Space for cycling

Golden bike sculpture on tower in Rådhusplads, Copenhagen
Copenhagen: A city that loves bikes so much it puts golden ones on the top of some buildings…

Warning! This post is positively evangelical about cycling…

I bike everywhere. I take the Sterna chicks cycling everywhere and it has got to the point I almost don’t know how to get around the city without my bike. This is not unusual in Copenhagen. Cycling culture is one of the things I love most about living here. The wider benefits of being in a biking city are far-reaching and far too many mention here (but check out Copenhagenize for an inspiring run-down).

I have always cycled everywhere, and in fact have never owned my own car, though I can drive and even enjoy it – albeit on congestion free roads such as you might find in the North of Scotland.  However, the vulnerability of cyclists in the UK has come to disturb me ever more. Especially since the very tragic death of Dr. Kat Giles, a polar scientist I had met a couple of times, under the wheels of an HGV in London on a route she had cycled for ten years or so back in 2013.

I am so accustomed to the safety of cycling in Copenhagen that I think I would find it hard to go back to cycling in the UK or anywhere else without good bike infrastructure (including separated bike lanes). I would certainly not let my 4 year old bike to the nursery as I do at present (and for which a poor child was threatened with having their bike confiscated recently in the UK, but I digress). Even my mother (hi Mum!) has been witnessed riding a bike in Copenhagen. I have video evidence.

Be that as it may, such are the benefits of biking that I feel the UK and in particular the mega-city that is London should really be doing A LOT more to facilitate normal people cycling everyday . So I was rather disappointed, but entirely unsurprised to see this pop up on twitter:

https://twitter.com/Hackneycyclist/status/592387246063538176

Hackneytwitter

Now, on my regular commuting route, the University of Copenhagen is building a brand new and very large building spanning both sides of a large dual carriageway that is one of the main routes into Copenhagen. Bear in mind that around 40% of commuters travel by bike in this city and this is a major route, so clearly the bike path cannot just be closed. Here are a few photos I took yesterday on the spur of the moment (with my fairphone in case you’re interested in cool ethical consumer electronics) showing what the builders have done:

2015-04-27 15.31.44 2015-04-27 15.31.47 2015-04-27 15.31.49 2015-04-27 15.31.53 2015-04-27 15.31.56 2015-04-27 15.32.01 2015-04-27 15.32.05 2015-04-27 15.32.10

The pavement and separated bike lane have been taken over by the construction, shielded by the link fence on the right; the near side lane on the road is now a shared bike/pedestrian route and the whole thing is smoothly transitioned in and out with the assistance of some blue paint and traffic bollards on the road and of course temporary tarmac ramps to help cyclists get over the kerb at both ends of the building works. The same is true on the other side, so the road has temporarily narrowed to a normal road before widening again to a dual carriageway.

You see, it really isn’t hard to do major building works and keep the bike traffic flowing.

The thing is, this isn’t a unique situation, even small building works where the bike lane and/or pavement is likely to be blocked is treated like this in Copenhagen. It’s about treating all people on the move with respect and it’s something a lot of cities, and countries could learn from when thinking about road safety, sustainable transport and above all quality of life for everyone.

This is what #spaceforcycling really looks like.

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Climate and ice sheet modelling at DMI

I was very honoured to be asked to give a short talk last week to some students at the Danish Technical University. The subject was ice sheet modelling and climate at DMI where I work in the Research department, climate and Arctic section.
I thought this could be interesting for others to look at too, so I have uploaded the powerpoint presentation on my academia.edu page.

In the presentation I try to explain why we are interested in climate and ice sheets and then give a brief overview of our model systems and the projects we are currently working on. We are mainly interested in the Greenland ice sheet from the perspective of sea level rise. If we are to climate change we need to know how fast and how much of Greenland will melt and how this will change local and regional sea level. There are also studies showing that increased run-off from the ice sheet may change ocean circulation patterns and sea ice. There is lots more stuff to look at so feel free to download it.

