Confessions of an Admissions Tutor

By Hilary Weller

I am a postgraduate admissions tutor, so I see a lot of applications for PhD positions and I do a lot of interviewing. I would like to share some tips for applicants for PhD and post-doc positions and also some tips for interviewers. I have also done lots of interviewing for post-doc positions.

Your CV
If you are applying for a PhD position in a similar topic to your Bachelor’s or Master’s degree, then I really want to know how well you did in your degree – all the details – all the courses you did and the marks that you got in them. What did you do for your project? What mark did you get for your project? Did you do any relevant summer work? Include any other summer jobs or part time jobs – they tell me if you are hard working.

A CV for any position should document all periods of employment, unemployment and career breaks – even if you don’t want to tell me what the career break was for! I have two periods of maternity leave on my CV 🙂 which prompted positive comments from reviewers for my application for a fellowship. If you try to hide a career break I would be suspicious, but if you said “Jan 2014-Jul 2014: career break”, I would certainly be curious but I would be wary that I might be treading in a sensitive area. If you have had periods of unemployment, think of something useful that you did while unemployed. For example, did you read any relevant books, do any computer programming, spend time on any relevant hobbies or volunteering?

If you are asked for a personal statement I have some advice – tailor it to the job or PhD position that you are applying for, considering your aspirations as well as your experience, stick to the length limit, proof read it, then get someone else to proof read it.

Some very obvious interview questions to prepare for

  • Why are you interested in doing _THIS_ job/PhD?
  • What makes you well suited for _THIS_ job/PhD?
  • Tell us about a project that you have done?
  • Do you have any questions for us?

Some less obvious interview questions and tips for interviewers
For post-doc and PhD positions, it is important for interviewer and interviewee to find common ground. The obvious question “tell us about a project you have done” can leave the interviewer feeling uncritically impressed by the candidate. Conversely, questions along the lines of “what do you know about this aspect of my specific research area” can be unfair – a weak applicant with experience in the area could shine brighter than a strong applicant. So it is important to find areas of common interest. This requires preparation by the interviewer – you have their application and their academic transcripts – pick on a topic that you know about. Also, pick up on topics that the interviewee brings up and ask follow-up questions that you know the answer to. And interviewees – expect to be able to talk about anything mentioned in your application or transcripts! If you think that you did a relevant degree, you should be able to remember lots of what you learned.

An essential question for interviewing for a post-doc position – describe a paper that you have read recently.

Finally, remember that interviews are about candidates assessing the positions as well as vice-versa. So interviewers should be friendly and encouraging and offer plenty of information. Don’t spend too long on questions that the applicant is struggling with, move on with a smile rather than a shrug.

Posted in Academia, Teaching & Learning, University of Reading | Leave a comment

An update on the North Atlantic cold blob (January 2017)

by Pablo Ortega

One of the most remarkable climate events in the last two years has been an exceptional cooling in the eastern sub-polar North Atlantic (ESPNA, Figure 1), commonly referred to as “the cold blob”. Occurring while the planet experienced the warmest temperatures on record, this somewhat surprising cold anomaly has stirred considerable attention on the media (e.g. The Guardian, The Daily Mail, The Washington Post), as well as great interest among the scientific community.

Figure  1: Mean 2015-2016 sea surface temperature anomaly with respect to the period 1900-2016.

The first efforts focused on understanding its origin. Transient climate simulations show a “warming hole” anomaly in the same region of the cold-blob, associated with long-term decreases in the strength of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning circulation (AMOC) (Drijfhout et al., 2012; Rahmstorf et al., 2015). Additionally, analysis of long control simulations show that similar ESPNA coolings can emerge naturally, due to internal decadal fluctuations in the North Atlantic (Ortega et al., 2016; Robson et al., 2016). These cooling events are caused by weakenings of the northward ocean heat transport, following previous decreases in the AMOC strength. Likewise, analogous warming episodes tend to appear in response to AMOC strengthenings. A potential negative feedback between the AMOC and the NAO was identified in Ortega et al. (2016) and could explain these trend reversals. The analysis in Robson et al. (2016) also identifies deep Labrador Sea densities as a key proxy of the AMOC changes (for which only limited observations are available), thus extremely useful to investigate the chain of events that likely led to the observed cold blob. These are summarized in Figure 2.

