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20 posts categorized "Environmental science"

13 January 2017

Making hydrogen from wax

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Philip recently attended an event for other Oxford University chemistry alumni, and one of the speakers drew attention to a recent publication from, among others, Oxford chemists, regarding the production of hydrogen from paraffin waxes by microwave degradation using a ruthenium catalyst.

Hydrogen has often been suggested as an environmentally-friendly replacement energy source for fossil fuels in transport vehicles and other applications requiring high energy density. (Note that hydrogen is not a “fuel”, as it must be made using energy from other sources, which can be environmentally-friendly or not.) However, there are significant problems with this, notably involving the safe storage of a highly-inflammable and explosive gas which is much lighter than air.

Hydrogen wax cycle
Figure 5 from original article showing chemical cycle and outputs

This publication suggests that wax could be carried on vehicles and used to create hydrogen gas in situ, the waste carbon being used to make more wax via syngas production and the Fischer-Tropsch process, where carbon monoxide and hydrogen is converted into hydrocarbons as a potential source of petro-chemicals that does not involve releasing fossil carbon into the atmosphere. While this publication is still a long way from a working industrial-scale process, it offers a very hopeful potential avenue for less-polluting technology.

Source: Gonzalez-Cortes, S et al. Wax: A benign hydrogen-storage material that rapidly releases H2-rich gases through microwave-assisted catalytic decomposition, Scientific Reports, 2016 6, 35315. Available online at http://www.nature.com/articles/srep35315

Further reading:
Ball, M et al (Eds.). Compendium of hydrogen energy: volume 4, Hydrogen use, safety and the hydrogen economy, Oxford: Woodhead Publishing, 2015. Available online in the British Library Reading Rooms.

09 February 2016

PhD placement in Science in Society at the British Library

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Applications now open

The British Library is currently running a series of 3-month (or PT equivalent) PhD Placements, to be hosted by specialist curatorial teams and other Library experts.  Of the 17 placements on offer, this opportunity will be of particular interest to PhD students with interests in science, science policy and the social perception of scientific issues.

Science in Society

Working within the Research Engagement Team, the placement student will have the opportunity to organise and deliver a TalkScience event on a topic relevant to scientific policy.  TalkScience is well-established, highly successful series of public debates organised by and held at the British Library. Previous topics have ranged from the use of personalised genomics to science education in schools.

TalkScience_23_6_15-45
A previous TalkScience event

The placement student will also have the opportunity to use the Library’s collections in relation to science and its social perceptions, for example by working with the Web Archive Team to produce a special online collection related to science and science policy.  Additionally, placement students can also get involved with a number of activities across the Research Engagement Team, such as contributing to research reports or social media activity. 

We have hosted Science in Society interns in previous years. You can read more about their projects here:

Stuart smith talkscienceStuart Smith (BBSRC intern, 2012)

Adam levyAdam Levy (NERC intern, 2014)

Rachel huddartRachel Huddart (BBSRC intern, 2014)

Further information

The application deadline for all of the PhD placements is Friday 19 February 2016.

Further information, including eligibility criteria and details on the application process, can be found here:

http://www.bl.uk/aboutus/highered/phd-placement-scheme 

All applications must be supported by the applicant’s PhD supervisor and their department’s Graduate Tutor (or equivalent). Please forward any questions to: Research.Development@bl.uk

 

Eleanor Sherwood

Research Engagement PhD Placement Student

10 December 2015

GM Crops: what are the risks?

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Last month we took our successful TalkScience series on the road to Leeds Central Library. Here Ruth Amey  (PhD student at the University of Leeds) shares some of the highlights of the event.

The GM crop era may seem like a golden age of technofixes, but in a recent ‘TalkScience’ discussion in Leeds the panel explored some of the less obvious risks associated with this technology. It is commonly stated that GM crops can ‘help feed the world’, but the speakers challenged this idea and considered issues of control, ecological harm and the unknown dangers from altering genetic code.

This is the first TalkScience event to be held outside of the British Library’s London’s site, organised by the West Yorkshire branch of the British Science Association in collaboration with the national British Science Association, British Library and Leeds Central Library.

TalkScienceLeeds
Panellists (left to right): Professor Jurgen Denecke, Andy Goldring, Liz O’Neill and chair Dr. Alice Owen listen to the final speech from Martin Coates. Photo credit: Jing An

What are GM Crops?

