GeoLog

Hydrological Sciences

Imaggeo on Mondays: Our QUEST for innovative tools to understand changing environments and climates

Imaggeo on Mondays: Our QUEST for innovative tools to understand changing environments and climates

The photo shown here shows typical sampling work underground. You can see Ola Kwiecien and Cinthya Nava Fernandez, researchers at Ruhr University Bochum in Germany, collecting dripwater in New Zealand’s Waipuna Cave as part of a four-year EU-funded monitoring programme. Our research aims at developing innovative geochemical indicators that we can use to quantify changes in the hydrological system or biosphere above the cave that result from variations in weather patterns and climate.

Caves are fantastic natural archives and laboratories. One can imagine caves like libraries of natural history: they host carbonate formations (such as stalagmites, stalactites, flowstones etc., collectively known as speleothems) which, like books, can be read by geochemists to learn about past climatic and environmental conditions. Importantly, these ‘stone books’ must, on the one hand, be protected from destruction by weathering, and on the other, must be written in a language that we can decipher. The secluded cave environment greatly helps protect speleothems from erosion and weathering, while monitoring the cave environment and hydrology allows us to learn the alphabet which nature uses to write natural history into the speleothems. Only then can we reconstruct, and ideally quantify, past environmental conditions.

Of special importance for our work in New Zealand is the El Nino-Southern Oscillation and the southern Westerlies. These two atmospheric subsystems strongly influence weather and climate in New Zealand. Southward or northward shifts of the Westerlies influence New Zealand crop yields and tourism, as well as the fishing economy, among others. El Nino and La Nina have equally strong impacts on weather patterns in New Zealand (and, in fact globally).

Despite many years of research, the mechanisms that cause changes to the ENSO and the Westerlies, and their interaction, still remain poorly understood. This lack of knowledge limits scientists’ efforts to estimate the magnitude and direction of changes that might result from ongoing global warming.

Our team of German, British and New Zealand geochemists, mathematicians, palaeoclimatologists and modellers set out to develop innovative tools and methods that would allow researchers to quantify, for example, changes in rainfall or seasonality, with the ultimate goal that these should be applicable globally. The manual sampling depicted in the photo might soon be replaced by an automatic sampler, which would greatly reduce the costs for regular fieldwork. Especially in remote settings such robots would be of great benefit for our research.

Our team also developed new proxies, such as a lignin-based (biomarker) proxy that allows us to reconstruct changes in vegetation above the cave. We also explored how transition metals behave in the hydrological system of caves, and the factors that control how these metals are transported and incorporated into speleothems. These research activities will hopefully give us powerful and very sensitive tools to quantify changes of environmental parameters, including rainfall, temperature, soil and vegetation and the underlying forcings, like ENSO. Until we have our tool kit properly calibrated, we continue our visits to Waipuna and other caves in New Zealand and Germany.

Our QUEST project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation programme and the Royal Society of New Zealand. Find more at http://quest.pik-potsdam.de/

By Sebastian Breitenbach, Ruhr University Bochum (Germany), and Adam Hartland, University of Waikato (New Zealand)

Imaggeo is the EGU’s online open access geosciences image repository. All geoscientists (and others) can submit their photographs and videos to this repository and, since it is open access, these images can be used for free by scientists for their presentations or publications, by educators and the general public, and some images can even be used freely for commercial purposes. Photographers also retain full rights of use, as Imaggeo images are licensed and distributed by the EGU under a Creative Commons licence. Submit your photos at http://imaggeo.egu.eu/upload/.

Groundwater springs harbour hidden viruses

Groundwater springs harbour hidden viruses

In many parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, groundwater springs are a vital, precious source of water. They are also a reservoir of disease. Research presented at the European Geosciences Union General Assembly in Vienna reveals that groundwater reservoirs in Ghana, Tanzania and Uganda contain diverse communities of viruses – including those that present a risk to human health.

The work, carried out by IHE Delft in the Netherlands and a number of local universities, is the first to find such extensive virus communities in groundwater. Amongst the 25 virus families found were pox and herpes viruses, responsible for a number of skin infections. Papillomavirus, which causes several types of cancer, was also present in the water. And this is just a fraction of what’s likely to be out there – other methods are likely to reveal many more, scientists involved with the new research say.

