the last few years about how long it will be until global oil supplies run out. Are we approaching, or have we already passed, 'peak oil' – the point beyond which economically viable oil supplies begin to decline?
Whether we like it or not, our modern world stands on foundations of cheap oil, so the debate affects us all.
Understandably we can't put an exact figure on how much oil remains, but the pessimists and optimists vary widely in their estimates, and it's a big hindrance to sensible forward planning.
The differences aren't just down to estimating techniques either, as a review published recently in the journal Energy demonstrates. The study looks at the uncertainties around estimates of global oil resources and reveals that attempts to arrive at a consensus are hindered by some fairly fundamental differences in approach. Like how to define 'conventional' and 'unconventional' oil, and whether certain resources are technically recoverable at all.
The author concludes that some of the biggest sources of uncertainty can be easily resolved, and suggest how approaches to global estimates might be improved. An important first step is that these discrepancies in approach are acknowledged in future estimates of global oil resources, or we'll keep comparing apples with pears and never know how big the pie is.
Either way, the less energy we all use the better.
The work was carried out at the UCL Energy Institute supported by the UK Energy Research Centre.
Posted on 18 October 2012 | Comments (0)
You know how some animals masquerade as something else to avoid being eaten? Some caterpillars mimick twigs to avoid being gobbled up by predators, but it turns out they don't just sit still and hope they're not spotted.
Building on earlier research, a new study on Early Thorn Moth caterpillars, published in Behavioural Ecology, has demonstrated that these humble creatures maximise the effectiveness of their masquerade by seeking out twigs that most closely match their own body size.
The caterpillars also weighed up the relative benefits of food and camouflage when they couldn't get both at the same time. Clever things.
Posted on 16 October 2012 | Comments (0)
There's an interesting piece on the BBC website about Lottery funds being awarded to a project to restore seven square miles of blanket bogs in the Scottish Highlands.
The story details the five-year plan to renew bogs around the Flow Country in Caithness, which as a whole is part of Europe's largest intact expense of blanket bog, and has been suggested as a potential Unesco World Heritage Site. The project has only passed the first stage of getting approval for Lottery funding, and can now look forward to £147,000 of development money, but it could eventually receive up to £4 million.
It's a subject Planet Earth Online has covered before, and we'll return to it again. Peat bog restoration is a fantastic idea for many reasons. Healthy bogs absorb large quantities of carbon dioxide from the air and store it in the peat for hundreds or thousands of years, as cold, damp, low-oxygen conditions stop dead plant matter from rotting.
Bogs also protect lower-lying area around them from flood, acting like giant sponges to soak water up as it flows across the land, slowing it down and smoothing the impact of sudden bursts of rain. On top of that, bogs are very rich habitats, providing homes for a wide variety of rare plants, animals and birds.
The UK has an extraordinary wealth of bogs, but many of them suffered severe damage in the mid-twentieth century when they were drained to let landowners create conifer plantations. In some cases, though, they've been found to start recovering remarkably quickly once the old drainage channels are blocked up.
Doing this doesn't just help slow climate change by absorbing more carbon; it should also help the bogs stay wet in the face of a warming climate over the next few decades. If this happens, the bogs start releasing their accumulated stores of carbon into the atmosphere - just another area in which scientists are concerned at the possibility of a vicious circle in which climate change becomes self-perpetuating.
As the BBC story notes, research by the International Union for Conservation of Nature found that losing only 5 per cent of the carbon stored in its peatlands would would be equal to the UK's entire annual greenhouse gas emissions.
Posted on 11 October 2012 | Comments (2)
NERC's oceanographic research ship left port in Southampton earlier today on a six-week passage to Punta Arenas in Chile, on the 22nd Atlantic Meridional Transect (AMT) research cruise.
Since 1995, scientists have made the annual trip across the south Atlantic, measuring the ocean's chemical, physical and biological characteristics along the way. Over the last 17 years, the voyages have involved more than 200 researchers from 15 countries, building up a valuable database of ocean conditions and how they change over time.
This time scientists from Plymouth Marine Laboratory are aboard the RRS James Cook; some of them will be blogging about their research and life on board at www.amtblog.org.uk
Among the highlights will be AMT researchers' collaboration with NASA to calibrate and check remote sensing instruments; around the Azores a NASA plane will fly over the James Cook's track, and its remotely-sensed readings of ocean conditions will be checked against those produced by the ship's own sectors. The results will shed light on how much sensors on planes and satellites could ultimately take over the work that's currently done from ships; this could let scientists monitor much bigger areas of ocean more cheaply than they can at the moment.
Posted on 10 October 2012 | Comments (0)
They may not be green but they do live in an ocean far, far away... and now they share the same name as a powerful Jedi Master from the Star Wars films.
Last year I reported on some new species of acorn worms found by scientists during a research expedition to the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. The scientists have now come up with some rather unusual names for them.
North Atlantic deep sea acorn worm.
They have called the reddish-purple acorn worm Yoda pupurata – Yoda because it reminds them of the floppy-eared Star Wars character, while pupurata is the Latin word for purple and describes its colourful hue.
Professor Monty Priede, who is the Director of the University of Aberdeen's Oceanlab and led the research, said, 'Our colleague in California, Nick Holland, chose the name Yoda for the new genus characterised by its large ear-like lips.'
In recognition of the role played by NERC's remotely operated vehicle Isis, which collected the worms from the sea floor, the team has called the white acorn worm Allapasus isidis.
North Atlantic deep sea acorn worm.
And Tergivelum cinnabarinum is a vibrant, scarlet-orange acorn worm named for cinnabar, a red-coloured mineral.
Priede says there is much interest in the acorn worms from the viewpoint of understanding the early evolution of vertebrates. The deep sea species show how a primitive animal with some chordate characteristics (early spinal development) but with no tail or limbs can drag itself across the sea floor.
Watch your mouth kid, or you'll find yourself floating home...
Han Solo, Star Wars
It shovels food into its open mouth as it moves and then floats on the ocean currents to find another nutrient-rich patch of seafloor on which to feed.
Although they are not strictly a missing link in our own evolution, they do give an insight into what the lifestyle of our remote ancestors might have been like.
'Despite their recent discovery these animals are not rare in the deep, and now we have the technology we are finding them in abundance,' said Priede. 'The next question to be addressed is the role they play in the deep sea ecosystem.'
The new names, and the evident passion for Star Wars, were revealed in a paper published recently in Invertebrate Biology. The new species were found during the last leg of the £2 million NERC-funded ECOMAR programme to examine the occurrence, distribution and ecology of marine life along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge between Iceland and the Azores.
Posted on 8 October 2012 | Comments (0)
There's an interesting new report out from the Rural Economy and Land Use (RELU) programme about a hot topic in conservation – getting people and companies who benefit from the free services the natural world provides to pay to preserve them.
Payment for ecosystem services, or PES, has been suggested as a way to harness market forces to improve how we manage the environment. If you haven't been following the debate, the RELU report's a good introduction to the main issues.
Farmers already get state payments to compensate for the money they lose making their land more wildlife-friendly. It's possible the same principle could work in other areas; for instance, companies that emit carbon could pay to preserve upland peat bogs to absorb it again. Water companies are already experimenting with paying farmers to switch to methods that cause less pollution to flow into nearby rivers, reducing the amount they have to pay to remove that pollution again so people can drink it.
There's also a certain amount of evidence that people would be willing to contribute to conservation by paying for access to wild areas.
But while some see this as a way to get more money to do conservation with, others are suspicious of anything that smacks of putting a monetary value on nature.
The RELU report's authors think PES could work well in some situations, giving business a role in conservation – provided the government provides clear guidance on how the system will work, and provided also that appropriate business partners appear.
They also say detailed codes of practice may be needed in some areas, like upland carbon storage; they also insist that PES can't take the place of regulation, and shouldn't be seen simply as rewarding people for sticking to that regulation.
Posted on 5 October 2012 | Comments (0)
A think tank suggests that all fishing in Europe should cease to let stocks recover. Credible plan or silly talk? In a post reproduced from the Global Food Security blog, Stefano Mariani tests the bait.
Would a complete ban on all fishing in Europe for up to nine years be an effective way to replenish fishing grounds? That's the conclusion of the report No Catch Investment from the UK-based think tank New Economics Foundation (NEF) that looked at 54 northeast Atlantic fish stocks, 49 of which are overfished. They say that halting current overexploitation would allow fish stocks the time to recover. And that the long-term increase in their monetary value as populations bounce back (£14.63Bn per year) will offset the short-terms costs (£10.4Bn) of not fishing (compensating fisherman etc.) which they suggest should be paid for by the private sector – the people who will make the estimated £4Bn profit later – not the public purse.
Personally, the prospect of imposing a blanket 'freeze' on fisheries comes across like a grossly simplistic advocacy measure, rather than a knowledge-based strategy.
Fisheries are a global industry
As a scientist, I would always have to go for the best scientific evidence available. And the proposal by NEF is certainly an elegant economic exercise, but not one that is grounded firmly in the biology of fish stocks, or in the trophic balance of the world population, or, for that matter, in the practicalities of policy implementation.
Firstly, given the recent signs of success of policy tweaking, including the reduction of discards and more stringent traceability regulations, pretty well orchestrated by Maria Damanaki, European Commissioner for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, it would be unwise to abruptly shake this delicate process of change.
Secondly, there is enough demand for fish, in Europe, to expect that a 'ban on fishing' would generate a sudden increase of imports from all over the world, and especially from fisheries and countries that are less well regulated. This would open new, lucrative business opportunities that would guarantee vast short-term revenues for some, but would almost certainly generate catastrophic environmental consequences for high seas habitats, deep sea fisheries, developing countries' ecosystems, and effectively legalise a lot of the illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing practices that today we are trying to fight.
Cod lined up for sale in a fish market.
Moreover, there are several European countries, such as Norway and Iceland, that have well-managed and sustainable stocks and who base their economy on fish exports: would we tell them to stop fishing? Or would we allow them to carry on and engage in new forms of exportation strategies, in direct competition with massive imports from unregulated, unknown, new global imports, which exploit fragile developing economies or hinge on high-value, poorly assessed, low-resilience exotic stocks such as the Larimichthys croaker or the Chinese bahaba?
In doing so, we would initially put our conscience right, thinking we're saving cod, but the global net result would be to depauperate resources elsewhere on the globe.
