Theoretical Geomorphology: Selling a seemingly boring topic

Theoretical Geomorphology: Selling a seemingly boring topic

Anne Voigtländer (TUM Munich) presented her poster at the EGU 2017 and attracted quite some attention. She drew everything per hand and besides chocolate bars and smiling mountains she touched some very interesting topics. Have a look and get inspired!

– written by Anne Voigtländer (TUM Munich) –

Have you ever tried to sell a text on theoretical geomorphology to students? Or even to your fellow scientists? Why is it a seemingly hard and boring topic? Well, reading a paper on theoretical geomorphology is seldom thrilling and you nearly never go about telling everybody about it – unless it has a sexy name like “badass geomorphology”. Even though it might be hard to digest, we base and structure our research, implicitly or explicitly, on those concepts, assumptions and rules/model perception. So why is it so unsexy to talk about theoretical geomorphology? One reason could be that abstract terms are used to describe even more abstract assumptions, i.e. “landscape sensitivity”, “barrier to change”, which suggest how we can discern and interpret processes, forms and interrelations. Hence they leave us with many vague terms and still no really good impression on what it is about, and more important, why the underlying theoretical assumptions matter. And isn’t the overall goal of presenting posters and writing articles, on whatever the topic might be, to be thought provoking?

Could theoretical geomorphology be, theoretically speaking, made sexy?

With my EGU 2017 poster (EGU2017-16469) I tried to tread off the traditional path overcoming some of the aforementioned issues, by focusing on apprehensive and playful graphics to explain theoretical thoughts on geomorphology. In geomorphology we already employ a figurative, formative and illustrative language and topics, so I decided to try out a comic strip-style to introduce and combine two theoretical concepts, namely subcritical crack growth and tectonic predesign. Both concepts touch on fundamental assumptions of driving (processes) and resisting (material) forces promoting fractures, landforms and landscapes without great force. I tried to use real world examples, like breaking a bar of chocolate, where you exploit the grooves to focus stresses. This then allows very little force to initiate and propagate a fracture through the chocolate or bedrock. By placing such images in your mind the theoretical part might be even sweet.

Communication of research and science, and with it the theoretical concepts we base it on, is essential. The abstract terms and academic mystification can act as barriers, which might hinder exchange and integration of our theoretical assumptions. But I am positive that we can change it.

– written by Anne Voigtländer (TUM Munich) –

Time to travel – the ERASMUS program turns 30 this year

Time to travel – the ERASMUS program turns 30 this year

The mobility program of the European Union, named after Erasmus of Rotterdam who studied in different places all over Europe, turns 30 this year. I wanted to take this opportunity to promote this great possibility for gathering international experience and getting insights into the teaching and research skills of our European colleagues.

During the Erasmus UAV course on the outskirts of Vienna, July 2017 (credit: Bloethe & Kraushaar)

The ERASMUS program, named ERASMUS+ since 2014, is most famous for providing scholarships for students, and that is what this backronym originally stands for: European region action scheme for the mobility of university students (ERASMUS). But over the years, the program has been growing, since 1997 also funding the mobility of University staff between institutions. Since then, roughly half a million staff exchanges were funded. Every European University that takes part in the ERASMUS program has bilateral agreements for the mutual exchange of students and staff. And the big advantage of the ERASMUS staff exchange program is that it is very easy to organize: Find out which institution your university has an agreement with, contact a colleague there, sign a mobility agreement and plan your trip. The financial support is really well calculated: Depending on which country you are visiting you will receive a dayly lump sum of 100-160 Euro for living expenses and of course travel costs depending on distance (e.g. 500-2000km = 275 Euro).

Our department at Bonn University for example has 34 partner institutions all over Europe, and with ERASMUS+ there is also the possibility to expand these collaborations to non-EU countries worldwide. This year, we received Tomas Galia from the University of Ostrava (Czech Republic) here in Bonn to share his research findings on woody debris in mountain channels in the Carpathian Mountains and I went to the University of Vienna (Austria) to give a field course on UAV applications in geomorphology together with Sabine Kraushaar. So, take advantage of this opportunity and get to know other departments and offer joint courses with your colleagues and maybe also advance other projects during that shared time.

Check out the possibilities at:


European Critical Physical Geography – or how power relations can be considered during research set ups

– written by Christian Schneider  (University of Leipzig) and Sabine Kraushaar (University of Vienna) –

Group of Critical Physical Geography Scientist from around Europe. Organizers left frist row: Prof. Rebecca Lave (Indiana University) and behind her Prof. Stuart Lane (Université de Lausanne).

