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GeoPolicy: An expert discussion on ozone – working at the science-policy interface

GeoPolicy: An expert discussion on ozone – working at the science-policy interface

Erika von Schneidemesser is our first guest blogger for the newly established EGUPolicy column. Erika is a Research Scientist at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies based in Potsdam, Germany. Her post gives an insight into working at the science-policy interface by describing a recent project she has been involved in.

As scientists and researchers we are increasingly being asked to conduct or participate in interdisciplinary (working across disciplines) or transdisciplinary (working with stakeholders outside of academia) research. Science-policy work is one aspect of this. However, it is often hard to know how, who, where, or when to engage. To hopefully shed a bit of light on this topic I will take you through the process for a recent science-policy activity we collaborated on, topically focused on ozone air pollution. An activity like this can easily be part of a larger context or series of actions integrated into a research project, or it could also be a one-off event.

Erika von Schneidemesser

Erika von Schneidemesser, researcher at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies.

As a bit of context, I work at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS) in Potsdam, Germany. This institute is set up as a combination research institute-think tank hybrid with a focus on transformational and transdisciplinary research. Topically the research program that I work in has a focus on air quality in the larger context of global change. Through previous participation in local science-policy events, we developed a relationship with a German NGO (Deutsche Umwelthilfe) that also has as one area of focus, air quality. (As a side note: working with Deutsche Umwelthilfe, or any NGO, does not mean doing advocacy work, but is rather focused on providing solid, up-to-date science information.)

With the revisions to European air quality-relevant emission directives planned, we discussed organizing a ‘Fachgespräch’ (expert discussion) on ozone. This was a natural fit given that much of our research focus is on ozone, and it is still a critical air quality issue for Europe. More than 98% of the population in European urban areas was exposed to concentrations of ozone exceeding the WHO guideline values in 2012.[1] Our interest was to communicate some of our latest work on ozone and to raise awareness of the relevance of ozone as an environmental and air quality issue that is still important in Europe and globally. Their interest was to be able to inform revisions of air quality legislation, as well as being able to provide a solid scientific basis for justification to reduce ozone precursor species.

Together we designed the Fachgespräch. Considering the questions: What do we want to get out of it? What would make the activity a success? What aspects should be included to reach these goals? Who is our target audience? In this case we were aiming for a robust discussion including perspectives from science and policy. To lay the groundwork for the rest of the discussion, it was important that we cover the state of the science regarding ozone. This can inform how proposed mitigation might be supported by the science and/or identify areas where more research might be needed. We also included experts not only from atmospheric chemistry, but from health and ecosystem impacts.  Understanding the state of the knowledge on the human health effects and ecosystem impacts of ozone is important in addressing the current air quality guidelines and standards. Are the guidelines and standards sufficient to protect our health and ecosystems? Experts from local to national policy (in this case local government representatives and the German Environment Agency) were also key participants, to address what has been implemented in terms of policy. Where have previous reductions in ozone precursor emissions (substances which react in the atmosphere to produce ozone) been made, and where is there significant potential for progress? A mix of participants from different science, policy, and societal organizations made for a robust and interesting discussion.

As part of this Fachgespräch we had planned to write a policy brief that could be distributed to a wider audience that built on the information presented and any conclusions that came out of the event. This was a collaborative publication, and without going into the content, you can read it here. This briefing was used by the NGO in their discussions with EU ministers to aid their considerations for revisions to air quality-relevant emission directives. Furthermore, after publishing the policy brief, it became clear that this document appealed to a wider audience than previously identified   as we received requests for copies from members of academia who found it useful as support for research funding/facilities on ozone. Events and discussions such as these are often useful to inform research by identifying areas particularly relevant to informing policy, or where interdisciplinary collaboration or additional disciplinary efforts could add significant value to advance the science.

Hopefully this post has shed some light on science-policy work, and maybe even given you a few ideas for discussion of your own. There are a lot of different options out there, but it is important to identify what fits to your work and goals. Attending such events in your field and geographical area to cultivate relationships that may lead to future collaborations is a great way to start.

[1] EEA. Air Quality in Europe – 2014 Report. p.54.


By Erika von Schneidemesser, researcher at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies.

Mars Rocks – introducing a citizen science project

Mars Rocks – introducing a citizen science project

GeoLog followers will remember our previous report on Citizen Geoscience: the exciting possibilities it presents for the acquisition of data, whilst cautioning against the exploitation of volunteered labour. This blog presents a Citizen Science platform that goes beyond data collection to analysis, specifically for geological changes in remote sensing imagery of Mars. Jessica Wardlaw, a Postdoctoral Research Associate in Web GIS, at the Nottingham Geospatial Institute, introduces ‘iMars’ and explains 1) its scientific mission and 2) why imagery analysis is especially suitable for a crowd sourcing approach, so that you might consider where and how to apply it to your project.

