Geoscience communication: A smart investment

Geoscience communication: A smart investment

In this post, originally published in June 2017 on the blog of the Geological Society of America (GSA), Terri Cook, a science and travel writer and former winner of the EGU’s Science Journalism Fellowship, argues the importance of quality science communication as a means for scientists to make their research accessible to a broad audience. One way to achieve this is working with a science journalist who can help researchers bring their work to life. To facilitate this partnership and to encourage science journalists to develop an in-depth understanding of the research questions, approaches, findings and motivation which drives geoscientists, the EGU launched the Science Journalism Fellowship. Now in its 7th edition, the 2018 competition opens today. The fellowships enable journalists to report on ongoing research in the Earth, planetary or space sciences, with successful applicants receiving up to €5000 to cover expenses related to their projects. The deadline for applications is 5th December 2017.

The dissemination of new knowledge is an integral part of the scientific enterprise; regular publication of high-impact, peer-reviewed articles is one of the most important metrics for measuring a scientist’s success. Due to the technical nature of these manuscripts, however, such communication does not typically boost the public’s understanding of the specific study results — or of science in general.

Yet, according to the Science Literacy Project, scientific research and novel technologies “play a major role in key political, economic, cultural and social policy discussions, as well as in public dialogue.” In an age of “alternative facts” and shrinking science budgets, and a time when the U.S. risks losing its edge in research and development, advocating for an evidence-based approach to decision making, which is independent of political views, has become crucial. So too has successfully reaching policymakers and the public, who must wrestle with the science underpinning a host of geoscience-related issues with important societal ramifications, from energy development to procuring mineral resources vital to our national security, in order to make informed decisions.

While there is much that individual scientists can do to disseminate their research and promote civil discourse, including holding public talks, harnessing social media, and writing for popular audiences, these are time-consuming endeavors. In addition, communicating with a lay audience is a skill; it’s easy to become mired in jargon, and there may be gaps between what scientists assume the public knows and what it actually does, according to a 2013 article in the Journal of Undergraduate Neuroscience Education. Plus most scientists, according to that same article, don’t receive any formal training on how to communicate scientific topics to the public, and there is often little incentive to prioritize this.

Science journalists like myself arguably serve an important societal role by disseminating the results of rigorous, peer-reviewed research to broader audiences.

“Our common mission,” writes Alison Fromme in The Science Writers’ Handbook, “is to explain very complicated things with both maximum simplicity and maximum accuracy.” A significant part of our job is to ask tough questions. “This critical questioning is important, and what it needs more than anything else is experience,” said BBC News Correspondent Pallab Ghosh in a 2013 panel discussion.

But even as the need for experienced science journalists continues to rise, the number of full-time jobs in this field, as well as the pay rate for freelancers, continues to decrease while the workload has generally increased, according to a 2009 Nature survey. This has led to some alarm.

“Independent science coverage is not just endangered, it’s dying,” said science journalist Robert Lee Hotz of the Wall Street Journal.

What then can geoscientists do to help avert what Gosh has called “a crisis in science journalism”? Journalists need honest answers from scientists, including an assessment of a study’s limitations and flaws, as well as its significance, in order to provide a balanced assessment of the research. We also need quotations to help us communicate the relevance and impact of scientists’ findings. One of the easiest ways to acquire the insight and capture the myriad details necessary to write an informative and captivating article is to visit a researcher onsite. In the geosciences, this is often in the field. Yet there is little support for science journalists to do this; few outlets will pay such expenses, especially for freelancers, who account for roughly half the number of science journalists.

To encourage the in-depth understanding of geoscientists’ approaches, research questions, motivations, and findings, the European Geosciences Union (EGU) has established an annual Science Journalism Fellowship that provides funding specifically intended for journalists to visit geoscientists in the field. The annual award of €5000 is typically split between two recipients each year, so since its inception in 2012 a dozen journalists, including myself, have received awards.

While the journalists benefit, so too do the scientists; their research receives wide exposure in prestigious publications, and they are given the luxury of being able to explain the intricacies of their work, such as dating previous motion along major faults in Nepal, and its implications first-hand and directly answering journalists’ questions as they arise.

