Rural communities and flooding

Over the last few weeks we have once again been faced with the impact of flooding on a huge scale. While we have heard a lot about flooding in the North of England (quite rightly) there has been rain all over the country and on a recent train trip I saw flooding in fields across the Westcountry, but looking back at the reports of flooding, this flooding of rural areas across the UK appears a background story to the flooding of towns – if it is mentioned at all in the general media. Farmers are much more frequently the victims of flooding, but because it is fields and livestock that are affected rather than houses and people this flooding is often overlooked. Added to this is the recent suggestion that farmers should be paid to let their fields flood, thus lessening the burden on downstream urban residents, without any real thought as to how our building practices often exacerbate the problem in the first place.

A photo (taken from the train!) of flooded fields in the Westcountry.

A photo (taken from the train!) of flooded fields in the Westcountry.

Recently, I ran a stakeholder case-study workshop for Environmental Science students in Plymouth University and one interesting issue was that the majority of students placed greater value on communicating with residents of a town affected by the hypothetical situation than the rural residents. In one example, a student playing the role of ‘National Government’ said that it was a ‘numbers thing’, but as another student pointed out in rebuttal for this statement; people in the country, although they may appear more resilient, can actually be more vulnerable due to their isolation and dependence upon the land for their livelihoods. So why do we have this focus on urban (or semi-urban) residents over rural? Is it because increasingly more and more of us live in urban centres as opposed to the country? Or because large media distributors (the gatekeepers of most of our information) are based in cities?

A picture of the board used during the stakeholder workshop to assign communication priorities. Note how many more are listed under the locat residents (t - for town) column, than there are under the local residents (c- for countryside) column.

A picture of the board used during the stakeholder workshop to assign communication priorities. Note how many more are listed under the local residents (t – for town) column, than there are under the local residents (c- for countryside) column.

Often communicators (including the media) target the easiest or most visible community, not always out of choice. Hard-to-reach audiences, whether geographically or ideologically can be a challenge to communicate with or about, without seeming patronising. The issues that are important to these communities can seem odd or irrelevant to those communicating, but by ignoring or marginalising the hard-to-reach community you are weakening any further attempt to connect. This is an important issue because these future contacts might be life or death situations and by that time, it’s too late to be feeling your way into a community. In this instance, by lessening our knowledge of the impacts and extent of flooding on rural communities, we may lessen our acceptance to finance flood defence measures that may be better long term solutions, but that focus their protection on our rural communities – the frontline of the majority of flooding in the UK – instead of urban ones.

In order to fix this issue, mainstream communication channels, such as the visual and print media, should be encouraged to take into account new research being published on how different populations approach different sciences, particularly the environmental sciences. An upcoming special issue of Natural Hazards and Earth System Science and Hydrology and Earth System Science called Effective Science Co​mmunication and Educ​ation in Hydrology a​nd Natural Hazards ​(NHESS/HESS Inter-Jo​urnal SI)​  seeks to address this issue, and I would hope that it will be used to try and improve our national communication strategy.

The closing date for this special issue if you want to submit a paper is the 15th January, so there is still time to get your research in there if you want to join in with this critical conversation.

EGU Day 1 – Spaceships and science communication


So the first day of EGU has come to a close and boy was it a cracker! I had a great mix of talks that were pertinent to my research and talks that I indulged myself by attending, particularly two that I had highlighted at the beginning of the week – PS4.1 Comets, Asteroids and Dust and PS4.2 Rosetta: first results from the prime mission. All in all I had a great day, and felt really glad to be back at EGU again!


The first session I attended today was NH9.2 Forensic Disaster Analyses – Learning from Disasters. The session was mostly about flooding, but approached the challenge of learning through and from crisis situations in a a series of novel ways. There was crowdsourcing flood data, post event adaption analysis using relocation and collecting and storing complete event data, with an eye to the needs of the end user. One surprising thing I learnt from this session was that the majority of flood damage occurs to infrastructure when water comes into contact with electrical equipment, and that this is rarely taken into account when planning mitigation. Interestingly the presentations felt to me that they addressed the societal element as one more data point, rather than engaging more fully with the issues and concerns of people affected by flooding, and I would have been interested to see how the subject was approached differently if a more holistic approach was taken.

An interesting question that relates to this issue was the design of the crowdsourcing app to collect first hand data. One of the strengths of the app was presented that it gave residents control and engagement with the scientific process, and there was a lot of discussion about how you would get people to complete the data in the face of a crisis, but no-one addressed the question of whether people would voluntarily submit flooding data that may increase the cost of insurance in their area? Still at least the subject was being discussed, which is a positive move forward.