Imagine, just for a moment, that the Mars Geological Survey invited you to an interview for the position of Scientist in Charge. Why and how would you reconstruct the geological past for a remote planet such as Mars? Where would you start? Earth is the “Goldilocks” planet, not only for human habitation but for geologists too, who can sample and test rock to understand the evolution of the Earth’s surface on which to base well-established theories such as plate tectonics. To understand the geological past and processes of remote planets, however, requires different approaches.

Planetary scientists investigate the climate and atmosphere, and the geological terrain, of planets to further understanding of our own place in the solar system. Mars provides a scintillating snapshot of early Earth; whilst some scientists contend that plate tectonics has historically happened on Mars, 70% of its surface dates from the moment it formed and provides a platform from which to view Earth in its infancy. In fact, despite our limited knowledge of Mars, it has already informed our understanding of Earth, inspiring James Lovelock’s Gaia theory. Imminent missions to the red planet are also already exploiting geological information to inform landing sites and routes of roving vehicles on Mars. The more information scientists have, the more likely missions are to land in suitable locations to successfully pursue scientific goals, such as understanding the ability of the Martian environment to support life and water, both now and in the past, which could further theories on the origins of the solar system, life on Earth, and Earth’s destiny.

Many will remember this summer for the astonishing images that arrived from Pluto, but 50 years ago, almost to the day, people celebrated the first successful fly-by mission to Mars. Mariner 4 took 21 images from a distance 6,000 miles, which, after the initial excitement, disappointingly revealed that Mars had a Moon-like cratered surface, and led to a long-held misconception of a dead, red planet. It was in 1976 that two Viking landers touched down on the red soil for the first time, paving the way for further Martian missions, with the first mission of the European Space Agency’s ExoMars programme launching next year.

The first Mars photograph and our first close-up of another planet. A representation of digital data radioed by the Mariner 4 spacecraft on 15th July 1965. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Dan Goods)

The first Mars photograph and our first close-up of another planet. A representation of digital data radioed by the Mariner 4 spacecraft on 15th July 1965. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Dan Goods)

Scientists analyse the size and density of craters from meteorite impacts to age the surface. The theory goes that smaller meteorites collide with a planet much more frequently than larger ones, and older surfaces have more craters because they have been exposed for longer. Advances in imaging technology since then now provide scientists with greater granularity than ever before and glimpses of other geologic features, recognisable from the surface of the Earth; sand dunes, dust devils, debris avalanches, gullies, canyons all appear and tell us about the planet’s climatic processes. The Planet Four website is just one example.

The images taken of Mars over the last forty years reveal changes on the surface that indicate invaluable information that help us to understand the climate and geology of the planet. Changes are visible in imagery over a variety of timescales, from rapidly-moving dust devils (much bigger that the one that once trapped me in Death Valley), seasonal fluctuations of the polar ice caps and recurring slope lineae (recently reported to indicate contemporary water activity) polar ice caps and the snail-slow shaping of sand dunes.

Three images of the same location taken at different times over one Martian year show how the seasonal fluctuation of the polar cap of condensed carbon dioxide (dry ice), between its solid and gaseous state, destabilises a Martian dune at high altitude to cause sand avalanches and ripple changes. (Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)

Three images of the same location taken at different times over one Martian year show how the seasonal fluctuation of the polar cap of condensed carbon dioxide (dry ice), between its solid and gaseous state, destabilises a Martian dune at high altitude to cause sand avalanches and ripple changes. (Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)

The quality and coverage of these images, however, varies greatly due to atmospheric conditions and tilt of the camera amongst other reasons. To create a consistent album of imagery, that we can confidently compare and use to identify geological changes in the images, requires considerable computational work. Images from across as much of the Martian surface as possible must be processed to remove those of poor quality and correct for different coordinate systems (co-registration) and terrain (ortho-rectification).

The iMars project is applying the latest Big Data mining techniques to over 400,000 images, so that they can be used to compute and classify changes in geological features. On a Citizen Science platform, Mars in Motion, volunteers will define the nature and scale of changes in surface features from ortho-rectified and co-registered images to a much greater detail. Human performance is inherently variable in ways we cannot fully control, either, in the same way that we can control the performance of an algorithm. Although we are investigating this too, this would require another blog post! For now I will describe the reasons why we are using a crowd-sourcing approach for this project so that you might consider how you could apply it to your research.