Figure  2: Evolution of the anomalous NAO, deep Labrador Sea densities (averaged between 1000-2500 m) and the top 700 m mean temperature in the ESPNA. Deep Labrador Sea densities are here used as an indicator of the changes in the AMOC strength. Anomalies refer to the period 1961-1990.

During the 1980s and early 1990s, the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) was predominantly positive. Associated with this, strong and persistent heat fluxes over the Labrador region enhanced deep-water formation and led to a maximum of the AMOC strength in 1995, inducing a subsequent warming of the ESPNA. From 1995 to 2010, the AMOC experienced a strong decrease, mostly explained by a concomitant tendency towards more negative NAO phases. This AMOC weakening reversed the warming trend over the ESPNA, and gave rise to the record-low temperature anomalies observed in 2015 and 2016. Thus, evidence suggests that the AMOC weakening responsible for the cold blob was internally driven, and not triggered by long-term changes in the anthropogenic forcings. We cannot rule out, however, a contribution of the radiative forcings (including anthropogenic and volcanic aerosols, and solar irradiance) to these decadal changes in the North Atlantic, e.g., through a modulation of the NAO phases.

The latest observations point to a likely reversal of the cold blob in the next few years. Positive NAO phases have been predominant since 2012, and Labrador Sea densities suggest that AMOC strength has been increasing since 2014. There is even evidence of a relative ESPNA warming starting last summer. Yet, it is too soon to determine whether these changes will be sustained long enough to reverse the cold blob completely. Indeed, to this date, the cold ESPNA anomaly has only slightly weakened with respect to the previous two years (Figure 3) – a small change that could be consistent with climate noise.

Figure  3 (Left) Top 700 m mean temperature anomaly (T700, in °C) in 2015-2016. (Right) T700 mean temperature anomaly in December 2016-January 2017. Anomalies refer to the period 1961-1990.

For further reading on the cold blob and its causes, there is a special issue on US CLIVAR Variations.

Drijfhout, S., G. J. van Oldenborgh, and A. Cimatoribus, 2012. Is a Decline of AMOC Causing the Warming Hole above the North Atlantic in Observed and Modeled Warming Patterns?, J Clim 25, 8373–8379.

Ortega, P., J. I. Robson, R. T. Sutton, and A. Martins, 2016. Mechanisms of decadal variability in the Labrador Sea and the wider North Atlantic in a high-resolution climate model, Clim Dyn, Published Online.

Rahmstorf, S., J. E. Box, G. Feulner, M. E. Mann, A. Robinson, S. Rutherford, and E. J. Schaffernicht, 2015. Exceptional twentieth-century slowdown in Atlantic Ocean overturning circulation, Nat Clim Chang 5, 475–480.

Robson, J., P. Ortega, and R. Sutton, 2016. A reversal of climatic trends in the North Atlantic since 2005, Nat Geosci 9, 513–517.

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HEPEX: a community of research and practice to advance hydrologic ensemble prediction

By Hannah Cloke

Although formal funded societies and projects can be very important in advancing research and improving how science is used, the unfunded voluntary community initiative of HEPEX has been one of the most important networks that I have been involved in during my career so far. HEPEX (which stands for Hydrologic Ensemble Prediction Experiment) began in 2004 just as I took up my first post as a University Lecturer. HEPEX aims to advance the science and practice of hydrological ensemble prediction and how it is used for risk-based decision making.