I end up with a very brief overview of our biggest project at the moment, ice2ice. This is a large ERC funded project with the Niels Bohr Institute and partners in Bergen at the Bjerknes Climate Research Centre. I may write a brief post on ice2ice soon if I get chance. It’s a really interesting piece of work being focused on past glacial-interglacial climate change rather than present day or the future and I think we have potential to do some great science with it.

At the risk of seeming like I’m blowing the DMI trumpet (something rarely done or even really seen as socially acceptable in Denmark!), I think we at DMI have a lot to be proud of. We are a small group from a small country with limited resources but my colleagues have pioneered high resolution regional climate modelling of the Greenland ice sheet and the development of coupled climate and ice sheet models at both regional and global scales. I was brought in as a glaciologist to work on the interface between ice sheet and atmosphere, needless to say I have learnt a hell of lot here. It’s been an exhilarating few years.

If you have any questions, I will enable comments for this thread (but with moderation so it may take  a while for you to see it).

Finally, here is a little movie of calving icebergs

shot by Jason Amundson, University of Alaska Fairbanks at Jakobshavn Isbrae in West Greenland.

 

 

 

Planet Carbon

There are some really powerful visualisations in this short 4 minute video from Carbon Visuals about the sheer amount of energy, mostly from fossil fuels, that we have come to rely on. I think it really shows what a huge challenge we face in terms of both energy policy (we’re burning through it as if it will never run out) and climate change.

I am not really convinced by CCS (Carbon capture and storage) though, it seems to require a very large amount of energy just to make the CCS process work (around 30% of powerplant output if I recall correctly) burning through our fossil fuel supplies even faster. Several programmes I have seen recently (for example, the excellent Planet Oil from the BBC, now probably available on youtube, made by Professor Iain Stewart, head of the RSGS) make the point that our civilisation is basically burning through the easy energy.

If we don’t invest in developing other sources now, it will be so much harder in the future. Those other sources, realistically speaking, have to include nuclear. As Brian Cox points out in his beautifully filmed epic Human Universe, this will also have to include nuclear fusion.

I think the best resource I have found to think about some of these issues is Without Hot Air, an excellent book by David MacKay and available here for free download or you can buy a paper copy in the usual places.

 

 

 

 

Up Goer 5

I’m a bit late jumping on this bandwagon, but here is my first attempt to explain my research simply. The explanation behind this was a cartoon from the well-known web comic xkcddescribing the Saturn V moon rocket using only the ten hundred most commonly used words. It has since become something of a web phenomenon, especially amongst scientists (for example look up the #upgoer5 hashtag on twitter). To give due credit, I put this together using the text editor handily made available by Theo Sanderson.
 
 

I study the way ice and water are changing at the top of the world. My work uses a very big computer which makes lots of attempts to tell us what the world will be like in one or two hundred years at the top of the world. We want to know how much ice there will be, how much ice will turn into water and how warm the air will get and how quickly this will all happen so that we can be ready for changes in the water around the land.

One of the other things I have been working on is a picture of the ice in the place called green land, which is a piece of land near the top of the world. Every day this picture is changed to show how much ice has fallen from the sky and how much ice has changed into water.

You can see this picture here.

http://www.dmi.dk/dmi/index/gronland/indlandsisens_massebalance.htm

accumulatedmap

Dunning-Kruger

The idea of this blog is to describe some of the things I have been working on to a non-technical audience (I’m envisioning my grandmother here – though I suspect my parents are actually the only people who read this blog). Some of the things I work on are (I hope) potentially important and useful data products for business, planners and public alike, other things are pure research.
In any case much of what I do is funded directly or indirectly by people who pay taxes so I feel it is equally important that the people who pay for it also understand it. This is not always as straightforward as I hope it is and in this post I explore one of the difficulties I have in communicating my science.

