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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.

Blogs and social media at EGU 2017 – tune in to the conference action

Blogs and social media at EGU 2017 – tune in to the conference action

With hundreds of oral presentations, PICO sessions and poster presentations taking place each day, it can be difficult to keep abreast of everything that is on offer during the General Assembly.

As well as finding highlights of interesting conference papers, lectures and workshops in the daily newsletter at the General Assembly, EGU Today, you can also keep up to date with all the conference activities online.

Blogging

GeoLog will be updated regularly throughout the General Assembly, highlighting some of the meeting’s most interesting sessions, workshops and lectures, as well as featuring interviews with scientists attending the Assembly.

The EGU Division Blogs will report on division specific interesting research and sessions during the Assembly, so you can catch up on any sessions you’ve missed!

Stay tuned to the EGU Blog Network for further coverage of science presented at the conference.

As in previous years, the EGU will be compiling a list of General Assembly related blogs (the blogroll) and making them available through GeoLog.  You can add your blog to the blogroll here.

Tweeting

Participants can keep updated with General Assembly goings on by following the EGU twitter account (@EuroGeosciences) and the conference hashtag (#EGU17). You can also direct questions to the EGU communications staff and other participants using #EGU16, or by tweeting to @EuroGeosciences directly. If you’ve got the Assembly app, you can share snippets of great sessions straight from there!

This year, each of the programme groups also has its own hashtag. If you’re in a Geomorphology (GM) session, say GM2.1, you can tweet about it using #EGU17GM, or if you’re in one of the Outreach, education and media (OEM) sessions, use #EGU17OEM – just add the acronym of the respective programme group to #EGU16! ! A full list of conference hashtags is available here, and in the programme book. Conveners are welcome to add their own hashtags into the mix too! Just let everyone know at the start of the session.

Facebook

The EGU communications staff will be advertising General Assembly sessions and will post about research being presented at the Assembly on Facebook. Just type European Geosciences Union into the Facebook search bar to find the EGU official page, and like it to receive the updates.

Instagram

For behind the scences access to the conference, including organisational snippets, chats with conference atendees and informal coverage of the science presented throughout the week, follow us on Instagram too! Will you be sharing updates about the conference on the social media platform too? Be sure to tag your posts with the conference hashtag #EGU17 and join the conversation!

And more!

While these will be the main media streams during the Assembly, you can also search for European Geosciences Union on LinkedIn and YouTube to keep up with us there!

Social media guidelines

If you do not want their results posted on any social media networks or blogs download this icon and include it in your slides or poster.

So that conference participants can embrace social media while at the same time remaining respectful of presenting authors’ work and protecting their research output, we’ve put together some social media guidelines, which you can find on the EGU 2017 website.

The EGU encourages open discussion on social media (Twitter, Facebook, etc.) and blogging platforms during the General Assembly. The default assumption is to allow open discussion of General Assembly oral, PICO, and poster presentations on social media. However, please respect any request from an author to not disseminate the contents of their presentation.

The following icon may be downloaded from the EGU General Assembly website for inclusion on slides or posters to clearly express when an author does not want their results posted on any social media networks or blogs.

You can find out more about our social media guidelines and conference rules of conduct online.

The EGU General Assembly is taking place in Vienna, Austria from 23 to 28 April. Check out the full session programme on the General Assembly website.

 

January GeoRoundup: the best of the Earth sciences from across the web

January Georoundup: the best of the Earth sciences from across the web

The start of the new year sees the launch of a new series here on GeoLog. 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 stories

One of the biggest stories of this month was the anticipated release of the average global surface temperatures for 2016. It probably wasn’t a great surprise to discover that newly released National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), NASA and the UK’s MetOffice data showed 2016 was the hottest year on record. On average, temperatures last year were 0.99℃ higher than the mid-century mean. It marks the third year in a row that Earth has registered record-breaking temperatures and highlights a trend, as climate blogger, Dana Nuccitelli, explains in an article for The Guardian:

“We’re now breaking global temperature records once every three years”

This video, showing NASA global surface temperature record since 1880, illustrates the point clearly. There were no record breaking years between 1945 and 1976, but since 1980 there have been 12.

 

This month also saw the inauguration of the 45th President of the United States. A fierce climate-change denier, Donald Trump’s rise to power has many worried about the future of climate change policy at the White House. To shine a light on the realities of climate change in the face of a largely climate sceptic administration and despite the ever rising global temperatures, The Guardian dedicate 24 hours to reporting on how climate changes is affecting regions across the globe. Among the comprehensive coverage this collection of climate facts stands out.

