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GeoPolicy: How to communicate science to policy officials – tips and tricks from the experts

GeoPolicy: How to communicate science to policy officials – tips and tricks from the experts

The EGU General Assembly was bigger than ever this year. Over 16,500 people attended more than 500 sessions. Although many sessions featured policy-relevant science, the short course entitled ‘Working at the science policy interface‘ focused purely on the role of scientists with the policy landscape. For those of you that couldn’t attend, this month’s GeoPolicy post takes a closer look at what was discussed.

The short course consisted of three panellists; Katja Rosenbohm, Head of Communications at the European Environment Agency (EEA), Panos Panagos, Senior Research Scientist in the Land Resource Unit at the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC), and Valérie Masson-Delmotte, Head of the IPCC AR6 Working Group 1 (IPCC). Each speaker gave a short presentation, introducing their respective institutions  and how their work connects science to policy. The session concluded with questions taken from the audience. EGU Press Assistant, Hazel Gibson (@iamhazelgibson), live-tweeted the session and a Storify of the tweets can be found here.

 

Katja Rosenbohm & the EEA: assessing if the EU is achieving its policy goals 

The European Environment Agency (EEA) provides independent information on the environment to European and national level policy makers, as well as to the general public. Katja spoke of the EEA’s State of the Environment Reports which are published every 5 years. These reports give ‘a comprehensive assessment of the European environment’s state, trends and prospects, in a global context’ and include analysis of 11 global megatrends, 9 cross-country comparisons, and 25 European environmental briefings. These reports help the EU analyse whether current policy is achieving their desired goals.

The 2015 State of the Environment Report concludes with 4 key messages:

  • Policies have delivered substantial benefits for the environment, economy and people’s well-being; major challenges remain
  • Europe faces persistent and emerging challenges linked to production and consumption systems, and the rapidly changing global context
  • Achieving the 2050 vision requires system transitions, driven by more ambitious actions on policy, knowledge, investments and innovation
  • Doing so presents major opportunities to boost Europe’s economy and employment and put Europe at the frontier of science and innovation

A copy of Katja’s slides can be found here.

 

Panos Panagos & the JRC: the policy cycle & communicating your research

Panos introduced the JRC, the European Commission’s in-house research centre. The JRC has a near-unique position in which all its research directly provides scientific and technical support to policy. As a result, all research at the JRC tries to solve the societal challenges of our time, i.e. food security, energy resources, climate change, innovation and growth etc. Panos explained that scientific evidence can be used to assist policy at all stages of the ‘policy cycle’ (see figure below) but scientists must learn how to present their research so that policy officials can understand.

The Policy Cycle and where scientific evidence can be used. Slide taken from Panos Panagos' talk. Full presentation can be foudn here.

The Policy Cycle and where scientific evidence can be used. Slde taken from Panos Panagos’ talk. Full presentation can be found here.

Factors needed for scientific evidence to inform policy:

  • TRUST because if there is no trust, the evidence will be ignored
  • TIMING / RELEVANCE is vital and should be provided as early as possible in the policy cycle. The speed of scientific response after a specific event is crucial – evidence can be submitted too late, after a policy decision has been made.
  • FORM should not be a 500 page report. It should be concise. Policy makers do not have time to read long reports or interpret data.
  • FORMAT provide policymakers with concise, visual input so that they can quickly understand the main messages – graphs should have a maximum of 3 colours!
  • PRACTICE the science-policy relationship needs to move from being a formal, arms-length, linear relationship, to an iterative one where questions and answers are generated through co-creation by both scientists and policymakers

A copy of Panos’ slides can be found here where you can learn more about the JRC and the projects they have been involved with.

 

Valérie Masson-Delmotte & the IPCC: what’s next after COP21?

Valérie spoke of the IPCC and how these reports inform world leaders and policy officials about climate change. The IPCC is split into three Working Groups (WG):

  • WG1: understanding the scientific basis of risk of human-induced climate change;
  • WG2: its potential impacts
  • WG3: options for adaptation and mitigation.

Last year, Valérie was appointed co-chair of the WG1 for the next set of IPCC reports (AR6) which will be published in 2022/3. In her talk, Valérie stressed that ‘the IPCC should be policy relevant but not policy proscriptive’. Scientists should not over-step their mark and become advocates of their research, they must remain unbiased and present their research professionally.

