Friday, 30 March 2012

Friday Photo (26) - Kilimanjaro

The dormant volcano - Kilimanjaro is Africa's highest mountain and leads to significant geotourism within Tanzania. (Gunnar Ries - Image Courtesy of

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Alex Stubbings: What's Driving Climatic Change Today?

Alex Stubbings is our GfGD Blog Climate Change Correspondent, and will be blogging on all matters related to climate change, climate change adaptation, and the important role geoscience can play in this discipline. Alex has a BSc in Environmental Geology from the University of Birmingham and an MSc in Climate Change from the University of East Anglia, as well as experience working in Bangladesh. In the first of special series, a fortnight ago he wrote about the Earth's Changing Climate. Today he looks at what is driving climatic change today...


Keeling Curve (Source: Wiki)
Climate Change (2) - What's driving climatic change today?

How do we know that climatic change is occurring today? Well this is extremely nuanced and requires multiple lines of enquiry to provide robust and reliable data/ information. Firstly, there’s the longest climatological record in the world: the Central England Temperature record, dating back to the 17th Century – despite heterogeneities in the data. Secondly there’s the work of chemists and atmospheric chemists from the late 19th and early 20th Century’s – this book provides an authoritative historical narrative, (and also see here) - who provided the necessary empiricism to prove that the natural greenhouse effect exists, artificially increasing Earth’s ambient temperature within the habitable zone. Thirdly, and most crucially, the work of David Keeling: the Keeling Curve. This curve alone provides significant and robust evidence that pCO2 levels have been increasing since monitoring began in the early 1950s.

However, the backdrop to current climatic change is, overwhelmingly, due to global economic development since the Industrial Revolution, and to a lesser extent, but still as important, the Agricultural Revolution – (also see here).

Source: Wiki
The exploration and exploitation of hydrocarbon reserves is predominantly responsible for increased climatic variability that we have been observing since the latter half of the 20th Century. However, whilst through their combustion hydrocarbons provide the increased majority of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, land-use, land-use change and forestry (LULUCF) also contribute to the problem.

Whilst CO2 is labelled the main agent of contemporary climatic change water vapour, methane (CH4, see here and here) and CFCs all have a role to play. Water vapour is more significant than CO2 in a warming world, and has a much stronger global warming potential. This article from GSA Today does a very good job of explaining how the increased concretion of natural, and un-natural, greenhouse gases in the atmosphere results in climatic change observed around the world today.

In many regions of the world today, even in OECD nations, climatic change is already having adverse effects on peoples livelihoods for example: melting glaciers, sea level rise, erratic rainfall, unusual temperatures and an increase in storms are severely affecting communities. Climatic change will negatively impact the world’s poorest as they have the least resilience and coping capacity to deal with sudden disasters or creeping hazards. Quite often their livelihoods are severely affected and they’re pushed back into poverty. The challenge for geoscientists in an ever changing, and fast changing world, is to utilise their knowledge of past climatic events, such as the Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum –despite the factors forcing climatic change being very different. This knowledge can be used to work with policy makers and development practitioners to deliver real, scaleable and affordable solutions to communities most vulnerable and exposed to the detrimental effects of climate change.

(Alex will be writing about the impact of climate change on developing countries in his next post on Monday 9th April) 

Monday, 26 March 2012

Intern, PhD and Journalism Opportunities

A couple of opportunities have arisen that some of our readers may be interested in:

This paid three-month position with the Geological Society of London, is an opportunity to develop an understanding of the interaction of science, policy, and communications - and will give the postholder an opportunity to gain experience into geoscience input into higher education and research, various policy matters and international affairs. The deadline is 10th April, and application details can be found on their website.

A number of PhDs into this very relevant and important discipline have been advertised at both Oxford and Durham in the UK, and a number of universities across Europe. More details, including specific project details and deadlines, are available here.

The Guardian - International Development Journalism Competition
A must for any budding journalist, the Guardian are providing a list of themes and asking you to do the rest. Your short article, if selected in the final 16, could lead to you being flown to a developing country to follow it up.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Guest Blog: Is There Blood In Your Mobile?

Rosalie Tostevin is a PhD student and GfGD Ambassador at University College London (UCL). Her current research is looking at the link between ocean chemistry and the emergence of the first animal life. She has a strong interest in improving science communication and the ethical behaviour of the geoscience industry. Rosalie writes today about the terrible situation in central Africa regarding conflict minerals and the negative impact on communities - her post finishes with a strong call to action.