But I would argue that it’s the general public who benefits the most. During the fellowship’s first four years, the seven recipients produced 18 pieces of science reporting, ranging from blog articles to a book, in a wide variety of outlets that included Nature, Science, Der Tagesspiegel, and EGU’s GeoLog blog. The topics, which are proposed by the journalists, have covered a broad range of geoscience disciplines, from the disastrous historic eruption of Iceland’s Laki volcano and fracking in Europe to my proposal about using dams to unleash artificial floods in order to restore rivers’ ecological integrity.

Recognizing the many potential benefits of better communicating the value of geoscience, the Geological Society of America (with the help of several generous donors) also recently established an annual Science Communication Fellowship.  The intent of this ten-month position is to help improve communication of geoscience knowledge between the members of GSA and the non-scientific community. I hope that other societies will soon follow suit. We are living in a period of unprecedented human influence on climate and the environment; establishing these awards sends a strong signal that geoscience communication is a priority — as well as a smart investment.

Terri Cook is a freelance science and travel writer based in Boulder, Colorado. 

We are hiring: be our next Communications Officer!

We are hiring: be our next Communications Officer!

Do you have an interest in the Earth, space and planetary sciences and love blogging and using social media channels to communicate that passion? Then our latest job opening might be just right for you!

We are looking for a Communications Officer to work with the EGU Media and Communications Manager in maintaining and further developing media- and science-related communications between the EGU and its membership, the working media and the public at large. The officer will be tasked with (among others):

  • Manage the official EGU blog, including writing, commissioning and editing posts
  • Administer the EGU network of blogs, including division blogs
  • Manage the Union’s social media presence year-round
  • Work as a point of contact for early career scientists at the EGU office

We are looking for a good team player with excellent interpersonal, organisational, and communication skills to fill this role. The successful applicant will have an academic degree (e.g. MA, MSc, PhD), preferably in the geosciences or related scientific disciplines or in communication sciences. Candidates should also have the ability to understand and translate complex science into simple concepts and write about scientific research to general audiences in an engaging and accurate manner, as well as an expert command of English. Non-European nationals are eligible to apply.

To get a feel for what the position involves why not read this post by the current post holder, Laura Roberts Artal? Laura is happy to answer questions about what the role involves day-to-day, so feel free to contact here with questions at or on +49 (0)89 2180-6717.

The deadline for application is 5 November 2017. The expected start time for this position is January 2018.

Further details about the position and how to apply can be found here.

Feel free to contact Dr Bárbara Ferreira, the Media and Communications Manager, at or on +49-89-2180-6703 if you have any questions about the position.

September GeoRoundUp: the best of the Earth sciences from around the web

September GeoRoundUp: the best of the Earth sciences from around the web

Drawing inspiration from popular stories on our social media channels, as well as unique and quirky research news, this monthly column aims to bring you the best of the Earth and planetary sciences from around the web.

Major story and what you might have missed

This month has been an onslaught of  Earth and space science news; the majority focusing on natural hazards. Hurricanes, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions have been dominating headlines, but here we also highlight some other natural disasters which have attracted far fewer reports. Quickly recap on an action-packed month with our overview, complete with links:


Thought the Atlantic hurricane season is far from over, 2017 has already shattered records: since 1st June 13 storms have been named, of which seven have gone onto become hurricanes and two registered as a category 5 storm on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale. In September, Hurricanes Irma, Katia and Jose batter Caribbean islands, Mexico and the Southern U.S.; hot on the heels of the hugely destructive Hurricane Harvey which made landfall in Texas and Louisiana at the end of August. Images captured by NASA’s Operational Land Imager (OLI) on the Landsat 8 satellite show the scale of the damage caused by Hurricane Irma; while photos reveal the dire situation unfolding in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.  OCHA, the United Nations Office for the coordinate of Human Affairs, released an infographic showing the impact the 2017 hurricane season has had on Caribbean islands (correct of 22nd September).


At the same time, two powerful earthquakes shook Mexico in the space of 12 days causing chaos, building collapse and hundreds of fatalities.

Rumbling volcanoes

In the meantime, all eyes on the Indonesian island of Bali have been on Mount Agung which has already forced the evacuation of almost 100,000 people as the volcano threatens to erupt for the first time in 54 years. Unprecedented seismic activity around the volcano has been increasing, though no eruptive activity has been recorded yet.

