Geology for Global Development

Geology for Global Development

‘Pompeii’ by Robert Harris – A book review

The restored version of John Martin's Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum

The GfGD blog theme this month is science communication, and so regular blog contributor Heather Britton reviews a book which she believes contains some useful geological and human experience, in the form of a gripping novel.

The Geology for Global Development blog is not a site renowned for book reviews, but when a fiction book embraces geoscience as much as Robert Harris’s ‘Pompeii’ there are few reasons not to write about it on this platform. The book was recommended to me by my petrology professor at university, because, as she put it at the time, it is the only book she had ever read which quotes a geology textbook at the beginning of every chapter. Needing no further encouragement, I began reading, and I’m very glad that I did.

The book is set across the events leading up to, during and after the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD. Through the eyes of four starkly different members of Roman society – a hydraulic engineer, a scientist, a rich landowner and his daughter – the eruption is recorded in immense detail. As a reader it is clear that Robert Harris has done extensive research on the eruption, but inevitably some aspects, particularly the reactions and experiences of the characters individually, are filled in with more than a little artistic license. Nevertheless, the snippets from textbooks on Vesuvius at the beginning of each chapter match-up with the geological events of the story, reminding the reader that although the book is very much a work of fiction, the experiences had by the characters are representative of those of real people.

The protagonist of the book is Attilius, a hydraulic engineer sent from Rome to southern Italy to replace his predecessor, Exomnius, who has mysteriously gone missing. In the aftermath of an earthquake (an ominous warning sign of the tragedy to follow) the main aquaduct supplying water to the region is damaged, and Attilius is sent out to repair it. It is whilst taking on this endeavour that unusual events begin to occur, both social and geological, with the climax of the action coinciding with the eruption that has made Pompeii famous today. Despite every reader being aware of what the various events described in the book are leading up to, there is more than enough fiction in the story to make the tale far from predictable, with the case of the missing Exomnius taking centre stage and the eruption acting as a dramatic backdrop –and catalyst – of these events.

A further aspect of the books that I enjoyed was the authentic feel of the region around Vesuvius, including the cities of Pompeii, Herculaneum and Misenum. At school I dropped history as soon as I was given the opportunity, but even with only the most basic historical knowledge I found the book very accessible. Robert Harris does well not to overwhelm the reader with incomprehensible Roman terminology and instead the difference between today’s society and that of this era are drip-fed. I found myself learning about the culture of the Romans without realising I was doing so, and appreciate the insight into this ancient civilisation.

And why have I forced a book review upon GfGD blog readers? This month’s blog topic is science communication, and Robert Harris provides an excellent example of how science can be appreciated through works of fiction. ‘Pompeii’ picks out the links between various geological events, such as volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, and combines them with a gripping fictional tale showing the impact that these events have on individuals. I am certain that this text wouldn’t be out of place on the bookshelf of any avid reader of the GfGD blog.

Climate change: to mitigate or to adapt? Managing disaster: Cyclone Fani in India, a stronger Atlantic hurricane season. That and more in Jesse Zondervan’s May 2019 #GfGDpicks #SciComm

Climate change: to mitigate or to adapt? Managing disaster: Cyclone Fani in India, a stronger Atlantic hurricane season. That and more in Jesse Zondervan’s May 2019 #GfGDpicks #SciComm

Each month, Jesse Zondervan picks his favourite posts from geoscience and development blogs/news which cover the geology for global development interest. Here’s a round-up of Jesse’s selections for the last month:

This month Cyclone Fani hit India with full force. An effective mass evacuation resulting in the loss of no human lives is an impressive disaster management feat.

As disaster was averted in India, the Guardian published a briefing on the risk of hurricanes, and whether climate change is to blame for stronger ones. Are people adapting to these changes?

Adapting, argues Marketplace show host Molly Wood in her Wired article, isn’t surrender, it is survival. Can we afford to keep attempting to mitigate climate change if we need to adapt to the effects that are already there?