According to the new findings, the reason for this plethora of pathogens is poor sanitation in areas where freshwater percolates down from the surface and recharges the groundwater supply. Here, the viruses persist for several years before being discharged at the surface.

The virus communities were identified by extracting DNA from the groundwater. This graphic shows how they enter the groundwater and the local population. Credit: IHE Delft

Better sanitation and safe water supplies are needed to address the issue, but there aren’t always enough resources to tackle both. In areas like Kampala (Uganda) as much as 60% of the population relies on groundwater as a source of water. Simply switching to another source is not an option – there are none available.

In Accra (Ghana) and Kampala – groundwater systems are quite confined, covering an area that closely matches the distribution of the community. This means you can use a local approach to groundwater management, and develop something that works well for the communities living there.

Hydrogeolologist Jan Willem Foppen and his team take time to learn from the community, identifying pathways for the future together – an approach called transition management. Each pathway leads to small interventions, that the team can learn from. “When you work with a community and co-create knowledge, you get beautiful and unexpected results,” says Foppen.

For Foppen, the enthusiasm of the local population towards this approach is one of the most rewarding parts of the job: “we see this being replicated in other communities in Ghana and in Kampala, that is the biggest compliment we can get.”

This is still much to uncover about these virus communities. For example, scientists don’t yet know whether the viruses are dead or alive. 70% of the DNA found in the springs was unidentifiable. What’s more there is a whole separate group of viruses – RNA viruses – that haven’t even been studied yet.

By Sara Mynott, EGU Press Assistant

GeoPolicy: Science for Policy at the 2019 General Assembly!

GeoPolicy: Science for Policy at the 2019 General Assembly!

The EGU General Assembly is the largest geoscience meeting in Europe. Not only does it have a diverse array of sessions that you can attend within your own area of expertise but there are also thousands of sessions that will be outside of your research field, as well as sessions on topics that can be applied to a wide range of scientific divisions, jobs and industries – such as science for policy

The line-up for the 2019 EGU General Assembly includes Short Courses, Disciplinary Sessions, Townhall Meetings, Interdisciplinary Sessions and Union-wide Sessions that focus on various aspects of science-policy. Even if you’re just a bit curious about science for policy, it’s definitely worth adding a couple of the policy related sessions outlined below into your #EGU19 schedule!

Science and Society (SCS)

Science and Society is the new union-wide session format that provides a space to host scientific forums dedicated to connecting with high-level institutions and engaging the public and policymakers.

  • Plan-S: Should scientific publishers be forced to go Open Access: With support from the European Commission and European Research Council, plan S demands that research supported by participating funders must be published in Open Access journals by January 1, 2020. This session will debate the questions surrounding the implementation of the plan and its consequences.
  • Past and future tipping points and large climate transitions in Earth history: This session will discuss the advances in modeling forces triggering and amplifying Earth’s climate and carbon cycle. Given that Earth’s climate is currently experiencing an unprecedented transition under anthropogenic pressure, understanding the mechanisms behind the scene is vital and can help steer policy.

Short Courses (SC)

Disciplinary Sessions

Please keep in mind, that this isn’t an exhaustive list! There are a lot of other sessions at the EGU that can either be directly linked with science for policy or that include research relevant for policymakers. You can find more policy-related sessions on the EGU General Assembly Programme (which you can access online and via the EGU2019 mobile app) and through the General Assembly special sessions page. This page tags sessions under the categories of policy, diversity, media, early career scientists and public engagement so that GA participants with an interest in these topics can find relevant sessions quickly. If you think a session or event within one of these categories is missing, please email the EGU Media and Communications Manager at media@egu.eu with a link to the session, and the category where it should be listed and why.

If you have any further questions or comments regarding the EGU General Assembly’s policy activities, feel free to get in touch via email or come and meet me and the rest of the EGU office in person at the EGU Booth on Friday April 12, 10:15–10:45.