I recently went to a screening of Frank Poulson’s film, “Blood in the Mobile”, which investigates the use of conflict minerals in electronic products. Here I review the main message of the film and discuss the role for geoscientists may play in resolving the conflict.

RC (Source: CIA)
The wilderness of Kivu province, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), is littered with mines. The land is rich in coltan (tantalum ore - an essential component in many electronics) and many other minerals that the developed world depends on. Young men and children stay down unstable mine shafts for up to a week at a time in crowded unsanitary conditions. Unregulated soldiers earn money by taxing the miners every time they pass through control points and then take the product across the border to be distributed around the world.

Profit from the mining industry is fuelling the various militia groups in the area, a hangover from the end of the civil war in 2003. War is good for business - not only in the DRC, but in the West too. The US, China and Western Europe are making large amounts of profit from equipping them with arms.

Militia groups are outside of UN control, despite peacekeeping troops in the region constituting the UN’s second largest source of expenditure in 2011. Many of us were recently reminded of the situation in central Africa by the Kony 2012 campaign. The Lords Resistance Army (LRA) is now predominantly operating in eastern Congo alongside many other groups. There are countless stories of on-going war crimes and human rights abuses. Rape is being used as a weapon to tear apart communities and clear them off the land in order to ensure access to natural resources.

Joseph Kabila (Source: US Defense)
Charities such as Oxfam and Save the Children are providing short-term relief and support for the victims, who are overwhelmingly women and children. However, there has not been enough focus on the underlying drivers of the humanitarian and developmental crisis. The militia groups are uncontrollable because of the unstable and corrupt political system. President Joseph Kabila came to power in the DRC’s first democratic elections in 2006. He also claimed victory in the recent election, which is riddled with accusations of rigging. The recognition of his leadership by the international community has angered many citizens of the DRC, both in the DRC and around the world. Protests have been organised every two days at the DRC embassy in London but have been largely unreported by the British press. Shana Mongwanga-Eloko, from ‘Africa lives!’ has been promoting campaigns driven by Congolese women. The Congolese people are fighting back, though if you watched the Kony 2012 video, you would be forgiven for thinking only westerners are trying to ‘save the Congo’.

How can we make a difference? Certainly not by sharing a viral video and it’s not as simple as a donation to charity either. There are two groups benefitting from this conflict: electronics companies and arms dealers. We need to legislate to ensure electronics companies publish their supply chain so that consumers can make informed ethical choices.

Blood in the Mobile
The geoscience community needs to develop a method of tracing mineral ores using geochemical fingerprints and radiometric dating techniques. Current efforts are focused on laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy, which generates a chemical profile that can then be compared to a master sample from a known location. Once the ore is processed it can no longer be fingerprinted, so it is necessary to test ores at an early stage, perhaps even in the field. However, no laboratory in the DRC is currently equipped to run these experiments. Companies such as Nokia claim they cannot trace or confirm the source of the minerals used in our phones. The film’s conclusion: we all have blood in our mobiles.

Monday, 19 March 2012

GfGD and Parliament

When establishing GfGD, I was keen to ensure communication with policy makers, advocacy and effective lobbying formed a key part of the work we do. Geoscience can inform many aspects of policy, and it is our responsibility as geoscientists to ensure that our work is being communicated to those with influence over policy – be that Ministers, backbench MPs or other policy makers.

Last week I had a number of opportunities to engage with MPs through events taking place in London. As a representative of the Geological Society, I took part in an event ‘Voice of the Future 2012’, in Westminster. It was an interesting event, with some positive outcomes and opportunities for further engagement.

NERC Funding of MSc Courses

David Willetts MP
The first such outcome was an opportunity to challenge David Willetts MP, Minister for Science and Universities, about NERC’s decision to end all funding for postgraduate taught Masters courses. The University of Leeds has already been forced to close its Geochemistry and Hydrogeology courses, and there has been a decline in numbers for the Engineering Geology course. These courses are essential stepping stones for geoscientists wishing to move into either industry or research after their undergraduate degree, or gain skills and further qualifications if already within industry. They provide essential training and skills for many of the problems and projects the UK will face in the coming years, and give graduates the skills to engage in projects all over the world, including the developing world.

