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Imaggeo on Mondays: Sediments make the colour

Imaggeo on Mondays: Sediments make the colour

Earth is spectacularly beautiful, especially when seen from a bird’s eye view. This image, of a sweeping pattern made by a river in Iceland is testimony to it.

The picture shows river Leirá which drains sediment-loaded glacial water from the Myrdalsjökull glacier in Iceland. Myrdalsjökull glacier covers Katla, one of Iceland’s most active and ice-covered volcanoes.

A high sediment load (the suspended particles which are transported in river water) is typical for these glacial rivers and is visible as the fast-flowing glacial river (on the right of this image) appears light brown in colour. The sediment is gradually lost in the labyrinth of small lakes and narrow, crooked connections between lakes as can be seen as a gradual change in colour to dark blue.

The sediment load, height of the water  and chemistry of this and other glacial rivers are measured partly in real-time by the Icelandic Meteorological Office. This is done for research purposes and in order to detect floods from subglacial lakes that travel up to several tens of kilometers beneath the glacier before they reach a glacial river.

These glacial outburst floods do not only threaten people, livestock and property, but also infrastructure such as Route 1, a circular, national road which runs around the island. They occur regularly due to volcanic activity or localized geothermal melting on the volcano, creating a need for an effective early-warning system.

Advances in the last years include the usage of GPS instruments on top of a subglacial lake and the flood path in order to increase the early-warning for these floods. In 2015, the GPS network, gave scientists on duty at the Icelandic Meteorological Office 3.5 days of warning before one of the largest floods from western Vatnajökull emerged from beneath the ice.

The peak discharge exceeded 2000 m3/s,  which is comparable to an increase in discharge from that of the Thames to that of the Rhine.  This flood was also pioneeringly monitored with clusters of seismometers, so called arrays (from University College Dublin & Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, Ireland), that enabled an early-warning of at least 20 hours and allowed to track the flood front merely using the ground vibrations it excited. The flood propagated under the glacier at a speed of around 2 km/h; so assuming you can keep up the speed over nearly a day you can escape the flood by walking while it is moving beneath the glacier.

Related publications about the tracking of these subglacial floods will emerge in the published literature soon (real time update available at www.evapseibl.wordpress.com).

By Eva Eibl, researcher at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.

Thanks go to www.volcanoheli.is who organised this trip.

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/.

 

GeoSciences Column: Is smoke on your mind? Using social media to assess smoke exposure from wildfires

GeoSciences Column: Is smoke on your mind? Using social media to assess smoke exposure from wildfires

Wildfires have been raging across the globe this summer. Six U.S. States, including California and Nevada, are currently battling fierce flames spurred on by high temperatures and dry conditions. Up to 10,000 people have been evacuated in Canada, where wildfires have swept through British Columbia. Closer to home, 700 tourists were rescued by boat from fires in Sicily, while last month, over 60 people lost their lives in one of the worst forest fires in Portugal’s history.

The impacts of this natural hazard are far reaching: destruction of pristine landscapes, costly infrastructure damage and threat to human life, to name but a few. Perhaps less talked about, but no less serious, are the negative effects exposure to wildfire smoke can have on human health.

Using social media posts which mention smoke, haze and air quality on Facebook, a team of researchers have assessed human exposure to smoke from wildfires during the summer of 2015 in the western US. The findings, published recently in the EGU’s open access journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, are particularly useful in areas where direct ground measurements of particulate matter (solid and liquid particles suspended in air, like ash, for example) aren’t available.

Particulate matter, or PM as it is also known, contributes significantly to air quality – or lack thereof, to be more precise.  In the U.S, the Environment Protection Agency has set quality standards which limit the concentrations of pollutants in air; forcing industry to reduce harmful emissions.

However, controlling the concentrations of PM in air is much harder because it is often produced by natural means, such as wildfires and prescribed burns (as well as agricultural burns). A 2011 inventory found that up to 20% of PM emissions in the U.S. could be attributed to wildfires alone.

Research assumes that all PM (natural and man-made) affects human health equally. The question of how detrimental smoke from wildfires is to human health is, therefore, a difficult one to answer.

To shed some light on the problem, researchers first need to establish who has been exposed to smoke from natural fires. Usually, they rely on site (ground) measurements and satellite data, but these aren’t always reliable. For instance, site monitors are few and far between in the western US; while satellite data doesn’t provide surface-level concentrations on its own.

To overcome these challenges, the authors of the Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics paper, used Facebook data to determine population-level exposure.