Participation in HEPEX is open to anyone wishing to contribute to its objectives, and so the HEPEX community thrives through organising scientific workshops and sessions at major conferences (such as the European Geosciences Union General Assembly every Spring), coordinating joint experiments, highlighting best practice in hydrologic ensemble prediction systems to help practitioners find out how ensemble prediction is being used around the world in different applications (such as for hydropower or flood forecasting), and through our online community interaction including webinars and blog discussions (; @hepexorg).  The HEPEX community are also very keen to develop serious games to help communicate best practice and to understand how we can improve forecast communication (Arnal et al, 2016).

It is not always easy to explain what you work on, especially when you have to avoid using jargon specific to your field. Yet, this is something that we all have to do. It is important to be able to explain your research simply in order to communicate effectively with scientists in other fields and, for example, businesses, policy makers and the public.  This week in HEPEX we have been thinking about this with the help of a little competition: using only the 200 most commonly used words of the English dictionary, explain “Ensemble hydrological forecasting”. Please consider having a try, you could win yourself a special mystery prize!

The next HEPEX meeting will be in Melbourne in February 2018 in the height of the gorgeous warm Australian summer. The theme for the workshop is ‘breaking the barriers’ to highlight current challenges facing ensemble forecasting researchers and practitioners and how they can (and have!) been overcome.  How can you resist such a tempting offer?

Want to know more? Want to join our community?

HEPEX website:

HEPEX twitter: @hepexorg

Arnal, L., Ramos, M.-H., Coughlan de Perez, E., Cloke, H. L., Stephens, E., Wetterhall, F., van Andel, S. J., and Pappenberger, F., 2016. Willingness-to-pay for a probabilistic flood forecast: a risk-based decision-making game, Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci., 20, 3109-3128, doi:10.5194/hess-20-3109-2016.

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Mountain waves, ship waves and duck waves

By Miguel Teixeira

There is a striking resemblance between some waves generated in the atmosphere in flow over isolated mountains and wave patterns in the wakes of ships, boats, or even ducks swimming in a pond. Typically, these waves are delimited by a triangular wake with a well-defined angle (of about 39 degrees) opening downstream of the obstacle that generates them (see Figures 1, 2 and 3). The shape of this wake was first determined theoretically by Lord Kelvin in his pioneering study of ship waves (Thomson, 1887). Ship waves and “duck waves” are forced via direct piercing of the air-water interface by the body that acts as a wave source.

Figure 1: Waves in a cloud layer generated in flow over the South Sandwich islands (source:


Figure 2: Waves produced in the wake of a boat in a river (source:

Figure 3: Waves generated by a swimming duck (source:

In flow over mountains, the source obstacle typically does not touch the deformed interface. Rather, waves are generated remotely, in the same way as surface distortions in a stream are caused by stones at its bottom. Additionally the density gradient where the waves propagate is not as sharp as an air-water interface, typically corresponding to a temperature inversion (Teixeira et al., 2013). Nevertheless, all of these waves can be approximated as interfacial waves where gravity is the restoring force, and the angle, as well as the spatial structure, of the wake, can be explained using linear surface gravity wave theory (e.g. Lighthill, 1978, chapter 3). The resistance force produced by these waves influences the design and powering characteristics of ships, and has gravity wave drag as its atmospheric counterpart.

Typically, the waves depicted in Figures 1-3 are “deep-water waves”, with the wavelength not exceeding the fluid depth. This means that they are dispersive, and their group speed (at which energy is transported) is half the phase speed (at which individual crests and troughs travel). Waves within a wake are stationary with respect to their source, so they must propagate at an angle such that the projection of the mean fluid speed matches their phase speed. Therefore, they cannot be faster than the flow. The interface is only appreciably deformed in the region (defining the wake) where the energy of waves emitted at a given point (and propagating with the group speed) has travelled a distance half that of the crests that are able to keep up with the source (red dots in Figure 4).