Genetically Modified (GM) crops are plants which are grown for food and have had their genetic code altered. This is often done to introduce a trait to a crop that does not occur naturally, by modifying DNA. For example, rice could be cultivated to produce vitamin A, or crops are altered to produce a small amount of toxin that is harmful to the insects that would eat them.

Can GM Crops really feed the population?

It is a phrase commonly heard that GM crops will ‘feed the world’, and yet Professor Jurgen Denecke from Leeds University pointed out that we already grow enough food to feed more than the population. The problem is not in the amount produced, Jurgen argued, but instead the issue is in limited energy for transportation and Liz O’Neill, director of GM Freeze, argued that starvation is a socioeconomic problem – ‘people starve because they are poor’. GM crops aren’t a quick-fix for world hunger. The problem is in politics and not production.

 The issue of control

‘No-one should own genetic code’ posed Liz O’Neill. If a company can patent a crop, then they can charge royalties and control who can buy that crop. Andy Goldring, CEO of the Permaculture Association network, invited us to imagine a future in which a handful of companies control the world’s food supply, and require you to buy only their crops, and puts people in jail for using traditional crops. ‘This is almost like a James Bond film!’ jested Andy – but with GM Crops could this be the future? GM crops gives the potential for companies to have complete control of a seed, and consequently complete control of our food. Martin Coates, Managing Director of Agrantec, explained how complex the food chain is and without transparency GM crops are potentially an opportunity for companies to exploit this complexity - ‘Anyone working with genetic modification needs to recognise that GM Crops are not just about science, but also about political and corporate power’.

Ecological harm

Andy Goldring particularly highlighted the ecological problems. Certain GM Crops can produce toxins harmful to non-target insects, such as butterflies. Planting different crops also affects crop rotations and affects biodiversity, which are particular issues to Permaculture’s aim to create a sustainable society from ‘permanent agriculture’.

Fear of the unknown

We can’t predict the long-term effects of GM crops. Ecosystems are complicated, crops are hard to contain and cross-contamination can occur.  ‘DNA is not lego!’ proclaimed Liz O’Neill – altering genetic code is complicated, there’s a lot that can go wrong.

Take-home messages

The closing remarks all followed a broadly similar theme. Jurgen Denecke maintained that every method that increases knowledge is a good thing and Martin Coates suggested we should be supportive of research that makes us understand GM crops better. Andy Goldring too urged us to keep an open mind about science, all of which answered a question from the floor about our society’s responsibility to pursue the potential of GM Crops. But ultimately the panel agreed with Liz O’Neill’s caution to separate the scientific potential of GM crops to how GM crops are being produced now. Andy Goldring stressed that we should follow the money and make sure crops aren’t about making shareholders wealthier. Ultimately, it seems there is a political issue behind GM crops that perhaps, currently, is bigger than the science.

We invited the audience to share with us their views on GM Crops before and after the debate; the audience overwhelmingly voted with a positive opinion of GM Crops.

TalkScienceLeeds(2)
Photo credit: Anna Woolman


The panel included:

  • Liz O'Neill from GM Freeze, the UK umbrella campaign for a moratorium on GM in food and farming.
  • Professor Jurgen Denecke from Leeds University - Professor for Plant Cell Biology and Biotechnology, Faculty of Biological Sciences
  • Andy Goldring from Permaculture, the national charity that supports people to learn about and use permaculture – ‘Permanent Agriculture’
  • Martin Coates from Agrantec - an all-in-one cloud based data management system to meet the needs of the food industry.

Chair:

  • Alice Owen from Leeds University – Lecturer in Business Sustainability & Stakeholder Engagement in Sustainability Research Institute, School of Earth and Environment

09 November 2015

Science in Schools: What are the options?

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Here we share some of the highlights from our most recent TalkScience event.

The topic under discussion at the 30th TalkScience event was the future of secondary science education. We welcomed  Ed Dorrell (Times Educational Supplement) to chair a panel of expert speakers including Professor Louise Archer (Kings College London), Peter Finegold (Institution of Mechanical Engineers), and David Perks (East London Science School).

The panel gave a wide-ranging introduction referring to the skills shortage and the economy, science in society, and social justice. These broad issues framed the discussion of more specific points about the nature of the science curriculum (baccalaureate or ‘traditional’ academic science education), CPD for science teachers and the concept of ‘science capital’. The introduction was followed by a lively discussion between the audience and the panel.

Take a look at the highlights video here:

 

You might also be interested in this blog post where you can find out more about the range of resources relating to science education that are on offer at the British Library.