After a short coffee break I was on to my second session: PS4.1 Comets, Asteroids and Dust. This session was brilliant, often over my head, but filled with several interesting stories. My favourite was the presentation concerning the Student Dust Counter (not a new typ of student housing vacuum cleaner) – a spaceship designed, launched and maintained (including data analysis) by students. The spacecraft has been on it’s mission for 9 and a half years so far and is slowly approaching Pluto (right now it’s at Jupiter), it’s first target, before moving on to the Kuiper Belt. Most of the spaceship is dormant, but a few instruments are recording and transmitting data, riding along like barnacles on a whale!

The best thing about this, and a question someone raised, is that this mission began over 9 years ago, which is well beyond the scope of a (European) student position – so how can it still be a student mission? Well the simple answer is that the mission, the data and the link to spacecraft are handed down, student to student, each old one training the new and so on, which I think is a brilliant science story – a whole generation of planetary scientists training each other to pass this little spaceship out beyond the furthest reaches of our solar system.


The third session of the day was NH9.4/EOS19 Natural Hazard Education, Communications and Science-Policy-Practice Interface. This was a brilliant session of both new ideas and lessons learned in science communication, from using board games to teach volcanic awareness, to encouraging students to design their own web app that would increase their understanding of geo-hydrological terms and how to use narratives to build the resilience of small businesses to flood events. There was also a presentation by a group os researchers from the CNR-IIA in Monterotonto and the University of Turin who were talking about the information deluge that you experience during a crisis and how people make sense of that deluge. They had designed a wiki to help with the provision of accurate and reliable data, but there were a couple of questions around the data. Clearly the idea was a great one, but the initial data had not been collected during a time of crisis, so all the conclusions were not related to the main crisis event, there was no knowledge of whether a crisis event changed the nature of people’s searches online. Also the wiki was called nhwikisaurus – which was a play on the thesaurus connectionn, but the icon was of a dinosaur, so this may be confusing for people who go there expecting it to be a dinosaur wiki. It was really good to see people trying to positively engage with risk communication in a new way.


I then ducked quickly into the session on the initial results from the prime Rosetta mission and spent most of my time being absorbed by the gorgeous photos of the comet! I did find out though that Rosetta has a mass spectrometer on board and that they have a twin of the instrument in the lab in case of any issues!


My last observational session of the day was SSS11.5/EMPR4.1/ERE2.5/NH4.4 Communication of uncertain information in earth sciences: data, models and visualisation. Now the informatics talks have somewhat put me off in the past as they seemed to revolve around finding statistical ways to represent uncertainty but the session today actually focussed on communicating that uncertainty. My favourite talk (that I was able to see -bit of an overlap) examined intuitive responses to IPCC diagrams and found that the colour schemes can often give false representations and that often the caption isn’t actually helpful in interpreting the image.


The last thing I did today was to take part in a panel discussion: SC22 Open Science, Public Engagement and Outreach: why bother? I was joined on the panel by Ivo Grigorov from the Technical University of Denmark, and Ulrich Poschl from the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry, and chaired by Sam Illingworth, lecturer in science communication from Manchester Metropolitan University.


To say I was intimidated would be an understatement, especially when Sam introduced Uli as ‘if not the father, then the kind uncle’ of the open science movement! But the discussion was lively and informal and by the end I had relaxed into it. The talk ranged across topics like what is open science, how to we make open access more avaliable, how do we deal with the issue of cost for open access (turns out that if all universities stopped paying subscriptions they could afford to get all papers published open access), why do we engage with the public, how to avoid or manage the ‘dinosaurs’ in your department who don’t approve of open science or public engagement, how to balance the ethos of open access with the realities of life as a young scientist and ‘Science 2.0’. It was a great evening and I thoroughly enjoyed myself and was left with lots of meaty issues to ponder – can we come up with our own metric of impact and how do you ensure that open science and engagement are not the last things on the list and the first to go in academic life?

So all in all day 1 – I would say you’ve been fabulous. But what were your first impressions? And any tips for good sessions to drop in on the rest of the week?

BGS people – Dr Rob Ward, a groundwater guru

For two weeks at the beginning of July I got the opportunity to meet a whole bunch of interesting people at the British Geological Survey and speak with them about what they do, why they enjoy it and why it’s interesting. It’s been a great opportunity for me to geek out at all the amazing things the BGS is doing and the brilliant people who work there.

Dr Rob Ward has one of the toughest jobs in the BGS. He is the Director of Groundwater Science, which means he oversees a large and diverse team of scientists and engineers, all trying to unravel the mysteries of groundwater (also see Stephanie Zihms). He has also in the past been called to be a part of SAGE (the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) particularly during the terrible flooding in Somerset earlier this year. You can read the post here.

Dr Rob Ward with the amazing sand tank model he and his team use in outreach events!