In March this year the first European Critical Physical Geography (CPG) Workshop took place in Berlin bringing together 19 scholars from different European and American research institutions and backgrounds under the lead of  Rebecca Lave and Stuart Lane and the financial support by their affiliations Indiana University and the Université de Lausanne.

The workshop intended to:

(i) support the exchange between scientists who follow – or want to follow – a critical approach in their research,

(ii) create a legible base for their proposals and

(iii) promote the ideas.

But let’s start slowly first – What is CPG?

CPG research aims at “critical attention to power relations with deep knowledge of biophysical science or technology in the service of social and environmental transformation” (Lave et al. 2013).

So far scholars who consider themselves part of CPG are engaged in hydrological modeling, geomorphology, critiques on ecosystem services assessments, food sciences, timber production and land use change assessments. Most of the works are influenced by political ecology, science and technology studies, integrative approaches in geography as well as systems theory and critical approaches from political and human geography.

Additionally the workshop made clear that for many scholars in Europe CPG means as well:

  • a space to discuss scientific and activist approaches to dismantle power relations embodied in biophysical systems and/or the perspectives on as well the use of biophysical systems, rather than a new scientific discipline next to political ecology, human geography, physical geography etc.
  • a cooperative and integrative platform to critically reflect on the own work in physical geography as well as in other natural sciences.
  • a school of thought influenced by critical geographical thinkers like David Harvey, Doreen Massey and Neil Smith.
  • Scholars in CPG might also consider themselves as part of societal decision making rather than an objective scientists only providing facts to stakeholders.

Session on the intellectual roots of CPG? How is CPG different from existing interdisciplinary research traditions, such as socio-ecological systems? How is it different from political ecology?

An elementary question of the workshop was how to transform science into CPG research?

Firstly, we as scholars who are interested in CPG need to reflect which epistomologies and onthologies are used in our fields of research, and what kind of knowledge counts and who benefits from the knowledge and data we are producing. Following these considerations, one might stumble over research questions that do not only focus on the measurement of slope instabilities and natural hazards in a certain area but ask for the political and economic factors influencing the spatial distribution of these hazards. Or who suffers from it in what way? Moreover, it became clear that CPG is hard to imagine without a transdisciplinary approach. Many will say at this point that they include stakeholders already in their research through leaflets, presentations or a homepage. However, CPG meant for all the participants that we allow the researched to “talk back to us” and include stakeholders in a way that they are not only informed but actually shape the way how research is done, this way valuing local knowledge and researching an actual demand beside the fundamental interests in a research object.

Let’s put critical into physical geography!

Discussing How do we actually do this? How can we embed critical perspectives in physical models? How can we investigate the co-constitution of eco-social systems? What are the material substances through which structural inequalities are (re)produced?

Most – if not all – of our current environmental challenges cannot be fully understood from only one disciplines perspective. In order to understand urging problems of our time we need to know about the relevant processes and flows of matter and energy as well as about the structures of power which cause and shape the impacts of biophysical phenomena. We need to understand and incorporate critical social and political geographical approaches to analyze social power relations in order to design new critical approaches and foci to assess biophysical systems.

And a lot of work has been done already if we look at Political Ecology, Critical Geography as well as the discourses about a social-ecological transformation and DeGrowth.

The CPG workshop in Berlin also fed into recent attempts to establish a more natural science oriented branch of Critical Geography during the annual meetings of the Critical Geography Network in Germany. Therefore, feel free to contribute to the Research Workshop for Critical Geography 2017 in Bremen or the current initiative to organize a Conference on Critical Geography in Tübingen this year. If you are interested in this topic let’s have a meeting at the EGU 2017 and let’s think about a session on critical physical geography at the EGU 2018.

Interested? Please feel free to contact us!