Susannah Fisher and Andrew Norton agree with Wood that adaptation is often overlooked in climate campaigns. They seek to open our eyes to the adaptation experience that the global South has to offer. Let’s put these good practices to work in Europe! they say.

More this month, better ways to stem arsenic poisoning in Bangladesh, the struggle with landslides in Rio and much more.

Go ahead and look through this month’s picks!

Cyclone Fani

Cyclone Fani hits Indian coast, a million people evacuated at Thomson Reuters Foundation

INTERVIEW – Mass texting and 50,000 volunteers – how India moved a million people to safety by Annie Banerji at Thomson Reuters Foundation

Climate Adaptation

Climate Adaptation isn’t Surrender. It’s Survival by Molly Wood at Wired

Adapting to climate change in Europe: Building a systemic and urgent vision by Susannah Fisher and Andrew Norton at EIT Climate-KIC

Cambodians try out smartphones to track – and ease – climate woes by Jeffrey Barbee at Thomson Reuters Foundation

Climate now biggest driver of migration, study finds by Inga Vesper at SciDevNet

Climate Change

Are hurricanes getting stronger – and is the climate crisis to blame? By Oliver Milman at the Guardian

Lake sediment records reveal recent floods in NW England (UK) unprecedented at ScienceDaily

Climatologist Testifies to Senate Subcommittee Regarding Costs of Extreme Weather by Marie Denoia Aronsohn at State of the Planet

Disaster Risk Reduction

As climate shifts bring ‘horror movie’ floods, Rio struggles to adjust by Karla Mendes & Gregory Scruggs at Thomson Reuters Foundation

China eyes earthquake warning and prediction technology by Chen Xi at Global Times

Sharing Data Helps Puerto Ricans Rebound After Hurricane Maria at Eos Earth & Space News

Ritter Island gives new insights into the dynamics of volcanic landslides at ScienceDaily

Integrated urban flood risk management: Learning from the Japanese experience by Jolanta Kryspin-Watson & Jia Wen Hoe

Geology for Development

Study Identifies Better, Cheaper Ways to Stem Arsenic Poisoning in Bangladesh by Sarah Fecht at State of the Planet

 

Check back next month for more picks!

Follow Jesse Zondervan @JesseZondervan. Follow us @Geo_Dev & Facebook.

When are Californian earthquakes coming back with vengeance? How does climate-change-induced flooding increase inequality? Lessons from Cyclone Idai; that and more in Jesse Zondervan’s April 2019 #GfGDpicks #SciComm

Aftermath damage of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906

Each month, Jesse Zondervan picks his favourite posts from geoscience and development blogs/news which cover the geology for global development interest. Here’s a round-up of Jesse’s selections for the last month:

California seems to be overdue for earthquakes, meaning there has been a so-called earthquake ‘drought’ in the last century. Paleoseismic studies show that this hiatus is unprecedented in the last ten centuries. This means we might see a high frequency of earthquakes coming this century, while a generation who hasn’t experienced any major earthquake has passed.

Furthermore, a related article in the San Francisco Chronicle reports the US Geological Survey projects a major quake along the San Andreas Fault would cause more than 98 billion in building damage and kill up to 7,800 people. The main threat, however, is the aftermath with loss of power for at least three days and half of households without water for at least a month. The study highlights the importance of preparing the population for a quake and its aftermath.

Fortunately, this month also saw the publication of a Californian record of two million tiny earthquakes detected by Caltech scientists. This tenfold increase in the earthquake catalogue tells them more about how faults and earthquakes work and get triggered. Greg Beroza, a Stanford University seismologist says “It’s just like if a new telescope comes along and its magnification is 10 times greater”.

Can climate-change induced flooding increase inequality?

The answer seems to be yes, in fact it does. A report published by the Urban Institute in the US showed that people with poor credit scores suffered bigger drops in scores than those starting with high scores. While home-owners receive insurance pay-outs, costs to renters only increase due to increased demand after major storms.