Scientists can indirectly assist policy by contributing to these IPCC reports; either through their academic papers or by becoming co-authors or editors. Three more-focused special reports will be published over the next few years. These are:

  • In the context of the Paris Agreement, special report in 2018 on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways;
  • A special report on climate change and oceans and the cryosphere;
  • A special report on climate change, desertification, land degradation, sustainable land management, food security, and greenhouse fluxes in terrestrial ecosystems, considering challenges and opportunities both for adaptation and mitigation.

In addition a methodological report on greenhouse gas inventories has also be scheduled for early 2019.

If you can communicate your science to high school students, you are at the right level for policy makers!

When asked about how scientists should communicate their research to policy officials, Valérie suggested that scientists ‘practice’ communicating with teenagers. A 15 year old will quickly tell you if you are making sense or not and you will be able to clarify your meaning.

A copy of Valérie’s slides can be found here.

 

Discussions

The session concluded with a panel discussion and audience members were invited to ask questions. General themes encompassed science communication, science funding, and the division between science and politics.

A couple of the Q&As are listed below.

  • Is there a lack of knowledge in scientists about policy and how can we change that?

Yes but this can be reduced through the creation of networks and collaborations to encourage increasing participation from scientists to policy (bottom up communications). Perhaps an early career scientist and policy worker pairing scheme could help engagement soon rather than later?

  • Is there a fundamental problem with politicians being more accountable to financial interests than good science?

Politicians can use any excuse to get rid of something costly and research is expensive. It is the role of the scientist to explain the value of our research to stop this from happening.

Further discussions are covered in the Storify post created from this session. More general information about science policy can be found on the EGU policy resources website: http://www.egu.eu/policy/resources/

Imaggeo on Mondays: The waxing Earth

Imaggeo on Mondays: The waxing Earth

These incredible images of Earth were acquired from the European MSG-2 satellite on July 21, 2009. The MSG, which stands for Meteosat Second Generation, satellites are operated as a series of satellites which continually orbit our planet, capturing detailed images of Europe, Africa and parts of the Atlantic and Indian Ocean every 15 minutes. The data acquired is largely used by meteorologists.

The satellites operate in a geostationary orbit. This means they are located some 36000km above the equator and follow the Earth’s rotation. This orbit allows an extraordinary view on the waxing Earth at 5:00, 6:00, 7:00, 8:00, 10:00, and 12:00 UTC.

But what causes this periodicity ? Exploring the phases of our Moon over the period of approximately a month helps us visualise this phenomenon. It takes the Moon 27 days to complete a full revolution around Earth. During this time, the relative position between the Moon, Earth and the Sun changes, so that, seen from the Earth’s perspective, a new, waxing, full Moon, and waning Moon. Similarly, from the perspective of a geostationary satellite, the Earth apparently orbits the satellite once per day and likewise it observes a “new Earth”, “waxing Earth”, “full Earth”, and “waning Earth” once per day.

Interestingly, the MSG satellites have only one channel (covering the full earth disk) in the visible spectral region, in other words, the portion of the electromagnetic spectrum that is visible to the human eye. The human eye has receptors for three different colours, which means information is missing to generate true colour composite images from MSG. For this reason, Maximillian Reuter (a researcher at Institute of Environmental Physics, University of Bremen, in Germany) and Susanne Pfeifer (Climate Service Center Germany) developed an algorithm that primarily uses the SEVIRI (the main instrument aboard MSG) channels at 0.6μm, 0.8μm and 1.6μm, to transform RGB (red/green/blue) false colour composite images of the used channels into (quasi) true color images. The result is today’s featured image. The lack of information in the blue and green parts of the visible spectrum is compensated by using data from NASA’s Blue Marble next generation project.

By Maximillian Reuter, researcher at Institute of Environmental Physics, University of Bremen and Laura Roberts, EGU Communications Officer.

References :

More information in the publication M. Reuter, S. Pfeifer: Moments from space captured by MSG SEVIRI. International Journal of Remote Sensing, 32, 14, 4131-4140, doi: 10.1080/01431161.2011.566288,2011.