And if you missed out on this event - fear not! There is still one more TalkScience event at the British Library this year - the Christmas Quiz! Tickets are available via the British Library box office and cost £10 per team (up to 5 people).

Katie Howe

04 October 2015

From fiction to fact: the science of Animal Tales

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Alice Kirke investigates the facts behind the fiction of the British Library’s Animal Tales exhibition.

The Animal Tales exhibition at the British Library explores what our portrayal of animals within literature tells us about ourselves. The natural environment and its inhabitants have inspired generations of writers, but how do some of our favourite, anthropomorphised fictional creatures compare to their real-life counterparts? I set out to discover what the science says about the creatures lurking among the pages.

Cats: aloof and independent?

Valued for their companionship, skill in hunting vermin, and role in numerous ‘funny cat videos’ on YouTube, the domestic cat was first classified as ‘Felis catus’ by the Swedish botanist and zoologist Carolus Linnaeus in 1758. The exhibition features French philosopher Michel de Montaigne’s Essays,[1] in which he famously asked ‘When I am playing with my cat, how do I know she is not playing with me?’ People have kept cats as pets for thousands of years. Though they are commonly thought to have first been domesticated by the Ancient Egyptians, who considered them to be sacred, there is evidence of earlier domestication dating from around 9,500 years ago.[2] There are many theories and misconceptions about the behaviour of these enigmatic pets. As predators, cats are very focussed on their environment leading to the common misreading of their behaviour as aloof, and although they are seen as ‘independent’ they are in fact social animals. Cat communication includes a variety of vocalizations as well types of cat-specific body language.[3]

 

Snakes: slithering and sinister?

Lamia
A 17th century depiction of Lamia from Edward Topsell's The History of Four-Footed Beasts L.R.301.cc.3.

Snakes have a sinister reputation in literature and culture. In ancient Greek mythology Lamia, the mistress of Zeus was transformed into a terrifying serpentine demon by Zeus’ jealous wife Hera. In Keats’ poem Lamia[4], displayed in the exhibition, the protagonist appears in her beautiful human form before being transformed back into a serpent at her wedding feast. To an extent, this was a comment on science itself; knowledge of the natural world destroyed its beauty.

 

 

 Snakes are perhaps so often portrayed as evil in literature because some species are dangerous to humans, but snakes are diverse creatures- there are over 3,000 species of snake in the world, with at least one type of snake on every continent except Antarctica. There is debate among evolutionary psychologists over whether the fear of snakes is innate. Since those with a phobia of snakes would be more likely to stay away from them and avoid the dangers of being bitten, they had a better chance of surviving and passing on their genes. Recent research suggests that although the fear of snakes is a learned behaviour, people do have a knack for spotting them; when shown images of snakes surrounded by objects of a similar colour babies and young children detected snakes faster than other objects.  

Spiders: creepy crawlies?

Frequent scare stories in the UK press about invasions of deadly spiders prey on a common fear of arachnids. There are over 40,000 different species worldwide, and although the vast majority are venomous most are not dangerous to humans. Arachnologists, experts who study spiders emphasise their diversity in terms of their appearance, habitats and behaviour.

Due to their wide range of behaviours, they have become symbolic of various attributes, including patience, cruelty and creativity in art and mythology.  The character of Anansi, a spider who often acts and appears as a man in West African and Caribbean folklore, has taken on a variety of different traits over time. Anansi Company,[5] featured in the exhibition, is a modern version of tales about Anansi and his friends which are central to Caribbean culture.

Crow: cruel or cunning?

Crow
The Crow and the Pitcher, illustrated by Milo Winter in 1919

In common English, corvids including crows, ravens, rooks, jackdaws, jays and magpies, are all known as ‘the crow family’.  Ted Hughes’ Crow draws on mythology surrounding the much maligned creature, which is often connected with death.[6] In Irish mythology, crows are associated with Morrigan, the goddess of war and death, and the collective name for a group of crows is a ‘murder’. However, they have also been linked with prophesy, cunning and intelligence. In one of Aesop’s fables, a thirsty crow spied a pitcher containing a small amount of water, which was out of reach of its bill. The crow began dropping pebbles into the pitcher one by one, thereby raising the level of water and enabling it to drink. A 2009 study published in Current Biology which replicated Aesop's fable, found that four captive rooks used stones to raise the level of water in a container, allowing a floating worm to move into reach, showing that the goal-directed behaviour of Aseop’s crow is reflected in actual corvid behaviour. European magpies have demonstrated self-awareness in mirror tests, and crows and rooks have been shown to have the ability to make and use tools, previously regarded as a skill specific to humans and a few other higher mammals. This scientific research suggests that crows are one of the most intelligent animals in the world.