The Minister acknowledged the crucial role of postgraduate taught Masters courses, and the difficult nature of this decision. MSc courses are in a difficult position as they are on the boundary between teaching and research – and don’t fit into either budget. It was welcomed to hear him acknowledge the importance of these courses and the problems of funding them. He also pointed out that students can get Career Development Loans, and that funding from university teaching budgets could help support these courses. This aspect of the answer was far from satisfactory, and I will be writing to the Minister to further highlight and explain our serious concerns about this decision, and the impact it is already having. There was support for the kind of courses NERC used to sponsor from Andrew Miller MP, Chairman of the Science and Technology Select Committee, and we will also be following up this conversation.

We are suggesting that students, and those who have previously benefitted from NERC funding for MSc courses, write to David Willetts MP and their constituency MP to express their concern at the impact this decision is having. You can find details of MP contact addresses on the internet. Letters must be polite and respectful, outlining your concerns about the impact this will have on the UK skills base, and the UK’s ability to engage in a global market.

Geoscience and Development

Andrew Miller MP (Source:
A further opportunity at the event was the opportunity to speak with Andrew Miller MP about the Select Committee inquiry into the role of science within international development. I asked the Chairman about the way in which the Department for International Development (DFID) gets its geoscience information to shape policy and projects, and how geoscientists can improve the way it communicates information to DFID, and DFID use this information, to have more effective development and humanitarian work. Mr Miller decided that this would be an ideal question to be asked to Stephen O’Brien MP, a Minister at DFID, during his evidence session during the inquiry. The evidence session will be held on the 25th June at Portcullis House, London, and is open to the public. I look forward to hearing the response of the DFID Minister to this question. It is great to have the role of geoscience in development acknowledged and discusses in this important report.

Communication to Policy Makers

Finally, the same Andrew Miller MP gave the Sir Peter Kent Lecture at the Geological Society last week, speaking about the role of geoscience in shaping public policy. He set out a clear challenge to us as geoscientists to engage in the need to improve the communication between scientists, policy makers and the public. This is something Geology for Global Development is keen to do, and keen to equip our members to do as we grow and develop.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Friday Photo (24) - Rural Water Supply in Tanzania

This photo, taken in the Kagera Region of Tanzania, highlights a case where communities had been given limited support to protect their water supply - resulting in a large pool of stagnant water, attracting flies and animals.
(c) Geology for Global Development 2012

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Dan Sharpe: Recent News - The Indigenous People of the Ecuadorian Amazon Stand up to the Government’s New Mining Deal

GfGD's latest University Ambassador (at the University of Leeds), is Dan Sharpe, our regular GfGD columnist. Over the past couple of weeks he has written about natural hazards and oil, today he looks at a recent story from Ecuador.

"As you may have seen, plastered over most major environment sections of websites such as the BBC is the news that the indigenous people of Ecuador’s Amazon Rainforest have stood up and protested against mining plans in their area. Several hundred protestors set off on a march in protest of the newly accepted plans to develop a large open pit copper mine proposed by Ecuacorriente, a large mining company based in China.

It will not only displace numerous local communities but could well contaminate their water supply, claim Ecuador's main indigenous organisation; Conaie. In contrast, President Rafael Correa has accused the group of trying to destabilise the country, explaining that the agreement was made with Ecuacorriente in the aim of increased development as a result of new investment. Indeed there has been much disagreement within this nation over the deal, with indigenous residents taking to their feet and marching a 700km route to the capital, Quito. Aiming to pick up people along the way, they will undoubtedly gain support but may also find opposition protestors in their way. One thing for sure is they will certainly find that when they reach Quito, where thousands of the President’s supporters have gathered in a rival protest.

Don’t get me wrong, there are clearly issues surrounding this deal but it is obvious that there are huge positives too. The Ecuadorian Government stated that Ecuacorriente are set to invest US$1.4 billion into their new mine in the first five years of the twenty-five year contract, receiving approximately US$4.5 billion over the whole deal. The company have also promised to set aside US$100 million for the development of neighbouring communities. “We cannot be beggars sitting on a sack of gold” said the president recently, exclaiming that this is a new era for the small South American nation. Try telling that to the communities who have just lost their homes, businesses and entire way of life however.

President Correa
(courtesy of Roosewelt Pinheiro/Abr)

It is clearly a difficult situation and one that has no ideal outcome. I shall leave you to your own opinion on the agreement, but I cannot help but consider it on two different scales. Locally there are going to be tales of hurt and poverty and breaches of human rights, invariably there always is, but you have to sympathise with President Correa. This is a huge amount of income for Ecuador and a big deal to make for a country where the state owns a 52 percent share of mining income (compared to Chile at 36 percent and Peru at 33 percent). Correa is clearly after ‘The Greater Good’, but then when was the last time you heard that phrase?"