Imaggeo is the EGU’s online open access geosciences image repository. All geoscientists (and others) can submit their photographs and videos to this repository and, since it is open access, these images can be used for free by scientists for their presentations or publications, by educators and the general public, and some images can even be used freely for commercial purposes. Photographers also retain full rights of use, as Imaggeo images are licensed and distributed by the EGU under a Creative Commons licence. Submit your photos at http://imaggeo.egu.eu/upload/.

 

GeoTalk: A smart way to map earthquake impact

GeoTalk: A smart way to map earthquake impact

Last week at the 2016 General Assembly Sara, one of the EGU’s press assistants, had the opportunity to speak to Koen Van Noten about his research into how crowdsourcing can be used to find out more about where earthquakes have the biggest impact at the surface.

Firstly, can you tell me a little about yourself?

I did a PhD in structural geology at KULeuven and, after I finished, I started to work at the Royal Observatory of Belgium. What I do now is try to understand when people feel an earthquake, why they can feel it, how far away from the source they can feel it, if local geology affects the way people feel it and what the dynamics behind it all are.

How do you gather this information?

People can go online and fill in a ‘Did You Feel It?’ questionnaire about their experience. In the US it’s well organised because the USGS manages this system in whole of the US. In Europe we have so many institutions, so many countries, so many languages that almost every nation has its own questionnaire and sometimes there are many inquiries in only one country. This is good locally because information about a local earthquake is provided in the language of that country, but if you have a larger one that crosses all the borders of different countries then you have a problem. Earthquakes don’t stop at political borders; you have to somehow merge all the enquiries. That’s what I’m trying to do now.

European institutes that provide an online "Did You Feel the Earthquake?" inquiry. (Credit: Koen Van Noten)

European institutes that provide an online “Did You Feel the Earthquake?” inquiry. (Credit: Koen Van Noten)

There are lots of these databases around the world, how do you combine them to create something meaningful?

You first have to ask the different institutions if you can use their datasets, that’s crucial – am I allowed to work on it? And then find a method to merge all this information so that you can do science with it.

You have institutions that capture global data and also local networks. They have slightly different questions but the science behind them is very similar. The questions are quite specific, for instance “were you in a moving vehicle?” If you answer yes then of course the intensity of the earthquake has to be larger than one felt by somebody who was just standing outside doing nothing and barely felt the earthquake. You can work out that the first guy was really close to the epicentre and the other guy was probably very far, or that the earthquake wasn’t very big.

Usually intensities are shown in community maps. To merge all answers of all institutes, I avoid the inhomogeneous community maps. Instead I use 100 km2 grid cell maps and assign an intensity to every grid cell.. This makes the felt effect easy to read and allows you to plot data without giving away personal details of any people that responded. Institutes do not always provide a detailed location, but in a grid cell the precise location doesn’t matter. It’s a solution to the problem of merging databases within Europe and also globally.

Underlying geology can have a huge impact on how an earthquake is felt.  Credit: Koen Van Noten.

Underlying geology can have a huge impact on how an earthquake is felt. 2011 Goch ML 4.3 earthquake.  Credit: Koen Van Noten.

What information can you gain from using these devices?

If you make this graph for a few earthquakes, you can map the decay in shaking intensity in a certain region. I’m trying to understand how the local geology affects these kinds of maps. Somebody living on thick pile of sands, several kilometres above the hypocentre, won’t feel it because the sands will attenuate the earthquake. They are safe from it. However, if they’re directly on the bedrock, but further from the epicentre, they may still feel it because the seismic waves propagate fast through bedrock and aren’t attenuated.

What’s more, you can compare recent earthquakes with ones that happened 200 years ago at the same place. Historical seismologists map earthquake effects that happened years ago from a time when no instrumentation existed, purely based on old personal reports and journal papers. Of course the amount of data points isn’t as dense as now, but even that works.

Can questionnaires be used as a substitute for more advanced methods in areas that are poorly monitored?

Every person is a seismometer. In poorly instrumented regions it’s the perfect way to map an earthquake. The only thing it depends on is population density. For Europe it’s fine, you have a lot of cities, but you can have problems in places that aren’t so densely populated.

Can you use your method to disseminate information as well as gather it, say for education?

The more answers you get, the better the map will be. Intensity maps are easier to understand by communities and the media because they show the distribution of how people felt it, rather than a seismogram, which can be difficult to interpret.

What advice would you give to another researcher wanting to use crowd-sourced information in their research?