Figure 4: Schematic diagram explaining the angle of Kelvin’s ship wake (source:

No wave energy can propagate upstream of a line joining point B in Figure 4 (where the source is located) to a point where this line is tangent to the circle defined by the red dots. The angle between this line and the direction of motion is half the Kelvin ship wake angle, arcsin(1/3) ~ 19.5º. This result only relies on the facts that the wave pattern is stationary and the group speed of the waves is half their phase speed, hence its general applicability to waves that are apparently so different. A distinct speed ratio would produce a different wake angle.

The wave crests near the middle of the wake are perpendicular to the flow and called transverse waves, while those at the edge of the wake make a smaller angle with the flow direction and are known as divergent waves. The latter are shorter than the former (see Figures 2 and 3), since they are geometrically constrained to have a lower phase speed, and the dispersion relation of deep-water gravity waves prescribes that shorter waves propagate more slowly than longer ones.


Lighthill, M. J., 1978. Waves in Fluids, Cambridge University Press, 504 pp.

Teixeira, M.A.C., Argain, J.L. and Miranda, P.M.A., 2013. Orographic drag associated with lee waves trapped at an inversion. Journal of the Atmospheric Sciences, 70, 2930-2947. Centaur listing 

Thomson, W., 1887. On ship waves. Proceedings of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, 38, 409-434.


Posted in Boundary layer, Waves | Leave a comment

THE BRAVE PROJECT – Annual meeting, January 2017, Ghana

By Galine Yanon – Walker Institute

The overall objective of the BRAVE project is to quantify the impacts of climatic variability and change on groundwater supplies from low storage aquifers in Africa.

More than 40 institutions from Burkina Faso, Ghana and UK attended the BRAVE Project annual general meeting, held in Accra, Ghana, 24-26 January 2017. These institutions are direct and indirect partners of the Project. The meeting commenced with a project meeting and discussions around work packages, from WP1 to WP5.

After the opening session and presentation of the Agenda, Professor Rosalind Cornforth, PI of the project and Director of the Walker Institute, presented an overview of the UpGro consortium (composed of 5 projects) and the BRAVE Project in order to give a better understanding of the ongoing work to the participants. This overview was really important because some partners were not directly engaged in the different activities of the project.

One of the objectives of BRAVE is the capacity building of early career researchers and the benefit of the project for the communities engaged through in-country partners (CARE International in Ghana, Christian-Aid and Reseau Marp in Burkina Faso). So, after the overview, discussions focused on the different work packages of the Project:

  • WP1 presented by Dr Henny Osbahr, into the Understanding of vulnerability in the communities;
  • WP2 presented by Dr Galine Yanon, into the Understanding of Decision-making Pathways, Governance Structures and Institutional Influence;
  • WP3 and WP4, presented by David Macdonald, into the Improvement of our understanding of the hydroclimate and strategic planning and adaptive capacity; and
  • WP5 by Professor Rosalind Cornforth, Delivering Evidence and Demonstrating Resilience.

The Program Coordination Group (PCG) across all project of the Consortium was also presented to participants.

Further information on later stages in the meeting and its outcomes can be found in Galine’s reports on the Walker Institute website.

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Measuring radiation with aircraft

By Peter Hill

In my career as an atmospheric scientist I’ve relied on observational data from a wide range of sources including satellite imagery, surface measurements, ground-based and satellite based radar, and aircraft measurements. Last July I had my first opportunity to contribute to the available data when I took part in the aircraft field campaign for the EU-funded DACCIWA (Dynamics-Aerosols-Chemistry-Cloud Interaction in West Africa) project.

The DACCIWA project is investigating pollution in southern West Africa (SWA) and how this affects health and the regional climate. This region is very reliant on agriculture which is highly sensitive to the amount of rainfall. Any changes in rainfall due to pollution may have important implications for the worlds’ supply of cocoa, not to mention the livelihoods of millions of people in SWA.