Animal Tales showcases many more familiar yet enigmatic creatures. The wealth of material in the Library collections can be used to trace animals in literature as well as the latest scientific research about their characteristics- come and see the exhibition and follow up with some research into your favourite fictional beasts!



[1] Michel de Montaigne, Les Essais de Michel Seigneur de Montaigne. (Paris, 1602) C.28.g.7

[2] Vigne JD, Guilaine J, Debue K, Haye L, Gérard P (April 2004). "Early taming of the cat in Cyprus". Science 304 (5668): 259

[3] Dennis C. Turner, and Patrick Bateson, The domestic cat: the biology of its behaviour. (Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 2000) m00/46105

[4] John Keats, Lamia, Isabella, the Eve of St. Agnes & other poems. (Waltham St. Lawrence, 1928) C.98.gg.16

[5] Ronald King & Roy Fisher, Anansi Company. (London, 1992) C.193.c.8

[6] Ted Hughes & Leonard Baskin, Crow: from the life and songs of the Crow (London, 1973)

25 August 2015

Seals, Science and Nations

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In this blog post Helen Cowie, Eccles Centre for American Studies Visiting Fellow, writes about her research on the sealskin industry in late-nineteenth century Alaska. Helen will discuss her research as part of the Eccles Centre Summer Scholars Seminar Series

On 17 January 1891, the satirical magazine Punch published a cartoon showing a seal emerging from a hole in the ice. The cartoon depicts the animal propped up on its flippers and looking sagely at two squabbling men. The man on the left, in stripy trousers and cravat, represents the USA, embodied in the familiar character of Brother Jonathan. The rotund man on the right, with bulging stomach and a broad-brimmed souwester, is John Bull, a caricature of Great Britain. The seal addresses them both with soulful gaze, imploring them to ‘avast quarrelling! Give me a “close time” and leave the “sea” an open question’.[1]

YPP_15062015123210_001 - Copy - CopyPunch’s pithy cartoon was a humorous take on a serious international dispute over the future of the fur-seal fisheries of Alaska. Since the early nineteenth century, the fur seal had been hunted extensively in the Bering Sea for its valuable coat, which was used to manufacture ladies’ cloaks and jackets. By the 1890s, however, seal numbers were fast decreasing, triggering mutual recriminations between the USA and Canada. According to naturalist Henry Elliott, who visited the fur-seal islands of St Paul and St George in the summer of 1890, there were only 959,000 seals present during the breeding season; just a third of the number he had seen two decades earlier in 1874.[2]

 The fur-seal controversy centred on the different methods of hunting the animal. The USA hunted the seals on land on the Pribilof Islands, driving young male animals to a designated killing grounds and there bludgeoning them to death. The Canadians hunted the seals at sea, shooting them and spearing them with harpoons in the water. Pelagic sealing (hunting at sea) was regarded as more wasteful, since it killed females, pups and unborn young indiscriminately and mortally wounded many seals whose skins were not subsequently collected. One critic, D.O. Mills, estimated that ‘every skin placed upon the market by [pelagic sealers] represents the destruction of six or eight seals – an utterly unjustifiable inroad into the vitality of the herds’.[3]

YPP_12062015125231_001 - Copy - Copy
‘Killing a “drive” of fur-seals on St Paul’, The Illustrated London News, 24 June 1893

 Keen to protect the seals from destruction, the USA limited the number that could be killed on the Islands and began deploying naval vessels in the Bering Sea to seize ships engaged in pelagic sealing. The Canadians, however, disputed the US’s rights to board their ships in what they considered to be international waters and appealed to Britain to defend the rights of their sealers. By 1891, when Punch published its cartoon, the two nations were teetering on the brink of war.

DSC02425
‘Seals at Home’, The Animal World, 1 September 1882

 The fur-seal crisis offers an interesting early example of wildlife conservation and its international dimensions. Because the seal was a migratory animal, cross-border cooperation was essential to ensure its survival. The USA could introduce a complete moratorium on the killing of seals on land – as indeed it did in 1911 – but if the Canadians continued to slaughter the animals at sea, their efforts would be futile. Measures taken to protect the fur-seal set a precedent for similar transnational agreements concerning the protection of migratory birds and the preservation of game in colonial Africa.