Monday, 12 March 2012

In Focus - Water and Sanitation

Last week it was announced that the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) target relating to clean water had been reached, meaning that the United Nations has managed to halve the number of people without access to clean drinking water. This is a huge success – access to clean water has significant benefits to other areas of life. It improves community health, increases the amount of time children can spend in school (rather than collecting water), it allows women to spend more time generating income rather than walking kilometres each day and reduces the danger they put themselves in through doing so. Over the past twenty years around two billion people have gained access to clean water supplies – this equates to just-under 274,000 people a day, over the past twenty years.

This work wouldn’t have been possible without the tremendous contribution of a wide range of disciplines, technical skills, lobbying organisations, Governments and funders. Geologists have played their important role, in providing some of the technical knowledge and skills required for implementing water projects.

As has been noted on a number of other blogs and statements (Tearfund & WaterAid), while this is a time to celebrate it is not a time to slow down. There are a number of points worth looking at:

(1) Having worked with communities in water-poverty in East Africa it is important to note that the speed of poverty-reduction in Sub-Saharan Africa is significantly slower than other regions – with around 40% of those people still in water poverty living in Sub-Saharan Africa. There must now be a focus on this great continent, with DFID and other major donors pushing ahead to see universal access to clean water.

(2) The percentage of people lacking access to clean water can only be an estimate, and is likely to fluctuate. Wells and other water sources can break; shallow wells can dry out, and over abstraction of water can lead to salt-water intrusion and well contamination. The funding of water sources must go hand in hand with the funding of water management training, effective operation and maintenance training, and the development of local hydrogeologists to monitor and manage the abstraction of groundwater. It simply isn’t good enough to go and put water sources in communities without the investment in building technical capacity of the local communities, government engineers and geologists.

(3) The MDG relating to water also included a target for sanitation, which is one of the MDG targets most off-target. At current rates, Sub Saharan Africa will take another two centuries to meet their target on sanitation. This is a major problem, and must be addressed by world governments and international institutions. The provision of toilets, sanitation facilities, and sanitation training is fundamental to reducing the burden of preventable diseases. Good hygiene training is also essential.

We hope that this news does not make Governments get complacent about this fundamentally important issue, but causes them to see what can be achieved by an investment in this sector and take a further push to see an end to this tragedy in the very near future. Why not take time to write to your local MP as we approach World Water Day (22nd March) to urge them to take the further action required to bring universal access to water and sanitation. 

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Alex Stubbings: Earth's Changing Climate

Editor: It is a pleasure to introduce to our readers, our new GfGD Blog Climate Change Correspondent - Alex Stubbings. Alex will be blogging on all matters related to climate change, climate change adaptation, and the important role geoscience can play in this discipline. Alex has a BSc in Environmental Geology from the University of Birmingham and an MSc in Climate Change from the University of East Anglia, as well as experience working in Bangladesh. 

 Climate Change (1) - Earth’s Changing Climate

Open up any geological text book, academic or popular science and one thing is immediately obvious: the climate of planet Earth isn’t stationary. Over vast swathes of time Earth’s climate naturally fluctuates between Icehouse and Hothouse, examples of which include: Neoproterozoic glaciations – so called Snowball/ Slushball Earth (Icehouse) and the Carboniferous (Hothouse). These are two examples outside of the Quaternary glacial cycle. In fact variations in Earth’s climate, along with the Great Oxidation Event, are linked to the evolution of life (also see here).

Source: Richard P. Hoblitt (USGS)
When it comes to climatic change over the eons what’s responsible? Volcanoes play a central role, for example the Siberian and Deccan Traps (at the End-Permian and End-Cretaceous). The actions of these flood basalts, over time, contributed significant quantities of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. More recent examples include: Toba, 75,000 kyr (resulting in the human bottle neck); Tambora, 1815 (the following year was known as the year without a summer); and Pinatubo, 1992. The oceans play a central role also. They act as a ‘sleeping giant’ due, namely, to their thermal inertia which operates over timescales of 1000s of years, and ultimately reorganises thermohaline circulation systems. On shorter time scales thermal expansion can inundate low lying continental shelves. And lastly, macro-geologic processes: plate tectonics and continental drift result in climate change that plays out over time scales of 250 million years. For instance: Gondwanaland, Rodinia, Laurasia, Pangea, and the creation of isthmuses like that at Panama.

