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Volcanic darkness marked the dawn of the Dark Ages

Volcanic darkness marked the dawn of the Dark Ages

The dawn of the Dark Ages coincided with a volcanic double event – two large eruptions in quick succession. Combined, they had a stronger impact on the Earth’s climate than any other volcanic event – or sequence of events – in the last 1200 years. Historical reports reveal that a mysterious dust cloud dimmed the sun’s rays between in 536 and 537 CE, a time followed by global societal decline. Now, we know the cause.

By combining state-or-the-art ice core measurements with historical records and a climate model, researchers from GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research, Germany, and a host of international organisations showed that the eruptions were responsible for a rapid climatic downturn. The findings, published in Climatic Change, were presented at the EGU General Assembly in April 2016.

Explosive volcanic eruptions typically emit large volumes of ash and gas high into the atmosphere. The way this ash spreads depends both on how high up it’s propelled and the prevailing weather conditions. When it reaches the stratosphere, it has the capacity to spread far and wide over the Earth, meaning the eruption will have much more than a local impact.

Individually, these events were strong, but not that strong. Their combined force was what made their affect of the earth’s climate so significant. They occurred closely in time and were both in the Northern hemisphere.

Volcanic emissions reflect light back into space. Consequently, less light and, importantly, less heat reaches the surface, causing the Earth to cool. Diminishing sunlight following the eruptions resulted in a 2 °C drop in temperature, poor crop yields and population starvation. The drop in temperature led to a 3-5 year decline in Scandinavian agricultural productivity – a serious problem.

This double event had a major impact on agriculture in the northern hemisphere – particularly over Scandinavia. It’s likely that societies could withstand one bad summer, but several would have been a problem.

An ash covered plant via Wikimedia Commons.

An ash covered plant via Wikimedia Commons.

There’s agricultural evidence to support the theory too. Pollen records read from sediment cores can be used to work out when agricultural crops covered the land and when the land was ruled by nature. Scandinavian cores suggest there was a shift from agricultural crops to forest around the time of the eruption. There is some scepticism regarding the cause of this shift, but the implication is that when food decreases, so does the population, This means there’s no need to farm as much land, nor enough people to do so. In the absence of agriculture, nature takes over and trees once again cover the land.

By Sara Mynott, EGU Press Assistant and PhD candidate at the University of Exeter.

Sara is a science writer and marine science PhD candidate from the University of Exeter. She’s investigating the impact of climate change on predator-prey relationships in the ocean, and was one of our Press Assistants this year’s General Assembly.

General Assembly 2016 – Highlights

General Assembly 2016 – Highlights

It’s been a month and a half since the EGU General Assembly 2016 in Vienna. The conference this year was a great success with 863 oral, 10,320 poster, and 947 PICO presentations. A further 619 unique scientific sessions were complimented by an impressive 321 side events, creating an interesting and diverse programme.The conference brought together 13,650 scientists from 109 countries, 25% were students and 53% early career scientists (under the age of 35 years).

Keeping abreast of everything that was going on throughout the week was made easier due to the distribution of 15,000 copies of EGU Today, and as a result of a keen media presence and their reporting of the scientific sessions. Thousands of visits to the webstreams, as well as GeoLog, meant those at the conference and those who couldn’t make it stayed tuned to the best of the conference! We thank all of you very much for your attendance and active contribution to the conference.

Help us make the General Assembly next year (23–28 April 2017, Vienna, Austria) even better by filling out the feedback questionnaire. It only takes a few minutes, but hurry, it closes on Friday the 11th June!

To reminisce about a productive week, why not watch this video of the best bits of the conference?