 Another key aspect of the fur-seal debate was the important role played by scientists in the framing of conservation policy. To understand how best to preserve the species, the US Government commissioned several scientific surveys of Pribilof Islands, all staffed by zoological experts. These individuals conducted careful fieldwork on the islands and offered a detailed understanding of seal behaviour and ecology. They used the latest technology to support their studies, backing up their findings with carefully documented evidence. To show that large numbers of seals wounded by pelagic sealers were not subsequently caught, for example, the 1896 commission cited the case of ‘a wet [i.e. nursing] cow’ found at the bay of Polovina on 23 July ‘with bloody shot holes in her shoulder’.[4] To prove that pups required milk until they left the breeding grounds in November, the scientists killed a selection of the animals and examined the contents of their stomachs, which were found, in the vast majority of cases to be either empty (in the case of orphans) or ‘full of milk’ well into October.[5]

Furseal_drawing650
‘The Countenance of Callorhinus’, Drawing by Henry W. Elliott, Pribilof Islands, 5 July 1872

Scientists’ observations informed government policies and lent weight to proposed conservation measures, much as they do today. They did not necessarily provide definitive answers, however, for it was often the case that different studies arrived at different conclusions. One US scientist, Henry Elliott, for instance, advocated a moratorium on the land drive, because he believed that repeated driving impaired the fertility of male seals. His compatriot, David Starr Jordan, however, refuted this, arguing that the seal’s reproductive organs were ‘withdrawn into the body cavity when he is in motion, thus being entirely protected from injury’.[6] The Canadian Record of Science, meanwhile, reprinted an article on sealing in the South Pacific in 1893 which appeared to show that the damage there was done on land, and not at sea. We can therefore see science being used to support different national and ideological viewpoints.

YPP_15062015123210_001 - Copy - Copy (2)As for the seals themselves, they were rarely consulted in the debate, but Punch at least gave one of them a voice. Next to the arresting image with which this blog post began, the magazine printed a short poem, supposedly written by the seal, in which the plucky animal begs both sides to stop squabbling and ‘Give me a thought in the matter’. In rousing nautical language, the seal complains of being ‘worried and walloped without intermission / Until even family duties quite fail’ - a reference to Elliott’s claim that the seal drive rendered males infertile. He protests loudly that his ‘poor wife and children have not half a chance’ – an allusion to the damage done by pelagic sealing - and he urges both sides to establish a ‘close time’ in which he and his family can recover. Since this is a British publication, it is no surprise that the seal refutes the US’s claim to sovereignty over the entire Bering Sea – ‘Men can’t thus monopolise oceans’. He does, however, advocate ‘compromise’ and friendship between nations, issuing a plea for international peace before he ‘dives under’ the water and departs the scene.[7] 

 Thankfully the seal’s call was heeded and the USA and Britain reached a compromise agreement in 1893. Seals were granted a closed season from 1 May to 1 October and a sixty-mile closed zone around the Pribilof Islands in which no pelagic sealing was permitted. Eighteen years later, in 1911, a further international agreement banned pelagic sealing completely, triggering the recovery of the fur-seal population. In 1920 conservationist William Hornaday described the preservation of the fur-seal as ‘the most practical and financially responsive wildlife conservation movement thus far consummated in the United States’.[8]

 

Helen Cowie is lecturer in history at the University of York. Her research focuses on the history of animals and the history of natural history. She is author of Conquering Nature in Spain and its Empire, 1750-1850 (Manchester University Press, 2011) and Exhibiting Animals in Nineteenth-Century Britain: Empathy, Education, Entertainment (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).



[1] ‘Arbitration’, Punch, 17 January 1891.

[2] Henry W. Elliott, Report on the Condition of the Fur-Seal Fisheries of the Pribylov Islands in 1890 (Paris:Chamerat et Renouard, 1893), p.91.

[3] D.O. Mills, ‘Our Fur-Seal Fisheries’, The North American Review 151 (September 1890), p.303.

[4] David Starr Jordan, Observations on the Fur Seals of the Pribilof Islands, Preliminary Report (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1896), p.44.

[5] Ibid., p.33.

[6] Ibid., p.38.

[7] ‘Arbitration’, Punch, 17 January 1891.

[8] The Times, 31 August 1920.

