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The ReSToRE summer school on the sustainable development of Earth resources: reflecting back

The ReSToRE summer school on the sustainable development of Earth resources: reflecting back

How can we source and use Earth resources in an ethical and responsible way? And how can we bring different actors and communities together to achieve sustainable resource development? These are just some of the questions that early career researchers from around the world came together to discuss during the inaugural Researching Social Theories, Resources, and the Environment International Summer School, held at the University College Dublin last month. In this blog post, Anthea Lacchia, a postdoctoral researcher at the Irish Centre for Research in Applied Geosciences, and Jen Roberts, a Chancellor’s Fellow in Energy at the University of Strathclyde, share their experience reporting on this summer school.

On the first week of July 2019, we were lucky enough to be part of a very special gathering of geoscientists and social scientists from developed and developing countries at University College Dublin (UCD), Ireland. The occasion that brought them all together was the inaugural Researching Social Theories, Resources, and Environment (ReSToRE) International Summer School.

The goal of the ReSToRE summer school was to enable critical cross-disciplinary discussions around the sustainable sourcing and use of Earth resources now and in the future. Big topic, right? And certainly one that can only be tackled by bringing together different perspectives, as became apparent during the week.

Organised by iCRAG, the Irish Centre for Research in Applied Geosciences, the summer school included 42 early career researchers and recent graduates from 28 nations including 18 developing countries.

“Moving forward for sustainable development is very complicated,” said Murray Hitzman, Director of iCRAG. “Not only are there technical challenges in terms of Earth resources and energy, but in terms of how people actually perceive both sustainable development and those challenges is even more critical.”

“This summer school is trying to help with this not just in one society, but in multiple societies, and to get those societies to understand one another as well, which is also a huge challenge,” he noted.

The summer school succeeded in creating a stimulating setting for interdisciplinary collaboration, knowledge sharing and network-building. During the week, participants discussed emerging themes pertinent to the future of resourcing and consumption of Earth materials, such as: what drives societal attitudes toward the extraction industry? How can communities have their say in if and how resources near to them are developed? What are the barriers to a circular economy in the resources sector? How can Earth materials be resources in an ethical and responsible way?

Participants took the lead in deliberating these big questions. They were aided by guidance from expert mentors, as well as plenary talks and discussions. The conversations naturally spilled from the workshops into the social events, which included a fieldtrip to Glendalough, Co. Wicklow, Ireland, the site of an ancient lead, zinc and silver mine, and now a spectacular glacial valley.

And Summer put on a fine performance for the week, allowing the participants to move outside and seek inspiration amongst the fresh air, daisies and curious ducks.

ReSToRE painting by summer school participant and artist, Meenakshi Poti (joint PhD student at Université Libre de Bruxelles and Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium).

“Deposits of the metals that we need are irregularly distributed across the globe, and their value must be assessed with respect to sustainable development, alleviation of poverty and empowering of communities,” said International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS) Councillor, Edmund Nickless, at the opening session of the summer school.

“This course is asking the right questions at the right time and the mix of social scientists and geoscientists and environmental scientists together is a triangle we really need,” added Ozlem Adiyaman Lopes from UNESCO’s Earth and Ecological Sciences division, who was able to join the summer school for several days.

Amongst participants and expert mentors 33 different nationalities were represented, including from Afghanistan, Australia, Bangladesh, Belgium, Botswana, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Congo (DR), Croatia, Ethiopia, Finland, Germany, Hungary, India, Ireland, Italy, Kenya, Lithuania, Mozambique, Namibia, Netherlands, Papua New Guinea, Russia, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Sweden, Switzerland, Tanzania, Turkey, UK, USA, and Zimbabwe. What an incredible forum!

Some reflections on the way ahead

Some key themes emerged from the conversations amongst the participants, expert mentors and organisers during the week. Firstly, the different actors necessary for resourcing a sustainable future cannot be considered in isolation. Consumer demand, business practices, environmental and societal impacts, community involvement in decision-making and development are all intrinsically interlinked in a non-linear chain which interweaves resource supply use and reuse.

Future resource development in line with global sustainability goals will require interplay between the technical and non-technical worlds, bridging policy, industry, practitioners and academia, and uniting geoscience and engineering, and social and political science, as well as local communities.

Summer school participants admiring the Irish landscape during the ReSToRE fieldtrip, Sally Gap, Co. Wicklow.

The circular economy, which aims to extract the most value out of resources and materials whilst in use, can act as a useful model for the resource sector: wherever one is placed along the supply chain from producer to consumer, we should all be supporting ways of producing resources cleanly and efficiently, with reduced, managed and – where possible – reused waste. And the management of mining waste has had increased profile in the past few years, with several tragic and preventable collapses of tailings dams which have had major societal and environmental consequences.