Some years ago, I was having a hair cut and chatting to the hairdresser (as you do), when she asked me what I did for a living. I explained I was studying for a PhD in glaciology. Bearing in mind I hadn’t the least idea what  PhD actually was until I became a student myself, I then said that I basically studied how glaciers moved (close enough). Her next question completely stumped me.

‘What’s a glacier?’

I had taken for granted that she would know what a glacier is but as I later realised, there is no reason that she would or should. She had never visited the alps or gone skiing or hiking in the mountains (the most obvious way to come into contact with glaciers) and she was certainly not a budding geography student.

Glaciers never featured in my school curriculum, so why would they have done in hers? I had immediately fallen over one aspect of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, where you assume others have an equivalent understanding of the same things you do. The other, more well known aspect of the Dunning-Kruger Effect is illusory superiority, where individuals commonly rate their intelligence, skills etc as above average.

I still find it difficult to know what kind of level to aim for when discussing my work. I truly believe everyone should be able to understand the principles and the concepts behind what I do and if it sounds too complex to understand then I am not communicating it well enough. At the same time I have to recognise that a 4 year degree, a 1 year masters and a 3 and a half year PhD plus 4 years of post-doc work have inevitably shaped my thinking and the ‘stuff what I know’; my (non-technical) audience does not have that advantage.

My greatest fear is that I am patronising or boring the people I am talking to and repeating tired or obvious metaphors. The interest with which people usually react when I explain what I do for a living suggests that there is a great latent interest in climate and glaciers but I often then feel hamstrung about going further than a few superficial comments.

Navigating the Scylla and Charybdis of science communication is a major reason I started this blog, so I am posting this shortish piece now by way of an explanation and an apology in advance for when I get it wrong.

Following the dictum that the world needs a new blog like I need a chocolate biscuit I would like to discuss some things that are not commonly discussed elsewhere on the web, and in particular my own work in glaciology.

Flying over Brediamerkurjokull and Vatnajokull
Flying over Breidamerkurjokull, an outlet of the Vatnajojull icecap, a glacier in Iceland

As for the answer I finally gave to the inquisitive hairdresser? Well a glacier is like a very slow moving frozen river. Snow falls at the top is pressed down by more snow falling on top and becomes ice, this very very slowly starts to flow downhill like very slow moving water until it gets to the end of the glacier where it melts.

These days of course, with web browsers on most phones, the answer is obvious, wikipedia it…

New Year’s Day

New Year’s Day

I am writing this from a hospital bed in Copenhagen.

At this time of year it is commonplace to make some resolutions about how we want our lives to be changed, whether weight loss, reduction in alcohol or giving up smoking. Conventional wisdom has it that we should tell other people of our intentions to make it harder for us to fail.  In any case, it has not been my habit to make resolutions at new year, since I prefer to evaluate my life and try to make adjustments as I go on. In fact I think I once read that the beginning of spring was a better time to make resolutions. However, this year I plan to make an exception. In fact I have made two resolutions this year and this blog post encapsulates both.

I am writing from a hospital bed because the recently hatched sterna chick is  ill and needs some extra care. Fortunately she is getting it and improving by the day. There is however nothing quite like being on a children’s ward to put a few things into perspective. While waiting to be admitted I was alarmed to see a young woman running out of the ward sobbing hysterically. I have no idea what caused such distress and I don’t really want to speculate, but the fact is our children are the most precious things in our lives and we would do anything to protect them.  It is only very recently that we have become complacent about childhood survival rates to the extent that small groups of well organised, but badly misguided anti-vaccination activists have been able to derail public health, leading to epidemics of measles, whooping cough and mumps for instance. Low take up of vaccinations pose a serious risk to those, like the sterna chicks with background health issues. A further risk is the transmission of everyday diseases

There are all sorts of grim lists available on the Internet based on how many germs or bacteria we get contact with every day. In fact, it seems to me that it is an amazing testament to the immune system that we aren’t ill more often. However, watching the medical staff taking such high precautions with hygiene, and seeing how ill some of the children on this ward are is more than enough to convince me. My first resolution is that this year I am going to wash my hands properly. That is, will wash them thoroughly, regularly and with proper soap. More than that, I will make sure the rest of the sterns family do too.