GeoPolicy: What’s next for the IPCC & how can early career scientists get involved? An interview with Valérie Masson-Delmotte

GeoPolicy: What’s next for the IPCC & how can early career scientists get involved? An interview with Valérie Masson-Delmotte

This month’s GeoPolicy post is an interview with the newly-appointed co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Working Group 1 (WG1): Valérie Masson-Delmotte. Valérie is also a Principle Investigator at the Laboratoire des Sciences du Climat et de l’Environnement, Paris. In this interview she discusses how she balances her two roles, what the IPCC has planned over the next few years, and what advice she has for Early Career Scientists (ECS) wanting to get involved. The interview was conducted during the European Geosciences Union General Assembly (17-22 April 2016) and the interviewer was EGU’s Science Policy Fellow, Sarah Connors.

 

Background, career path and newly appointed role

SC: Hello Valérie, thank you for meeting with me. Could you first start by introducing your professional background?

VMD: Of course. I was trained in fluid physics (undergraduate). I did a PhD thesis on past climate modelling. I had a very easy career path – I was very lucky. I was hired just one day after my PhD thesis, where I worked in an emerging laboratory (the Laboratoire des Sciences du Climat et de l’Environnement). I stayed there but I changed my collaborations and research topics throughout the years. I switched to providing new information on past climate using ice core drilling. I have also been working on present day monitoring, with a particular interest in water molecules, using the same techniques we use to look at ice cores.

I have changed my daily work a lot. Always working with international collaborations – immediately starting with European-scale projects at a time when there was a drive to strengthen international collaborations. That’s a big characteristic [of my research]. Usually the people who work closely in my field are not found in my institution! They are spread all around.

SC: You have now been appointed Co-Chair of the IPCC WG1. How does taking on this new responsibility change your day to day working life?

VMD: I am currently doing two jobs at the same time. My main issue is stopping what I have been doing previously but still keeping a ‘foot’ within research myself. I am supervising students and I have a research project that started last January – so I will continue to be part of that. It can be hard.

I have urgent commitments coming as a result of my role in the IPCC, especially at the start of this process. But I am very keen to not completely leave my research activity totally, because that is ‘myself’.

SC: Have you been involved with any previous IPCC reports?

VMD: I discovered the 2nd IPCC report when I was a PhD student and I found it so interesting and useful for broadening my views. I used the third one for my teaching and I was a leader for the 4th one and a co-lead author for the 5th. I am very familiar with the inside process of producing the scientific part of these reports. I was very unfamiliar with the other side of the work: the science policy interface. So that is what I am learning now.

SC: Are there any striking differences with how you communicate science between your role at the IPCC compared to your academic work?

I have to be a scientist within this new role. I was elected to be a representative of the scientific community along with my co-chair Panmao Zhai, and we really share 50:50 the responsibilities. We are supported by vice-chairs from various countries. It is very important to have a broad, global coverage [of scientists] and not be biased towards EU geography. We collectively feel we represent the scientific community.

When [policy] decisions are to be taken, they are taken by the panel*. We do not tell them what to do of course, we just put the scientific facts on the table: our emerging results, our scientific analysis and we stop there.

*appointed and elected representatives from 195 countries

SC: So you don’t extend into advocacy?

VMD: I would not do that.

 

The next steps for the IPCC

SC: What’s next for the IPCC?

VMD: Last week, the panel has decided to organise three special reports. One on the value of 1.5 degrees warming, as a result of the Paris agreement in the UNFCCC. This will be done for September 2018. The schedule is extremely tight, we will have a scoping meeting this summer and we are preparing everything related to that meeting now.

It is a real mix of opportunities and challenges.

The two other reports are on climate change and the oceans and cryosphere, and one on a number of land-surface issues, which is a high interest assessment in the policy world as it will cover issues like sustainable land management and food security. It will also consider both adaptation and mitigation – some of these issues are quite politically sensitive. The ocean and cryosphere report is not just assessing the physical sciences, it will cover sustainability in the oceans and acting to preserve ocean ecosystems.

SC: Are the three special reports going to be published before the main assessment report?