And it turns out the fears about the newly elected administration may not have been unfounded. Earlier this week the US Department of Agriculture and other federal agencies issued a ban preventing its scientists from communicating with the press and public about their research findings; even on social media. The order has since been rescinded, but US- based scientists remain concerned. In response, the AGU has written a letter to federal agencies in the US defending the protection of scientific integrity and open communications.

Closer to home, central Italy was struck by a sequence of four earthquakes on 18th of January, with the largest registering a magnitude of 5.7. The epicentres were located close to the town of Amatrice – in a region already shaken by several strong, and sometimes devastating, earthquakes in 2016. Later that day, and following a period of very heavy snowfall, a deadly avalanche in the Apennines buried a hotel in the Grand Sasso resort area, which had also been affected by the earthquakes. Although some news reports were quick to suggest the avalanche had been triggered by the earthquakes, researchers will need more data and a more detailed analysis to make this connection.

What you might have missed

While we are on the topic of climate change, a newly published report by the  European Environmental Agency is not to be missed.

“Climate change poses increasingly severe risks for ecosystems, human health and the economy in Europe.”

The document assesses the latest trends and projections on climate change and its impacts across Europe. While the effects of increasing temperatures will be felt across the continent, Southern and south-eastern Europe is projected to be a climate change hotspot with the forecasts showing the region will bear the brunt of the impacts.

A powerful 7.9 magnitude earthquake struck off the coast of Papua New Guinea on 22nd January. While the USGS estimated there was a low risk to property, tsunami warnings were issued across the South Pacific. In the wake of the tremor, the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology (IRIS) tweeted this neat ground motion visualisation of the earthquake waves.

A study published in Nature and summarised in Eos, highlights that while overt discrimination of women in the geosciences has not been as prevalent in recent years, many female scientists are still subject to subtle and unconscious bias leading to barriers to success in the geosciences.

Five links we liked

  • NOAA’s new GOES-R satellite for weather monitoring returned its first stunning photos of planet Earth – here are six reasons why the data it will acquire matter.
  • Snow fell in the Sahara for the first time in 37 years! This photogallery shows the usually red sand dunes of the desert covered in a sprinkling of white snow.
  • Scientist at The University of Cambridge have published the first global map of flow within the Earth’s mantle, showing that the surface moves up & down “like a yo-yo”.

The EGU story

At the EGU, the highlight of the month is the number of abstracts we received from researchers wishing to present and discuss their science at the EGU 2017 General Assembly. With over 17,500 abstracts, and an improved set-up to accommodate the high number of expected participants, the conference promises to be the largest and most exciting to date. We look forward to welcoming everyone in Vienna on 23–28 April!

And don’t forget! To stay abreast of all the EGU’s events and activities, from highlighting papers published in our open access journals to providing news relating to EGU’s scientific divisions and meetings, including the General Assembly, subscribe to receive our monthly newsletter.

Stop the press!: How to pitch your research to a journalist or editor

Stop the press!: How to pitch your research to a journalist or editor

Why does some research make it into the main stream media, while so many stories languish in the expanse between the lab bench and research papers? The answer isn’t straightforward. A variety of factors come into play: is the research newsworthy; is it timely; does it represent a ground-breaking discovery; or is it of human and societal interest?

Newsworthiness isn’t the be all and end all. Sometimes, you’ve got to be proactive about getting your research noticed. If you think your work features a story worth telling, it might be time to dare and pitch it to a journalist or editor.

Most researchers aren’t familiar with how the media works, let alone how to contact and persuade a journalist that their research is worthy of a news item. At this year’s General Assembly we hosted a short course on this very topic. It featured a panel of science journalists and a scientist with media experience who shared their views on what makes research newsworthy and how to get your work noticed. Here, we share a few highlights from that session.

Is my research newsworthy?

While what we said in the introduction stands, i.e. newsworthiness is not the be all and end all, the fact remains: there has to be something about your research which makes it interesting to the general public and worth reporting about for a journalist.

Ground-breaking findings instantly tick the box, but the media will also be interested in results which have a big impact on people’s daily lives, relate to current events and/or include striking images or videos (among others). Scientist-turned-journalist Julia Rosen has a comprehensive list of what does (and doesn’t) make research newsworthy. When trying to decide whether your research fits the bill, you might also find this EGU guide useful.

The process of doing science is often the key to a great story but it is often overlooked.

“Don’t take your methods for granted,” says freelance journalist Megan Gannon, “fieldwork and lab work is inherently fascinating to people who have never done that.”