The complexity of protein provision
On another note, would a fishing freeze be only for our main consumed commodities, or also for the huge amount of industrial species that are used as animal feed and fertilizers? People don't think about this, but hundreds of thousands of tonnes of small pelagic fish (such as capelin, pout, sand-eel and boarfish) are harvested every year to create fish meal and fertilizers that are used to grow everything from carrots to pigs and salmon.
In order to meet the demand for fish proteins, the aquaculture business will boom, and since it is still dependent on capture fisheries (for the feed), there will be a huge increase of small pelagic harvesting: wouldn't this affect the recovery rate of the species we'd be trying to rebuild?
On the other hand, a scenario where more proteins will have to be sourced from farmlands is a prospect that certainly entails greater environmental degradation through pollution, land erosion and water shortages. Moreover, we'd be less healthy, because fish proteins, to date, remain the healthier option.
Shoal of fish.
Unfortunately, the consumption of animal proteins will inevitably affect the land or the sea. The impact on the land is arguably worse, but it is important to turn to the oceans with plans that are ecologically and socially sustainable. Aquaculture is destined to play a fundamental role, but in the western world it still remains too hinged to the production of few, high-value, high trophic level species, which is not the best strategy to cope with wild production shortages.
There's always a catch
So I think that the scenario proposed by NEF is not only unrealistic, but unfeasible, because it is overly reliant on investment business, making too many assumptions on complex ecological interactions and life-history responses. House market prices and bond interest rates are far more easily predictable than the biology of marine organisms, and yet that didn't help the world avoiding the financial meltdown.
Biologists had to learn the hard lesson that their expertise, no matter how excellent, is not enough to resolve the problems of fisheries; all disciplines must play a role, and ideally in integration with each other.
So we must continue along a path of improved communication between scientists, fishers and policy-makers. Let's work together: biologists, economists, climatologists and social scientists, to improve scientific knowledge, and push harder towards better management solutions that are based on that knowledge, such as the improved identification of stock boundaries, the assessment of life-history adaptive responses to exploitation, the reduction of discards, and a wiser and more responsible use of the funds currently going into damaging forms of fishing subsidies.
Posted on 1 October 2012 | Comments (0)
This summer has been a world-beater in the UK, at least for people who love rain. How long ago it seems that we were worrying about the havoc that drought was about to ravage the countryside and leave gardens a scorched shadow of their former glories.
The Centre for Ecology & Hydrology has just brought out its latest monthly Hydrological Summary; it shows that a damp August on top of the wettest summer since 1912 has brought soils close to saturation point and brought rivers back to healthy levels and beyond, with several episodes of flash flooding over the month.
Stocks in most reservoirs are also well above the seasonal average. Early September stock levels were the highest on record, and still more remarkably, average summer stocks throughout the season exceeded the average for December to February for all but the wettest winters.
Dramatic recoveries after droughts have happened before – for instance, after the drought of 1975-6. But this kind of sustained recovery in water stocks throughout the summer is almost unprecedented, according to CEH scientists, who call it 'an extraordinary transformation in the water resource outlook'.
Posted on 17 September 2012 | Comments (0)
Harlequin ladybirds getting you down? Stressed by slipper limpets? Need to know more about the spread of Japanese knotweed or signal crayfish? The DAISIE project website has just been relaunched, making it easier to get at free, reliable information about invasive species.
Standing for Delivering Alien Invasive Species Inventory for Europe, DAISIE gives a comprehensive overview of more than 12,000 alien invaders. This means it doesn't just cover familiar villains like grey squirrels and mink, but also lesser-known menaces.
For instance, the current holder of the hotly-contested 'invasive species of the week' title is the smallmouth bass, an unassuming-looking fish that lives naturally in the southern United States but is now wreaking ecological havoc in rivers in South Africa and elsewhere after being released in a misguided bid to improve sport fishing.
The revamp was announced at the NEOBIOTA conference in Spain, and sees more than 1000 new species added to the database as well as revised information on those that were already covered.
Invasive non-native species are one of the biggest threats to biodiversity all over the world, and have been identified as a priority at all policy levels, from local to international.
The project started in 2005 with EU funding, and is now supported by NERC's Centre for Ecology & Hydrology and the Swiss Sciex programme, together with a consortium of invasive species experts from all over Europe.
Posted on 13 September 2012 | Comments (0)
Oceanographers have come up with the unusual idea of weighing the global ocean at a single point to assess how big it is.
Professor Christopher Hughes from the National Oceanography Centre says that 'making accurate measurements of changing pressure at a single point will indicate the mass of the world ocean.'
And he says he knows exactly where to place the pressure guage to take this measurement - the central tropical Pacific, where the deep ocean is at its quietist.
'The instrument needs to be located away from land and oceanic variability,' says Hughes. 'The principle is rather like watching your bath fill; you don't look near the taps where all you can see is splashing and swirling, you look at the other end where the rise is slow and steady.'
But why does he want to weigh the ocean - and why is it important to do so?'
'We know that global sea level is rising by about 3 mm per year but we need to separate out the different causes of sea level change,' he says.
The oceans can warm and expand, which means the same weight of water will take up more space. But if more water goes into the ocean from melting land ice, the weight will increase.
'As we don't know how much land ice will melt and go into the ocean in the future we need to develop long term monitoring systems to measure that,' adds Hughes.
Using pressure measurements taken in the Pacific Ocean over the past ten years or so, Hughes and his team have been able to show that a massive six trillion tonnes of water enters the ocean between March and September each year. That's enough to raise the sea level by 1.7cm.
Much of this will evaporate and leave the ocean over the following six months, but some will not.
Hughes explained that they can measure the annual cycle of water coming into and out of the ocean using either pressure measurements or drifting instruments and satellites. But none of these can give a really accurate measurement of the amount of water accumulating in the ocean each year.
He is hoping that engineers will rise to the challenge of developing a more sensitive instrument, capable of measuring fractions of a millimetre of water whilst coping with the immense pressure of four kilometres of water above it.
Hughes acknowledges that this would be a very challenging goal. 'The pressure changes are smaller than the background pressure by a factor of about 10 million, and the deep ocean is a hostile environment for mechanical components, 'he says.
So the gauntlet has been thrown down - it will be interesting to see if anyone takes up the challenge in the future.
If you want to read more about this work, which was carried out in collaboration with Newcastle University, a free version of the research paper is available.
Posted on 11 September 2012 | Comments (0)
In case you missed it, here's a great story about a new gadget that acts as an 'escape hatch' for small marine creatures caught up in trawler nets. Trawlers after mature fish often scoop up small ones that have to be thrown back into the sea, usually dead or injured.
These illuminated rings, powered by the motion of the net, attract the smaller fish and provide safe passage back to freedom.
SafetyNet is the work of Glasgow School of Art graduate Dan Watson. Dan is UK winner of the prestigious James Dyson Award for design engineering and will now go forward into the international final.
Posted on 31 August 2012 | Comments (1)
Scientists are looking for volunteers to take part in a new nationwide project aimed at discovering whether blue tits could help save British conker trees from the invading leaf miner moth.
The Conker Tree Science initiative has already drawn on observations from so-called 'citizen scientists' to establish that the spread of the non-native insect isn't being hindered by a parasitoid wasp as researchers had previously hoped.
Run by scientists from NERC's Centre for Ecology & Hydrology and the University of Hull, Conker Tree Science now wants you to spend a few minutes checking a conker tree for the characteristic damage the birds make as they peck out the larvae, and to report your findings back via the project website.
Horse chestnut leaf showing the damage caused by leaf miner moth larvae
The moth arrived in London about a decade ago, and since then it has spread quickly across much of the UK. It lays its eggs on horse chestnut leaves; on hatching, the larvae burrow in to form distinctive patterns of damage known as 'leaf mines'.
The moths don't immediately kill the trees their larvae infest, but the striking damage they do reduces vitality in the long term.
You can take part in the Bird Attack mission project from today until September 23.
Posted on 30 August 2012 | Comments (0)
Dr Seymour Laxon of University College London was on BBC Radio 4's Today programme this morning, talking about the insights being produced by the European Space Agency's Cryosat-2 satellite, which measures sea-ice thickness in polar regions with unprecedented accuracy.
You can listen to the interview on the BBC website; Laxon tells presenter Evan Davis that preliminary results show a pronounced decline in ice thickness in the Arctic in recent years. He adds that if the current trend continues – of course, that's a big if – the region could be ice-free at the height of summer by the end of the decade.
We've known that the area of Arctic ice is shrinking for a long time, but it's only recently that satellite measurements have allowed scientists to monitor its thickness accurately across very large areas.
Laxon is director of NERC's Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling, and has been closely involved with the Cryosat programme. He says the next step is to incorporate this new ice-thickness data into forecasting models to get a better idea of the ice sheets' future behaviour.
Posted on 13 August 2012 | Comments (1)
Just when you think a nice spell of dry, sunny weather is on the cards it starts raining again. But our appalling UK weather this summer could have had an unexpected benefit for Olympic athletes and spectators. Scientists monitoring pollution levels around London reckon that the wet conditions could have given us one of the least polluted Games in history.
So how can the weather make such a difference to city pollution levels?
'Put simply, the reason the air quality is so good is because the weather has been so bad this summer,' explained Dr Grant Allen from the University of Manchester. 'The areas of low pressure have left us with very clean air, unusually clean for summer months over the UK. The pollution that is generated moves away in the evenings and goes in a variety of directions depending on wind direction.'
'A change in the weather, such as that seen in the week leading up to the Olympics Opening Ceremony could bring pollution levels back closer to the norm but the processes by which this happens are exactly what we are aiming to study during ClearfLo.'
One of the ClearfLo project's atmospheric monitoring station's in London.
The ClearfLo project - or Clean Air for London - started back in January 2010. The science team has set up air quality monitoring stations across the city to measure things like carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, ozone, and heat pollution. Most of these stations are at street level but a few are in elevated positions, the highest being 150 metres up the BT Tower.
In conjunction with the ground-station measurements the team is also taking to the skies in one of the UK's dedicated research aircraft. This flying laboratory, which is managed by the NERC/Met Office Facility for Airborne Atmospheric Measurement (FAAM), is fitted with highly sophisticated equipment that measures all sorts of atmospheric conditions, including wind speed, temperature, humidity, and air particles.
And to see for himself what's happening both in the skies around London and on the ground at the monitoring stations, the BBC's David Shukman joined the research team for a couple of days.
