Insights from the Natural Systems and Processes Poster Session

The Natural Systems and Processes Poster Session (NSPPS) is a University-wide poster session for postgraduate students within the Faculty of Science aimed at increasing inter-departmental connections within a relaxed and informal environment. This year’s event, which was hosted within the Great Hall of the Wills Memorial Building, was attended by ~90 PhD students from a wide variety of disciplines and hundreds more visitors came from across the University to view the posters. Most participants were interested in tackling the challenges of uncertain environmental change with an emphasis upon climate change, natural hazards and human impacts on the environment.

The Natural Systems and Processes Poster Session 2015 in the Great Hall
in the Wills Memorial Building (Image credit: D. Naafs)
Adam McAleer, a final year PhD student working in the Department of Earth Sciences, is interested in measuring the flux of greenhouse gases from restored peatlands within Exmoor National Park. The Exmoor Mires Project seeks to raise water levels via blocking of old agricultural drains in order to re-saturate the peatlands and recover its peat-forming biogeochemistry. This will potentially lead the mires to become carbon dioxide sinks and methane sources. As wetter plants were found to have a strong association to higher methane emissions, certain plant species have the potential to be used as a proxy for methane fluxes and restoration success. Mark Lunt, a third year PhD student working within the Atmospheric Chemistry Research Group, is interested in the fate of other greenhouse gases, such as hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). Hydrofluorocarbons are organic compounds that contain fluorine and hydrogen atoms and are used as refrigerants, aerosol propellants, solvents, and fire retardants in the place of chloroflourocarbons (CFCs). Although HFCs do not harm the ozone layer, they can contribute to global warming. In developing countries, demand for HFCs are increasing rapidly; as a result, both the USA and China have agreed to begin work on phasing out hydroflourocarbons.

Felipe (left) discussing his research to staff and students  (Image credit: D. Naafs)
Catherine McIntyre (1st year) and John Pemberton (1st year), based within the Organic Geochemistry Unit, presented work from the NERC-funded DOMAINE project. This project aims to look at dissolved organic matter (DOM) in freshwater ecosystems and public water supplies and will focus upon the fate of carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus. Phosphorus, for example, is used to make fertilisers and can be incorporated into lakes and streams via terrestrial run-off. As phosphorus is a key limiting nutrient, it can also stimulate algal blooms and lead to eutrophication (i.e. oxygen starvation). Indeed, the global phosphorus cycle has already been highly perturbed, as shown below. As very little is known about organic phosphorus, the DOMAIN project will investigate this further using via high-resolution molecular techniques.

Four of the nine planetary boundaries  have now been crossed (Steffen et al., 2015; Science)
Other students are using the past to explore the future. Matt Carmichael, a final year PhD based within the School of Chemistry, is interested in understanding how the hydrological cycle varied during past warm climates. Of particular interest is the early Eocene (~48 to 56 million years ago), an interval characterised by high atmospheric carbon dioxide, high sea surface temperatures and the absence of continental ice sheets. However, the impact of these changes on the wider Earth system, especially those related to precipitation patterns, vegetation and biogeochemical cycles, remain poorly understood. This is achieved using climate models which can simulate changes in the atmosphere and the ocean during the Eocene. Future climatic change will also have a profound effect upon the hydrological cycle with the potential to make floods and droughts more extreme.

How the East Antarctic coastline might have looked during the early Eocene (Pross et al., 2012; Nature)

Collectively, the NSPPS highlights the wide variety of research undertaken with the Faculty of Science and is a great opportunity for PhD students to present their research in a relaxed setting.

This blog was written by Gordon Inglis (@climategordon) a final year PhD student within the School of Chemistry. Additional thanks to Adam McAleer, Matt Carmichael, Mark Lunt, Catherine McIntyre and John Pemberton whose work is highlighted here. 

The Alps and the atmosphere

Grenoble.  Image credit Rebecca Brownlow.

In it’s 23rd year, the European Research Course on Atmospheres (ERCA) is notorious amongst atmospheric scientists. PhD and Masters students made their way to Grenoble, France from as far afield as Australia, Bolivia, Russia and India to spend five intensive weeks learning about everything to do with the atmosphere. Grenoble seemed to be the perfect place to hold this kind of course; an alpine city surrounded by mountains we felt very close to the physical interactions of the earth system.

The first four weeks were packed full of lectures with topics ranging from city air pollution to the changing climate mechanisms, from the formation of clouds to the environmental impacts of hydropower. Every day brought a new perspective or entirely different subject to focus on. My own PhD research is about estimating the greenhouse gas emissions of the UK so I really got a great sense of how my work fits in with the wider field of atmospheric science. Luckily all of these hours of lectures were interspersed with copious amounts of food from the university canteen and delicious pastries at break-time. We were in France, we were never going to go hungry!

Getting the bigger picture

One of the most interesting aspects of these first four weeks was the emphasis on the social science side of the work that we do. It is really impossible to separate atmospheric science from an understanding of the politics of climate change and the attitude of the general public towards ecological behaviour. The opening speech of ERCA was by Michel Colombier, from the IDDRI. Michel has taken part in many international climate negotiations and he summarised the current situation leading up to the Paris climate debates in December 2015. He had a warning for us scientists: we were likely to be very disappointed with the seemingly unambitious climate targets of international governments. However, Michel was adamant that we should still see the outcome of the Paris Conference of Parties (COP 21) as a very important step in the right direction.

A couple of weeks later we tried to simulate our own version of the Paris 2015 debates, each person on the course chose a country to represent, and it was a complete disaster! We definitely didn’t come to any agreement and a lot of the time allocated was taken up with Chile suggesting it wouldn’t matter if Tuvalu ended up under water – so, not a very serious discussion! However, this exercise was designed to put us in the shoes of politicians, to recreate their dilemmas, and in fact we weren’t far off. We realised that it is impossible to focus the discussion when every government has its own agenda. We realised that the concerns of the most and least developed countries are worlds apart. And most importantly, we realised that any global climate agreement will be enormously difficult to obtain.

My role in the debate was the UK and it was very interesting researching the UK’s position for Paris 2015. The government has produced a great document that outlines all aspects of their expectations from a climate deal. I have to say, I was fairly impressed with what they are proposing. For example, the UK is prepared to push for an existing EU emissions reduction target to increase from 40% to 50% reduction by 2030 (from 1990 base levels). The UK is also proposing an agreement that really understands the needs of the least developed countries and is creating projects such as BRACED to improve the resilience of developing countries against climate change.

Snow, stars and science

The final week of the course was a weeklong visit to the Observatoire d’Haute Provence. This is really a magical place, a haven for scientists with dozens of little astronomical observatories poking out of a forest of oak trees, made even more magical when the whole place was covered in snow a few days after we arrived. As well as making space observations here they also have a tall tower for making greenhouse gas measurements, several LiDARs (giant green laser beams) that measure various geophysical properties of the atmosphere and an ecological research centre that looks at the impact of climatic changes on oak trees. We were able to catch the comet Lovejoy on an 80cm telescope while we were there, a once in a lifetime opportunity, as this blurry ball of light won’t be seen for another 8,000 years.


Observatoire d’Haute Provence. Image credit: Rebecca Brownlow

Having just started my PhD in September 2014, this winter school experience has been a wonderful introduction to the ins and outs of the field of science that I now work in. It’s given me an international network of friends and fellow atmospheric PhD students, as well as having been a fantastic opportunity to learn from some leading researchers. It’s left me with lots to think about and lots of ideas about science in general, ready to get stuck back in to my project.
This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Emily White, a PhD student in the School of Chemistry at the University of Bristol.