Similarly the New York City Panel on Climate Change reports climate change is affecting everyday life in New York today, and will hit the poorest neighbourhoods in the future.

Consequently, social vulnerability should be considered when risk is modelled and funding allocated, according to RMS flood specialist Nicole Howe.

 

More perspectives this month on the aftermath and lessons from Cyclone Idai which struck southern Africa in March; the challenge of religious resignation to building resilience against natural hazards in Indonesia and what the new bill on the US National Volcano Warning System means to disaster risk reduction.

Go ahead and look through this month’s picks!

Aftermath and Response to Cyclone Idai

Cyclone Idai shows why long-term disaster resilience is so crucial by Channing Arndt and Claudia Ringler at The Conversation

Cyclone Idai is over – but its health effects will be felt for a long time by Kerrigan McCarthy and Lucille Blumberg at The Conversation

Responding To Cyclone Idai requires a more robust approach by Peter Kamalingin at Oxfam International

Earthquake risk in California

Reassessing California’s Overdue Earthquake Tab by Mary Caperton Morton at Eos Earth & Space Science News

What a major earthquake would do to San Francisco by Kimberley Veklerov at the San Francisco Chronicle

Scientists Uncover California’s Hidden Earthquakes by Shannon Hall at Scientific American

Flooding and inequality

How natural disasters can increase inequality by Gretchen Frazee at PBS

States are turning to data and interactive maps to help residents confront and manage flood risks by Shannon Cunniff at the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF)

Disaster Risk Reduction: Avoiding the Inevitable by Nicola Howe at RMS

New York’s Poor and Ethnic Minority Neighbourhoods to be hit hardest by Climate Change finds NYC Panel on Climate Change by Will Bugler at Acclimatise

Climate Adaptation

7 American cities that could disappear by 2100 by Aria Bendix at Business Insider

Improving Water Resources Management with Satellite Data by Aaron Sidder at EOS Earth and Space Science News

Central America: Climate, Drought, Migration and the Border by Lieutenant Commander Oliver-Leighton Barrett at The Center for Climate & Security

Disaster Risk Reduction

Living with natural disasters – how to change Indonesia’s culture of passive resignation by Juliana Wijaya at The Conversation

Major geological survey hopes to make Indonesia more resistant to deadly tsunamis by Tim Pilgrim at Brunel University London

Hurricane Harvey provides lessons learned for flood resiliency plans at ScienceDaily

US National Volcano Warning System Gains Steam by Forrest Lewis at Eos Earth & Space Science News

External Opportunities

Register for Science and Policy Forum of 2019 Global Platform for DRR at Integrated Research on Disaster Risk (IRDR)

The Art of Resilience – Call for art helping build society’s resilience to natural hazards at GFDRR

Register to attend or watch online – Disasters: impact on child poverty and development at the Overseas Development Institute

Teaching Assistantship Applications Open for Sustainable Development Undergraduate Courses at the Earth Institute, Columbia University

Summer 2019 Teaching Assistantship Available in Environmental Science and Policy Program at the Earth Institute, Columbia University

 

Check back next month for more picks!

Follow Jesse Zondervan @JesseZondervan. Follow us @Geo_Dev & Facebook.

Anthropocene: Are we in the recent age of man?

International Chronostratigraphic Chart

Regular GfGD Blog contributor Heather Britton pen’s this weeks post, where she discusses the heated topic of whether we are, or not, living in the Anthropocene. [Editor’s note: This post reflects Heather’s personal opinion. This opinions may not reflect official policy positions of Geology for Global Development.]

Naming a geological epoch the Anthropocene, literally meaning ‘the recent age of man’, is an idea that has been seriously discussed in many scientific circles and has become a scientific buzzword in recent years. Environmentalists, generally, are great proponents for the idea, stating that it summarises the huge changes that human presence has had on the planet and draws attention to the need for us to change our ways and prevent the damage from extending into the future. Geologists are typically less enthused by the idea. Naming an interval of geological time involves formally recognising that the Earth has been permanently changed at the onset of this era, and although in many ways humans have permanently changed the planet, making this a formal geological epoch requires the identification of a single point in the rock record when this took place. I wish to explain why I believe the Anthropocene, although suggested for admirable reasons, should not become formally recognised.