He met up with James Lee from the University of York and Janet Barlow from Reading University at a monitoring station in North Kensington. The scientists told Shukman about meteorology and air-pollution forecasting, and how ozone and particles form in the air over London. They described how ClearfLo will help them to understand the chemistry behind this formation. Said Lee, 'The BBC team was particularly interested in the complexity of the urban atmosphere - and how much kit we needed to measure it all!'
A couple of days later Shukman flew with both Grant Allen and James Lee on board the FAAM BAe-146 research aircraft, which took off from Cranfield Airfield in bright sunshine.
The aircraft flew a circuit around London from west to east, taking samples and measurements along the way.
'We sampled a clean air mass flowing into London,' said Allen. 'It was one of the flattest pollution profiles I've ever seen - so it makes a nice case study as any London pollution will show up against that clean background.'
'By repeatedly sampling the layer of air between ground level and about 2000 feet, we found moderate pollution levels over the Thames Estuary and west of London,' he added. 'But you can see exactly where it is against the background of clean air so we're confident that this pollution was recently generated in London, probably from the morning rush hour emissions.'
Met Office Air Quality Model aerosol concentration forecast (colour-scaled contours) overlaid on Google Earth, showing the predicted plume of polluted air over London, with the measured aircraft data across the plume seen as a purple 'curtain'
Apparently there are times when pollution being blown on easterly winds from Europe can mix with and add to London's pollution, but there was no evidence of it happening that day.
'The thunderstorms over London the day before, coupled with clean air blowing in from the Atlantic mean that the background pollution over the UK for the day was relatively clean and well below EU limits', explained Allen.
'The work we did during the flight was also a very good validation of the Met Office air quality models,' he said. 'The plume of polluted air was exactly where the Met Office said it would be, and at the concentrations they said it would be.'
The Met Office is one of the many partners in ClearfLo, which is coordinated by NERC's National Centre for Atmospheric Science. The project also involves a whole host of universities and the NERC Centre for Ecology & Hydrology.
If you are in the UK you might have seen David Shukman's report on the BBC News at Ten last night, and he has produced a feature for BBC Online.
Posted on 9 August 2012 | Comments (6)
Diamond Light Source synchrotron is being used to improve carbon capture methods. Scientists from the University of Leeds used the facility to work out the main way calcium oxide-based materials absorb carbon dioxide.
The Diamond synchrotron.
These materials are low-cost and plentiful, and can be used for carbon capture both before and after fuel combustion, so this new knowledge is an important step in making carbon capture even more efficient and economically viable.
Diamond is the UK's national synchrotron, a not-for-profit facility used by academic and industry researchers across a range of disciplines. By accelerating electrons to near light-speed, it produces beams of light at wavelengths from infra-red to X-ray, which enables researchers to study materials at atomic detail.
The research is published in Energy & Environmental Science.
Posted on 1 August 2012 | Comments (0)
Autosub6000, the robotic submarine operated by NERC's National Oceanography Centre (NOC), has taken the most detailed photographic survey of the abyssal ocean floor ever made.
Autosub6000, the National Oceanography Centre's deep diving robot sub, capable of reaching depths of 6000 metres.
The unmanned sub's forward- and down-facing cameras have provided images covering an area 12 miles long by four wide (20km by 7km), three miles (4.8km) underwater on the Porcupine Abyssal Plain.
This lies just off the coastal shelf, some 350 miles southwest of Lands End. The images that Autosub has taken will be stitched together to form a gigantic image of the whole landscape, which will give scientists a vast amount of information about the communities of living things and how they change with the seabed terrain. Combined with an acoustic survey and samples from the ocean floor, the results will transform our understanding of the area's ecology.
'We want to learn how communities might differ between abyssal hills and flat areas, which is similar to understanding how communities of animals might change as one moves from a valley to the summit of a mountain,' explains Dr Henry Ruhl of NOC, who led the research team. 'On land it is easy to confirm on the ground what we can see from satellite photographs, but this is far harder in the deep sea because we can't see through the water using light.' Even though it's difficult to make measurements there, abyssal habitats cover more than half the surface of Earth.
The Porcupine Abyssal Plain is the site of a research station taking measurements of environmental conditions over the long term, the Porcupine Abyssal Plain Sustained Observatory (PAPSO), where research has been taking place since 1989 into how carbon moves between atmosphere and oceans. It's a complex challenge that this latest research will help unravel by telling scientists more about how carbon-rich matter falling down to the deep sea bed - dead plankton and faeces, mostly - builds up in different parts of the underwater landscape.
One of the half million strip photos taken by the National Oceanography Centre's robot sub Autosub6000, featuring a dumbo squid which is around 25cm across.
Posted on 31 July 2012 | Comments (0)
A new project is tracking basking sharks around the Scottish coast in an effort to shed light on these mysterious giants' lifestyles.
The website shows real-time satellite data on the whereabouts of eight sharks as they roam the waters off Scotland's west coast between Skye and Mull, which have been known for some time as a hotspot of basking shark activity and is now being considered as a possible Marine Protected Area.
The transmitters on these sharks send the details of their position whenever the animals come to the surface. Twelve more have been fitted with GPS tags that will stay attached for nine months before floating to the surface and transmitting the recorded movements to satellites overhead.
If the devices can be physically retrieved, scientists can get much more information out of them than they can over the satellite link, so if you spot something that looks like this, pick it up and contact the project - you'll get a reward.
Recent work covered on Planet Earth Online has shown these plankton-hoovering behemoths are recovering from fierce hunting in the second half of the twentieth century, but we still know remarkably little about where they go, notwithstanding the pioneering work that Professor Monty Priede of the University of Aberdeen's Oceanlab carried out in the 1980s, which was the first time a satellite tag had been used to track a fish, and one of the technology's first uses on any animal.
The technology's come a long way since then, and the researchers hope the tracking programme will answer big questions about the sharks' behaviour and ecology that will boost efforts to conserve them. How do they use these waters? How long do they stay there? Do they stay in some areas more than in other, and how far is the whole region essential to their survival at key points in their life cycle?
The project is run by scientists from the University of Exeter in collaboration with Scottish Natural Heritage.
Posted on 26 July 2012 | Comments (0)
Find a dead bird of prey in your garden? Spot a dead whale during your walk on the beach, or an otter by the river? Possibly poisoned? Please don't just walk past it – REPORT IT!
You can help clean up our environment.
Analysing animal corpses helps us understand how chemicals, pollutants and sometimes deliberate poisonings, affect wildlife populations and the environment in general. Now we need your help to get as much information as possible.
Various organisations monitor different animals and now NERC's Centre for Ecology & Hydrology has created a network to bring them all together. WILDCOMS will be able to build up a more complete picture of the state of the UK environment, and provide much more useful evidence to policy-makers about what substances are dangerous, or are becoming dangerous, and how well mitigation policies are working.
By telling us about sightings and sending in samples, you are helping inform the policies that protect your environment.
You can find details of all the schemes involved on the WILDCOMS website, including where to send samples (go to Samples wanted link). Main contact organisations are:
The Predatory Bird Monitoring Scheme for dead birds of prey; also addled and deserted eggs sent from licensed egg collectors.
The Wildlife Incident Investigation Scheme or Wildlife Incident Investigation Scheme Scotland if you suspect an animal has died of pesticide poisoning, or find evidence of illegal pesticide use.
The Cardiff University Otter Project relies on reports of carcasses by members of the public.
The UK Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme are the people who want to know about dead marine animals (whale, porpoise, dolphins, seal, turtles, sharks) – but if you find a stranded animal alive please contact the RSPCA or SSPCA immediately.
Posted on 20 July 2012 | Comments (1)
Trees, bushes and other greenery in our towns could deliver a massive 30% reduction in pollution, according to new research by the universities of Birmingham and Lancaster.
They would deliver clean air at street level, where people are most exposed to harmful pollutants, and the beauty of this improvement is it can be achieved street by street, without the need for large, expensive initiatives.
Plants clean the air by removing nitrogen dioxide and microscopic particles, both of which are harmful to human health and can't easily escape the concrete canyons of our city streets.
More on the story on the BBC website and University of Birmingham news site. The research is published in the Journal of Environmental Science and Technology.
For any readers local to NERC, check out the green walls outside Swindon's Brunel centre, they're looking particularly lush at the moment. It's just a shame they're so high up, I wonder how many people raise their gaze from the shop windows to appreciate them.
Posted on 19 July 2012 | Comments (0)
There's been a lot of talk lately about how important it is to value natural ecosystems and the service they provide. Some people hate the idea, claiming it's tantamount to privatising nature - like selling off the rainforests and oceans to the highest bidder.
Lots of natural and social scientists disagree, though - they think a lot of the reason so much pollution and other environmental damage happens is that it doesn't usually cost the polluter much, if anything. They get the profit, and the general public picks up the tab for cleaning up the mess.
If we had a better idea of the value of all the benefits that marsh or woodland provides - benefits that can range from flood control and water purification to people simply enjoying taking time off in the natural environment - then it'd be much easier to make sure those who are polluting or harming biodiversity pay enough to make up for it.
A new report by a group of environmental economists tries to identify practical ways to apply the ideas behind ecosystem valuation and markets by looking at the business opportunities arising from the National Ecosystem Assessment (NEA). Broadly, these fall under the assessment of the state of the UK's ecosystems, the services they provide, and the value of these services.
The document highlights 12 areas that its authors think offer the best opportunities for business involvement to create real environmental benefits. They include:
A carbon code for peatlands
There's an opportunity to create a transparent, verifiable framework for companies to buy carbon credits whereby their emissions are offset by restoration and re-wetting of degraded peatlands. These habitats can store gigantic quantities of carbon for long periods, but efforts to drain them and turn them into profitable farmland or tree plantations over the twentieth century mean that many have been drying out and losing their stored carbon into the air and water. The UK has plenty of these damaged peatlands, and with suitable political backing restoring them could bring huge benefits, both economic and environmental.
Woodland enrichment through a bigger market for wood fuel
A clear trend over recent years has been that a lot more people are getting interested in burning wood to heat their houses. If woodland owners could be encouraged to provide more wood for sale to meet this demand, it could create many jobs in rural areas as well as lead to better woodland management and the creation of new forest areas. Woodcutting and healthier forests might seem like opposed goals, but most of the UK's woodlands are landscapes created by humans; they need management to stay healthy and productive.
Carbon sequestration for new houses
The government's official plans say all new homes will have zero carbon emissions from 2016. Developers who can't meet this target directly could pay for carbon to be sequestered elsewhere by planting trees or restoring peat bogs; if permitted, this could let them offset a new house's carbon emissions and comply with the rules.