Further south, the government of Vanuatu, a South Pacific Ocean nation, declared a state of emergency and ordered the evacuation of all 11,000 residents of Ambae island, as activity of its volcano, Manaro, increased. The New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) sent an aircraft to fly over the volcano on Tuesday and discovered plumes of smoke, ash and volcanic rocks erupting from the crater.

Map of volcanic hazards for Ambae in Vanuatu. Credit: Vanatu Meteorology & Geo-hazard Department (vmgd).

The rainy season floods

The summer months mark the onset of the rainy season in regions of Sub-Saharan Africa which experience a savanna climate. Across the Arabian Sea, including the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia, also sees the onset of the monsoon.

Since June, widespread flooding brought on by heavy rainfall has left 56 dead and more than 185,000 homeless in Niger, one of the world’s poorest countries. But the crisis is not restricted to Niger, throughout the summer floods (and associated land and mudslides) in Africa are thought to have claimed 25 times more lives than Hurricane Harvey did.

Meanwhile Mumbai struggled when the heaviest rainfall since 2005 was recorded on 29th August, with most of Northern India experiencing widespread flooding. So far, the UN estimates that 1,200 people have lost their lives across Nepal, India and Bangladesh as a result of the rains. The Red Cross estimates that at least 41 million people have been affected by the flooding and causing the onset of a humanitarian crisis.

Record breaking temperatures and fires

Australia’s record-breaking spring heat (Birdsville, in Queensland’s outback, broke a weather record as temperatures hit 42.5C and Sydney recorded its hottest ever September day) combined with an unusually dry winter means the country is bracing itself for a particularly destructive bushfire season. Already fires rage, uncontrolled (at the time of writing), in New South Wales.

The western United States and Canada suffered one of its worst wildfire seasons to date. Earlier this month, NASA released a satellite image which showed much of the region covered in smoke. High-altitude aerosols from those fires were swept up by prevailing winds and carried across the east of the continent. By 7th September the particles were detected over Ireland, the U.K and northern France, including Paris.

Europe’s forest fire has been hugely devastating too. Much of the Mediterranean and the region North of the Black Sea continues to be in high danger of forest fires following a dry and hot summer. Fires are active in the Iberian Peninsula, Greece, and Germany (among others). Over 2,000 hectares were recently scorched by wildfires in the central mountainous area of Tejeda in Gran Canaria.

Links we liked

  • This month saw the end of NASA’s Cassini spacecraft and ESA’s Huygens probe’s spectacular journey to Saturn. After two decades of science, the mission ended on 15th September as the spacecraft crashed into the giant planet.
  • The last day of August marks the end of the Greenland snow melt season, so September was busy for scientists evaluating how the Greenland ice sheet fared in 2017.
  • “Few disciplines in today’s world play such a significant role in how society operates and what we can do to protect our future,” writes Erik Klemetti (Assoc. Prof. at Denison University), in his post on why college students should study geology.
  • The BBC launched The Prequel to its much anticipated Blue Planet II, a natural history progamme about the Earth’s oceans. Narrated by Sir Sir David Attenborough, the series will featured music by Hans Zimmer and Radiohead. The trailer is a true feast for the eyes. Don’t miss it!

The EGU story

Is it an earthquake, a nuclear test or a hurricane? How seismometers help us understand the world we live in.

Although traditionally used to study earthquakes, like the M 8.1 earthquake in Mexico,  seismometers have now become so sophisticated they are able to detect the slightest ground movements; whether they come from deep within the bowels of the planet or are triggered by events at the surface. But how, exactly, do earthquake scientists decipher the signals picked up by seismometers across the world? And more importantly, how do they know whether they are caused by an earthquake, nuclear test or a hurricane?

To find out we asked Neil Wilkins (a PhD student at the University of Bristol) and Stephen Hicks (a seismologist at the University of Southampton) to share some insights with our readers earlier on this month.

Record-setting forest fires in 2017 – what is to blame?

Record-setting forest fires in 2017 – what is to blame?

Forest fires have once again seized the public consciousness in both Europe and North America. Extreme drought and temperatures contributed to a tinderbox in many forests, and have led to deadly fires across Europe and record-breaking, highly disruptive fires in the USA and Canada, from where I’m currently writing.