First get the word out. Because it’s crowd-sourced, they need to be warned that it does exist. Test your system before you go online, make sure you know what’s out there first and collaborate. Collaborating across borders is the most important thing to do.

Interview by Sara Mynott, EGU Press Assistant and PhD student at Plymouth University.

Koen presented his work at the EGU General Assembly in Vienna. Find out more about it here.

When mountains collapse…

When mountains collapse…

Jane Qiu, a grantee of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, took to quake-stricken Nepal last month — venturing into landslide-riddled terrains and shadowing scientists studying what makes slopes more susceptible to failure after an earthquake. The journey proved to be more perilous than she had expected.

What would it be like to lose all your family overnight? And how would you cope? It’s with these questions in mind that I trekked with a heavy heart along the Langtang Valley, a popular touristic destination in northern Nepal.

Exactly a year ago this week, this remote Himalayan watershed witnessed the single most horrific canastrophy of the Gorkha Earthquake: a massive avalanche engulfed Langtang and nearby villages, leaving nearly 400 people killed or missing.

The quake shook up ice and snow at five locations along a 3-kilometre ridge between 6,800-7,200 metres above sea level. They went into motion and swept huge amounts of loose debris and fractured rocks along their way — before crashing several kilometres down to the valley floor.

The avalanche generated 15 million tonnes of ice and rock, and sent powerful wind blasting down the valley, flattening houses and forests. Wind speeds exceeded 322 kilometres per hour and the impact released half as much energy as the Hiroshima nuclear bomb. Nothing in its path could have survived.

A pile of commemorating stones on the debris that buried Langtang and nearby villages last April, killing and leaving missing nearly 400 people. (Credit: Jane Qiu)

A pile of commemorating stones on the debris that buried Langtang and nearby villages last April, killing and leaving missing nearly 400 people. (Credit: Jane Qiu)

Where the villages used to stand is now a gigantic pile of debris, up to 60 metres deep. It’s effectively a mass grave where people pile up stones and put up prayer flags to mark where their loved ones used to live.

It’s hard to come to terms with the scale of the devastation. Everybody in the valley has lost somebody to the monstrous landslide. About two dozen children from 16 families, who were in schools in Kathmandu during the earthquake, lost all their family in the matter of a few minutes.

It’s a sombre reminder of how dangerous it can be in the Himalayas — where people live so close to ice and where population growth and the search for livelihood often push them to build in hazardous areas.

The only building in the village of Langtang that survived the avalanche. The rocky enclave protected it from the crushing debris and the powerful blast. (Credit: Jane Qiu)

The only building in the village of Langtang that survived the avalanche. The rocky enclave protected it from the crushing debris and the powerful blast. (Credit: Jane Qiu)

Under-appreciated danger

The Langtang tragedy also reminds us how deadly landslides can be during an earthquake — a danger that is often under-appreciated. While earthquakes and landslides are like conjoined twins that go hand in hand, most of the resources go into building houses that can sustain strong shaking, and far too little into mitigating landslide risks.

In both the 2005 magnitude-7.6 Kashmir Earthquake in Pakistan and the 2008 magnitude-7.8 Wenchuan Earthquake in China — which killed approximately 26,000 and 90,000 people, respectively — a third of the fatalities were caused by landslides. While it’s certainly important to build earthquake-proof houses, it’s equally important to build them at safe locations.

In addition to the killer avalanche in Langtang, the Gorkha Earthquake unleashed over 10,000 landslides across Nepal, which blocked rivers and damaged houses, roads, and hydropower stations. Many valleys are totally shattered — with landslide scars running down from the ridge top like gigantic waterfalls, and numerous small failures marring the landscape like fireworks shooting across the sky.

Driving along the Aniko Highway that connects Nepal with Tibet, it’s not difficult to see that many houses had survived the shaking only to be crushed by debris flows and rock falls. The border remains closed because of continuing landslide hazards. The highway, which used to have some of the worst traffic jams in Nepal, is totally deserted.