So it comes as nothing new that Earth’s climate changes, waxing and waning, from one state to another. This is but part of several processes that act over scales incomprehensible to us, but preserved forever in the rock record.

Microfossils (Source: Psammophile)
We know about changes in Earth’s climate not only from the rock record but from other palaeo-proxies: Speleothems, Ice cores, Varves, palynology, charcoal (analysis), dendrochronology (tree rings), macro and micro fossils, there is a wide range of proxies available to the geoscientist. Of course there are huge differences in resolution, spatial scale, and, importantly, uncertainty. Of the proxies listed above the most useful to re-tell Earth’s climate over the eons are macro and micro fossils. Think here about the End-Permian mass extinction or the End-Cretaceous, and the Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum –that’s where macro and micro fossils are most useful. The other proxies listed above deteriorate over time scales of 1000s >500,000 years: even ice cores!

Zooming in on our present situation and the geology explaining why we’re in another glacial period is very sound; here's one of my favourite papers to do with it. However, the most notable period of glacial activity is that of the Pleistocene. Since this epoch begun in Late-Quaternary time both hemispheres have seen vast sheets of ice accumulate. In fact we’re still in an Ice Age as there’s still ice present on Earth’s surface, however we’re in an interstadial: a warm period within an Ice Age. Other interstadials that Holocene workers know of include the Medieval Warm Period, where the Norse had settlements in Greenland.

The most recent stage of Quaternary time, the Holocene, is marked with stark climatic reversals. Starting from the Younger Dryas, which marked the termination of the last glacial period at 11,500 kyr, Earth’s climate has experienced marked changes, returning us to for a time to incipient glacial conditions. For instance the 8.2 kyr event in the Northern hemisphere, evidenced by marine drilling expeditions in the North Atlantic and ecosystem reorganisation over Europe and the Middle East; the End African Humid Period –which saw the intertropical convergence zone move northwards, resulting in the desertification of the Sahara; the widespread 4.2 kyr event which resulted in numerous civilisations collapsing throughout the low middle latitudes around the world.

Hopefully, as you can see climate has changed on Earth since time-immemorial and over different spatial scales. Climate has probably fluctuated like that seen in the Holocene over other periods of time, however due to the resolution and quality of data available to us we’re not able to differentiate these episodes.

Monday, 5 March 2012

Latest News - University Groups

It has been a remarkable few months for Geology for Global Development, particularly in terms of our University Groups. We thought we would take this opportunity to share with you a few highlights:

GfGD Cambridge – Claire and Tim have been doing a fantastic job establishing the GfGD group in Cambridge. I visited them in February and very much enjoyed sharing with students about GfGD. They have also organised seminars on earthquake education in Central Asia and the role of a hydrogeologist in development – and have another seminar coming up later this month. These talks have been really well received by the department, and provoked much thought. It has been great to see interest in the group from across the geography, geology and civil engineering departments.

GfGD Leicester – I had the privilege of visiting this group recently, and it was great to see such a huge attendance at a talk on the role of a geologist in development. Laura is doing a great job of promoting GfGD and there are a lot of very enthusiastic students keen to get involved.

GfGD Leeds – I visited Leeds at the start of February, and was again greeted by students with a very genuine enthusiasm for what we are trying to do. They are shortly going to launch a GfGD group, and have exciting plans for the coming months and years. It was great to meet Dan Sharpe, a student at Leeds, and get him involved in the GfGD Blog as a regular columnist.

GfGD UCL – University College London (UCL) is our latest group to launch, with Rosalie Tostevin taking the lead as GfGD Ambassador. Rosalie will be working with others in this very strategic university to establish the GfGD group and develop it. UCL is on the doorstep of many policymakers and NGOs, and has a world-class hazards research centre, so it’s great to be able to establish a strong group here.

All of our GfGD Ambassadors are doing an excellent job, and without them we wouldn't be able to do the work we are doing, and the work we hope to do. If you’re interested in establishing a University Group and would like more information and guidance then please do get in touch with us.

Friday, 2 March 2012

Friday Photo (22) - Eruption in Montserrat

This stunning image, courtesy of Jonathan Stone who wrote the excellent guest blog published on Monday, was taken in December 2009