The report points out several ways to improve the ecological and economic benefits of green tourism. These could include making green and blue spaces more accessible, restoring ecological sites that may be of interest to tourists and promoting existing attractions and health-based tourism. Sustainable tourism is a big growth area; it's estimated that back in 2000, UK habitats received 3.2 billion visits with an economic value of more than £10 billion, and this will only have increased over the last decade.
Water re-use technologies
Saving water could help businesses cut costs and increase income, as well as becoming more self-sufficient. This would also help alleviate water shortages, and reduce pollution and energy consumption, while also delivering huge benefits to coastal and freshwater ecosystems.
The report was commissioned by the Valuing Nature Network for the Ecosystem Markets Task Force; funding came from Defra and NERC.
Posted on 5 July 2012 | Comments (0)
The water quality and wildlife in urban rivers in England and Wales have improved dramatically over the last 20 years according to a new study.
The River Wandle.
Decades of pollution, typically from poorly treated sewage and industrial waste, have had a devastating effect on our urban rivers, but these waterways are now regaining insects such as mayflies and stoneflies that are typical of healthy waters – fast-flowing and oxygen rich. The range of invertebrates found has also increased by around 20%.
The conclusions are drawn from one the largest studies of national trends in river health ever undertaken. Researchers from Cardiff University's School of Biosciences carried out an independent analysis of Environment Agency data, using almost 50,000 samples from thousands of rural and urban locations.
The team puts the general improvement down to industrial decline, tighter regulation and improved wastewater treatment over recent decades – although rivers in some rural upland areas appeared to have deteriorated slightly.
Another important finding was that drought years reversed the recovery, at least temporarily.
The research is published in Global Change Biology: here's the abstract.
Posted on 2 July 2012 | Comments (0)
The critical stage of a world-first experiment, to monitor what might happen if CO2 leaks from an underground storage reservoir, was successfully completed under the seabed near Oban in Scotland this week.
Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is emerging as one of the front-runners in the search for climate-change mitigation strategies. The process involves capturing CO2 from power plants and industrial activity before it is emitted into the atmosphere and pumping it into deep sub-seabed reservoirs or geological structures for permanent storage.
The QICS experiment.
While leaks from storage sites are thought to be unlikely, all the potential risks of new technologies like CCS need to be investigated early in their development.
The project, led by Plymouth Marine Laboratory in collaboration with the Scottish Association for Marine Science and four other institutions, involved the injection of CO2 from a shore-based lab into shallow marine sediments so scientists could work out whether (and how) a leak from a CCS storage site below the seabed might affect marine life. The experiment also gave scientists a chance to assess various ways of monitoring for CO2 leakage.
The project is Quantifying and Monitoring Potential Ecosystem Impacts of Geological Carbon Storage (QICS). You can see the experiment in action on YouTube and learn more about QICS on the project web pages.
Posted on 29 June 2012 | Comments (0)
Readers of Planet Earth magazine will have seen the recent feature about the Planet Under Pressure conference, where the BRAVE collaboration presented a short film of people from Bangladesh, India, South Africa and Ethiopia talking about their visions of a sustainable planet.
One interviewee, Tichafa Makovere Shumba, is a Zimbabwean permaculture trainer living in Ethiopia.
The movie-makers, InsightShare, have just released a follow-up film made at the conference itself, where they captured the responses of conference delegates to those messages.
Both films are really thought-provoking. You can follow the vimeo links through to other work InsightShare is doing on climate change and sustainabilty.
This is great too – Ever Hear a Postman Whistle? was also shown at the BRAVE conference session.
If you haven't seen it yet, the magazine feature will be up on Planet Earth Online tomorrow.
Posted on 21 June 2012 | Comments (0)
The British Geological Survey (BGS) just launched mySoil, a new mobile app giving access to detailed maps of the soils around Great Britain. You can use it to find out about the soil where you live and how its properties affect the vegetation and habitats above.
The app provides a map of the soil's so-called parent material - the area's underlying geology - and users can zoom in for more information about soil depth, texture, acidity and organic matter content, as well as vegetation data for the whole UK. It's a collaboration between BGS and the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH), another NERC research centre.
It's part of a more general drive to share scientific data more widely with the public, seen already in the BGS OpenGeoscience web portal and its iGeology app, which gives smartphone users access to more general geological data about the land around them. The new app integrates BGS soil data with CEH's information on vegetation and ecology, drawn from its Countryside Survey and Land Cover Map 2007 projects.
It's currently available for iPhones and iPads, and free to download from the BGS website; an Android version is planned too, though we're not yet sure when it'll launch.
Posted on 15 June 2012 | Comments (0)
Researchers from the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton are setting off on a mission to drill the deep seabed of the north Atlantic for secrets about the climate during the planet's last lengthy spell of extreme warmth, which happened around 30 million years ago.
From the drillship JOIDES Resolution, the scientists will drill down into the seabed up to 5km below, recovering sediment cores that will shed light on long-ago climates. Analysing these cores will provide one of the world's longest and most undisturbed records of climate change, providing detailed information about ancient ocean circulation and weather patterns.
The mission focuses on the sediment around the Newfoundland Ridges, hundreds of kilometres off the Canadian coast. It will sample 11 sites, coring down as far as 400m into the mud to find sites where ancient climates were affected by CO2-fed global warming. The technique works because as atmospheric CO2 rises, the ocean becomes more acidic; this changes the types of sediment deposited on the sea floor.
The deep waters of the north Atlantic are forced to flow over the Newfoundland Ridges, and two major current systems - the north-flowing Gulf Stream and the south-flowing Deep Western Boundary Current cross over around the planned drilling area. The sediments they leave behind preserve a record of their flow strength and chemical composition, as well as of the living things in the water at the time.
The rate of sediment deposition also depends on the strength of the current passing over the seabed, so NOC scientists plan to use their findings to gain a detailed history of the Deep Western Boundary Current, which runs from the Greenland Sea down to the east coast of North America, and is thought to help drive the Gulf Stream, which in turn profoundly influences the European climate. So the results will help researchers understand the intricate relationship between ocean circulation and the climate.
The voyage is planned to last until early August.
Posted on 13 June 2012 | Comments (0)
A new project is studying a neglected area of earthquake science - the 10 million square kilometres of the Alpine-Himalayan mountain belt that stretches from Italy across Greece and Turkey, through the Middle East and central Asia to southern China.
Earthquakes in areas like these, in the middle of continents, cause many more deaths than those on better-publicised high-risk zones around the boundaries between oceanic plates, like the Pacific 'Ring of Fire'. There, the dangers are well-known; people are prepared and buildings are designed to stand up to seismic punishment.
In the continental interior, earthquakes are rare but devastating, often taking place at previously unknown and inactive faults. The results are often horrifying; recent unexpected quakes in Bam, Iran in 2003, Muzzafarabad, Pakistain in 2005 and Wenchuan, China in 2008, for instance, collectively killed 175,000 people, with death rates approaching 30 per cent of the local population. By contrast, the quakes in New Zealand and Japan early last year killed just 0.1 and 0.4 per cent of the population respectively.
In the past 120 years, there have been about 130 earthquakes in which more than 1000 people have died. About 100 of them took place in the interior of continents, causing at least 1.4 million deaths. It's a particular problem because cities and trade routes often grow up where there's groundwater, which tends to coincide with the presence of faults. So big urban populations in cities like Tehran, Tabriz and Ashkhabad are often concentrated in high-risk areas.
The £3.5 million five-year 'Earthquakes without frontiers' project aims not only to pinpoint many areas of high risk for the first time, but also to find out more about the vulnerabilities of particular communities and to communicate all this to policy-makers so they can do something about it. It'll involve both physical and social scientists, working in multinational collaborations across the whole region.
Scientists will use ground- and space-based technology to examine the relationship between earthquake faults and the wider landscape, reading the geological signs that may provide warning before a devastating quake. Meanwhile the social scientists will explore what makes communities vulnerable or resilient in the face of these disasters, and a third group will focus on communicating to governments and other policy-makers.
The project is funded by NERC and the Economic and Social Research Council. It includes researchers from the universities of Cambridge, Durham, Hull, Leeds, Northumbria and Oxford; from the Overseas Development Institute, British Geological Survey, National Centre for Earth Observation and Institute of Hazard, Risk and Resilience, as well as collaborators in China, Greece, India, Iran, Italy, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkey.
Posted on 31 May 2012 | Comments (0)
Adventurer Ben Fogle is taking on a gruelling challenge next year in an attempt to raise awareness of the environmental threats facing our oceans. He plans to swim more than 3000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean from America to Cornwall – and he wants to do it in less than 100 days. That's the equivalent of swimming the English Channel every single day.
Ben will be in the water for up to 12 hours each day and his wetsuit is to be fitted with the latest technology to capture information about the salinity, temperature, ocean currents and algae. Micro-sensors developed by the National Oceanography Centre and the University of Southampton will measure the surface layers of the ocean as Ben swims, and will relay information back to scientists in the UK.
This will be a unique opportunity to get data that would not otherwise be possible. Dr Simon Boxall from the National Oceanography Centre explained that the thin surface layers usually get disturbed by big ocean-going ships. 'The science community will use Ben as a personal mini research vessel,' he says.
Although no stranger to tough pursuits – he has already run across the Sahara desert, rowed the Atlantic and walked to the South Pole – this will be Ben's ultimate stamina test. He will be supported by a yacht on his journey, where he will eat and sleep, but he will swim the entire distance himself. The National Oceanography Centre is advising him on the best route to take through the ocean's currents.
'I am daunted by the magnitude of this challenge, but I have never been one to take the easy option,' says Ben. 'You get out of life what you put in and the greatest achievements come from the biggest challenges. If I can complete it, it will be the culmination of a childhood dream and the completion of an Atlantic circle that began in the North Atlantic in 2000 where I spent the year on Taransay. Having rowed East to West, I will complete the circle by swimming West to East back home to Cornwall.'
Ben is not only working with the science community but also with the World Wide Fund for Nature and the Plastic Oceans Foundation to highlight the pressures of overfishing, the dangers of plastic rubbish on marine life and other threats to the world's fragile oceans.
Posted on 28 May 2012 | Comments (0)
Researchers from the University of Leeds today won a gold medal in the RHS Environment section with their first ever exhibit at Chelsea Flower Show.
Called Gardening for Champions, the garden shows how simple changes to urban gardens can help the environment by saving water, encouraging pollinating insects and cutting CO2 emissions.