A building in Kodari — which used to be a bustling trade town at the Nepal-Tibet border — was unscathed during the earthquake only to be damaged by large rock falls. (Credit: Jane Qiu)

A building in Kodari — which used to be a bustling trade town at the Nepal-Tibet border — was unscathed during the earthquake only to be damaged by large rock falls. (Credit: Jane Qiu)

Enduring legacy

A major concern is that Nepal will suffer from more severe landslides than usual for a long time. During the last monsoon, the landslide rate was about ten times greater than an average year. And my trek along the Langtang Valley was accompanied by frequent sound tracks of falling rocks and shifting slopes. A number of times, I had to run from boulders crushing down onto the trail — a clear sign that there are lots of instability in the system.

The instability could go on for years or even decades and will be exacerbated by rainfall and aftershocks. This enduring legacy is often not fully taken on board in quake recovery — with devastating consequences. Eight years after the Wenchuan Earthquake, for instance, settlements built after the disaster continue to be inflicted by a heightened level of landslides, which cause floods and destroy infrastructures.

This points to the importance of rigorous risk assessment before reconstruction and close monitoring afterwards. There is also an urgent need to better understand what makes mountainsides more susceptible to landslides after an earthquake and how they recover over time.

To achieve that end, several research groups went into landslide-ridden areas in Gorkha’s immediate aftermath. They wanted to capture what happened to the landscape immediately after the quake, so they could track the changes in the coming years.

Early warning

Last month, I joined one such team — consisting of Christoff Andermann, Kristen Cook and Camilla Brunello, of the German Research Centre for Geosciences (GFZ) in Potsdam, Germany, and their Nepalese coordinator Bhairab Sitaula — on a field trip along the Arniko Highway.

That was their fourth trip in Nepal since last June when they began to map the landslides and installed a dozen broadband seismometers, along with weather stations and river-flow sensors, over 50 square kilometres of badly shaken terrains.

The team often attracted a few curious onlookers when they worked away, but nothing provoked more excitement than the drone, says Cook. The crowd, especially kids, were thrilled to see the little robotic device buzzing around like a gigantic mosquito, she adds. A camera and sensors onboard can help them to locate the landslides and monitor debris movement, especially after rainstorms.

 

Christoff Andermann, Camilla Brunello and Bhairab Sitaula performing maintenance on a broadband seismometer and weather station near the village of Chaku on the Arniko Highway (Credit: Jane Qiu)

Christoff Andermann, Camilla Brunello and Bhairab Sitaula performing maintenance on a broadband seismometer and weather station near the village of Chaku on the Arniko Highway (Credit: Jane Qiu)

Another exciting aspect of their research is the use of seismology to probe geomorphic processes over a large area. Landslides are effectively earthquakes that occur near the surface, and produce signals that can be picked up by seismometers.

The team, led by Niels Hovius of GFZ, can detect precursory seismic signals days before a landslide happens. They also study ground properties by measuring how traffic vibrations travel through the ground.

Because seismic waves travel faster when subsurface materials are wet, the researchers are able to trace how rainfall penetrates into and through the ground. This determines the pressure of water in spaces between soil and rock particles, a key factor controlling slope stability.

Such studies will one day allow researchers to determine the rainfall thresholds that could precipitate a landslide and capture deformation precursors days in advance. This offers a real prospect of an effective early warning system, which is urgently needed in a country that is increasingly plagued by landslides.

By Jane Qiu, freelance science writer in Beijing

Further reading

Qiu, J. Listening for landslides, Nature 532, 428-431 (2016).

Jane Qiu, an awardee of the 2012 EGU Science Journalism Fellowship, is a Chinese freelance science writer in Beijing. She is passionate about the origin and evolution of the Tibetan Plateau and surrounding mountain ranges—a vast elevated land also known as the Third Pole because it boasts the largest stock of ice outside the Arctic and the Antarctic. 

Travelling extensively across the Third Pole, up to 6,700 meters above sea level (http://science.sciencemag.org/content/351/6272/436), Qiu has covered wide-ranging topics—from the meltdown of Himalayan glaciers, grassland degradation, the origin of woolly rhino, to the people of Tibet. Her work regularly appears in publications such as Nature, Science, The Economist, Scientific American, and SciDev.Net.

Qiu’s journey to the Third Pole began with Marine Biological Laboratory’s Logan Science Journalism Fellowship that allowed her to travel to the Arctic and the Antarctic and report climate change first hand. These experiences sowed the seeds for her later fascination with geoscience and environmental studies, and afforded her the insight to draw parallels between these geographically diverse regions.

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