A simple way to understand fire is by thinking about the fire triangle – the three pieces that need to combine to produce fire: heat, oxygen, and fuel. While the concept of the fire triangle offers simple insights into the cause of a fire, each of the three factors are subject to a number of controls.

The availability of fuel in particular is affected by a whole range of influences, from tree species variations, to the impact of pests, to the prior history of wildfires. In many cases there will be a multitude of reasons for both the rate that a given fire spreads, and the spatial extent to which it burns. The extensive media coverage of this year’s record-breaking fire season provides a useful opportunity to explore some of these factors, and how they might have contributed to the fires that we’re seeing this year.

Multi-tiered fires

Not all forest fires are equal. The forestry service in British Columbia defines 6 different levels of fire, ranging from slow burning of peat below the surface of a forest (a ground fire), through the burning of scrub and ground level debris (surface fire), to far harder to control conflagrations that consume the canopy of the trees (a crown fire).

Each type of fire consumes fuel from different levels of the forest, and a transition from a lower to higher level requires at a minimum that there is enough flammable material in the upper layers of the forest. As such, the history of fire in a given stand of woodland will have a significant effect on the potential for future fires; a prior surface fire could remove the under-brush and limit the future fire risk.

Many older trees in a forest can have fire scars from previous, smaller fires that have not burnt them entirely, demonstrating that not all fires make the transition to crown fires. In the US, the largest 2-3% of wildfires contribute 95% of the total area burned annually, and these are generally the largest crown fires. For these large fires, the conditions must be optimal to reach the canopy, but once they make this transition they can be very difficult to stop.

Although the largest fires require a specific set of conditions, the transition to large fire can lag for a long time behind the initial trigger of a fire:

“Once ignited, decaying logs are capable of smouldering for weeks, or even months, waiting the time when prevailing conditions (hot, windy, and dry) are conducive for expansion into a full-blown forest fire,” write Logan & Powell in 2001.

The initial trigger in natural settings for the fire is generally lightning, or in rare cases the intense heat from lava flows. However, a recent study has shown that in the continental US, 84% of fires are started by humans. This can range from discarded cigarettes to prescribed fires that have raged out of control.

So, we now have a simplified understanding of the requirements for a fire, but perhaps the more important question remains: why do they spread?

What fans the flames?

So what are the processes that control the strength and spread of a fire? Certain aspects, like climatic conditions, tend to set a long-term propensity for wildfire, while other short term effects define the local, immediate cause for a fire.

The long-term role of climate is quite diverse. Flannigan and co-authors, in their 2008 paper, summarise the importance of temperature in setting the conditions for fire:

“First, warmer temperatures will increase evapotranspiration, as the ability for the atmosphere to hold moisture increases rapidly with higher temperatures… (Roulet et al. 1992) and decreasing fuel moisture unless there are significant increases in precipitation. Second, warmer temperatures translate into more lightning activity that generally leads to increased ignitions (Price and Rind 1994). Third, warmer temperatures maylead to a lengthening of the fire season (Westerling et al. 2006).”

The importance of temperature at a global scale is demonstrated by studies suggesting that fire outbreaks have systematically increased since the last glacial maximum 21,000 years ago, when average temperatures were several degrees colder.

So once the climatic conditions set a long term likelihood for a fire to break out, as well as the distribution of tree species (and therefore the amount of fuel), short term disturbances can act to further increase susceptibility. We can divide these more immediate factors into weather, ecological, and human influences.

Unsurprisingly, weather conditions that bring hot, dry weather with the chance of thunderstorms will be highly likely to drive fires. A number of studies have shown that this kind of weather is often linked to persistent high pressure systems in the atmosphere, which push away rainfall, and can last for weeks at a time.

This kind of atmospheric conditions can often be linked to longer term weather patterns, in particular El Niño, and the effects can be long-lived. For example, El Niño brings warm, dry weather to the North-western part of North America, driving increased fire. In the South-west, El Niño brings wetter weather, but the increased vegetation growth provides a larger amount of fuel that can then burn in subsequent drier conditions.

Caption: Healthy pines mix with red, decaying trees afflicted with pine beetle infestation in Jasper National Park, Canada (Aug 2017). Credit: Robert Emberson

The growth of plants is just one way that the forest ecosystem can affect the availability of fuel for fire. Many trees are affected by pests. The classic example is the pine beetle, which can kill so many trees that whole swathes of pine forest are left characteristically red as they decay in the aftermath of an infestation. While some studies have shown that this can reduce the chance of a crown fire (since less fuel is available in the canopy), the dead and decaying trees provide a source of drier fuel at ground level that is a concern in many regions.