Fires during the summer of 2015 in Canada, as well as Idaho, Washington and Oregon, caused poor air quality conditions in the U.S Midwest. The generated smoke plume was obvious in satellite images. The team used this period as a case study to test their idea.

Facebook was mined for posts which contained the words ‘smoke’,’smoky’, ‘smokey’, ‘haze’, ‘hazey’ or ‘air quality’. The results were then plotted onto a map. To ensure the study was balanced, multiple posts by a single person and those which referenced cigarette smoke or smoke not related to natural causes were filtered out. In addition, towns with small populations were weighted so that those with higher populations didn’t skew the results.

The social media results were then compared to smoke measurements acquired by more traditional means: ground station and satellite data.

Example datasets from 29 June 2015. (a) Population – weighted, (b) average surface concentrations of particulate matter, (c) gridded HMS smoke product – satellite data, (d) gridded, unfiltered MODIS Aqua and MODIS Terra satellite data (white signifies no vaild observation), and (e) computer simulated average surface particulate matter. Image and caption (modified) from B.Ford et al., 2017.

The smoke plume ‘mapped out’ by the Facebook results correlates well with the plume observed by the satellites. The ‘Facebook plume’ doesn’t extend as far south (into Arkansas and Missouri) as the plume seen in the satellite image, but neither does the plume mapped out by the ground-level data.

Satellites will detect smoke plumes even when they have lifted off the surface and into the atmosphere. The absence of poor air quality measurements in the ground and Facebook data, likely indicates that the smoke plume had lifted by the time it reached Arkansas and Missouri.

The finding highlights, not only that the Facebook data can give meaningful information about the extend and location of smoke plume caused by wildfires, but that is has potential to more accurately reveal the air quality at the Earth’s surface than satellite data.

The relationship between the Facebook data and the amount of exposure to particular matter is complex and more difficult to establish. More research into how the two are linked will mean the researchers can quantify the health response associated with wildfire smoke. The findings will be useful for policy and decision-makers when it comes to limiting exposure in the future and have the added bonus of providing a cheap way to improve the predictions, without having to invest in expanding the ground monitor network.

By Laura Roberts, EGU Communications Officer

References

Ford, B., Burke, M., Lassman, W., Pfister, G., and Pierce, J. R.: Status update: is smoke on your mind? Using social media to assess smoke exposure, Atmos. Chem. Phys., 17, 7541-7554, https://doi.org/10.5194/acp-17-7541-2017, 2017.

Imaggeo on Mondays: Tongue of a small giant

Imaggeo on Mondays: Tongue of a small giant

In a world where climate change causes many mountain glaciers to shrink away, bucking the ‘melting’ trend is not easy. In today’s post, Antonello Provenzale, a researcher in Italy, tells us of one glacier in the Alps which is doing just that.

Mountain glaciers are retreating worldwide, with the possible exception of the Karakoram area. For most glaciers, ablation (ice melt) during the warm season is stronger than the accumulation of new ice by snowfall. As a result, while glacier ice flows downhill, the accelerated melting at lower elevation forces the terminus of the glacier to retreat uphill, with a net loss of ice volume.

Such behavior is especially evident on the southern flank of the Alps, where many mountain glaciers have dramatically reduced their dimensions, often fragmenting into smaller, detached pieces.

An important exception is represented by the Miage glacier in Val Veny, Val d’Aosta, northwestern Italy, at the base of the Mount Blanc massif. This glacier is covered with a thick layer of debris, which protects the underlying ice from the direct heating by sunlight. The rocks which make up the debris are poor heat conductors and thus preserve the ice beneath them, making this glacier particularly stable.

This glacier is so stationary that vegetation and trees have grown on its margins and on the debris. Several ponds punctuate the surface of the glacier, as well as some areas on its sides. The Miage lake, for example, is directly in contact with the slowly flowing ice and it is sometimes run by large outburst waves generated by huge blocks of ice and rock falling into the lake water.

This picture was taken in September 2014, during a field excursion of the Italian Glaciological Committee. The image is a composition (stitch) of several images taken with a moderate wide angle lens on a rangefinder digital camera.

By Antonello Provenzale studies Geophysical Fluid Dynamics, Earth System processes and Geosphere-Biosphere interactions at the Institute of Geosciences and Earth Resources of the National Research Council of Italy.

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/.

What are science-policy placements and are they for you?

What are science-policy placements and are they for you?

This month’s GeoPolicy blog will examine science-policy internships, fellowships, secondments and pairing-schemes in closer detail – highlighting the reasons for undertaking a placement and interviewing Dr Michelle Cain, an EGU member who participated in NERC’Policy Placement Fellowship Scheme

Science-policy placements provide scientists with the opportunity to use their knowledge within a policy-orientated organisation. This could include working with a local government, supporting an NGO or undertaking a project within a larger political body such as the UN or the EU.