The winning Chelsea garden.
The academics worked with garden designer Martin Walker to put real research into practice. They say having a messy area in your garden is one of the best ways to attract insects and improve the environment. By messy, they mean leaving the grass to grow long, letting old logs rot, and letting wildflowers grow, rather than planting sterile bedding plants.
Gardeners can save water by slowing its flow: permeable paths, green roofs and water butts all help. Bees and other pollinating insects love pollen-rich flowers, for example in long grass and clover. Typical garden centre bedding plants have been bred so much that many have very little pollen, so wildflowers are a better bet. Rotting logs and sandy soils also provide perfect nesting sites for solitary pollinators, like bumblebees.
Your garden can also help cut CO2 emissions. Composting food waste and vegetable peelings means you'll have less need for fertilisers. While growing your own fruit and vegetables and planting green roofs also help cut emissions.
Gardens take up nearly a third of space in urban areas, so if gardeners make a few simple changes they'll improve the environment for literally millions of people in the UK, say the researchers.
And it doesn't matter how small (or big) your garden is. The prize-winning garden is deliberately based on a typical urban fringe Yorkshire garden to show just how easy it is to get involved. But it's not just private homes that would benefit from the researchers' designs. Councils and park authorities could also put some of these ideas into practice.
The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) funded much of the research behind this initiative and sponsored the garden.
Posted on 22 May 2012 | Comments (1)
On 17 May a team of researchers will be setting off on the Changing Oceans expedition, spending a month looking at the impact of warming and acidifying oceans on marine ecosystems.
Before heading into international waters, the RRS James Cook is visiting sites around the UK and Ireland. This week it stops at in Benbecula, in the western Isles of Scotland.
Member of Scottish Parliament Stuart Stevenson, Minister for Climate Change and the Environment, will be visiting the ship today, 15th May, together with a number of film crews. And a group of school children from Sgoil Lionacleit will get a chance to go onboard to meet the rearchers and find out what they'll be doing during the cruise.
A highlight will be the chance to check out the remotely operated underwater vehicles (ROVs) – basically submarines fitted with cameras and other equipment. ROVs are crucial for studying cold-water corals and deep-sea sponges. As they tour the ship the pupils will find out how samples of sea life will be transported back to land for further study.
But this won't just be a day out of school – the children are there to work. They will be part of a group which includes staff from the Dynamic Earth Centre in Edinburgh, which will be developing teaching resources for schools across Scotland.
So as well as learning about the effects of climate change on ocean ecosystems, they will be discussion who it's going to affected. They'll be contributing to a resource for running workshops about conservation issues that considers the social and economic implications of environmental change on everyone, not just people who live near the ocean.
You can hear more about the expedition in a Planet Earth Podcast which will go live on May 22nd. Plus the team will be blogging daily from the ship, and recording an audio diary too.
The expedition is part of the UK Ocean Acidification Research Programme.
Posted on 15 May 2012 | Comments (0)
Scientists have flown through the turbulent storms being experienced in the UK at the moment to try and understand what causes such stormy weather.
Flying through these extreme storms is really the only way to collect this information and the research team has been carrying out similar flights over the past few months under the DIAMET project, which is partly funded by the Natural Environment Research Council.
DIAMET is short for DIAbatic influences on Mesoscale structures in ExTratropical storms and aims to accurately forecast the high winds and heavy rain typical in north-west Europe.
NERC, the University of Leeds and FAAM (Facility for Airborne Atmospheric Measurements) worked together to get television crews from the BBC and Channel 4 to get on board the research aircraft, a specially converted BAe146, during a flight yesterday.
View from the FAAM aircraft.
Project leader Professor Geraint Vaughan from NERC's National Centre for Atmospheric Science was on board. He said, 'In extreme weather the condensation and evaporation of water are thought to play a crucial role in storm development. These processes transfer energy within the weather system, changing the way it develops.'
Professor Vaughn explained to the BBC's David Shukman that the research team is trying to focus on small scale processes that are not captured in current weather forecast models.
He said, 'The instruments we carry give us details of water droplets and ice particles we can't get any other way - these are very important for understanding the way a storm evolves.'
The DIAMET project is a great example of good UK research collaboration as there were several universities involved - Manchester, Leeds, Reading and East Anglia - all working together under the watchful eye of NERC's National Centre for Atmospheric Science. The Met Office is a project partner for the forecasting side of things and they, together with NERC, manage the aircraft.
If you're in the UK, the television news reports will be broadcast this evening (10 May) on the BBC1 Six o'clock News and on Channel 4 at 7 o'clock.
Posted on 10 May 2012 | Comments (0)
The European Space Agency (ESA) has announced that Envisat, its long-serving environmental observation satellite, has finally given up the ghost.
Envisat had only recently passed its tenth year in orbit when all contact was lost with it on April 8. After trying repeatedly to re-establish the link and investigate possible causes of the problem, ESA has now declared the end of the mission.
The satellite's done so well and proved so reliable in its decade in orbit that many scientists thought it still had several years of life in it. It wasn't to be, but given that Envisat had already gone well past double its planned lifespan, it's put in a good shift. Its observations of the Earth's land surface, atmosphere, oceans and icecaps have enabled an estimated 2500 scientific publications.
It was used to monitor everything from changes in polar ice cover to sea-surface temperatures, sea height, air pollution, carbon dioxide and methane concentrations, glacier speeds and the progress of deforestation.
Engineers have spent the last month trying to work out what had happened, consulting other sources of information like ground-based radar and other satellites. They'll keep trying, but they now concede they're unlikely to succeed.
Envisat has no immediate replacement in orbit; its demise gives extra urgency to the upcoming launch of the Sentinel satellites, its successors. These will be part of the European Global Monitoring for Environmental Security (GMES) programme, of which Envisat also formed a part.
Posted on 9 May 2012 | Comments (0)
More evidence of the harm fossil-fuel emissions do to people's health comes from a paper showing they cause some 13,000 premature deaths every year.
The study in Environmental Science and Technology looked at the effects of emissions from cars, trucks, planes and power stations in 2005, the latest year for which data is currently available. The researchers discovered that car and truck exhaust did the most harm to human health, accounting for an estimated 3300 people - more than road accidents over the same period.
They also found that emissions from sources elsewhere in Europe cause another 6000 annual early deaths in the UK, while UK emissions that travel abroad cause 3100 premature deaths in other EU nations. In some areas around the edges of Britain, such as northern Scotland, almost all air pollution comes from continental Europe.
The paper's authors, Professor Steven Barrett and Dr Steve Yim of MIT, were prompted to do this study by the news that London is currently breaching EU air-quality standards, and that the British government could be fined if the situation doesn't improve. They wanted to see if the nation could reasonably be expected to solve the problem itself, or whether it was suffering the effects of others' pollution. The results show a bit of both, but confirm that pollution from elsewhere is contributing significantly to Britain's air-quality problems.
The researchers analysed UK government statistics on emissions from different sectors, and then used a wind and temperature model to understand how the weather spreads these emissions around. Finally, they used a chemical transport model to examine the interactions between these different emissions sources, and then mapped the results onto population maps to understand how many people the resulting patterns of pollution affected over the long term.
Shipping and aviation were the second-worst category behind road transport in terms of causing premature deaths, accounting for 1800 a year, while power plant emissions were close behind with 1700 victims.
Posted on 27 April 2012 | Comments (0)
Over the last few years there's been an increasing volume of fascinating research on the possible impact of nanoparticles on people and the environment. It's not a hypothetical concern; these tiny particles are already being used in commercial products ranging from sunscreen to antimicrobial socks.
Professor Richard Handy of the University of Plymouth is a leading researcher on the subject who wrote about it for Planet Earth magazine in 2007. He and his colleague David Boyle gave two talks on the subject at a recent conference at Dublin that are available on the web. The videos aren't casual viewing, but they provides a good introduction to some of the pressing concerns in this area, and to what scientists are working on.
The first video deals with concerns about how various kinds of nanoparticles could affect not just humans but also different animals. It addresses questions about the possible ways nanoparticles could harm brains and nervous systems, and about whether this is really a concern for our health.
It's too early to be sure, but Handy summarises some findings of recent research that suggests that there could be problems - for instance there's been research that shows nanoparticles can accumulate in fish and mouse brains, and that this can affect behaviour in subtle ways, particularly over long periods of exposure. Carbon nanotubes can also build up in the respiratory system, potentially leading to a risk of harm to the brain over time due to oxygen deprivation.
The second video goes into more detail on the potential impact nanoparticles on animal behaviour. Here Boyle gives the results of recent work on what these particles do to fish. The results suggest the effects could range from impairing reproduction in zebrafish to slower swimming, gill injuries and breathing difficulties in rainbow trout.
Other talks at the conference covered a wide range of topics about nanotechnology and health - everything from the risks of nanoparticles in the air in the workplace to how we should be going about testing nanoparticles for potential toxic effects.
Posted on 24 April 2012 | Comments (2)
Ever wondered what to do with the leftovers from your last knitting project? If you're as clever as Sarah Moller and Felicity Perry from NERC's National Centre for Atmospheric Science, at the University of Leeds, you could use it to make a prize-winning video.
NCAS artwork 2.
Sarah and Felicity have won the British Science Association's 'Prove It' competition, part of this year's National Science and Engineering Week. The theme was 'our world in motion' and their brilliant 30-second movie uses stop-motion animation to explain how pollution is spread around the globe because of the movement of the Earth's atmosphere.
NCAS artwork 1.
The film got lots of public votes, and was then crowned winner by a special panel of experts, including Professor Robert Winston, British-born astronaut Richard Garriott, TV scientist Dr James Logan and Dr Yan Wong, presenter of the BBC's Bang Goes the Theory.
'We are all really excited here,' said Felicity. 'The judging panel is made up of some really big names and it's a real honour that they have recognised the hard work we put into our entry.'
Incidentally, Sarah recently recorded an audio diary during fieldwork on BORTAS, a project studying the polluting effects of North American forest fires, and she's written about the project in Planet Earth magazine – see links on the right.
Posted on 20 April 2012 | Comments (0)
The exceptionally warm and dry UK springs we've enjoyed over the last couple of years may have been terrible for water stocks, but to look on the bright side they've been great news for butterfly life.
The State of the UK's Butterflies 2011 report shows that some of the nation's rarest butterflies staged a recovery in 2011 after years of decline. Unusually summery weather let them emerge weeks earlier than usual and spend more time on the wing looking for food.