Elsewhere, we can see cases where trees encourage fire. Eucalyptus trees contain oil that burns strongly; the fire that this produces is suggested to remove the other tree species competing with the Eucalyptus. A strange method, but no doubt effective! The Eucalyptus, introduced to Portugal by humans in the 18th century, has been linked to many of the deadly fires that occurred there this summer. The lodgepole pine, too, has pinecones that require the heat of fire to open and release their seeds.
As such, fire is a natural part of the ecosystem, and in most areas of the boreal forest fire management is limited, with attempts at suppression only made where human settlement is at risk.

Where humans do step in, their actions can have an important role in setting the overall susceptibility to fire. Creating ‘fire breaks’ by felling or controlled burning of woodland in the path of a fire removes fuel and limits the growth of a fire, and a program of controlled burns is an important part of forest management to limit the potential for future fire by clearing scrub vegetation at the surface.

On the other hand, continual suppression of fires can lead to build up of fuel – which can then form a significantly more dangerous fire on a long term basis.

Ken Lertzman, Professor of Forest Ecology and Management at Simon Fraser University, told me that in general, control mechanisms are only useful for smaller surface fires; once the fire reaches the canopy, fire suppression is extremely difficult.

“It’s a combination of a statistical and philosophical problem”, he says. Fire control is expensive, so unless it’s financed by profits from felled lumber, cost benefit analysis is necessary, based in part on the statistical probability of a huge fire breaking out in a given location. Philosophically, though, “management forest stand structure at the boundary conditions [between surface and canopy fires] may be able to keep small fires becoming extreme.” and thus perhaps it’s worth trying to use control mechanisms even if giant canopy fires would ignore them, just to avoid that transition to the canopy.

As with most natural systems, the factors discussed above don’t necessarily act independently. Many can amplify other effects. For example, the geographical range of pine beetle outbreaks could increase under a warming climate. At a smaller scale, giant fires can create their own weather patterns, acting to dry out the surrounding forest even before it ignites. So, is the greater incidence of fire this year down to this kind of combination of factors?

What’s happening in 2017?

The sun at 10.15 in the morning in Chilliwack, BC, 3rd August 2017 – more than 50km from the nearest fire. Credit: Megan Reich.

The summer of 2017 has been brutal for wildfire in many locations. Europe has been hit hard with more fires in one day in Portugal than any previous on record. In British Columbia (BC), the largest single fire on record is currently burning, contributing to the largest total area burned in historical record. The fires released so much particulate matter and haze that the sun was obscured in large parts of BC.

According to Professor Lertzman, in British Columbia at least, this is “a fire year different in degree, not in kind”. The same processes are at play as always, but in overdrive. An early spring thaw combined with a long, hot and dry summer created the ideal antecedent conditions for fire.

Linking individual intense ‘fire years’ to long term climate change in challenging, but it is likely that these kind of conditions would be more likely to occur in a world influenced by anthropogenic climate change. Years like this one, which are clearly exceptional compared to the long term trend for fire, might begin to occur more often; every 5-10 years rather than every 30-50, for example.

In the short term, fire damage and suppression is expensive, both financially and in terms of lives affected. Smoke is a health risk to wide areas in the face of such intense fire, but ecological damage can be more difficult for humans to see.

Mature forest is a different niche for organisms to fill in comparison to fresh surfaces stripped bare by fire. While each ecosystem has its place in the natural forest, an increased prevalence of fire reduces the mature forest available for the species that prefer that ecological zone. These can range from recognisable mammal species such as bears, deer and caribou, to less well-known but still important canopy lichen species, says Professor Lertzman.

While this year’s fire season is beginning to ease off, it is clear that the range of factors, both natural and those driven by humans, will continue to play a role in years to come. More build-up of infrastructure in developed countries puts more human settlement at risk, so a clear understanding of how fire interacts with the climate, weather, and forest management strategies will be vital to allow us to live alongside fire in the future with fewer problems.

By Robert Emberson, freelance science writer


Further reading and resources