 

Geosciences Column: Flooded by jargon

Geosciences Column: Flooded by jargon

When hydrologists and people of the general public use simple water-related words, are they actually saying the same thing? While many don’t consider words like flood, river and groundwater to be very technical terms, also known as jargon, water scientists and the general public can actually have pretty different definitions. This is what a team of researchers have discovered in recent study, and their results were published in EGU’s open access journal Hydrology and Earth System Sciences. In this post, Rolf Hut, an assistant professor at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands and co-author of the study, blogs about his team’s findings.

On the television a scientist is interviewed, in a room with a massive collection of books:

“Due to climate change, the once in two years flood now reaches up to…”

“Flood?” interrupts my dad “We haven’t had a flood in fifteen years; how can they talk about a once in two years flood?”

The return period of floods is an often used example to illustrate how statistically illiterate ‘the general public’ is supposed to be. But maybe we shouldn’t focus on the phrase ‘once in two years’, but rather on the term ‘flood’. Because: does my dad know what that scientist, a colleague of mine, means when she says “flood”?

In water-science the words that experts use are the same words that people use in daily life. Words like ‘flood’, ‘dam’ or ‘river’. Because we have been using these words for our entire lives, we may not stop and think that, because of our training as water scientists, we may have a different definition than what people outside our field may have. When together with experts on science communication, I was writing a review paper about geoscience on television[1] when we got into the discussion “what is jargon?”. We quickly found out that within geoscience this is an open question.

Together with a team of Netherlands-based scientists, including part-time journalist and scientist Gemma Venhuizen and professor of science communication Ionica Smeets and assistant professor on soils Cathelijne Stoof and professor of statistics Casper Albers we decided to look for an answer to this question. We conducted a survey where we asked people what they thought words like ‘flood’ meant. People could pick from different definitions. Those definitions were not wrong per se, just different. One might be from Wikipedia and another from a policy document from EU officials. We did not want to test if people were correct, but rather if there was a difference in meaning attached to words between water scientists and lay people. For completeness, we also added picture questions where people had to pick the picture that best matched a certain word.

The results are in. We recently published our findings in the EGU journal Hydrology and Earth System Sciences[2] and will present them at the EGU General Assembly in April 2019 in Vienna. As it turns out: words like ‘groundwater’, ‘discharge’ and even ‘river’ have a large difference between the meaning lay-people have compared to water scientists. For the pictures however, people tend to agree more. The figure below shows the misfit distribution between lay people and water scientists: the bigger the misfit, the more people have different definitions. The numbers on the right are the Bayes factor: bigger than 10 indicates strong evidence that differences between lay people and water scientists are more likely than similarities. The words with an asterisk are the picture questions, showing that when communicating using pictures people are more likely to share the same definition.

Graph showing the posterior distribution of the misfit between laypeople and experts by using a Bayes factor (BF) for every term used in the survey. Pictorial questions are marked with an asterisk. A value of the BF <1∕10 is strong evidence towards H0: it is more likely that laypeople answer questions the same as experts than differently. A value of the BF >10 is strong evidence towards H1: differences are more likely than similarities. In addition to a Bayes factor for the significance of the difference, we also calculated the misfit: the strength of the difference. The misfit was calculated by a DIF score (differential item functioning), in which DIF =0 means perfect match, and DIF =1 means maximum difference. (Figure from https://doi.org/10.5194/hess-23-393-2019)

Maybe that scientist talking about floods on the television should have been filmed at a flood site, not in front of a pile of books.

Finally, the term ‘flood’ proved to be one of the words that we do tend to agree on, so maybe dad should take that class in basic statistics afterall…

By dr. ir. Rolf Hut, researcher at Delft University of Technology, the Netherlands

[This article is cross-posted on Rolf Hut’s personal site]

References

[1] Hut, R., Land-Zandstra, A. M., Smeets, I., and Stoof, C. R.: Geoscience on television: a review of science communication literature in the context of geosciences, Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci., 20, 2507-2518, https://doi.org/10.5194/hess-20-2507-2016, 2016.

[2] Venhuizen, G. J., Hut, R., Albers, C., Stoof, C. R., and Smeets, I.: Flooded by jargon: how the interpretation of water-related terms differs between hydrology experts and the general audience, Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci., 23, 393-403, https://doi.org/10.5194/hess-23-393-2019, 2019.