My role in DACCIWA is focused on atmospheric radiation; how sunlight and thermal radiation interact with the atmosphere over SWA. Radiation is important because it is a key component of the atmospheric energy budget (see Figure 1). Consequently radiation changes can lead to circulation changes which may in turn affect more obviously societally relevant processes such as precipitation.2017 01 19 Peter Hill Fig 1Figure 1: Key terms in the atmospheric energy budget for southern West Africa (defined here as 8°W – 8°E and 5 – 10°N). Units are W m-2. Values shown are June-July means for 2000-2015. Divergence of dry static energy and sensible heating are derived from ERA-Interim. Radiation values (i.e. shortwave SW heating and longwave LW cooling) are from the CERES-EBAF dataset and latent heating is from the TRMM dataset. Adapted from Hill et al, 2016.

Pollution particles (aerosols) reflect and absorb radiation directly, but may also affect radiation by changing cloud properties. Radiation measurements are important to understand the extent to which both occur. These measurements can also be used as an additional check on aerosol and cloud measurements made during the campaign by both the aircraft and by satellites. Radiative transfer is a relatively well understood process. If the measured cloud and aerosol properties are correct, we should be able to predict the measured radiation quite accurately using computer-based models.

The campaign involved three aircraft, two of which were equipped with instruments to measure radiation (in addition to many other instruments). Each had two pyranometers, which measure solar radiation, and two pyrgeometers, which measure thermal radiation. One of each was mounted above the aircraft pointing upwards to measure downwelling radiation and one of each was mounted below the aircraft pointing downwards to measure upwelling radiation. During the campaign, out of a total of 50 flights, seven were made with the primary objective of making radiation measurements. I was lucky enough to fly on the British Antarctic Survey Twin Otter (Figures 2 and 3) on one such flight, which was an exhilarating and surprisingly comfortable experience.

2017 01 19 Peter Hill Fig 2

Figure 2: The British Antarctic Survey Twin Otter aircraft outside the hangar at Gnassingbé Eyadéma airport in Lomé, Togo during the DACCIWA aircraft field campaign.

2017 01 19 Peter Hill Fig 3

Figure 3: Airborne view of Lomé from the Twin Otter aircraft. Note the haze due to pollution.

Together with observations from three highly-instrumented field sites, the aircraft campaign has provided a wealth of measurements. These measurements provide an indispensable dataset for understanding pollution, weather, and climate in this region. The measurements will facilitate lots of exciting scientific research and scientists across Europe and SWA will be working with this dataset for at least the next two years. Keep up to date with our progress via the DACCIWA newsletter, or twitter feed.


Hill, P. et al, 2016. A multisatellite climatology of clouds, radiation, and precipitation in southern West Africa and comparison to climate models  –, where further details can be found.

Posted in Aerosols, Africa, Atmospheric chemistry, Climate, Climate change, Climate modelling | Tagged | Leave a comment

Childhood white Christmases: nostalgia or reality?

By Inna Polichtchouk

Nearly every Christmas, I travel back to Finland in the hope of celebrating Christmas Eve in the well below freezing temperatures surrounded by a plethora of snow. My childhood memory of this magical day begins with a cross-country skiing trip in the forest amongst frozen sparkling trees, with low mid-day sun gently thawing the icicles formed on eyelashes by my sublimed breath. The skiing trip is followed by a heart and bone warming sauna and a plunge into a soft snowdrift to even out the body temperature. However, over the past decade this nostalgic childhood memory of a white Christmas has begun to fade and be replaced by a new one where a skiing trip is now a mere walk in the rain and the snowdrift a mud puddle. Is this childhood memory real? I decided to investigate.