Our role

As reporters of the ReSToRE summer school, our role was to take note of the event and support the delivery of key outcomes. This meant that we were very busy capturing thoughts from participants, organisers, speakers and mentors through interviews, soaking in the atmosphere at the various social events and workshops, and carving out occasional moments to sit down by the lake at UCD and reflect on the week and how it was going. We relied on a trusted voice recorder and notebook, and quickly became acutely acquainted with the opening hours of cafés around campus. The participants’ WhatsApp group also proved incredibly useful for gaging how participants were feeling, as well as asking people to gather round for a photo, check a nationality or give advice on the best sights in Dublin, or pubs showing the Women’s World Cup.

More importantly, the summer school provided opportunity to create a diverse, international network of like-minded individuals working in the interdisciplinary sphere, as well as enabling everyone involved, including participants, mentors, organisers and ourselves to learn, reflect, and to create potential new avenues for research and collaboration.

One of the highlights has to be the mix of nationalities and cultures represented, as well as a general spirit of openness to new ideas and perspectives. Although the week was intense and the workshop participants were tasked with preparing presentations of their findings for the final day, the support and lack of competition amongst participants was palpable, and paved the way for creativity to emerge. Together, they created a safe space in which to be open, reflective, responsive and curious, and to bravely tackle some very complex questions.

We hope to continue these conversations at the interface of societal issues and geoscience at future conferences, such as the EGU General Assembly 2020. We hope you are inspired to join in. See you there!

By Anthea Lacchia (Irish Centre for Research in Applied Geosciences at University College Dublin) and Jen Roberts (University of Strathclyde)

Find out more

A suite of summer school resources, including live-streamed videos of the presentations and discussions by experts in the field and blogs from the delegates, can be found on the ReSTORE webpage: https://www.icrag-centre.org/restore/

iCRAG, the International Union of Geological Sciences and Geological Survey Ireland were the organising sponsors of ReSToRE, which was run under the patronage of UNESCO.

Sponsorship also came from BHP, Boliden, Rio Tinto, Teck, with additional support received from Irish Research Council and UCD College of Business.

About the authors

Anthea Lacchia

Anthea grew up in northern Italy, in a town at the foot of the Alps. Having studied Classics in high school in Italy, she moved to Ireland and obtained a BA in Geology from Trinity College Dublin.  During her undergraduate studies, she developed a keen interest in thinking about the lives of ancient animals preserved in rocks – fossils – which led her to pursue a PhD in palaeontology, specifically looking at extinct relatives of squid and cuttlefish called ammonoids. She spent many seasons of fieldwork perusing the rocks of Co. Clare, in western Ireland. In parallel with her research, she gained experience both in science writing and newspaper editing. Following completion of her PhD, she spent a year working as a press officer for Springer Nature in London. She then returned to Ireland to start postdoctoral research in iCRAG, the Irish Centre for Research in Applied Geosciences, in University College Dublin, where she is studying public perception and understanding of geosciences, with a focus on the geology and communities of Co. Clare. Her postdoc allows her to combine her passion for geology with that for science communication and public engagement. Anthea also works as a freelance science writer. Anthea took part in the ReSToRE Summer School as a reporter.

Jen Roberts

Jen is a Chancellor’s Fellow in Energy at the University of Strathclyde. Her research is interdisciplinary and applied, and addresses the social and environmental risk of geological resources – often relating to energy. Jen uses her technical background in geology to tackle questions relevant across geoscience, environmental science, environmental psychology, environmental engineering and political science. These questions relate to the perception, assessment and communication of risks relating to low-carbon energy technologies, which, for many, the subsurface plays a vital role. Ultimately her work aims to inform how the necessary transition to a net zero carbon future can be implemented in a way that is acceptable to society and to the environment. Jen took part in the ReSToRE Summer School as a reporter.

GeoTalk: To understand how ice sheets flow, look at the bedrock below

GeoTalk: To understand how ice sheets flow, look at the bedrock below

Geotalk is a regular feature highlighting early career researchers and their work. In this interview we speak to Mathieu Morlighem, an associate professor of Earth System Science at the University of California, Irvine who uses models to better understand ongoing changes in the Cryosphere. At the General Assembly he was the recipient of a 2018 Arne Richter Award for Outstanding Early Career Scientists.  

Could you start by introducing yourself and telling us a little more about your career path so far?

Mathieu Morlighem (Credit: Mathieu Morlighem)

I am an associate professor at the University of California Irvine (UCI), in the department of Earth System Science. My current research focuses on better understanding and explaining ongoing changes in Greenland and Antarctica using numerical modelling.

I actually started glaciology by accident… I was trained as an engineer, at Ecole Centrale Paris in France, and was interested in aeronautics and space research. I contacted someone at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in the US to do a six-month internship at the end of my master’s degree, thinking that I would be designing spacecrafts. This person was actually a famous glaciologist (Eric Rignot), which I did not know. He explained that I was knocking on the wrong door, but that he was looking for students to build a new generation ice sheet model. I decided to accept this offer and worked on developing a new ice sheet model (ISSM) from scratch.

Even though this was not what I was anticipating as a career path, I truly loved this experience. My initial six-month internship became a PhD, and I then moved to UCI as a project scientist, before getting a faculty position two years later. Looking back, I feel incredibly lucky to have seized that opportunity. I came to the right place, at the right time, surrounded by wonderful people.

