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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.

Make your EGU 2019 experience more environmentally friendly

Make your EGU 2019 experience more environmentally friendly

The annual EGU General Assembly, the largest geoscience conference in Europe, attracts more than 15,000 attendees to Vienna, Austria every year. With such a large number of participants, many flying to the Austrian capital to attend, the meeting has a large environmental impact.

Given this, the EGU is implementing a number of initiatives towards minimising the General Assembly’s carbon footprint. Today we’ve compiled a few of the ways the EGU is working to make your conference experience more environmentally friendly, and how you can help.

Travelling responsibly

The environmental cost of travelling hundreds to thousands of kilometres for a science meeting cannot be ignored.

To reduce this impact, we encourage participants to travel by train to Vienna when possible. For example, we are promoting a discount offered by SBB, the Swiss Federal Railways, to General Assembly participants traveling from Zurich, Switzerland to the meeting. As in previous years, we also encourage participants to use public transportation once in Vienna by including a weekly transportation pass with every week ticket to the meeting.

Looking for ways to make your conference travel carbon neutral? As a repeat from last year, we are giving meeting participants the opportunity to offset the CO2 emissions resulting from their travel to and from Vienna. To take part, simply select the ‘offset your carbon footprint’ option if registering online or through the on-site terminal stationed in the entrance hall of the convention centre.

Depending on the origin of your travel we charge you an amount to compensate your CO2 emissions. The money collected from you will then be forwarded to the Carbon Footprint campaign to be invested in one of the three projects participants can choose from.

If you opt to offset your carbon emissions, the money collected from you will then be forwarded to carbonfootprint.com to be invested in one of these three projects.

This carbon offset initiative was introduced during the 2018 General Assembly, with about 4,800 attendees, almost one third of the total meeting participants, taking part! We collectively raised nearly €17,000 for the carbon offsetting scheme, which was donated to a project that aims to reduce deforestation in Brazil.

Reducing and reusing

At the conference venue, the Austria Center Vienna (ACV), the EGU has been implementing several environmental measures with our carbon footprint in mind. The following actions from the EGU are focused on limiting the amount of waste generated at the meeting:

  • EGU’s daily newsletter at the General Assembly, EGU Today, will now only be available online, and we are moving towards producing digital versions of the programme book exclusively.
  • Carpeting will be limited to the poster halls on the basement level.
  • Lanyards used at the conference will be produced using 100% recycled material, and the badges contain FSC-recycled paper, which can be recycled in the paper products bins.
  • The plenary and division meetings will serve lunch bags with recyclable PET bottles, which will have designated boxes for disposal by the exits of the rooms.
  • Single-use water bottles will not be offered at coffee breaks. Instead water fountains will be placed throughout the centre. Bringing your own water bottle and mug for hot drinks is highly encouraged! We will also sell multi-use water bottles and coffee mugs at the EGU booth.

The ACV also has a number of green measures in place, including having energy-saving LEDs throughout the centre, using a solar array to heat the water used in the kitchens and toilets, and working with an in-house catering company compliant with green standards.

Join the discussion

If you would like to learn more about the EGU’s efforts to make the General Assembly more sustainable and share your own ideas to make the meeting more environmentally friendly, we encourage to participate in the townhall session “The carbon footprint of EGU’s General Assembly,” taking place on Thursday 11 April, 19:00-20:00 in room -2.47 of the convention centre.

The EGU General Assembly is taking place in Vienna, Austria from 7 to 12 April. Check out the full session programme on the General Assembly website and follow the Assembly’s online conversation on Twitter (#EGU19 is the official conference hashtag) and Facebook.

Geosciences Column: The World’s soils are under threat

Geosciences Column: The World’s soils are under threat

An increasing global population means that we are more dependant than ever on soils.

Soils are crucial to securing our future supplies of water, food, as well as aiding adaptation to climate change and sustaining the planet’s biosphere; yet with the decrease in human labour dedicated to working the land, never have we been more out of touch with the vital importance of this natural resource.

Now, the first-ever comprehensive State of the World’s Soil Resources Report (SWRS), compiled by the Intergovernmental Technical Panel on Soils (ITPS), aims to shine a light on this essential non-renewable resource. The report outlines the current state of soils, globally, and what the major threats facing it are. These and other key findings of the report are summarised in a recent paper of the EGU’s open access Soil Journal.

The current outlook

Overall, the report deemed that the world’s soils are in fair to very poor condition, with regional variations.  The future doesn’t look bright: current projections indicate that the present situation will worsen unless governments, organisations and individuals come together to take concerted action.

Many of the drivers which contribute to soil changes are associated with population growth and the need to provide resources for the industrialisation and food security of growing societies. Climate change presents a significant challenge too, with factors such as increasing temperatures resulting in higher evaporation rates from soils and therefore affecting groundwater recharge rates, coming into play.

The three main threats to soils

Soil condition is threatened by a number of factors including compaction (which reduces large pore spaces between soil grains and restricts the flow of air and water into and through the soil), acidification, contamination, sealing (which results from the covering of soil through building of houses, roads and other urban development), waterlogging, salinization and losses of soil organic carbon (SOC).

Global assessment of the four main threats to soil by FAO regions. Taken from Montanarella, L., et al. 2016.

Global assessment of the four main threats to soil by FAO regions. Taken from Montanarella, L., et al. 2016.