Figure 1 shows snow depth at Helsinki-Vantaa airport weather station, averaged over Christmas Eve and Christmas day from 1960 onwards. Having lived in and around the capital area, this weather station is chosen to refresh/test my memory. Other weather stations in and around Helsinki show similar measurements. The snowless Christmases are circled. To be consistent with the Finnish Meteorological Institute (FMI) definition, “snowless” is defined as snow depth below 1 cm. It is clear that out of the 16 snowless Christmases shown, 50% have occurred since the turn of the millennium and following the first 15 years of my life. Before 2000, I only lived through three snowless Christmases. Since moving out of Helsinki in 2005, a snowless Christmas appears to be more of a norm than an anomaly. In particular, the 21st century snowless Christmases have mostly been wet and warm as seen in Figure 2.  Given the data, I hence preserve the right to claim that my childhood was filled with white Christmases.

2017 01 12 Inna Polichtchouk Figure 1

Figure 1. Snow depth (cm) at Helsinki-Vantaa airport weather station, averaged over 24-25 December. Snowless Christmases are circled. “Snowless” is defined as having snow depth below 1 cm. Weather station data is available from Finnish Meteorological Institute (FMI) and also at


2017 01 12 Inna Polichtchouk Figure 2a

2017 01 12 Inna Polichtchouk Figure 2b

Figure 2. (upper) Daily accumulated precipitation (mm) and (lower) Mean daily temperature (°C) at Helsinki-Vantaa airport weather station, on 24 December. Snowless Christmases are circled.

Does the lack of snow at Christmas in Helsinki reflect the lack of precipitation or is it just a harsh reality of a warming climate? Figure 3 shows the temperature and precipitation anomalies for December of all the years with snowless Christmas. Indeed, it appears that the snowless Christmases are mainly due to anomalously warm December temperatures.

2017 01 12 Inna Polichtchouk Figure 3a2017 01 12 Inna Polichtchouk Figure 3b Figure 3. December anomalies (from 1959-2015 mean for the Helsinki-Vantaa airport weather station) of (upper) Precipitation (%) and (lower) mean daily temperature (°C]. Only years with snowless Christmases are shown.

This trend for snowless Christmases in Helsinki is, of course, likely a manifestation of internal variability. However, I am seriously contemplating celebrating Christmas a month later. Since 1960, the average daily January temperatures have been below freezing and even the smallest amount of January total precipitation of 8.1 mm (in 1972) would produce at least 8 cm of snow cover* – enough to recreate that childhood memory of a white Christmas!

* An approximate rule of thumb is that 1 mm of rainfall produces 1 cm of snow at near zero temperature.

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Geoengineering – how could we detect its cooling effect?

By Eunice Lo

Sulphate aerosol injection (SAI) is one of the geoengineering proposals that aim to reduce future surface temperature rise in case ambitious carbon dioxide mitigation targets cannot be met.  Climate model simulations suggest that by injecting 5 Tg of sulphur dioxide gas (SO2) to the stratosphere every year, global surface cooling would be observed within a few years of implementation.  However, temperature fluctuations occur naturally in the climate system too.  How could we detect the cooling signal of SAI amidst internal climate variability and temperature changes driven by other external forcings?

The answer to this is optimal fingerprinting (Allen and Stott, 2003), a technique which has been extensively used to detect and attribute climate warming to human activities.  Assuming a scenario (G4, Kravitz et al., 2011) in which 5 Tg yr-1 of SO2 is injected to the stratosphere on top of a mid-range warming scenario called RCP4.5 from 2020-2070, we first estimate the climate system’s internal variability and the temperature ‘fingerprints’ of the geoengineering aerosols and greenhouse gases separately, and then compare observations to these fingerprints using total least squares regression.  Since there are no real-world observations of geoengineering, we cross-compare simulations from different climate models.  This gives us 44 comparisons in total, and the number of years that would be needed robustly to detect the cooling signal of SAI in global-mean near-surface air temperature is estimated for each of them.

Figure 1(upper) shows the distribution of the estimated time horizon over which the SAI cooling signal would be detected at the 10% significance level in these 44 comparisons.  In 29 of them, the cooling signal would be detected during the first 10 years of SAI implementation.  This means we would not only be able to separate the cooling effect of SAI from the climate system’s internal variability and temperature changes driven by greenhouse gases, but we would be able to achieve this early into SAI deployment. 