This GeoLog story, featuring PhD student Thomas Clements and his study of decaying fish guts, livers and gills, to understand how organisms become fossils, is a perfect example. Thomas presented new results at a press conference at the 2016 General Assembly, but his research methodology was just as fascinating as his data and became the focal point of the story.

The impostor syndrome

Even if a scientist knows (or has an inkling that) their work is newsworthy they’ll likely be faced with an age-old fear, rife among academics: am I smart or talented or deserving or experienced (insert an alternative synonym of your choice here) enough to put my work forward to a journalist? Is the work itself good enough?

The fear of being found out: is my work good enough; should I really be putting it out there? Credit: modified from original by Rhian Meara

The fear of being found out: is my work good enough; should I really be putting it out there? Credit: modified from original by Rhian Meara

Rhian Meara, a lecturer in geography and geology at Swansea University, recognises that this is a common feeling that she’s experienced many a times, both on location filming on TV and when asked to take part in the short course, but one which shouldn’t hold you back. As an expert in your area you are best placed to tell the story of your findings and work.

Overcome that fear by playing to your strengths and use them to your advantage. For example, are you fluent in a language other than English? This skill might mean you could become the go-to-scientist for coverage of Earth science related stories in your local area and/or language.

Working with the media

Convinced that your research is newsworthy and armed with the courage to take the next step? Before you do, there are a few, final, things to consider.

When approaching a journalist or editor about your work, “you need to pitch a story, not a topic: give journalists stories and context. Getting news across to readers requires giving it a deeper meaning and setting it in the big picture,” Megan points out.

Simply laying out the facts won’t cut it. You need to make your research come to life so it gets noticed.

There is also a reality you need to reconcile if you are planning on pitching your research to the media. Journalists serve their readers, not the scientists whose story they are telling.

“Even if scientists want to promote their research by reaching out to journalists, they should be aware that our role is not to promote their agenda, but to inform the public in an objective manner,” explains Megan.

But that doesn’t mean they will set-out to misrepresent your work either. Be patient with journalists if they ask questions, sometimes repeatedly, about your research. They may not be familiar with the subject, but importantly, they are trying to capture the essence of the science and make it accessible to a broad audience. To do this, they need to ask questions; sometimes, lots of them.

Communication issues

Precisely because the media needs to serve their readers and viewers, there is no doubt that there might be a clash when it comes to reporting particular findings. Being aware of it is important, but there are ways you can prepare in advance to minimise misunderstandings.

“Be careful of promoting unpublished results,” warns Andrew Revkin, a science and environmental writer for The New York Times (among others).

Your unpublished study has the potential to attract a lot of media attention, but what happens if the paper requires major revision, or worse, isn’t published?

The use of jargon can also lead to misinterpretation – “words that mean something to scientists might mean something entirely different to the public and reporters,” Andrew points out.

The obvious ones, say for instance (climate) model vs. (fashion) model, can usually be easily clarified. It’s the more subtle ones which present the biggest challenge: uncertainty, risk.

A challenge for scientists, and science journalists, Revkin said, is conveying that, in scientific analysis, bounded uncertainty is a form of knowledge. For more ideas, read a lecture he gave in 2013 in Tokyo: Exploring the Challenges and Opportunities in the New Communication Climate.

Communicating the nuances of what is meant by such terms is difficult; it’s best to consult a media expert for alternatives rather than risk amplifying misunderstanding.

A little help

Still nervous about the process of pitching your research to a journalist or editor?

Rhian Meara during her presentation at the EGU 2016 short course

Rhian Meara during her presentation at the EGU 2016 short course. Credit: Andrew Revkin

Scientists needn’t embark on the venture on their own. In all likelihood your research institute or university will have a press officer: someone who has expertise in dealing with the media, pitching stories to journalists, and knows what makes for newsworthy research. Failing that, approach your funders who will likely have a media relations team.

If you think your research has the potential to be newsworthy, get in touch with them! They’ll be able to help you find out whether indeed your research could interest journalists, and with all the steps we touch upon in this post and more!

More and more, the ability to communicate science is becoming a priority for researchers. If this is the case for you too, but you aren’t sure how to get started, there are a number of resources and courses which can help you develop your media skills. This post, in the blog Geology Jenga, has a list of some courses and resources available.

By Laura Roberts, EGU Communications Officer (with thanks to Megan Gannon, Rhian Meara, Andrew Revkin and Christina Reed)

This blog posts based on the presentations by Megan Gannon, Rhian Meara and Andrew Revkin at the ‘Short Course: How to pitch your research to a journalist or editor (SC45)’ which took place at the 2016 EGU General Assembly in Vienna and was moderated by Christina Reed. The full presentations can be accessed here.

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