First of all, humans have evolved over millions of years to identify subtle variations in visual patterns to a more sophisticated level than computers currently can. Computers can execute repetitive tasks and store an infinite amount of information with far less impact on their performance than humans; the human mind, however, has proved to be too flexible and creative for computers to fully replicate, with the success of Citizen Science projects such as Galaxy Zoo, which has so far resulted in 48 academic publications. The slow seasonal shift of sand dunes on Mars, for example, would require a computer algorithm of inordinate intelligence to identify, as previous attempts to automatically detect impact craters, valley networks and sand dunes in images of Mars have found. Recent research has resulted in some very sophisticated algorithms for image analysis, but detection of changes in such a range of geological features over the range of spatial and temporal scales that we are looking to do is computationally complex and expensive. Without sending somebody to Mars, how do we know whether the computer is correct? Machine learning algorithms can only calculate what you ask them to, so are ill-equipped to make the sort of serendipitous discoveries of the unknown required in the detection of change. Volunteers in the Mars in Motion project will seek differences (Figure 4), rather than similarities, between the images and it is inherently challenging to program a computer to find something that you don’t even know to look for.

Mars in Motion: Spot the difference...on the surface of Mars!

Mars in Motion: Spot the difference…on the surface of Mars!

Secondly, we have so much data that scientists could not possibly do all of this themselves! In many areas of science and humanities, but especially in Earth and Planetary observation, Big Data capture is growing at an astronomical rate, far faster than resources and techniques for its analysis can keep up so that we are increasingly unable to handle it. This is where geoscientists have started to join the trend for recruiting volunteers to analyse imagery with some success; through large crowd-sourcing image analysis projects, like TomNod, citizens continually contribute interpretation of images for social and scientific purposes. The number of volunteers, however, is finite and the increase in data places more and more demand upon their time. Researchers using the Citizen Science approach must now carefully consider how their projects can utilise volunteers’ time effectively, efficiently and ethically.

Third and finally, a crowd-sourcing approach exposes the public to improvements in imaging technology and brings the dynamic nature of the Martian surface to life. This can only improve the chances of space exploration receiving further funding and entering classrooms through the way it combines many areas of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Serendipitously, the engagement of the public also increases the number of pairs of eyes that analyse the images and, as such, the confidence with which scientists can use their classifications. As we collect more and more data, image analysis will necessarily require collaboration between humans and computers, as well as between volunteers and researchers, to manage it.

I hope this post gives you an insight into how we are applying the Citizen Science to consider how it might help your research too. There is actually no better time to try setting up a Citizen Science project with the launch of the Zooniverse project builder, which makes it easier than ever before to build your own project.

By Jessica Wardlaw, researcher at the University of Nottingham

The research leading to these results has received funding from the European Union Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013) under the iMars grant agreement no. 607379.

Visit and follow @JessWardlaw for updates on iMars and Mars in Motion.

Cruising the Mediterranean: a first-hand account of a month at sea – Part 2

Cruising the Mediterranean: a first-hand account of a month at sea – Part 2

This week we feature the second instalment in this series, which follows the adventures of Simona Aracri, a PhD student at University of Southampton, and her colleagues. as they spent a month aboard a research vessel, cruising the Mediterranean Sea. Simona and the team of scientists aboard the boat documented their experiences via a blog. This time we discover that chemists are always kept busy on a ship and learn more about mega heatwaves! For more details on the research cruise and its aims, why not revisit the first chapter of the series?

10th August 2015 – Motion on the ocean and age-old rivalries

Having spent 4 days of non-stop sampling from depth profiles between Tunisia and Sicily, and Sicily and Sardinia, I for one was incredibly pleased when the ship held position off Sardinia last night to ride out some bad weather. Hitting your bunk for 12 hours sleep when you haven’t been in it for more than 1 hour at a time for 3 nights is an amazing feeling.

Choppy seas kept us just off Sardinia until an hour ago. As the weather has now improved again we are cruising to our first station in a transect from Sardinia to Menorca. So what do we do while we await our next sampling station? Well that depends on which ‘we’ you mean.

Carbon pump filtration lab. All the spaces available on board where used! Credit: Sara Durante

Carbon pump filtration lab. All the spaces available on board where used! Credit: Sara Durante

The chemists, busy as ever, are working on our instruments. Some of our instruments must be calibrated very regularly to keep the quality of data high. Keeping delicate instruments free from saltwater corrosion is also an ongoing battle in a ‘wet’ laboratory. A 6 hour break as we cruise to our first station is therefore a perfect time to clean and calibrate our instruments so that they are working perfectly when we arrive. Our students onboard can also catch up on the chemical titrations they are running. Every oxygen sample we take for manual measurement has to be titrated in the laboratory, so after 4 days of solid sample collection there is inevitably a big backlog of these titrations to run.