The term was first popularised almost 20 years ago in the year 2000 (by environmental scientist Paul Crutzen) and in 2016 the Working Group on the Anthropocene (WGA) voted to formally designate the epoch Anthropocene and present the recommendation to the international geological congress. The International Commission on Stratigraphy and the International Union of Geological Sciences have not approved this subdivision of geological time, but it may be that a decision is on the horizon [Ed: In July 2018 the International Union of Geological Sciences ratified a decision by the International Commission on Stratigraphy which announced Earth was living in the Meghalayan Age].

Finding the signal that marks this period exactly is difficult, but not for a lack of options. The prime candidate is the appearance of radioactive nuclides from nuclear bomb tests, which have registered a signal worldwide. Plastic pollution, high level of nitrogen and phosphate in soils from fertilisers and a massive increase in the number of fossilised chicken bones are other strong contenders which appear to define the rise of the human population and civilisation. There is certainly strong evidence to suggest humanity’s effect on the planet is permanent, but are we really in a position to state that the planet has undergone a permanent change when humanity itself is still a blip in geological time? To put it another way, if something were to wipe out the human race tomorrow, there certainly would be a distinctive signal of our presence in the rock record, but due to the tiny fraction of Earth history that we occupy, how can we guarantee that it will endure for long enough to be significant in geological terms?

Plastic in the rock record could used as a marker for the base of the Anthropocene. Credit: Guilhem Amin Douillet (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

There are many geologists who would claim that the creation of the International Chronostratigraphic Chart is one of the greatest achievements of mankind. Each Eon, Era and Epoch has been painstakingly identified using signals within the strata that must conform to a set of very strict rules. This ensures that rocks all over the world can be correlated to the same record of geological time, allowing communication and understanding between scientists from different countries where otherwise the use of local nomenclature would cause endless mistakes and confusion. The most common way of marking the base of a stratigraphic unit is the appearance or disappearance of a particular fossil.

This method clearly has its limitations – fossil organisms will have only lived in certain habitats, and it is assumed that the time taken for a new fossil organism to spread from where it evolved to locations across the globe is negligible in comparison to geological time, something we can’t be certain is true for all species. Dating is simpler when volcanic rocks are present, as radioactive dating is able to step in and provide, for the most part, accurate rock ages, but such methods cannot be used with any great certainty in the sedimentary world. As discussed above, fossil evidence for the beginning of the Anthropocene is present, but it seems more likely that a different kind of signal is used to mark this new epoch. This would not be the first time, as was demonstrated when the Holocene was formally designated in 2008.

In conclusion, making the Anthropocene a formal geological epoch would send out a message which may fast track the public and global governments to take notice of the impact we are having on the planet and, as a result, take action. I question, however, whether this is a sound enough reason to add to the international stratigraphic column. The Holocene, the time period we are currently considered to be occupying, began approximately 12,000 years ago as Earth slipped out of ice ages into what is currently an extended interglacial period showing no sign of slipping back into its glacial state. The time since the start of the Holocene is already only a geological blink of an eye and cutting it short now to make way for the Anthropocene seems both unnecessary and indicative of a lack of appreciation of the enormity of geological time. The now is not always an appropriate time to mark a significant event, as it is only afterward that its significance can really be properly understood. Regardless of this, it does not excuse how over the miniscule time period that we have spent inhabiting this planet we have had such a detrimental effect on what is a shared home and not ours to ruin. This certainly needs to be put to rights, but I am not certain that announcing the Anthropocene is the best way of doing so.

**This article expresses the personal opinions of the author (Heather Britton). These opinions may not reflect an official policy position of Geology for Global Development. **