2017 01 04 Eunice Lo - dist_TfC1_nomul

2017 01 04 Eunice Lo - dist_BgC1_nomul

Figure 1: Distribution of the estimated detection horizons for the SAI fingerprint using (upper graph) the conventional bi-variate method and (lower graph) the non-stationary detection method.

The above results are tested by applying a variant of optimal fingerprinting to the same problem.  This new method assumes a non-stationary background climate that is mainly forced by greenhouse gases, and attempts to detect the cooling effect of SAI against the warming background using regression (Bürger and Cubasch, 2015).  Figure 1(b) shows the distribution of the detection horizons estimated by using the new method in the same 44 comparisons: 35 comparisons would require 10 years or fewer for the cooling signal to be robustly detected.  This shows a slight improvement from the results found with the conventional method, but the two distributions are very similar.

To conclude, we would be able to separate and thus detect the cooling signal of sulphate aerosol geoengineering from internal climate variability and greenhouse gas driven warming in global-mean temperature within 10 years of SAI deployment in a future 5 Tg yr-1 SAI scenario.  This could be achieved with either the conventional optimal fingerprinting method or a new, non-stationary detection method, provided that the climate data are adequately filtered.  Research on the effects of different data filtering techniques on geoengineering detectability is not included in this blog post, please refer to the article cited at the top for more details.

NOTE: How feasible is the injection of 5 Tg yr-1 SAI scenario? Robock et al. (2009) estimated the cost of lofting 1 Tg yr-1 of SO2 into the stratosphere with existing aircraft to be several billion U.S. dollars per year. Scaling this to 5 Tg yr-1 is still not a lot compared to the gross world product. There are practical issues to be addressed even if existing aircraft were to be used for SAI, but the deciding factor of whether to implement sulphate aerosol geoengineering or not should be its potential benefits and side effects, both on the climate system and the society.  


Allen, M. R., and P. A. Stott, 2003. Estimating signal amplitudes in optimal fingerprinting, Part I: Theory. Climate Dynamics, 21.5-6: 477-491. 

Bürger, Gerd, and Ulrich Cubasch, 2015. The detectability of climate engineering. Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres, 120.22.

Kravitz, Ben, et al., 2011. The geoengineering model intercomparison project (GeoMIP). Atmospheric Science Letters 12.2: 162-167.

Robock, Alan, et al., 2009. Benefits, risks, and costs of stratospheric geoengineering. Geophysical Research Letters 36.19.

Posted in Aerosols, Climate, Climate change, Climate modelling, Geoengineering | Tagged | Leave a comment

Lakes from space

By Laura Carrea

For the first time satellite technology has been used to make a census of global inland water cover. A number of 117 million lakes, reservoirs and wetlands of area >0.002 km2 have been found summing up to a total area of 5.0 × 106 km2, which corresponds to 3.7% of Earth’s non-glaciated land surface [1]. This was not only an academic exercise as inland water surface area is one of the factors that determine inland water CO2 evasion [2]. Increasingly, lakes are considered to play an important role in global biogeochemical cycling:  they have been found to be an important source of atmospheric carbon dioxide and methane [2], [3], two important greenhouse gases, and also to be disproportionately important carbon sinks via carbon burial in lake sediments [4].

It is not only the number of lakes which cover the Earth’s surface that is of global importance, but also their local extension. A digital map is needed to help distinguish one lake from another and also to distinguish them from other water sources such as rivers and the sea. A combined effort from the European Climate Change Initiative (CCI) has produced a global water bodies map [5] in form of an ‘image’ (Fig. 1) which specifies where there is water and to which water body it belongs. Again this exercise uses satellite data, differing from earlier comprehensive efforts which generated similar datasets, although not to the same level of detail, not from satellite data but from a variety of existing maps, data and information [6]. Clearly efforts of this kind are often limited by the spatial resolution of satellite data and the impossibility of a systematic classification of all inland water due to their sheer number.

