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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.

July GeoRoundUp: the best of the Earth sciences from around the web

July GeoRoundUp: the best of the Earth sciences from around the web

Drawing inspiration from popular stories on our social media channels, as well as unique and quirky research news, this monthly column aims to bring you the best of the Earth and planetary sciences from around the web.

Major stories  

Signs of water 55 million kilometres away

Last week scientists announced that they have found signs of existing water on Mars, offering new hope to the possibility of uncovering life on the Red Planet’s subsurface.  

Radar observations made by the European Space Agency’s Mars Express satellite, suggest that a liquid lake is buried 1.5 kilometres beneath an ice cap situated near the south pole of Mars. Scientists think that this body of water is likely a few metres deep and 20 kilometres across, “nearly three times larger than the island of Manhattan,” reported Scientific American.

A schematic of how scientists used radar to find what they interpret to be liquid water beneath the surface of Mars. (Credit: ESA)

For the last 12 years the Mars Express satellite has been taking measurements of Mars by sending beams of radar pulses into the planet’s immediate interior. As these waves bounce back, the brightness of the reflection gives information on the material lying beneath Mars’ surface.

The researchers involved came across this discovery while analysing three years worth of data collected by the spacecraft.

“The bluer the colors, the brighter the radar reflection from the material it bounced off. The blue triangle outlined in black in the middle is the purported lake,” reported Science News.

Previous observations, made by NASA’s Curiosity rover for example, have found lake beds on the planet’s exterior, signifying that water may have flowed on Mars in the past. However, if this new finding is confirmed, it would be the first discovery of an existing stable body of water, one of the conditions believed to be necessary for life to thrive.

Context map: NASA/Viking; THEMIS background: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Arizona State University; MARSIS data: ESA/NASA/JPL/ASI/Univ. Rome; R. Orosei et al 2018 (distributed via ESA)

“We are not closer to actually detecting life,” said Manish Patel from the Open University to BBC News, “but what this finding does is give us the location of where to look on Mars. It is like a treasure map – except in this case, there will be lots of ‘X’s marking the spots.”

In their study, published in Science last week, the team remarked, “there is no reason to conclude that the presence of subsurface water on Mars is limited to a single location.”

Northern hemisphere feels the heat

In other news, the two words best describing the northern hemisphere this summer could very well “hot” and “dry,” as a series of heat waves have taken hold of several regions across Europe, Asia, North America and northern Africa. Many countries this month, including Japan, Algeria and Canada, have even experienced record-breaking temperatures.

A look at how this year’s heatwave has changed the colour of our vegetation in just one month (Credit: ESA

For some places, above average temperatures and dry conditions have helped fuel devastating wildfires. More than 50 wildfires have swept through Scandinavian forests this summer, many well within the Arctic Circle, causing Sweden to request emergency aid from nearby countries.

Smoke rises from a wildfire in Enskogen. (Credit: Swedish Environmental Protection Agency/Maja Suslin)

A major wildfire also ignited near Athens, Greece this month, resulting in more than 85 death, with dozens still missing. While Greek officials claim that there are “serious indications” that the flames were brought upon by arson, they also note that the region’s climate conditions were extreme.

To many scientists, this onslaught of hot and dry conditions is a taste of what may soon become the norm.  Of course, these conditions (in Europe, for example) are partly due to weather. “The jet stream – the west-to-east winds that play a big role in determining Europe’s weather – has been further north than usual for about two months,” reports the Guardian, leading to sweltering conditions in the UK and much of Europe, while leaving Iceland cool and stormy.  

However, scientists say that heatwaves in the northern hemisphere are very much linked to global warming. “There’s no question human influence on climate is playing a huge role in this heatwave,” said Myles Allen, a climate scientist at the University of Oxford, to the Guardian in the same article.

A recent assessment on the ongoing heat wave in Europe reports that these conditions are more likely to occur due to climate change. “The findings suggest that rising global temperatures have increased the likelihood of such hot temperatures by five times in Denmark, three times in the Netherlands and two times in Ireland,” said Carbon Brief.

What you might have missed

Geologists have given a name to Earth’s most recent chapter: Meghalayan Age. The announcement was made earlier this month when the International Union of Geological Sciences updated the International Chronostratigraphic Chart, which classifies Earth’s geologic time scale. The new update has divided the Holocene Epoch (the current time series which began 11,700 years ago, when the Earth was exiting its last ice age) into three stages: the Greenlandian, the Northgrippian, and then Meghalayan.

The Meghalayan Age represents the time between now and 4,200 years ago, when a mega-drought led to the collapse of many civilisations across the world. The middle phase, Northgrippian (from 8,300 years ago to 4,200 years ago), is marked by an sudden cooling event brought on by massive glacial melt in Canada that affected ocean currents. Finally the oldest phase, Greenlandian, (from 11,700 years ago to 8,300 years ago) is marked by the end of the last ice age.