Duke of Burgundy.
Estimated populations of the endangered Duke of Burgundy butterfly rose by 65 per cent compared to 2010. Others prospered even more; numbers of the splendidly-named Grizzled Skipper rose 96 per cent, and those of the Pearl-bordered Fritillary grew 103 per cent.
The overall picture's hardly rosy, though. When it comes to butterflies, the UK hasn't met the 2010 EU target to stop the loss of biodiversity. Almost three quarters of species have declined in abundance over the last decade, and common garden species like the Peacock, Small Tortoiseshell and Common Blue all suffered badly in 2011's chilly summer. 54 per cent of butterfly species are now found in fewer areas than ten year ago.
Some species that depend on particular habitats are declining particularly sharply. Scottish butterflies have done better than those south of the border, where there have been greater declines in farmland and woodland. So the woodland-dwelling White Admiral recorded a 51 per cent fall, and the threatened Black Hairstreak, which recorded a substantial increase between 2009 and 2010, declined last year.
The report is produced by the United Kingdom Butterfly Monitoring Scheme (UKBMS), jointly led by NERC's Centre for Ecology & Hydrology. The UKBMS has been running since 1976 and depends on data collected every week by thousands of volunteers from all over the UK.
Posted on 19 April 2012 | Comments (0)
The latest hydrological summary from the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH) is out, and shows the drought facing much of south-eastern England isn't going away any time soon. The rain we've seen so far in April helps but isn't anywhere near enough to turn the situation round.
The report shows this was the driest March in the UK since 1953, and reservoir stocks in England and Wales fell at the steepest rate for that month since 1993. Anti-drought measures meant water stocks rose at some reservoirs, but at many others early April stocks are at their lowest levels on record.
Most of the country had less than half the average March rainfall, both worsening the drought and extending its range. Cumulative rainwater deficits are now of a magnitude that's expected on average only every 20-30 years.
The drought's most worrying consequences aren't likely to appear until later in the year; not just damage to crops and natural habitats, particularly groundwater-fed wetlands and streams, but a much higher risk of wildfire on heaths and moorlands.
'The early April rainfall was very welcome for farmers and growers but with record late-March soil moisture deficits and accelerating evaporation losses, a continuing decline in runoff rates and groundwater levels may be expected in the drough-affected regions,' Terry Marsh of CEH says. 'Model analyses indicate that even above-average rainfall is unlikely to see a return to normal river flows before the autumn, and the recovery of groundwater stocks will be heavily dependent on rainfall through the 2012/13 winter.'
Posted on 19 April 2012 | Comments (0)
Fisheries managers need to do more to protect small fish like sardines, herring and anchovies from overexploitation. In many areas catches need to be halved.
And where there are gaps in our knowledge about the biology and ecology of particular species, much sterner precautionary measures are called for. Otherwise, we risk catastrophic collapses in several vital species.
These are among the conclusions of a recent report from the Lenfest Forage Fish Task Force, a committee of 13 scientists including Professor Ian Boyd, director of the NERC Sea Mammal Research Unit at the University of St Andrews. They say that these so-called 'forage fish' account for more than a third of world's total catch, but they don't get the attention their ecological importance warrants.
The report tries to correct that, focusing on these small and medium-sized fish, which form large schools and live on microscopic plants and animals. They play a vital role in ocean ecosystems as they eat plankton and are in turn eaten by bigger predators. This makes them the main route by which energy gets from microscopic plants and animals up the food chain to big fish, marine mammals and seabirds. Some species also help clean the water by eating tiny food particles and helping prevent the growth of algal blooms.
It's the most comprehensive analysis of the state of research on global forage fish management yet. It finds they have been badly served by existing practices, which don't take into account how easy they are to catch, due to their dense schools or 'bait balls', and how widely their populations fluctuate even without human interference. Also neglected is just how important they are to more glamorous and profitable fish like tuna, salmon and cod.
Fishing fleets catch multitudes of forage fish, but few of them get eaten directly by humans - 90 per cent are processed into feed for fish farms, poultry and livestock, or made into dietary supplements for people. The report's authors calculate that even from a purely self-interested perspective, these species are worth more to us left in the ocean as prey for more valuable fish than they are caught and landed to be fed to other animals.
The forage fish commercial catch is worth an estimated $5.6 billion a year, but these species also contribute some $11.3 billion in supporting other marine life.
Little Fish, Big Impact - full Lenfest Forage Fish Task Force report.
Posted on 17 April 2012 | Comments (0)
Scientists have produced the first continuous, near-global record of temperature at the end of the last ice age, which shows that carbon dioxide did rise ahead of rising temperatures. Their findings are published in Nature.
British Antarctic Survey scientist with a newly drilled ice core.
The work addresses the fact that Antarctic ice cores record a rise in temperature ahead of a rise in carbon dioxide, so people have questioned how the greenhouse gas could been responsible for warming.
Recognising that regional records may not tell the whole story, a research team led by Harvard University combined 80 temperature records from around the world covering the past 22,000 years, which included evidence from ice cores, pollen and microfossils.
This clearly shows that carbon dioxide did rise ahead of temperature, as would be expected if the greenhouse gas helped bring about the end of the ice age.
Posted on 11 April 2012 | Comments (0)
There's an interesting feature on the Guardian online by researchers from Cardiff University about the effect of 'biassed assimilation' on people's beliefs about climate change. It's about how we filter information based on our views and beliefs about the world, so whether we 'believe' in climate change isn't to do with how well we understand the scientific evidence – in fact the more scientifically literate people are, the more they tend to apply their filters.
Climate change headlines.
So communicating climate change is more the domain of social scientists than environmental scientists.
The work echoes earlier research we reported in Planet Earth Online – the string of comments it prompted shows how emotive the subject is.
The research has just been published in the journal Climatic Change.
Posted on 3 April 2012 | Comments (4)
New research on uranium isotopes is updating the geological clock scientists use to attribute absolute dates to geological material. This means scientists can work out much more accurately the absolute date of ancient rocks and geological events, from the oldest material in the solar system to much younger rocks on Earth.
Dating accuracy is crucial for geologists to chart the history of events on our planet and in the solar system, including things like extinctions or climate change events. Getting the dates wrong could mean we get the sequence of events wrong and misinterpret cause and effect – for example whether a meteor struck before or after an extinction event.
Dr Joe Hiess from the British Geological Survey is interviewed in the Science podcast about the work, in which he and colleagues studied uranium isotopes in zircon, one of the first minerals to solidify on Earth, and one of the most resistant.
The work updates the average figure for uranium isotope ratios commonly used for dating, and suggests that the accepted ages for the oldest known rock samples are off by hundreds of thousands of years.
The full research paper is published online in Science today.
Posted on 26 March 2012 | Comments (0)
Most people understand the concept of a carbon footprint, but now researchers in the US and the Netherlands have created a nitrogen footprint calculator. This uses information about your food and energy use to work out your nitrogen footprint. If you live in the US, the Netherlands or Germany you can directly compare it with the national average too.
But why would you want to know?
Nitrogen fertiliser being scattered across the land by tractor.
Nitrogen is essential for life – 78 per cent of the Earth's atmosphere comprises N2 gas. But Earth's growing population is releasing way more of it than the environment can cope with. Burning fossil fuels and food production are the main culprits. The use of artificial nitrogen fertilisers to improve crop yields releases lots of surplus nitrogen into the environment.
'If carbon and climate change seem to top the public agenda, consider that nitrogen pollution affects both, while also causing air and water pollution that reduces life expectancy and threatens biodiversity,' writes Mark Sutton in his recent Planet Earth article, Distilling Nitrogen Science.
But once you've worked out how your behaviour is influencing nitrogen pollution, what can you do about it? As Sutton explains: 'the European Nitrogen Assessment shows that only 15 per cent of the nitrogen in crop harvests goes to feed people – with the rest feeding the European livestock herd. At the same time, the average European citizen eats 70 per cent more protein than is needed for a healthy diet.'
So for the meat eaters among us, cutting back on our red meat intake could be a simple place to start.
Posted on 23 March 2012 | Comments (0)
Last night Eyes in the Sky, chapter one of the second volume of Sciencebook was launched at the International Space Innovation Centre in Harwell.
Sciencebook is an online resource to inspire and excite young people about science and its applications, and the Eyes in the Sky is a collaboration between NERC and the Oxfordshire Independent and State Schools Partnership (OISSP).
The launch event at ISIC was for teachers and people who visit schools to talk about science and technology. It aimed to illustrate how they could use this resource in the classroom – local teacher Chris Flaherty covered how he uses Sciencebook in his teaching and what parts his pupils particularly like.
There was a series of talks by researchers introducing work that is currently taking place. Vicki Smith talked about her role tracking satellites and measuring Earth's gravity; Chris Davis covered space weather and the recent solar flares and coronal mass ejections; Jon Blower looked at how satellites can be used for earth observation purposes. Finally Jeremy Curtis introduced some more educational resources developed by the UK Space agency for teachers and STEM ambassadors to use.
'Eyes in the Sky' was inspired by a careers clip we produced in 2009 about Vicki Smith's work. Vicki works at the NERC Space Geodesy Facility in Herstmonceux, Sussex. Vicki is absolutely passionate about the research she does and this comes across both in person and on film - it's this enthusiasm for the area of science she works in that has driven the creation of this resource.
OISSP have scoured Planet Earth online for up-to-date research and exciting news stories and worked with teachers and local school pupils to understand exactly what they want to know about and how they want that information presented to them. Eyes in the Sky looks at satellites, how we monitor and control them and what we use them for. There is also lots of background information too - images of Newton's telescope, information about lasers, the speed of light, and an outline of some environmental issues that we can understand better by using satellite observation.
(This is a guest post from Poppy Leeder, NERC's head of public engagement.)
Posted on 22 March 2012 | Comments (1)
We're proud to announce that our fortnightly podcast has come runner up for the UK in this year's European Podcast Awards.
Thanks to everyone who voted for us.
Since 2008 the Planet Earth Podcast has been bringing listeners the inside story on everything from sea birds to synchrotrons, all recorded on location.
We send our intrepid interviewers and producers, Richard and Sue from Boffin Media, around the UK and sometimes further afield – including out to sea and up in the air (Sue still hasn't forgiven us), to find out from the researchers themselves the benefits their work brings and why they love doing it.
Over the last year we've also had some wonderful audio diaries made by researchers in weird and wonderful locations around the planet, some you can only dream of visiting – and others you're glad you don't have to.
