Environment

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By Rebecca Emerton, Water@Reading research group

When an El Niño is declared, or even forecast, we think back to memorable past El Niños (such as 1997/98), and begin to ask whether we will see the same impacts. Will California receive a lot of rainfall? Will we see droughts in tropical Asia and Australia? Will Peru experience the same devastating floods as in 1997/98, and 1982/83?

El Niño and La Niña, which see changes in the ocean temperatures in the tropical Pacific, are well known to affect weather, and indeed river flow and flooding, around the globe. But how well can we estimate the potential impacts of El Niño and La Niña, and how likely flooding is to occur?

This question is what some of us in the Water@Reading research group at the University of Reading have been looking to answer in our recent publication in Nature Communications.

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University of Reading coat of arms

Researchers at the University of Reading secured more than £3.3 million in research grants and awards in January.

A total of 25 research projects were confirmed in the first month of 2017, with a total value of £3,329,759 – an average of more than £130,000 per project.

Steve Mithen, Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Pro-Vice-Chancellor for research, said: “Another strong month for research grants shows that funders share our belief that Reading researchers are among the best in the world.

“Congratulations to everyone who is beginning work on new research projects. I look forward to hearing more about their work, and seeing how their research changes people’s lives for the better.”

Among those winning funding in January were…

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By Hannah Parker, Walker Institute, University of Reading

During the wet season of 2012 heavy rainfall across West Africa led to flooding with devastating impacts. More than 3 million people were affected, with hundreds of thousands made homeless (Figure 1). When extreme events such as this occur, it is important to question whether climate change had a role to play. At the Walker Institute we have investigated the impact of climate change on this event, by assessing whether the probability of such high precipitation in the 2012 rainy season was affected by anthropogenic emissions.

Impacts of heavy rainfall-induced flooding across West Africa in 2012

Observations show that there was anomalously high rainfall across much of West Africa during the 2012 rainy season. To look at changes in the probability of such high precipitation, we used hundreds of climate model simulations of the year 2012. By comparing simulations with and without anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, we were able to assess whether the probability of the event had been changed.

We found that the probability of such high precipitation in West Africa had been decreased by climate change. This was the case under both general climate conditions (using simulations with the atmosphere coupled to the ocean, therefore including all climate variability), and with conditions specific to 2012 (using atmosphere-only simulations with observed sea surface temperatures (SSTs)). Using different model ensembles, the decrease in probability was found to between a factor of 0 and 16.

However we also found some disagreement between the climate model ensembles. When considering the world without anthropogenic emissions, in the atmosphere-only simulations the effect of anthropogenic emissions had to be removed from the SSTs as well as the atmosphere. We estimated the effect on SSTs using coupled climate model simulations, which showed a decrease in the probability of high precipitation in 2012. However we also used an estimate based on the observed trend in SSTs, and in this case the probability of high precipitation was shown to have been decreased by anthropogenic emissions. Further analysis showed that this discrepancy was likely due to the climate models having much greater warming trends than observations did in the Niño3.4 region in the Pacific Ocean.

Understanding how individual events such as this have been affected by climate change is relevant for policymakers to better understand climate change impacts on extremes. In particular, comparing results from different climate model ensembles is important if we are to better understand such attribution results and their uncertainties, to characterise whether or not they are robust. Few event attribution studies have done this to date, but this will be key if results are be used appropriately in climate policy to address the impacts of such events.

 

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By Stephanie Bull, food scientist, Chemistry Food & Pharmacy

Reading is known as one of the world’s leading centres for the study of food and health. We have outstanding facilities and expertise to study the whole food chain – from climate, weather, soil, farming, food processing, nutrition, to human health and cognition.

Michael Mosley at the University of Reading

So it’s no surprise that TV producers beat a regular path to our door when they want to see the latest scientific research. And none does so quite as innovatively and beautifully demonstrated as BBC Two’s latest science documentary, The Secrets of Your Food

The programme, which has its final episode this week (Friday 10 March) at 9pm on BBC Two, shows the effects food has on our taste buds, brains, and bodies. Alongside the widespread locations and elegant CGI are, of course,  frequent shots of scientific demonstrations carried out at the University of Reading in the Department of Food and Nutritional Science, and in the Department of Chemistry.

In the first episode, We Are What We Eat, I helped presenter Michael Mosley to separate the various components of breast milk in our Food Pilot Plant; investigate how the proteins in egg unfold and denature at different temperatures to create the perfectly cooked egg; demonstrate the production of gas by yeast; and compare fats from different food.

