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.
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 xkcd, describing 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.
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.
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…
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.
This mundane task was made much easier by these beauties, smiling over me.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
There has never been a better time to be a glaciologist. The old curse about living in interesting times, which is perhaps dubiously ascribed to a chinese saying, seems particularly relevant to science in general and ice and climate specialists in particular right now. We have access to a truly phenomenal range of resources that help us track the changes in the earth system; we can bounce radio waves off rocks buried under 4km of ice and use lasers to measure the height of clouds or the depths of a crevasse with decimetre precision. The GRACE and GOCE satellites whizz around the planet and the tiny relativistic accelerations and decelerations of paired satellites measure the seasonal ebb and flow of groundwater, snowfall and ice melt; and we can use the time signals of the GPS constellation of satellites to measure the millimetre by millimetre relaxation of whole continents as the glaciers melt. We do live in the future.
The planet often seems to me to be very full of people and every corner well explored, but these new techniques still demonstrate that we have large gaps and science is probably the most fundamental form of exploration. This week a paper in Science demonstrated the importance of the freezing on of ice at the bottom of the Antarctic ice sheet (see this article on the BBC science page for a very readable summary). As a process it’s been well known for some decades that liquid water can exist due to the huge pressures under the ice sheets and that this does indeed freeze on at the bed of glaciers. The ice core drilled out of the Antarctic ice sheet at Vostok station lies directly above a lake roughly the size of lake Ontario, known as lake Vostok and shortly to be drilled into directly for the first time. The drilling hit frozen lake water some hundreds of metres before it stopped, with some intriguing hints of lifeforms found within the lake ice.
What is a surprise in the latest work, an airborne radar mission to the Gamburtsev Range (a mountain range the size of the European Alps in East Antarctica but don’t try looking for it on Google Earth because it is also, like Lake Vostok, buried under 4km of ice) is that up to 25% of the total thickness of the ice sheet in this area results from the freezing on of liquid water underneath the ice. This is largely because that water is squeezed up against the mountain sides where the ice is thinner and the pressure consequently lower.
I first saw some of this work presented at a conference at Northumbria University in 2009, even then, when the actual data was still being analysed, it was clearly very exciting work with many implications for our knowledge of both process and feedback and implications. There are also some important implications for how we evaluate the state of the cryosphere, and neither this process, nor many others relating to how water flows over, through and under ice, what we term glacier hydrology, are captured in current ice sheet models.
Of course, the old curse is famously double-edged, the reason we have access to such great tools and have been able to make so much progress is related to the fact that the climate is changing and the cryosphere is demonstrating behaviour of great concern to the millions of people who live in coastal regions or who depend on snow and ice for water sources. It is up to glaciologists to disentangle important processes from the trivial, to define the current state of the cryosphere and project how it will change. This new work shows just how much we still need to know and how seemingly trivial processes may complicate the picture. Just as well those satellites are continuing to fly.