If you've yet to discover the Planet Earth Podcast, catch up with us now – our latest podcast has Richard's favourite audio diary so far.
Full competition results will be posted soon on the European Podcast Awards site.
Posted on 16 March 2012 | Comments (0)
The drought that's already settling over much of southern and eastern Britain continued to worsen over last month despite a little rain over the last few weeks, the latest update from the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH) shows.
CEH's February 2012 Hydrological Summary notes that water reserves are well below average in southern areas, most notably the south-east, where the Ardingly and Bewl Water reservoirs are at their lowest levels for early March since 1988.
River flows throughout much of the affected area are below those normally expected in late summer, and in a few places are even lower than they were during the extreme drought of 1975-1976.
'Rainfall in early March was very welcome but in the absence of truly exceptional rainfall, in excess of 150 per cent of average, over the next 6-8 weeks – by which time evaporation demands will be rising rapidly – no early termination of the drought can be expected,' comments CEH's Terry Marsh.
Water companies have already announced that hosepipe bans likely to come into effect across the south east over the next few weeks. Soils are the driest on record for late winter at some places, affecting farmers' prospects for a good harvest and putting watercourses and wetlands under enormous stress.
There's plenty of water elsewhere in the UK; levels in major reservoirs in Wales, Scotland, the north of England and Northern Ireland are within ten per cent of their capacity, and this is also true of the major pumped storage reservoirs in the Thames basin.
The report is produced by the National Hydrological Monitoring Programme, which CEH operates alongside the British Geological Survey.
Posted on 15 March 2012 | Comments (5)
Most people would agree that scientific evidence is important for policy-makers, but the two camps still have a long way to go before they understand each other's processes well enough to work together effectively. How can the gap be closed?
That's the question posed by a new research paper, whose authors decided the first step is to identify the most important unanswered questions about the relationship between science and policy. Participants with experience of both areas whittled 239 suggested questions down to the 40 which the paper lists.
They include questions about the effectiveness of science-based decision-making structures; the nature and legitimacy of expertise; the consequences of changes such as increasing transparency; choices among different sources of evidence; the implications of new means of characterising and representing uncertainties; and ways in which policy and political processes affect what counts as authoritative evidence.
Posted on 14 March 2012 | Comments (0)
We're in the midst of the biggest solar storm in five years after an enormous solar flare yesterday - one of the biggest since the sun entered the low-activity phase of its cycle in 2007.
Wednesday's X5.4 flare followed a smaller episode on Monday. The resulting cloud of charged particles, known as a 'coronal mass ejection' (CME) is now reaching Earth.
As Adele explained earlier in the week, these particles cause geomagnetic storms that are potentially one of the biggest threats to modern society. They can knock out power grids, communications satellites and other vital infrastructure.
Multiple-wavelength view of the March 6 X5.4 solar flare, captured by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory satellite.
NERC-funded researchers at the British Geological Survey (BGS) issued a space-weather alert yesterday, providing advance warning of the CME's arrival . They've said that the geomagnetic storms could increase in intensity for the next couple of days, and that it's possible that more flares could come from the active solar region responsible for the last couple.
It's not all bad news; the storm is set to produce spectacular polar auroras, according to the excellent Aurora forecast page of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, though it probably won't be visible throughout most of the UK - Scottish skywatchers may be able to see the 'extreme' aurora low on the horizon.
Check out NASA's story on the same topic to watch incredible footage of the X5.4 solar flare yesterday, captured by the Solar Dynamics Observatory satellite, which also produced the image reproduced here.
Posted on 8 March 2012 | Comments (0)
The EU has just launched a new system to forecast space weather. Led by researchers at NERC's British Antarctic Survey (BAS), the €2.54m SPACECAST project will help satellite operators protect their expensive kit from radiation damage. The forecasts will be available on the project website.
SPACECAST helps protect satellites on orbit by modelling and forecasting high energy particle radiation.
Magnetic storms in space are caused by changes in the sun's activity, and with more sunspots predicted over the next two or three years this new system could save a huge amount of money and disruption.
One storm in 2003 caused more than 47 satellites to malfunction, including the total loss of one scientific satellite valued at $640m. The largest magnetic storm ever recorded – the Carrington storm of 1859 – happened long before we became so reliant on satellites for our communications. If something on that scale happened now it could cost us as much as $30bn – not to mention the disruption to our TV viewing. It may be worth pulling your board games out of mothballs just in case.
The international SPACECAST team uses satellite data, ground-based measurements of the Earth's magnetic field, and state-of-the-art computer models to generate the forecasts, which focus on the Van Allen radiation belt where most of our satellites are in orbit. This 'belt' is a doughnut-shaped ring of charged particles trapped in the Earth's magnetic field which encircles the planet high above the equator.
The BAS website has more details.
Posted on 5 March 2012 | Comments (0)
There was an interesting paper last week suggesting that 'weeds' like thistles, cow parsley and buttercups are a lot more important to UK farms than you might think.
A farm's long-term productivity depends on a multitude of ecological interactions between species, from pollinating insects to birds and parasitoids. By analysing these relationships, the researchers behind the Science paper showed that seemingly minor losses can have very wide ramifications, and that many plants that are generally unloved by farmers are connected to a disproportionate number of animals throughout the food web.
The team spent two years looking at 1501 interactions between 560 different organisms on a 308-acre (125-hectare) Somerset farm, finding that the complexities of these interactions mean that simple changes like the removal of just one species could have unexpectedly profound consequences for the whole system.
Some groups of animals are more sensitive to the loss of plants for others, and what's bad for one group isn't necessarily bad for others. Worryingly, pollinators like bees and butterflies turn out to be one of the most fragile parts of the network.
The upshot is that if we're going to manage farmland so as to create biologically rich and varied landscapes, we need to make sure we understand the links between species; these can make a crucial difference in how the overall community responds to changes in conditions. It's important to look at the whole system, rather than concentrating only on a few species that are most obviously at risk.
'We already know that some wildlife groups such as pollinators and birds are declining on our farms,' explains Dr Michael Pocock, one of the paper's authors. 'Our research suggests that focusing on the sustainability of one group of animals may not bring benefits to others. However we did find that restoring particular plants such as buttercups, thistles and clover could, theoretically at least, rapidly increase biodiversity across the farm.'
The whole paper is available on the Science website. The research was funded by our sister research council BBSRC, but Michael has since moved to NERC's Centre for Ecology & Hydrology from the University of Bristol, where (among many other things) he did some fantastic work increasing public awareness of the insidious thread that the invading leaf miner moth poses to the honest British conker tree.
Michael has also recorded a Science podcast on interacting food webs and ecological restoration.
Posted on 27 February 2012 | Comments (0)
There is an interesting project starting at the National Oceanography Centre. Royal Navy submarines have been routinely collecting climate change data for the past two decades and the MOD is now, for the first time, making this information available to scientists.
According to the MOD's Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, the Navy submarines patrolling the Arctic Ocean have collected a whole range of scientific readings and measurements from both the ice-covered and ice-free bodies of water.
Royal Navy submarine in the Arctic ice.
The Arctic is considered to be the planet's most sensitive region to environmental changes - so any increases in temperature or changes in salinity levels could have quite an effect. And changes here also provide a good indication of what's going on in the rest of the world.
During summer months ice-free shipping routes are beginning to open up but, until very recently, the Arctic was a more difficult place to travel through. It would have been challenging and expensive to place sensors under the ice in what is known as the 'turbulent boundary layer' of water, so it seems that the Navy has given us a service.
I asked Dr John Allen from the National Oceanography Centre what having the MOD data means for science. He said that it could be a fantastic resource as it is potentially providing a 20-year record of environmental changes.
'The Arctic plays a key role in global climate', he said. 'It's essential to develop a better understanding of what may happen if more of the water there is covered by ice for less of the year, in terms of physical, biological and other changes to the ocean itself and their knock-on effects.
'I am hoping that once we start analysing the data, which is usually highly classified and kept under wraps, we'll be able to split down the more routine information into categories that will make it more accessible to everyone', he added.
The Royal Navy has been collecting data from the boundary level just beneath the ice, and deeper, for the past 20 years so this should certainly give scientists more knowledge of how the Arctic is responding to changes in sea-ice cover, and what the future might hold as the ice reduces further.
Posted on 22 February 2012 | Comments (0)
Computers and sophisticated scanning technology are combining to transform the discipline of palaeontology. Where researchers once had to dissect the delicate remains of long-extinct living things using hand tools like scrapers and dentist's drills, they can now look directly inside a fossil and visualise the intricate details of its internal structure.
The results are an amazing combination of the traditional techniques of fossil analysis with computer science and 3D art. NERC recently provided some funding for one of our researchers to develop a resource for public engagement based on this exciting new discipline, known as virtual palaeontology. The project is explained on this blog.
The site's the creation of Dr Imran Rahman, a postdoctoral research fellow in the University of Birmingham's School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences. It's still early days, but the blog already has some stunning images and a great video introduction to the subject. Check it out for more like the picture reproduced here, showing a computer reconstruction of a fossil echinoderm called Enoploura popei from the Upper Ordovician period (around 460 million years ago), found in Ohio, USA.
'In fact, the entire structure in the image is a fossil; the white part is the body, composed of different skeletal plates, and the blue/purple part is an appendage - scientists are still arguing over whether this is a tail used to move the animal, or an arm used in feeding,' Imran explains.
'There is also a lot of debate about whether this animal is an ancient ancestor of living echinoderms such as crinoids, or whether it is something even more primitive,' he adds. 'I'm visualising the inside of the fossil using CT scanning to try and work out what it was like when it was alive and what its closest evolutionary relatives are.'
Posted on 21 February 2012 | Comments (0)
Rising sea levels could destroy as much as 11 per cent of the Severn Estuary's intertidal areas in the next century, according to a new report. These comprise some of the UK's most important habitat types, including rare biogenic reef systems, seagrass beds, mudflats and salt marshes, which in turn support plentiful wildlife.
The Severn's unique geography effectively funnels tides into a relatively narrow area, giving it a huge tidal range – up to 14 metres at Avonmouth – which is usually considered the second-biggest in the world, second only to places in Canada's Bay of Fundy. This helps create the aforesaid plenitude of habitat types, but also gives rise to periodic interest in harnessing all that untapped energy with a tidal barrage.