Chief among the threats to soils is erosion, where topsoil is removed from the land surface by wind, water and tillage. Increasing rates of soil erosion affect water quality, particularly in developed regions, while crop yields suffer the most in developing regions. Estimating the rates of soil erosion is difficult (especially when it comes to wind driven erosion), but scientists do know that topsoil is being lost much faster than it is being generate. This means soil should be considered a non-renewable resource. When it comes to agricultural practices in particular, soils should be managed in such a way that soil erosion rates are reduced to near zero-values, ensuring long-term sustainability.

Eutrophication in lake Slotsø, Kolding, Denmark. Credit: Alevtina Evgrafova (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

Eutrophication in lake Slotsø, Kolding, Denmark. Credit: Alevtina Evgrafova (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

Soils contain nutrients, such as nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), potassium (K), calcium (Ca), magnesium (Mg) and sulphur (S), crucial for growing crops and pastures for raising cattle. While nutrient balance in soils has a natural variability, farming practices accelerate changes in soil nutrient content. Over-use of soils rapidly depletes the land-cover of nutrients and result in lower food production yields. This imbalance is often remedied by the addition of nutrients; in particular N and P. Excessive use of these practices, however, can lead to negative environmental effects, such as eutrophication (which increases the frequency and severity of algal blooms) and contamination of water resources. The findings of the report advocate for the overall reduction of use of fertilisers, with the exception of tropical and semi-tropical soils in regions where food security is a problem.

Carbon (C) is a fundamental building block of life on Earth and the carbon cycle balances the amount of C which ultimately enters the atmosphere, helping to stabilise the planets temperature. Soils play a significant role in helping to preserve this balance. Soil organic carbon (SOC) acts as a sink for atmospheric C, but converting forest land to crop land saw a decrease of 25-30% in SOC stocks for temperate regions, with higher losses recorded for the tropics. Future climate change will further affect SOC stocks through increased temperatures and fluctuating rainfall, ultimately contributing to risks of soil erosion and desertification and reducing their ability to regulate carbon dioxide emissions. It is vitally important that governments work towards stabilising, or better still, improving existing SOC stocks as a means of combating global warming.

Preserving a valuable resource

The case is clear: soils are a vital part of life on Earth. It is estimated that worsening soil condition will affect those already most vulnerable, in areas affected by water scarcity, civil strife and food insecurity.

Bed planting in northern Ethiopia. Credit: Elise Monsieurs (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

Bed planting in northern Ethiopia. Credit: Elise Monsieurs (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

Initiatives such as the 2015 International Year of Soil and the production of the SWRS report are fundamental to raise awareness of the challenges facing soil resources, but more needs to be done:

      1. Sustainable soil management practices, which minimise soil degradation and replenish soil productivity in regions where it has been lost, must be adopted to ensure a healthy, global, supply of food.
      2. Individual nations should make a dedicated effort to establish appropriate SOC-improving strategies, thus aiding adaptation to climate change.
      3. Manging the use of fertilisers, in particular N and P, should be improved.
      4. There is a dearth of current data, with many of the studies referenced in the SWRS report dating from the 1980s and 1990s. For accurate future projections and the development and evaluation of tools to tackle the major threats facing soils, more up-to-date knowledge about the state of soil condition is required.

Soils, globally, are under threat and their future is uncertain. The authors of report argue that “the global community is presently ill-prepared and ill-equipped to mount an appropriate response” to the problem. However, adoption and implementation of the report findings might (by policy-makers and individuals alike) just turn the tide and ensure soils remain “humanity’s silent ally”.

By Laura Roberts Artal, EGU Communications Officer

References

Montanarella, L., Pennock, D. J., McKenzie, N., Badraoui, M., Chude, V., Baptista, I., Mamo, T., Yemefack, M., Singh Aulakh, M., Yagi, K., Young Hong, S., Vijarnsorn, P., Zhang, G.-L., Arrouays, D., Black, H., Krasilnikov, P., Sobocká, J., Alegre, J., Henriquez, C. R., de Lourdes Mendonça-Santos, M., Taboada, M., Espinosa-Victoria, D., AlShankiti, A., AlaviPanah, S. K., Elsheikh, E. A. E. M., Hempel, J., Camps Arbestain, M., Nachtergaele, F., and Vargas, R.: World’s soils are under threat, SOIL, 2, 79-82, doi:10.5194/soil-2-79-2016, 2016.

Status of the World’s Soil Resources, 2015, Food and Agricultire Organization (FAO) of the United Nations.

Soils are endangered, but degradation can be rolled back, 2015, FAO News Article.

GIFT at the Assembly: Mineral Resources

GIFT at the Assembly: Mineral Resources

The EGU’s Geosciences Information for Teachers (GIFT) programme offers teachers attending the conference the opportunity to hone their Earth science skills. The General Assembly workshop is one of GIFT’s most important activities of the year, combining talks on current research with hands-on activities presented by educators. What’s more, scientists can also come to the sessions – here’s what’s in store…

The theme of this year’s GIFT workshop (EOS1) is Mineral Resources – the event will explore one of the most important challenges faced by modern society: access to raw materials, including base and strategic minerals, in a rapidly developing and growing world. Featuring talks by leading scientists in the field, the workshop will kick off with a discussion on raw materials and their sustainability in the 21st century (at 8:45 in Room G10). This is followed by two great talks on where do minerals come from and how they get there, by Laurence Robb of the University of Oxford, after which you can learn about the role of inorganic chemistry in the formation of ore deposits at the hands of Kliti Grice from Curtin University, Australia. This is just a taster, though – you can find out more about the workshop here.