My second resolution can also be summed up in this blog. I started it with all sorts of bold ambitions, but it all too quickly became a millstone, or else a way to avoid doing “real writing” of papers. It is however painfully clear to me I really need to get over my mental block, and cultivate writing as a habit.

My second, much more difficult resolution is thus to write something, anything, for at least 10 minutes every day of the year. Some of those ramblings will never see the light of day. Some will be professional and used for publications and others will end up being posted here. So see this as my statement of intent.  I will not post every day or perhaps even every week, but the main thing will be to force myself to the keyboard. This blog may not ever see a lot of posts, but it will be my sounding board and practice page, comments more than welcome.  I hope you feel like coming along for the ride.

Tulipa

I mowed the lawn for the first time last weekend.

This mundane task was made much easier by these beauties, smiling over me.

Red and yellow tulips with a frilled edge around the petals

I believe the variety is called “Jet fire” which seems highly appropriate. I had never really appreciated tulips until a few years ago when we planted some “queen of the night” – dramatic dark purple flowers that really caught your attention, especially when combined with vivid orange tulips; the glaucous foliage of both setting off the combination beautifully.

Dark purple queen of the night tulip
Our last remaining ‘Queen of the night’

Then a few trips to Holland happened, I visited the famous Keukenhof gardens and the bollenstreek. and I learned to love the tulip. Eventually when I got married I even had yellow tulips in my bouquet (though mainly because they were in season and I wanted to have locally grown flowers).

This year we also have this variety in a pot, though I’m not sure what they are called.

Red and yellow streaked tulips

Their bright colours really make a difference after the long dark winter and I am so happy to see them come up again – still glorious even in a second year. More than any other spring flower, tulips for me embody the transition from winter to spring to summer.

As I had my camera out in the garden I could not resist taking a few more photos. The internal parts of the tulip are extraordinary in close up. The stamen with the fine powder pollen on the anthers, surrounding the pistil and the deep black of the central petals have always reminded me of big dramatic bumble bees.

Sexual organs of the tulip
Inside a tulip: click to enlarge

It is not surprising to me that Elizabeth Blackadder, has chosen red and yellow tulips for some of her most dramatic flower paintings. They simply sparkle with life and vitality. They flower themselves to exhaustion after a couple of years, often requiring 5 years or more to come back to flowering. Truly a passionate plant.

And yet, the frilling and streaking of the tulip petals is actually caused by a virus. This must be a rare case of a pathogen enhancing natural beauty. I had assumed that these were a modern variation added by skillful breeders but on a recent trip through Schiphol airport in Amsterdam I had the opportunity to visit the Rijksmuseum’s Dutch Flowers exhibition. There, in one of the first paintings I looked at from the 17th century was a tulip beautifully streaked with colours.

An anonymous painting of the most expensive tulip ever sold, the Semper Augustus.
Image from wikimedia commons

I had seen Dutch flower paintings before, having been inspired to look up a few after reading The Morville Hours by Katherine Swift (a beautiful book, a meditation on time passing and the natural world but touching on many subjects). However, I had never appreciated how vividly beautiful such paintings were until seeing them in reality.

Unfortunately, the mosaic virus that causes such beautiful patterning weakens the bulbs through the generations to such an extent that eventually they no longer reproduce, and many of the original varieties from the 17th century no longer exist other than in oil paintings.

Note: I haven’t written anything on this blog for a long time for which I apologise – a combination of too little time due to work/family commitments and a lack of inspiration, but I have good intentions at least to continue posting here items that interest me semi-regularly over the summertime. Thanks for reading. 
Note: I have also had to change my web address to sternaparadisaea.net since my .com domain expired this year and, due to illness I did not renew it in time.