These plans returned in earnest a few years ago, partly because of EU obligations to increase the percentage of electricity that comes from renewable sources. It's a dilemma, because such a project could meet a significant proportion of the UK's power needs with negligible carbon emissions, but it would also risk destroying whole swathes of irreplaceable landscape and habitat. I was born and raised on the banks of the river, so this is a subject close to my heart. For the moment the prospect of any such project getting state funding seems to be on hold – a 2010 study described it as expensive and high-risk – but there are still private groups with big plans for Severn tidal energy.
The State of the Severn Estuary report comes from the Severn Estuary Partnership and Cardiff University in collaboration with the Environment Agency (Wales), and incorporates input from academics, businesses, locals, NGOs and others with a stake in the Severn. It's the first of many, and establishes a baseline against which we can judge future changes. It's also full of fascinating facts about the area - everything from its geology and hydrology to its plant and animal life, economic importance, tourism value and the depredations of invasive species.
(Corrected on March 14 2012 - due to a printing error in the original State of the Severn Estuary report, the first sentence of this blog post originally stated that rising sea levels could destroy as much as 77 percent of the Severn Estuary's intertidal areas over the next century.)
Posted on 16 February 2012 | Comments (0)
On-the-ball readers may have noticed Planet Earth Online has been looking a little different over the past week or so. Most obviously we've revamped the home page to let us make the most of some of the wonderful images we receive, and to showcase a wider range of content.
There are lots of less noticeable improvements too. For example, we've relaunched our blog section to let us cover more of the multitude of stories that turn up daily, and we've improved the way stories are tagged to help you find other content you might find interesting.
Like it? Let us know what you think.
Posted on 9 February 2012 | Comments (2)
How do you feel about wave power? It could be crucial if we're to achieve 15 per cent of our electricity from renewable sources by 2015. So could wind power; yet around 70 per cent of proposed wind installations over the last decade have been hotly disputed by local residents. So are we all nimbys, or are people just as concerned about the effects of new technology that's 'out of sight'?
A project carried out last year revealed the public has a very positive view of large-scale wave-power developments, based on a survey of 352 people living near the Cornish Wave Hub – a test site for wave energy which is under construction. Within that support, the stats reveal some interesting concerns about impacts on everything from wildlife to climate change and the quality of Cornwall's famous surf.
Identifying areas of potential conflict at an early stage gives developers the chance to address public concerns and make sure lack of trust doesn't derail beneficial new technologies. But it can't be a one-off exercise; the researchers point out that public opinion could swing the other way if wave-power fails to deliver its economic potential or clear benefits to local communities, or is found to produce adverse long-term environmental effects.
The research was published last year in Journal of Environmental Policy and Planning.
Posted on 7 February 2012 | Comments (0)
A new study provides compelling evidence that the invasive, non-native harlequin ladybird has led to a rapid decline in other ladybird species across Europe.
A frosty Harlequin (Harmonia axyridis).
The study, led by Dr Helen Roy from the UK's Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, involved widespread public participation. An international team of scientists used thousands of ladybird distribution records collected through public surveys to show that five (Belgium) and seven (Britain) out of the eight species studied have declined substantially since the arrival of the Harlequin.
The 2-spot ladybird has declined particularly dramatically - 30% in Belgium and 44% in Britain in the five years since the Harlequin arrived. Good news, though, for one common species, the large 7-spot ladybird, which is still abundant across Europe.
The Harlequin was first found in Belgium in 2001 and in Britain and Switzerland in 2004. Its arrival had been predicted to threaten native biodiversity but, until now, the effect on native species had not been quantified.
A cluster of ladybirds.
Helen Roy says this new analysis, published today in Diversity and Distributions, would not have been possible without the participation of so many members of the public. The Ladybird Survey has lots of information about ladybirds, including the Harlequin, and ways you can get involved.
Posted on 6 February 2012 | Comments (0)
The BBC website has a great story about the discovery of gigantic amphipod crustaceans – up to 34cm long – in the Kermadec Trench north of New Zealand by an international team of scientists. I, for one, welcome our new amphipod overlords.
Toyo Fujii, Alan Jamieson (University of Aberdeen) and Ashley Rowden (NIWA) with the supergiant amphipods.
The team, from Oceanlab at the University of Aberdeen and New Zealand's National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA), took some amazing pictures of the 'supergiant' creatures, some of which you can see on the BBC story and a couple more of which are here.
We're no strangers to hot trench action here at Planet Earth Online; Dr Alan Jamieson, one of the team responsible for uncovering this bruiser of a crustacean, is an old friend of ours and has sent in updates from several of his voyages to drop landers into the Pacific Ocean's deepest trenches.
Several supergiant amphipods.
Highlights range from filming what are still the deepest living fish and the tragic loss of Alfie, the lander that caught them on camera, to accounts of animal impersonations in the field and cutting-edge research into important questions like what storm petrels smell like – not unlike a talcum-powdered baby, apparently. Alan's also managed to gain immortality by having a new type of shrimp named after him.
His blogs are an entertaining window into the triumphs and frustrations of doing top-class research while cooped up on a small boat in the middle of the ocean – you can check them out via the links to the right.
We're hoping to arrange more reports from Alan in the mid-Pacific when the team returns for their next voyage – watch this space!
Posted on 3 February 2012 | Comments (1)
NASA has released the latest incarnation of the famous 'blue marble' image of the Earth from space, taken by its recently-launched Suomi-NPP earth-observation satellite.
The image is a beautiful thing. It's available on Flickr at a variety of resolutions, right up to an eye-poppingly huge and detailed 8000x8000 version that's unlikely to be much practical use to anyone whose screen doesn't take up the best part of a wall.
The image is a composite stitched together from several swaths - paths over the Earth's surface - taken with the satellite's Visible Infrared Imager Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) instrument on January 4. Suomi-NPP is named after Verner E. Suomi, the late 'father of satellite meteorology'.
Posted on 1 February 2012 | Comments (0)
Mary Beth Day from the University of Cambridge was interviewed on BBC's Material World about her recent work at Angkor in Cambodia. Angkor was the seat of the Khmer Empire from the 9th to 15th centuries AD – it's a vast complex of monuments, reservoirs and canals covering around 1000km2.
By analysing sediments from the largest reservoir, the West Baray, Mary Beth and colleagues found evidence for a pendulum of extreme droughts and heavy rainy seasons that might just have proved too much for the Khmer's sophisticated hydro-engineering system, and could be associated with the decline of the Angkorian kingdom.
Mary Beth's research paper is published in PNAS, Paleoenvironmental history of the West Baray, Angkor (Cambodia). Her Material World interview starts at 22:12, but if you listen from the beginning you'll also hear from earlier interviewee Howard Falcon-Lang, who recently found a 'lost' collection of fossils – including some collected by Darwin – in a cupboard at the British Geological Survey.
Posted on 31 January 2012 | Comments (0)
It's not yet formalised as a geological term, but many scientists are using 'Anthropocene' to define the era we're living in now – one in which human activities rival the power of geophysical processes in shaping our planet. The Holocene, the geological epoch which began around 10,000 years ago, has provided a relatively stable environment which has supported the rapid development of human life – and we're steadily moving away from these conditions.
Our generation is the first to understand the power of its own influence on the environment and this paper argues that recognising the significance of the Anthropocene moves us on from defining environmental problems, towards finding solutions.
The authors set out various ways in which human economic and social developments are moving us away from the supportive environmental conditions of the Holocene, and asks whether the Anthropocene could see us redefine ourselves as stewards of our environment, or if it could be a one-way trip to an uncertain future.
Steffen, W et al. The Anthropocene: from global change to planetary stewardship. Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, 2011.
Posted on 30 January 2012 | Comments (0)
The newly-published National Hydrological Monitoring Programme update recaps last year's bizarre UK weather.
It was the second warmest on record across Britain, and there were strange discrepancies in rainfall from place to place - drought in lowland England went alongside Scotland's wettest year since records began.
England now needs substantially above-average rainfall over the next two or three months to bring water reserves back up to comfortable levels.
Stocks in reservoirs rose over the month after desperately-needed rain, particularly in the southeast, but are still below average across much of the south. That's because although upland areas had a stormy month, lower-lying regions were largely untouched, with only average rainfall overall - certainly not enough to relieve the built-up drought stress afflicting many areas.
Groundwater is also a concern; it's still at unusually low levels across much of southern England and the west midlands, though some of the southern chalk aquifers made a modest recovery in December.
The National Hydrological Monitoring Programme is operated by Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH) and the British Geological Survey.
Posted on 27 January 2012 | Comments (0)
British Antarctic Survey fieldcamp on Pine Island Glacier
Today is Pole Day, celebrating 100 years since Robert Falcon Scott and his team reached the South Pole. Though his expedition ended in tragedy, Scott's journey has inspired generations of polar scientists and explorers.
This week scientists and support staff at the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) will be commemorating the event, and BAS has contributed to two exhibitions which open in London this week.
Visitors to 'Scott's Last Expedition' at the Natural History Museum can see objects used by Scott and his team, including their diaries.
'With Scott to the Pole: the Terra Nova Expedition, 1910-1913', at the Royal Geographical Society, contrasts modern Antarctic exploration to that of Scott's day, with photographs of the expedition alongside pictures of modern-day science being carried out by BAS.
Message from the PM
To mark the anniversary and celebrate Britain's continuing achievements in Arctic and Antarctic research, the UK's prime minister David Cameron sends a message of support to polar scientists.
Posted on 17 January 2012 | Comments (0)
Tractor train taking equipment to Lake Ellsworth.
Lake Ellsworth advance party success
This week a team of four British engineers has successfully completed a gruelling journey to Antarctica to deliver equipment and supplies for the exploration of subglacial Lake Ellsworth later this year.
Enduring temperatures of minus 35oC, the advance party used a powerful 'tractor-train' to tow nearly 70 tonnes of equipment across Antarctica's deep snow and steep mountain passes. In December a science and engineering team will begin the project to collect water and sediments from the lake, which is buried 3km under the ice.
Ellsworth will be the first Antarctic subglacial lake to be measured and sampled directly through the design and manufacture of space-industry standard 'clean technology'; scientists have been planning the project for more than 15 years.
Rothera from North Bay.
Projects like Ellsworth can sound like pure science fiction, but drama aside, what is it really like to spend time in the icy wastes? On Radio 4's Saturday Live last weekend, BAS communications manager Athena Dinar owned up to her Antarctic addiction, and painted a vivid picture of the fascination the white continent holds for her and its many other temporary inhabitants. Athena's feature runs from 17:40.
Posted on 17 January 2012 | Comments (0)