05 August 2015

Policy into practice

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Applications are now open for RCUK Policy Internships at the British Library at 2016. We are offering up to three NERC/MRC funded PhD students the chance to join us in team ScienceBL and help deliver a TalkScience event. In this blog post former intern Stuart Smith reflects on his Policy Internship placement at the British Library.

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Stuart (red hat and trousers) in the Falkland islands (Photo: Marju Karlsson)

After finishing my BBSRC policy placement at the British Library in July 2013 and wrapping up my PhD thesis, I went in search of a job. Wishing to find a job that balanced both ecological research and public engagement, I was finally offered a 2-year position leading a Darwin Initiative funded project that aims to build capacity to enhance habitat restoration in the Falklands Islands. Despite only being a small island in sub-Antarctica, with a total population of around 3,000 people, there has consistently been a need to communicate scientific and environmental issues effectively. Working for Falklands Conservation, I have established an island-wide re-vegetation trial using native seeds and I regularly talk about my work to people with a range of backgrounds: farmers, landowners, policymakers, researchers, members of the public and military personnel. And while I might not have the opportunity to get a BBC presenter to pop down to lead a panel debate, like I did my when organising a TalkScience event at the British Library, I find myself involved in outreach activity on a weekly basis, whether writing an article for the Penguin News, the local newspaper, or giving a lesson on seeds or habitat restoration in a school. 

 

Bill.Turnbull.panel.TS21.compressed
Bill Turnbull chairing the TalkScience that Stuart developed and delivered as part of his Policy Internship at the British Library

Following on from work on the Falkland Islands, I am about to start a post-doctoral position at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim, Norway as part of AfricanBioServices, an EU funded project, and will be working in the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem in Tanzania/Kenya. My involvement in the project is to investigate the effect of different land-uses (both wild grazing versus domestic pastoral grazing) on grassland productivity and ecosystem functioning. Again, this role is likely to require excellent communication skills to a wide range of audiences from scientists involved in the international consortium to farmers and landowners on the ground. Even though I am still actively involved in ecological research, the essential skills of effective science communication and outreach are highly valued. The British Library has an incredibly supportive and friendly team and were happy to take on an ecologist, who particularly struggled to wear a tie. I would recommend that every postgraduate should take the opportunity to learn an increasingly important set of skills involved in outreach and public engagement and apply for a science policy placement.

Stuart Smith, BBSRC Science Policy Intern 2013

08 June 2015

The Ocean: A sustainable future or the end of the line?

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Peter Spooner dives into the issues of seafood sustainability in advance of our upcoming TalkScience event on 23rd June. Tickets are available from the box office.

The ocean is a vast place, covering some 70 % of the surface of the Earth. If Mount Everest sat at the bottom of the deepest ocean trench, two kilometres of water would still lie above it. It is baffling to try and imagine the numbers of creatures that survive and thrive in the swirling currents of the sea; and yet that is the task of scientists worldwide, trying to piece together scattered information to build a picture of the health of life in the ocean. But why has such research become so important?

Food for thought

Fish is an important source of protein, vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids1. The government recommends that we eat at least two portions every week. A booming human population, growing appetites for fish and improvements in fishing technology mean that we now use at least 160 million tonnes of fish, shellfish and other marine life every year, mostly for food, and mostly taken wild from the ocean2.

Many scientists believe that such fishing pressure is not sustainable3. For the fish species where we have good data, populations have declined by 38 % since the 1970s4. Historical accounts of fish populations suggest that they have declined even more over the last century5. The fraction of global fish stocks fished at sustainable levels is also decreasing, with 30 % of fish populations now assessed as being overfished2. Wholesale species extinctions are currently rare in the ocean but local extinctions are increasingly common6. A famous example is that of the cod in the Northwest Atlantic, which were fished down to less than 10 % of their original stock over a period of about 30 years, and have not recovered7. Similarly massive reductions in populations have been recorded on a global scale for some fish including the Southern Bluefin Tuna8, and a quarter of all shark species are considered threatened9 (40 % in Europe10). Some fishing practices also cause extensive damage to the seafloor habitats that give many animals food and shelter. The accidental catching of species that are not the targets of fishing, such as turtles, is a major on-going problem.