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By Dr Andrew Charlton-Perez, Department of Meteorology, University of Reading

Former BBC weather forecaster Bill Giles’ criticism of weather forecasts raises questions about how weather is communicated generally.

Mr Giles has hit out at forecasters for regularly warning the public about the potential consequences of imminent severe weather, arguing they are ‘behaving like nannies’ and could cause the public to become ‘immune’ to the advice.

Rain in Reading – watch out for that puddle!

He added the practice of naming storms had become too frequent, and that forecasters should only advise people about potential dangers for ‘exceptionally severe weather’, which occurs once every few years.

But how much weather information is the right amount for the public? How much do they understand? Could an appreciation of the uncertainty of forecasts actually improve our faith in them?

Research at the University of Reading has shown that not only is the average person able to process more complex weather forecast information, they are likely to make better decisions as a result of the additional information.

Scientists at Reading have therefore begun looking at whether the way weather predictions are presented to the general public can be improved.

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By Dr Robert Darby, research data manager 

One of the pillars of all empirical research is that the findings of experiments should not just be one-offs. Anyone with the ability to do so should be able to pick up a research paper, follow the same methods, and come up with the same result.

Yet a recent survey by Nature found that more than 70% of researchers have tried and failed to reproduce another scientist’s experiments. Not only that, but more than half have failed to reproduce even their own experiments. Analyses have reported reproducibility rates for published studies of just 10% and 40%.

News of the so-called ‘reproducibility crisis’ has even reached the BBC, so something must be going on.

So is there really a reproducibility crisis? And if so, what can you do about it?

Open Science may provide answers – and the University of Reading is hosting a free conference on the topic of Open Research this March.

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Researchers at the University of Reading secured more than £3.9 million in research awards in December.

A total of 21 research projects were given the go-ahead in the last month of 2016, with funders from a variety of sources including government, research councils, charities and business.

Steve Mithen, Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Pro-Vice-Chancellor for research, said: “Congratulations to everyone whose research grants were confirmed during December. I am particularly pleased that Reading has continued to collaborate with a wide range of funders, including the European Horizon 2020 programme.

“I have no doubt that these awards represent an excellent investment in knowledge and will reap great rewards for society in the near future.”

Among those winning funding in December were…

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By Phil Newton, Research Dean for the Environment Theme, University of Reading

‘Impact sometimes needs to be nurtured over long timescales… there is more to impact than developing case-studies for the next REF exercise’

The University of Reading is known across the world for the quality of its research in the environmental sciences. As Research Dean for the Environment Theme, I’m lucky enough to have the best seat in the house to see, up close, not just that quality, but also what a huge impact some of that research has on people’s lives.

So it’s gratifying when others celebrate the influence of Reading’s research, as the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) has done this week with the publication of its new annual report about the impact of NERC-funded research.

The NERC Impact Report 2016 shows how sustained NERC investment in environmental researchers working in partnership with the likes of governments, businesses and charities generates large, long-term economic and societal benefits – contributing to building a safer, healthier and more secure and sustainable world. It is great to see highlighted two areas of Reading research that are having substantial impact.

Reducing the tragedy of flooding

One is about the work of hydrologist Professor Hannah Cloke, and how the modelling and engagement work by Hannah and her colleagues over many years has improved the quality of flood forecasting, and changed the policy and practice of flood prevention, in the UK. These changes have been a major contribution to dramatic reductions in household flooding incidence over the past decade.

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What happens to the Earth when the Sun’s activity hits a 300-year low, as is predicted in the next few decades?

Research published this morning in Scientific Reports by Dr Mathew Owens and Professor Mike Lockwood has the answer. And if you enjoy the occasional visit of the beautiful Northern Lights to latitudes as low as Britain, then sorry – it’s bad news.

Matt Owens talked about the research in this 1-minute video:

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By Paul Williams, University of Reading Department of Meteorology

‘As important as political leadership is, individual people and companies will have to make key decisions to deal with the impacts of climate change’

Climate change is never far from the news headlines – but often it’s not because of the science.

As much as I think that complicated mathematical calculations about the circulation of air and water around the globe should make people stop in wonder, I fear my beliefs are not widely shared by most other people.

And they would have a point. Most people don’t talk maths over the water cooler or when down the pub, beyond adding up the cost of their drinks.

So if it’s not the science, what makes climate change so appealing to journalists? Often, it’s the politics.

News media love to observe a good old-fashioned fight, and politics is the arena where disagreements get aired every day. Not only that, but politics tends to have a bearing on how we live our lives, too.

So while the basic facts of human-caused climate change are agreed by just about all scientists working in the field, a handful of doubting politicians often hog the headlines.

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