VMD: Probably – certainly the first one. The other two will be done in parallel, which is a very heavy work load! Especially for the Technical Support Unit that we have just started to set up. Maybe people are not aware but all the facilities for the IPCC rely on only a few persons. There is the IPCC secretariat in Geneva within the World Meteorological Organisation and co-sponsored by the United Nations Environment Programme. It’s a small structure facilitating and organising all the processes with the panel. Then for the working groups, each Government from the elected co-chairs sponsors a technical support unit, which is made up of 5-10 people. It’s a very small number for supporting the work of hundreds of authors and thousands of reviewers.

We still have open calls for some positions now, and other position will be advertised next year. So check the IPCC website.

SC: You mentioned an upcoming ‘scoping’ meeting, what exactly does this mean?

VMD: A scoping meeting involves 70-120 appointed scientists who have been selected for this committee through an open call process. Scientists are selected so that we have the right range of expertise, renewal, experience and regional representatives. The outcome of this scoping meeting will be to define an outline for these special reports. This means a structure for each chapter and the key items to be considered. This is then presented to the panel for approval, where they can suggestion changes. This is how the science-policy process is organised at the beginning of the cycle. We have to do that for each special reports as well as the main assessment report.

For the main assessment report, work starting next year. We will probably organise consultations as a pre-scoping pathway to understand what end-users, the scientific community, and what all the stakeholders expect, as a way of engaging early-on in the process. This is to make sure that the topics assessed are what everyone wants to know about. Taking this into account is important so that it addresses the concerns of end users and policy makers, not just what scientists think are important. Then we will follow up with a scoping meeting and nomination for authors.

SC: What’s your biggest hope to be achieved from the next assessment report?

VMD: I have several. Firstly, it has to be rock solid: no mistakes – that’s a challenge to achieve given the workload. Additionally, the report must focus more on the regional aspect: looking at scales from global to regional and what emerging factors are found. Also, we may try to engage with social scientists, making the WG1 report more interdisciplinary. There could be a number of issues where their input would be valuable. I also want to increase the number of authors from developing countries – that is also a strong priority. Finally, we are considering changing the structure of the reports. The previous reports were organised by observations, process studies and observations. We may consider organising it by processes rather than a more separatist method. Most climate science research is not limited to just one area (e.g. just observations) there is normally both observations and simulations are all used to try to answer a question. These are ongoing considerations at the moment.

I hope that world renowned scientists will be eager to join and partake in this process.

The report has only the quality of the assessments done by the authors, which is then improved thanks to the review process That is really a strong improvement. It’s like shaping something – you know when you do sculpture? You have the first draft but the review really gives it a nice shape!

 

Advice to Early Career Scientists (ECS)

SC: If you had to give some tips to ECS on how to better communicate their research to policy workers?

VMD: I would suggest to train with teenagers.

My own experience is that if you are able to explain your research to high school students then you are able to explain it to everyone.

You have to keep in mind that policy workers are not scientists. Many of them do not have a science background, some do and many of the advisors do, but policy makers usually don’t. So it is really important to practice and when you do practise with teenagers, when they don’t understand you, you get very quick feedback! It means no judgement on high school students or policy makers but that would be my advice.

SC: Do you have anything you’d like to say to the ECS who read this interview?

VMD: I would encourage them to join the IPCC process. There are many ways they can do this:

  • Write excellent papers that we have to cite as we only rely on published peer-review literature. New papers, new ideas, new methods, that’s critical! And these come from the ECS usually.
  • We are now considering having chapter scientists to support on technical aspects like managing references, figures etc. This happened in 2nd and 3rd assessment reports but it’s complicated as it is unpaid. I have a mind of making these a duet – one from a developed country and one from a developing country. Maybe this could be an interesting option but it’s not decided yet.
  • Become a contributing author. Each assessment must change two-thirds of the authors so there are opportunities for bright young scientists.
  • And finally reviewing the report! It’s more work for us but it’s a way to be involved and it’s a critical step in the process.

This interview was recorded during the 2016 European Geosciences Union General Assembly, where Valérie was an invited speaker for a session on the science policy interface. More information on this session can be found here.

For more information on the IPCC then check out their website.

 

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 within 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/

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