The recent update has created some unrest in the geosciences community. “There is still an active debate about assigning a new geologic slice of time to reflect specifically the influence of humans on the planet,” reported BBC News. Some scientists say that the new divisions conflict with the current work being done on proposing a new epoch classification, famously called the ‘Anthropocene,’ which would be marked by the beginning on significant human impact on Earth’s geology and ecosystems.

Links we liked

The EGU story

This month we released not one but two press releases from research published in our open access journals. The findings from both studies have important societal implications. Take a look at them below.

New study: oxygen loss in the coastal Baltic Sea is “unprecedentedly severe”

The Baltic Sea is home to some of the world’s largest dead zones, areas of oxygen-starved waters where most marine animals can’t survive. But while parts of this sea have long suffered from low oxygen levels, a new study by a team in Finland and Germany shows that oxygen loss in coastal areas over the past century is unprecedented in the last 1500 years. The research was published in the European Geosciences Union journal Biogeosciences.

New study puts a figure on sea-level rise following Antarctic ice shelves’ collapse

An international team of scientists has shown how much sea level would rise if Larsen C and George VI, two Antarctic ice shelves at risk of collapse, were to break up. While Larsen C has received much attention due to the break-away of a trillion-tonne iceberg from it last summer, its collapse would contribute only a few millimetres to sea-level rise. The break-up of the smaller George VI Ice Shelf would have a much larger impact. The research was published in the European Geosciences Union journal The Cryosphere.

And don’t forget! To stay abreast of all the EGU’s events and activities, from highlighting papers published in our open access journals to providing news relating to EGU’s scientific divisions and meetings, including the General Assembly, subscribe to receive our monthly newsletter.

March GeoRoundUp: the best of the Earth sciences from around the web

March GeoRoundUp: the best of the Earth sciences from around the web

Drawing inspiration from popular stories on our social media channels, as well as  unique and quirky research news, this monthly column aims to bring you the best of the Earth and planetary sciences from around the web.

Major story

While the March headlines might not have been dominated by a particular story, the state of the Earth’s climate has definitely been the overarching theme of the month.

Ahead of World Meteorological Day (celebrate on the 23rd March) the World Meteorological Organization released its annual report on the State of Global Climate. Compiled from a broad range of sources, the report reiterates the findings of the US government agencies NASA and NOAA, who earlier this year declared that 2016 was the warmest year on record.

Not only were temperatures a remarkable 1.1 °C above the pre-industrial period and 0.06 °C above the previous record set in 2015, global sea ice extent dropped more than 4 million square kilometres below average in November. Boosted by a strong El Niño event global sea levels reached record highs too.

The report comes in the wake of US President Trump’s ‘blueprint’ budget for 2018, where he sets out his spending priorities for the year ahead. Nature put together a piece that highlights what US science would stand to lose if the budget is approved. NASA would experience a 0.8% cut from current levels, largely focused on Earth science missions, and future NOAA satellite programmes are also under threat. Worst hit by the cuts would be the Environment Protection Agency (EPA), with a proposed 31% cut in funding, which would “gut EPA programs tackling climate change and pollution”, according to The Guardian.

But the signals are clear: after the record warming in 2016, temperatures have continued to rise in 2017, affecting ecosystems around the world. An example are the corals of the Great Barrier Reef,  which have suffered from widespread bleaching – a situation where they expel their symbiotic algae, meaning they turn white and can die – for the third consecutive year. A new study on mass bleaching of corals was discouraging news: the only long-term solution to the problem is halting global warming. Improving water quality or enforcing fishing controls provides little relief.

But it’s not all bad news when it comes to the global climate and the Earth’s environment. Despite being a record-breaking year in terms of temperatures, 2016 was also the year that saw a dramatic drop in the amount of new coal fueled power plants being built. With cities worldwide battling poor air quality and pollution, this is certainly encouraging news.

What you might have missed

Earlier this month a BBC News crew experienced the fickle nature of volcanoes first hand. The team were visiting Mt. Etna (Sicily) to film a report on volcano monitoring, and  arrived on the Italian island to discover Europe’s most active volcano had just started to erupt again.

Etna’s slow-moving lava is not usually considered dangerous. “But about 20 minutes after arriving, a burst of white steam emerged from the lava – it didn’t make much of a noise or look especially threatening – but the guides started asking people to move. Then, moments later, there was an explosion,” writes Rebecca Morelle, one of the reporters on the team. As they ran down the mountain to safety, the team and tourists, were “pelted with deadly, hot debris.” Read the full account of their ordeal and watch a spectacular video here.