Christian Schneider:

Sabine Kraushaar:

– written by Christian Schneider  (University of Leipzig) and Sabine Kraushaar (University of Vienna) –

Report from the Spring School on “Statistical analysis of hyperspectral and high-dimensional remote-sensing data using R”, Jena, Germany, March 13-17, 2017

The Spring School on “Statistical analysis of hyperspectral and high-dimensional remote-sensing data using R” was organized by the GIScience group lead by Prof. Alexander Brenning and two researchers from his GIScience research group, Patrick Schratz and Dr. Jannes Münchow. The school brought together a diverse group of 28 researchers (e.g. geoscientists, forestry, environmental studies) at different scientific levels (graduate students, PhD, postdoc, professor) from all over the world as far as Chile, Peru, Turkey, and Bosnia & Herzegowina. Overall, eight german and 16 non-german participants (20 male, 8 female) took part in this event. During five days the participants were introduced to the theoretical background of hyperspectral remote sensing data and learned in numerous hands-on sessions how to analyse and illustrate spatial data in R. The Spring School was organized within the LIFE Healthy Forest project and supported by the Michael Stifel Center Jena. In this short blog-post I want to give you a quick overview of the many, many things we learned during this intense “spatial stats-and-R-week”.

Participants and organizers of the Spring School on “Statistical analysis of hyperspectral and high-dimensional remote-sensing data using R” in Jena, © H. Petschko

On the first day of the summer school the participants obtained a theoretical introduction to hyperspectral remote-sensing data with examples focusing on the application of hyperspectral data in forest research. Marco Peña from the Alberto Hurtado University in Chile gave a lecture on “Introduction to hyperspectral remote sensing” which brought everyone to the same level. This very comprehensive introduction was followed by a talk on hyperspectral applications exemplified on a study on forests in the Bialowieza Forest in eastern Poland by Aneta Modzelewska from the Forest Research Institute in Raszyn. The last talk on the first day was by Dr. Henning Buddenbaum (University of Trier) on “Hyperspectral remote sensing for measuring biochemical leaf parameters in forests”. Dr. Buddenbaum is involved in the Science Advisory Group – Forests and Natural Ecosystems in the EnMAP mission, a German hyperspectral satellite mission aiming at monitoring and characterising the Earth’s environment globally.

The second day was filled with hand-on R sessions. In a first session by Patrick Schratz we learned about his “must know” features of R, namely Rmarkdown, the apply-family and pipes. This was followed by two session focusing on the usage of R as a GIS. Dr. Jannes Münchow, who developed the package RQGIS, an interface between R and QGIS which allows the user to access QGIS algorithms from within R. Afterwards we were introduced to the package mapview, an R package by Dr. Tim Appelhans. Mapview is a GIS-like interactive graphing tool that is directly accessible within RStudio (or the web browser, if you are not using RStudio). It is especially helpful if you want to quickly do a visual check whether a certain analysis has produced reasonable results.

The third day started with a lecture and hands-on session on “Statistical and machine learning in remote sensing” by Prof. Alexander Brenning with a focus on linear discriminant analysis, support vector machine and random forest. A short overview of these statistical modeling methods and the application in R including a comprehensive tutorial can be found here. In the afternoon, Dr. Thomas Bocklitz presented a very different perspective in the application of spectral data analysis in histopathology. Afterwards, the participants had a chance to discuss their own research involving spatial modeling techniques or R-problem with the group and the experts from the GIScience group in Jena.

Solving R-problems with Dr. Jannes Münchow, © H. Petschko

Open session during the Spring School to discuss research projects of the participants, © H. Petschko

Discussion sampling designs with Prof. A. Brenning, © H. Petschko

Introduction to parallel processing in R with Patrick Schratz, © H. Petschko

On the fourth day, Partick Schratz briefly introduced the hsdar developed by Dr. Lukas Lehnert from University of Marburg. It can be used for processing and analysis on hyperspectral data in R. Prof. Brenning focused in his second session further on the assessment of model accuracy (non-spatial and spatial validation methods, variable importance) using the sperrorest package and dealing with high dimensionality in linear regression.

Lecture by Prof. A. Brenning on “Statistical and machine learning in remote sensing”, © H. Petschko

On the last day, we visited a monitoring site and a site with tornado damage (see images below) from 2016 in the Thuringian Forest together with three experts from the official authority “ThüringenForst”. In conclusion, the Spring School was a great event with many fruitful hands-on R-sessions during which the participants could learn helpful tricks in R, how to use R as a GIS and about statistical and machine learning in R. Hopefully there will be more academic “schools” like this one to follow in the future (maybe even with a thematic focus on geomorphology or natural hazards).

Tornado damage in the Thuringian Forest from September 2016 © P. Schratz

Field trip to the Thuringian Forest, © P. Schratz

written by Anna Schoch (PhD student from the University of Bonn)