The marine biologists (who outnumber the chemists about 3:1), well I am not sure where they are or what they are doing… Maybe, to quote Rutherford, they are busy stamp collecting…Maybe they are in their bunks dreaming of being ‘promoted’ to marine chemists… Maybe they should blog themselves so you can find out…

Mark Hopwood, post-doc at GEOMAR, Germany (@Markinthelab and @OceanCertain)

11th August 2015 – The legacy of the mega heatwave
Night time SST in the Western Mediterranean on 22nd July 2015. Data courtesy of CMEMS.

Night time SST in the Western Mediterranean on 22nd July 2015. Data courtesy of CMEMS.

Under the influence of warm air masses from the south, July 2015 was one of the hottest on record in southern Europe. Long-lasting periods of multiple heat events and temperature extremes represent a class of extreme weather events also known as Mega Heatwaves. Such events are predicted to increase in frequency in the Mediterranean region, a hot spot for climate change. What are the consequences of these events on the biological pump are yet to be elucidated. Our scientific crew on-board the R/V Minerva Uno is now sampling the response of the upper ocean of the western Mediterranean Sea to the recent mega heatwave, still ongoing although now weakened. Hopefully, the stunning work carried out will help sheding light on the role of environmental stressors associated to these meteorological conditions, such as excessive radiation and heating and increased stratification, on the functionality of the marine ecosystem. This, while the Mediterranean Sea is experiencing tropical-like temperatures, for several days close to or above 30°C in many spots. As the summer goes by approaching the cold season, the gentle, boiling and still Mediterranean Sea soon will become pure fuel, feeding remarkably different classes of extreme weather: flash floods, severe cyclogeneses and Mediterranean hurricanes.

Jacopo Chiggiato, Scientist at CNR-ISMAR

13th August 2015 – An alien from the deep
Phronima sp. The little night treasure collected with the Neuston net. Credit: Anna Schroeder

Phronima sp. The little night treasure collected with the Neuston net. Credit: Anna Schroeder

Accompanied with the sunset colours, zooplanktonists start the work. While the folks is in the labs, filtering more and more liters of water, we are so excited waiting what is coming from the sea, stolen from the deep blue. Our aim is to study the contribution of the zooplankton branch to the carbon flux in a pelagic environment and how the climate change can affect these fluxes and the zooplankton community of the Western Mediterranean Sea.

We perform several “net-casts” in the upper 500 m of the water column. We investigate the variety and abundance of the zooplankton community with classical methods (microscope analysis) and with innovative methods (metagenomics). We study trophic relations through the analysis of stable isotopes of carbon and nitrogen. We analyse the respiration rate of the entire community.

Here we are, curious to see what our net is bringing to us…

Marco Pansera, post-doc at CNR-ISMAR, and Anna Schroeder, master student at University of Hamburg.

16th August 2015 – The ocean is not enough

Not yet the end, but almost. Bad weather seems to have given us a break, the sea is sweetly pitching and rolling our ship, after a whole night that filled the dark sky with flashes, illuminating yellow-blue clouds. This morning everyone is finally sleeping, we finished tonight the sampling for this leg.

CFC sampling. Dissolved gases in the sea are very volatile, therefore the CFC sampling is the first one to happen when the rosette arrives on board. Credit: Sara Durante

CFC sampling. Dissolved gases in the sea are very volatile, therefore the CFC sampling is the first one to happen when the rosette arrives on board. Credit: Sara Durante

White ones, red ones, yellow ones, colour codes help us to understand who samples what, and where in the water column: red stations are “just cast”, yellow station are biogeochemical ones, very few amounts of water for each depth, but a lot of parameters to sample, to study the behaviour of the carbon pump or the age of the deep waters…from CFCs to oxygen, from pH to nutrients and so on. You cannot be in a hurry, you have to wait your turn, CFCs and oxygen first, so…did you finish with this bottle? May I sample? The most complex ones are the white ones, the biological stations. Everyone needs water at every different depth, it seems that all the water in the sea is not enough for everyone! So close one more bottle for me please, and I will let you have my leftover water!

Around the rosette just serene people enjoying their work, everyone with a kind word or a smile for who is following in “milking” Niskin bottles. After the CTD rosette, the net. After the net, another CTD rosette. AS the sunset goes by entering the twilight, happy birthday to someone, goodnight to someone else, and good job for everybody!

Sara Durante, Ph.D. student at Parthenope University

By Simona Aracri, PhD student at University of Southampton and colleague aboard the R/V Minerva Uno