This year you received an Arne Richter Award for Outstanding Early Career Scientists for your innovative research in ice-sheet modelling. Could you give us a quick summary of your work in this area?

The Earth’s ice sheets are losing mass at an increasing rate, causing sea levels to rise, and we still don’t know how quickly they could change over the coming centuries. It is a big uncertainty in sea level rise projections and the only way to reduce this uncertainty is to improve ice flow models, which would help policy makers in terms of coastal planning or choosing mitigation strategies.

I am interested in understanding the interactions of ice and climate by combining state-of-the-art numerical modelling with data collected by satellite and airplanes (remote sensing) or directly on-site (in situ).  Modelling ice sheet flow at the scale of Greenland and Antarctica remains scientifically and technically challenging. Important processes are still poorly understood or missing in models so we have a lot to do.

I have been developing the UCI/JPL Ice Sheet System Model, a new generation, open source, high-resolution, higher-order physics ice sheet model with two colleagues at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory over the past 10 years. I am still actively developing ISSM and it is the primary tool of my research.

More specifically, I am working on improving our understanding of ice sheet dynamics and the interactions between the ice and the other components of the Earth system, as well as improving current data assimilation capability to correctly initialize ice sheet models and capture current trends. My work also involves improving our knowledge of the topography of Greenland and Antarctica’s bedrock (through the development of new algorithms and datasets). Knowing the shape of the ground beneath the two ice sheets is key for understanding how an ice sheet’s grounding line (the point where floating ice meets bedrock) changes and how quickly chunks of ice will break from the sheet, also known as calving.

Steensby Glacier flows around a sharp bend in a deep canyon. (Credit: NASA/ Michael Studinger)

At the General Assembly, you presented a new, comprehensive map of Greenland’s bedrock topography beneath its ice and the surrounding ocean’s depths. What is the importance of this kind of information for scientists?

I ended up working on developing this new map because we could not make any reliable simulations with the bedrock maps that were available a few years ago: they were missing key features, such as deep fjords that extend 10s of km under the ice sheet, ridges that stabilize the retreat, underwater sills (that act as sea floor barriers) that may block warm ocean waters at depth from interacting with the ice, etc.

Subglacial bed topography is probably the most important input parameter in an ice sheet model and remains challenging to measure. The bed controls the flow of ice and its discharge into the ocean through a set of narrow valleys occupied by outlet glaciers. I am hoping that the new product that I developed, called BedMachine, will help reduce the uncertainty in numerical models, and help explain current trends.

3D view of the bed topography and ocean bathymetry of the Greenland Ice Sheet from BedMachine v3 (Credit: Peter Fretwell, BAS)

How did you and your colleagues create this map, and how does it compare to previous models?

The key ingredient in this map, is that a lot of it is based on physics instead of a simple “blind” interpolation. Bedrock elevation is measured by airborne radars, which send electromagnetic pulses into the Earth’s immediate sub-surface and collect information on how this energy is reflected back. By analyzing the echo of the electromagnetic wave, we can determine the ice thickness along the radar’s flight lines. Unfortunately, we cannot determine the topography away from these lines and the bed needs to be interpolated between these flight lines in order to provide complete maps.

During my PhD, I developed a new method to infer the bed topography beneath the ice sheets at high resolution based on the conservation of mass and optimization algorithms. Instead of relying solely on bedrock measurements, I combine them with data on ice flow speed that we get from satellite observations, how much snow falls onto the ice sheet and how much melts, as well as how quickly the ice is thinning or thickening. I then use the principle of conservation of mass to map the bed between flight lines. This method is not free of error, of course! But it does capture features that could not be detected with other existing mapping techniques.

3D view of the ocean bathymetry and ice sheet speed (yellow/red) of Greenland’s Northwest coast (Credit: Mathieu Morlighem, UCI)

What are some of the largest discoveries that have been made with this model? 

Looking at the bed topography alone, we found that many fjords beneath the ice, all around Greenland, extend for 10s and 100s of kilometers in some cases and remain below sea level. Scientists had previously thought some years ago that the glaciers would not have to retreat much to reach higher ground, subsequently avoiding additional ice melt from exposure to warmer ocean currents. However, with this new description of the bed under the ice sheet, we see that this is not true. Many glaciers will not detach from the ocean any time soon, and so the ice sheet is more vulnerable to ice melt than we thought.

More recently, a team of geologists in Denmark discovered a meteorite impact crater hidden underneath the ice sheet! I initially thought that it was an artifact of the map, but it is actually a very real feature.

More importantly maybe, this map has been developed by an ice sheet modeller, for ice sheet modellers, in order to improve the reliability of numerical simulations. There are still many places where it has to be improved, but the models are now really starting to look promising: we not only understand the variability in changes in ice dynamics and retreat all around the ice sheet thanks to this map, we are now able to model it! We still have a long way to go, but it is an exciting time to be in this field.

Interview by Olivia Trani, EGU Communications Officer