Fishing and Marine protection

Image Credit: DJMattaar Thinkstock

Balancing the scales

Fishing and fish farming provide livelihoods for 10-12 % of the world’s population2. In order for fish and other marine life to continue providing an important source of protein, livelihoods in fishing and tourism, and benefits to the global environment, most agree that measures are needed in order to conserve fish stocks and to make them sustainable. In areas where action is being taken, such as the Northeast Atlantic, some species are showing signs of recovery2. However, there is disagreement about which strategies are the best. For example, marine protected areas are often favoured by conservationists due to their positive impacts on fish abundance, biodiversity and habitats11. When fully protected, they can offer an insight into what the ocean was like before fishing began. However, the creation of such areas may simply move fishing elsewhere and could take jobs away from local fishermen. In many parts of the world, enforcing protected areas without the support and help of local people is very difficult. Other controversial marine protection strategies are also hotly debated. For example, fishing quotas restrict landings of fish beyond specified levels, but often result in excess fish being discarded at sea.  How can we decide on the best strategies for ensuring sustainable seas? Should marine protection strategies be driven by governments or by those ‘on the ground’ (fishermen, local communities and consumers)? Does the best strategy change depending on where we are in the world? Is sustainability enough or should we be aiming to recreate the oceans of the past?

Seas of change

These questions become even more difficult to answer when we consider that the ocean and its ecosystems are in a state of continual change, driven by anthropogenic global warming, ocean acidification and nutrient pollution. Examples of the impacts of such changes include species moving poleward as the oceans warm, destruction of habitats including coral reefs, and the expansion of marine ‘dead zones’, where oxygen levels drop perilously low5. How might these changes affect the fishing industry? And how will our planning and implementation of marine protection strategies have to take these changes into account?

On the 23rd June the British Library will host our 29th TalkScience event: ‘Fishing and marine protection: What’s the catch?’ With the help of our audience, our panel of experts including Dr. Helen Scales, Professor Callum Roberts (University of York), Barrie Deas (NFFO) and Dr. Alasdair Harris (Blue Ventures) will attempt to answer some of the difficult questions posed here. If you would like to be part of the discussion, tickets (£5) can be booked via our website.

 


References with links to the articles and British Library holdings

[1] http://www.nhs.uk/livewell/superfoods/pages/is-oily-fish-a-superfood.aspx

[2] FAO, 2014. The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2014 http://www.fao.org/3/a-i3720e/i3720e01.pdf

[3] D. Pauly, et al., 2002. Towards sustainability in world fisheries. Nature, 418, pp. 689-695, doi: 10.1038/nature01017, BL shelfmark: 6045.000000

[4] J. A. Hutchings, et al., 2010. Trends in the abundance of marine fishes. Can. J. Fish. Aquat. Sci. 67, pp. 1205–1210 doi: 10.1139/F10-081, BL shelfmark: 3031.490000

[5] C. Roberts, 2012. Ocean of Life: How are seas are changing. Allen Lane, Penguin Publishing. BL shelfmark: General Reference Collection YK.2013.a.1526

[6] D. J. McCauley, et al., 2015. Marine defaunation: Animal loss in the global ocean. Science, 347, pp. 1255641, doi: 10.1126/science.1255641

[7] R. A. Myers, et al., 1997. Why do fish stocks collapse? The example of cod in Atlantic Canada. Ecological Applications, 7, pp. 91-106, doi: 10.2307/2269409, BL shelfmark: 3648.855000

[9] N. K. Dulvy, 2014. Extinction risk and conservation of the world’s sharks and rays. ELIFE, 3, e00590, doi: 10.7554/eLife.00590

[10] IUCN, 2015. European red list of marine fishes. doi: 10.2779/082723

[11] S. E. Lester and B. S. Halpern, 2008. Biological responses in no-take reserves versus partially protected areas. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 367, pp. 49-56, doi: 10.3354/meps07599, BL shelfmark: 5373.904000 

 

15 May 2015

To survive we must explore

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If you couldn’t make it to our most recent TalkScience event fear not. The latest instalment in our TalkScience series is now available on YouTube for your viewing pleasure.

In the 28th event of our popular series we discussed what we have learnt from doing science in extreme environments, and if it is worth the high financial and human cost. The event was chaired by author and broadcaster Dr Gabrielle Walker who kindly stepped in at the last minute. Our expert speakers were Professor Jane Francis, Dr Michael Bravo and Dr Kevin Fong.

As ever the debate was thoughtful and wide ranging. We discussed how extreme environments affect the scientists' ability to actually do the research, and debated whether the development of new technologies is reducing the need for humans in future explorations. We were also privileged to hear our four panellists’ personal experiences of doing science in extreme environments. Jane Francis shared a particularly memorable experience: When she first started researching in the Antarctic female researchers had to wear men’s thermal underwear as female specific kit was not available. As the first female director of the British Antarctic Survey, Jane was pleased to report that this is no longer the case! There was also interest from the audience on the issue of diversity in extreme science. Although historically exploration has been the preserve of white males this is certainly not the case nowadays.