2016 12 08 Laura Careea Fig 1 (817 x 708)

Figure 1. Extract of the global water-body map. The area is around Lake Winnipeg in Canada. Each pixel belonging to the same lake has the same color. The colour white corresponds to ‘land’ and the black colour to ‘other inland water’. Each of the other colours corresponds to a specific classified lake (source [5]).

The correct classification of an open water surface or a mixed vegetation area is key to the study of lake processes using satellite data. Satellite technology represents a powerful tool for assessing global lake characteristics that are important for studying other processes that occur in lakes.

Lake ecosystems and the biodiversity they support are important components of the global biosphere. But their stability is threatened by climate change and anthropogenic disturbances [7].

2016 12 08 Laura Careea Fig 2

Figure 2. Lake Tanganyika from Envisat [source] where the effect of warming has been studied and documented [14].

The University of Reading, together with other institutions in UK, is attempting to measure and explain responses of lakes to environmental drivers at a global scale with the aid of satellite technology within the NERC funded Globolakes project.

Lakes are fragile systems that are sensitive to many pressures such as nutrient enrichment, climate change and hydrological modification, making them important ‘sentinels’ of environmental perturbation. According to the Globolakes experts, evidence suggests that climate change might increase the spread of harmful cyanobacterial blooms [8], [9], being one of many possible negative feedbacks of a changing climate. Many studies have shown that the lake surface water temperature (LSWT) and the timing of spring phytoplankton blooms are related to meteorological signals. Generally, lakes are able to spatially and temporally integrate and amplify meteorological signals so that they act as useful sentinels of climate change [10].

LSWT is considered an important parameter reflecting stratification [11] and mixing which are some of the main physical processes occurring in lakes [7], [10]. Changes in temperature and, in turn, stratification influence the ecosystem directly (through differential population responses) and indirectly (via dynamic effects on nutrient distribution). Lake Tanganyika (Figure 2) is an example where warming effects have reduced the exchange rates between shallow and deep water (mixing), showing that warming has influenced the ecosystem [15].

However, the current knowledge of global thermal lake behaviour is incomplete and past studies have reported temperature trends from either in situ or satellite data. Recently a big effort in analysing global LSWT trends from both in-situ and satellite data has been published [13]. However, the results are for summer and for the lake centres only.

Regarding the availability of satellite data, the ARCLake project has generated accurate and consistent spatially resolved LSWT time series for more than 250 large lakes globally from 1991 to 2010 [12], however some of the small and shallow lakes, which may respond differently to climate change [16], have not been included in the lake choice [13].

Within the Globolakes project, a set of 1000 lakes have been selected [14] in order to have a collection of water bodies that span a wide range of ecological settings and characteristics but that are also suitable for remote sensing methods.

The University of Reading is contributing to the Globolakes project generating accurate and consistent LSWT time series of high spatial resolution for the selected 1000 lakes.


[1] Verpoorter C., Kutser T., Seekell D.A., Tranvik L.J. (2014) A global inventory of lakes based on high-resolution satellite imagery, Geophys. Res. Lett., 40, 517–521

[2] Raymond, P. A., et al. (2013) Global carbon dioxide emissions from inland waters, Nature, 503, 355–359

[3] Bastviken D., Tranvik L. J., Downing J. A., Crill P. M., Enrich-Prast A. (2011) Freshwater methane emissions offset the continental carbon sink, Science, 331, 50

[4] Dean W.E.W., Gorham E. (1998), Magnitude and significance of carbon burial in lakes, reservoirs, and peatlands, Geology, 26, 535–538

[5] Carrea L., Embury O., and Merchant C.J.  (2015) Datasets related to inland water for limnology and remote sensing applications: distance-to-land, distance-to-water, water-body identifier and lake-centre co-ordinates, Geoscience Data Journal, 2(2), 83-97

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