Dr Rob Ward with the amazing sand tank model he and his team use in outreach events!

5 things you wouldn’t expect to find at a geology conference

One of the things that I realised whilst at EGU last week was how broad the subject of geology actually is and how we don’t always appreciate the breadth of our subject. Some of this obviously come from the influence of interdisciplinary studies like my own, but some it comes from the unique and innovative ways that geoscientists are attempting to broaden our understanding of the planet. To highlight this I have picked out 5 things you wouldn’t expect to see at a geology conference – some more than others.

1- Astronaut photographs

Automatic Georeferencing of Astronaut Auroral Photography: Providing a New Dataset for Space Physics‘ from Multi-scale Plasma Processes in the Earth’s Environment session (ST2.2) – using data from recent space missions to advance our understanding of space physics.

Recently, the work of astronaut Commander Hadfield brought the activities of the people who get strapped to a rocket and propelled beyond our atmosphere to learn more about our planet back into the public eye. But although the images they produce are beautiful, inspiring and humbling all at the same time, they are often not very useful because there is no way for scientists to tell the scale of the image or where exactly it was taken. The work of Reichart, Walsh and Taylor addresses this problem by using ‘starfield recognition software‘ to calculate the height and location of the images. Now I don’t know about you, but there is something so romantic sounding about starfield recognition software. It makes me think that the software we so often associate with catching criminals can actually be used for something uplifting and will, once fully developed, improve our understanding of how the Auroras (both Australis and Borealis) work.

2- Willow tree root growth patterns

Root Growth Studies of Willow Cuttings using Rhisoboxes‘ from How Vegetation Influences Soil Erosion and Slope Stability: Monitoring and Modelling Eco-hydrological and Geo-mechanical Factors session (SSS2.10/BG9.7/GM4.8/HS8.3.9/NH3.9) – the relationship between vegetation and how soil behaves, especially focussing on land restoration projects and management plans.

When you think of geology, willow is probably not the first thing that springs to mind. However, when you think about landslides – which are most definitely geological – the presence, absence or behaviour of plants is very important. In Central Asia (amongst other places) willow is vital in facilitating the colonisation of other tree species in forests that help protect the soil from erosion. This study, although it seems like it belongs in a botany (or at least biology) conference is actually examining the material necessary to mitigate the effects of erosion, which can lead to lots of other geological problems.

3- Fluid dynamics of cars

A Preliminary Numerical Model on the Incipient Motion Conditions of Flooded Vehicles‘ from Flood Risk and Uncertainty session (NH1.6) – predicting current and future flood risk using state of the art flood risk assessment methodologies.

This had to be one of my favourite posters – mostly due to the obvious/unexpected dichotomy of the contents. If you picture a flood, what do you see? Rushing muddy brown water tearing away at the countryside, carrying the odd tree? Perhaps. But more and more often nowadays floods are affecting our urban areas, and the thing the floodwater is likely to be dragging is a car not a tree. This work by Arrighi, Castelli and Oumeraci takes a closer look at how vehicles are affected by flood water and how they affect the flow themselves. It’s also a sobering look at how easy it is to loose control of a vehicle in a flood and explains why most studies identify the greatest cause of deaths from drowning in a flood to be a car.

4- Coffee residue

Biochar from Coffee Residues: A New Promising Sorbent‘ from Novel Sorbent Materials for Environmental Remediation session (SSS9.8) – the use of sorbent materials (a material that can collect molecules of another substance) for environmental applications.

If the conference last week was attended by over 12,000 delegates, how many cups of coffee were drunk do you think (added to the fact that it was nigh on impossible to get a good cup of tea)? Now imagine you could take the dregs of all that coffee and do something useful with it! Well that is precisely what Fotopoulou, Karapanagioti and Manariotis were exploring- how to use coffee residues to make biochar. Biochar is a carbon-rich substance that is added to soils in order to sequester carbon, improve the quality (fertility) of the soil and assist in environmental remediation. Who knew an old cup of coffee could be so useful?!

5- Wind patterns in the Pacific

Origin of Wind Events in the Equatorial Pacific‘ from ENSO: Dynamics, Predictability and Modelling session (NP2.1) – ENSO stands for the El Niño Southern Oscillation and includes all studies of El Niño and La Niña.

So wind may not be that disconnected from geology – but wind patterns? Over water? Yes at a geology conference a geoscientist’s awareness of the processes that shape our planet extends even to the climate. Which is not all that surprising really when you consider that one of the biggest issues and areas of study that geologists deal with nowadays is climate change.

These are only the posters that I came across and thought interesting during the conference – I’m sure there were many many more! Did you see any examples of a poster or a presentation that you wouldn’t expect to see at a geology conference?!