 

We also discussed the unexpected serendipity of historic data informing the present and the challenge of doing extreme science when many projects with more tangible and immediate benefits lack funding. Kevin Fong spoke of his own internal conflict when going to NASA to discuss plans for a multibillion pound mission to Mars while back home he was working in intensive care units where they desperately needed an extra dialysis machine.

At the end of the evening our four panellists were in broad agreement about the importance of extreme exploration with Kevin pithily summing up with:

“To explore we must survive but, as a species, to survive we must explore”.

We are currently hatching plans for TalkScience 29 which will take place at the end of June. Check back soon to find out more.

 Katie Howe

18 July 2014

British Library connecting with the flooding community

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Johanna Kieniewicz reflects on Envia, a new tool for flooding researchers and practitioners

This past winter, the UK received unprecedented amounts of rainfall. I returned from Christmas holidays to find a big damp patch on a south-facing wall of our Victorian terrace house. Our mild inconvenience was nothing compare to others across England who faced disaster, as rivers overtopped their banks, flooding communities for weeks on end.

A debate played out in the press about whether dredging the Parrett and Tone rivers might have saved the Somerset Levels. The then Chair of the Environment Agency, Lord Chris Smith,  defended the work of his organisation, standing firm in the face of enormous pressure from politicians and communities alike. In the end, pumps were imported from The Netherlands that sucked the water away, and some dredging is now planned. In the wake of this, the Chartered Institute for Water and Environmental Management published an interesting report: Flooding and Dredging: A Reality Check, in which they examined the impact of dredging rivers on flooding. They concluded that although dredging may benefit flood risk management in some cases, it is not a standalone solution and should be viewed as part of a larger suite of tools and that the risks that it poses must be well understood at a local level.

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Flooded farmland in the Somerset Levels (Image: Shutterstock)

 

 

To me, the debate whether to dredge or not highlighted the importance of the scientific evidence base to flooding researchers and practitioners. The ability to easily access trustworthy information quickly, particularly in a crisis, is of paramount importance. Intuition might say that if a river that accumulates sediment over time is flooding, then it might be a good idea to dredge it from time to time. Fair enough. But evidence also suggests this may speed up the movement of flood water (increasing risks to communities upstream), destabilise river banks and result in loss of fluvial and floodplain habitats. I can’t say whether the dredging debate would have played out any differently, had politicians and the public had better access to information. However, it did emphasise how important it is for everyone involved in tackling flooding—from local authorities, to charities, to academics, to the Environment Agency-- has the very best evidence available.

At the British Library, we are keen to help make that possible. A few years back, we started to look at whether we could make more of our environmental science collections, providing instant access to information online, to anyone, anywhere, for free. To that end, we now have Envia, a new tool that allows users to discover and access a curated selection of reports (including UK government, EU and more), PhD theses, and data resources online. It’s a simple search box, either on the Envia website, or something embeddable in browsers or webpages, that you can use to search over a wide variety of content.  We had good evidence from our own research that flooding would be remain a high priority across the environment sector in the UK, and so decided to focus on content relevant to flooding experts for our pilot.

 

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Over the past few months, we’ve been adding more content and functionality that will make Envia as useful as possible to people.

New Content – Envia will now connect you to reports from EU institutions on topics including water management, meteorology, coastal protection, climate change and more. We have developed our selection relating to the social impacts of flooding, and flooding and habitat management. We are also experimenting with content that you may need to pay for in order to access.

New Layout –Envia now has a cleaner layout that also displays beautifully on your smartphone or tablet computer. So now, whether in the field or whilst travelling, you can search and discover environmental information.

New Functionality –Envia now supports the export of search results by email, as well as in formats suitable for Refworks and Endnote.

So, if you are a flooding researcher or practitioner, or anyone interested in research and policy information relevant to flooding , do please try Envia, and tell your colleagues. We are keen to know how we might make Envia more useful to you, so don’t hesitate to give contact us at envia@bl.uk.

While Envia itself might not be able to hold back the waters of the future floods that will undoubtedly come our way, we hope that it may help those in search of the evidence they need to make the very best decisions possible to protect homes, businesses and habitats.