There are many reasons that you may decide to take a temporary sidestep from your current career path to a science-policy placement. Undertaking a placement gives you a chance to try something new. Even if you are completely satisfied with your current position, working in a different sector is likely to expand your skill set, illuminate research topics you may not have considered and open up new networks and opportunities to share your research. Taking a step away from your research for a limited period of time may also allow you to look at it with fresh eyes or from a different perspective. Furthermore, it can prepare you for contributing to the policymaking process directly through processes such as the Register of Commission Expert Groups.

On a metalevel, science-policy placements can help integrate science and policy by creating channels for communication and generating a shared understanding about how both academic and policy sectors function.Science-policy placements come in many different forms. They can be as short as one week or as long as four years with variants suitable for researchers at all career levels. The four, primary science-policy placement categories are outlined below:

  1. Internships are normally aimed at students or early career scientists and are typically for a period of between three and six months. Science-policy internships can be found in a plethora of organisations and sectors. Despite not always being paid, internships are a great way to gain an understanding of the science-policy interface and the different roles that exist.
  2. Fellowships are aimed at early to mid-level career professionals who are able to contribute their knowledge and skills to the organisation that they join while allowing them to simultaneously learn new skills to enhance their own expertise. It should be noted that the term ‘fellowship’ is used very broadly and as a result fellowships schemes can range from a paid internship to a secondment in both functionality and fellow responsibilities.
  3. Secondments allow employees to temporarily change roles within the same institute or with a partner organisation. Secondments are believed to expand both the skillsets and interests of the employee, thereby increasing their motivation and ability. Secondments can last from a couple of months to four years and can be on a full time or part-time basis. The employer generally continues to pay the researchers’ wages although the hosting organisation may also supplement their income. This is an excellent option for researchers who are happy with their current position but would like to try something new.
  4. Pairing Schemes involve researchers and policymakers sharing their experiences by spending one week to a few months at each other’s place of employment.

 

Traineeships at the Parliament © European Union 2016 – European Parliament

Despite working as the EGU Policy Officer and with policymakers for the last couple of years, I have never undertaken a science-policy placement. So, I decided to interview Dr Michelle Cain, an EGU member who participated in NERC’s Policy Placement Fellowship Scheme, to get a first-hand insight into the benefits and challenges of being involved with a science-policy placement.

During her 18 month NERC Policy Placement, Michelle worked two days per week advising the UK’s Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) on air quality modelling while continuing her own research. Although she was taken on as the expert within the Department, Michelle was “[…] surprised by how knowledgeable the policy staff were on specific air quality models and the science behind the policy”.

I was surprised by how knowledgeable the policy staff were on specific air quality models and the science behind the policy.

Michelle noted that working in the government department was a “very different world to that of a Post Doc” with “very quick deadlines” and with research topics “determined by the upcoming needs of policymakers” rather than her personal interest. Michelle believed that many scientists may also struggle with the concise nature of the policy briefs as, “most research needs to be summarised in 1-2 pages”.

Despite some of the challenges, Michelle believed her experience with Defra improved her “ability to communicate to a wider audience and pinpoint the most critical pieces of information”. She believes this not only helps her to “communicate research more thoroughly to policymakers but also to the general public as well as friends and family”. The experience also connected her with people working in policy who she would not have known otherwise and who she feels that she can still communicate her research with even though the placement has ended.

The [NERC Policy Placement] improved my ability to communicate to a wider audience and pinpoint the most critical pieces of information.

Michelle believes “the process behind getting science into decision-making is usually too opaque” but by undertaking the placement she was able to “gain an insight into the potential opportunities and avenues that do exist to share my research”. Although it might not be for everyone, Michelle said she would “recommend a similar placement to anyone who was interested in the policy realm or who was thinking about moving in that direction”.

What else should you consider before applying for a science-policy placement?

A few other things you may want to consider before applying for a science-policy placement include: the location (e.g. whether you would like to stay in your current city or perhaps go to an area geographically relevant to your research), the type of organisation (e.g. local government, a regional level institution or a private but politically-orientated organisation) and the skills or knowledge that you would like to gain (e.g. how to present your research to policymakers, how science is used in policymaking or event organisation).

See the EGU Geoscience Policy Internship, Fellowship and Secondment Opportunities to learn more about specific science-policy placements in Europe and around the world. You can also email policy@egu.eu for more information or sign up to the EGU Database of Expertise for regular science-policy updates.

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