It has also been a big month for palaeontology. Up until now the shape of a dinosaur’s hip determined were along the dinosaur family tree it was placed. Lizard-hipped dinosaurs fell into one group (Saurischia), while those with a more bird-like hip configuration are known as Ornithischia. Now, a team of researchers have proposed a radically new classification system. They found that 21 other anatomical features divide the dinosaurs differently. The new tree puts theropods together with Ornithischian, indicating they probably share a common ancestor. The new theory might face an uphill struggle to debunk the long-lasting consensus on the history of dinosaurs, but many in the field agree that given the thoroughness of the study it is certainly an idea worth considering.

Scientists from the Museum and Cambridge University have proposed radical changes to the dinosaur family tree. Credit: Natural History Museum.

And while we are on the subject of dinosaurs, this brilliant interactive map of every fossil found on Earth (created by @PaleoDB) is a great resource!

Way out in space, the bounty of insights from the Rosetta mission continues. From September 2014, the mission scientists have kept a watchful eye on a 70 m-long, 1 m-wide fracture on the prominent cliff-edge subsequently named Aswan, in the Seth region of the comet, on its large lobe. A few days later, new images of the area revealed that the crack had disappeared and been replaced by a new cliff face, at the bottom of which were many new meter-sized boulders. The discovery allowed the scientists to make the link between the newly created cliff face and outbursts of dust and gas.

You might think the use of infographics to visualise data is a relatively new thing, but you’d be mistaken. This collection of 1800s educational diagrams, of scientific discoveries, from the moon’s surface to the longest rivers, is simply stunning and incredibly effective.

Emslie and Reynolds compare mountains and volcanoes, including mountains in the Alps and Andes. Featured in Geological Diagrams. Courtesy David Rumsey Historical Map Collection

Links we liked

  • Something for the weekend? Why not try your hand at baking a scientifically accurate (sort of!) cake planet?
  • New research suggests that by the middle of the century, more than half of humanity will live in water-stressed areas. Badly managed resources play a crucial role in water shortages globally
  • For a lighthearted, yet very informative, take on mass extinctions this story in The Atlantic is not to be missed
  • A German coal-mine, which has provided power for the country’s industry sector for the past half century, will get a new lease on life when it’s turned into a into a pumped-hydro-storage station, acting like a giant battery that stores solar and wind energy

The EGU story

This time of year, EGU’s biggest story is our annual General Assembly, starting only a few weeks from now. This month, we published the meeting programme, which includes some 1000 sessions and over 17,500 abstracts! On the blog, we published guides on how-to make the best of your oral, poster or PICO presentation at the General Assembly, revealed the finalists of the Communicate Your Science Video Competition, and provided tips on making the most of your time in Vienna without breaking the bank. We look forward to seeing you all in the Austrian capital in the last week of April!

And don’t forget! To stay abreast of all the EGU’s events and activities, from highlighting papers published in our open access journals to providing news relating to EGU’s scientific divisions and meetings, including the General Assembly, subscribe to receive our monthly newsletter.

Imaggeo on Mondays: Mountains, rivers and agriculture

This week’s Imaggeo on Mondays image blends a range of geoscience disciplines. The post, by Irene Marzolff, a researcher at Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universitaet, explores how the mountains, rivers and soils of the High Atlas in Morocco are intrinsically linked to the agriculture of the region.

High Atlas landscape. Credit: Irene Marzolff (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

High Atlas landscape. Credit: Irene Marzolff (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

The image was taken in the southern slopes of the Western High Atlas, north of the city of Taroudannt. The snow of these mountains, which in April is still prevailing on the highest ranges in the background of the photo, is a significant water resource for the region. The high interannual variability of precipitation and its changing patterns associated to climate change present a serious challenge for natural environment and for the sustainable use of water as a resource in agriculture and tourism, the two major economic sectors in the area.

A characteristic open cover of Argan trees (Argania spinosa) can be seen on the lower mountain slopes in the middle distance of the photo: an endemic species with small, oil-rich fruits resembling olives that yield high-quality oil used in medicine, food and cosmetics. The species is a relic of the Tertiary (66 to 2.8 million years ago) but has been under threat from human exploitation for centuries, by excessive grazing, fire-wood cutting, charcoal making and changes to the groundwater table. The area is part of the UNESCO-MAB Biosphere Reserve “Arganeraie” committed to the preservation and sustainable use of the trees.

The river bed in the foreground is formed by fluvial processes typical for this high-mountain region, with highly variable seasonal discharges controlled both by rainfall and snowmelt. It will in the near future drain into the Sidi Abdellah Reservoir that is currently being constructed near Tamaloukt. This reservoir will add to the 10 already existing water storage lakes in the region of Souss Massa Drâa, which is in urgent need of additional water resources: The Souss Valley to the South of the High Atlas is one of Morocco’s most intensely farmed agricultural regions, with agro-industrial production of bananas, vegetables and citrus fruit. Much of this, including 90% of Morocco’s tomato production, is exported to the European market.

By Irene Marzolff, researcher at the Institut fuer Physische Geographie, Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universitaet, Frankfurt.

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/.