Dissertation Presentation: Spatial Water Quality Schematic

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Figure 1: A spatial water quality schematic of Hobson’s Brook displaying individual water quality parameter results. Derivative data was collected over a total of 50 days during Summer 2016.

Source: Author’s own schematic.

 

I created the above schematic (Figure 1) to display how the water quality of Hobson’s Brook, a nationally-rare type of chalk stream in Cambridge, changed as it flowed through the Clay Farm Development during my monitoring period.

The stream flows from site H1 (upstream of the Clay Farm Development) to H4 (downstream of the Clay Farm Development). The location of the largest on-site retention pond (an important water treatment component) is shown between sites H2 and H3.

The coloured arrows display whether the change in water quality between two particular sites was significant or not based upon individual water quality parameters. If the change was significant, the arrows also show whether it represented an increase or decrease in water quality based upon the EU Water Framework Directive (1) guidelines (Temp, pH, DO%) or the World Health Organisation (2) guidelines (TDS).

  • The grey arrows represent no significant change in the water quality parameter results between respective sites
  • The green arrows represent a significant change in the water quality parameter results between respective sites, whilst indicating an improvement in water quality
  • The red arrows also represent a significant change in the water quality parameter results between respective sites, however indicate a reduction in water quality

Changes are shown between the following sites:

  • H1 and H2
  • H2 and H3
  • H3 and H4
  • H1 and H4

The black arrows pointing towards specific site changes correspond with the hypotheses I posed to test within my dissertation.

 

References:

(1) APEM (2016) Hobson’s Brook Clay Farm Development and Cambridge Biomedic Campus Surface Water Monitoring – October 2016 Report, Countryside Properties, Essex.

(2) WHO (2003) Total dissolved solids in Drinking-water: Background document for development of WHO Guidelines for Drinking-water Quality, WHO, Geneva.

 

The ‘Point of No Return’ for our Corals?

As global ocean temperatures rise to their highest levels ever recorded, scientists warn we are on the verge of witnessing the largest coral die-off in history!

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Figure 1: A marine biologist assessing the bleaching extent at Airport Reef in American Samoa.                     Source: Climate Progress

Sadly NOAA have now confirmed that the third global coral bleaching event is underway (Figure 1) – however this isn’t simply a case of ‘history repeating itself’! Current models project that reef degradation of this kind will persist well into 2016 (Figure 2) – far exceeding the year-long durations of the 1998 and 2000 events.

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Figure 2: NOAA map displaying the expected threat of coral bleaching for February – May 2016.             Source: NOAA

The root cause of bleaching events lies with a so-called ‘inconvenient truth’ – rising ocean temperatures. Above a threshold temperature corals reject the algae living in their tissues; although they remain alive, they become far more susceptible to disease and mortality (Figure 3). Presently, a particularly strong cycle of natural warm ocean currents known as El Niño is argued to be the key driver of the extensive bleaching. However, we must also consider the simultaneous influence of human activities which further promote marine ecosystem fragility. These include:

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Figure 3: An educational poster produced by NOAA to increase public awareness of coral bleaching. Source: NOAA

Although I acknowledge that the El Niño event is also coupling with another natural warm-water mass known as the ‘Pacific Blob‘ to further elevate temperatures, human-induced climate change is also playing an increasingly significant role. Given the current thermo-instability of some areas of the Pacific Ocean, the influence of any of the above human activities could cause a ‘tipping point‘ to be reached, threatening to damage over 38% of the world’s coral reefs and destroy entire marine food chains.

So why should we as a global nation be concerned about rising ocean temperatures? Whether you live at the coast or thousands of miles inland, coral degradation will impact you! Globally, coral reef ecosystems are vital reserves of biodiversity which could benefit world-wide communities in the future. Scientists have estimated that there could be up to 8 million undiscovered organisms living in reef environments [1] which could be utilised for the development of new medicines including possible cures for cancer. At the other end of the spectrum, on a smaller national scale, Australia could be in big trouble if coral bleaching persists. The Great Barrier Reef, which narrowly avoided being added to the 2015 UN World Heritage in danger list, is a substantial financial asset to the country – the WWF reports that reef industries including fishing and tourism annually contribute approximately $5.4 billion to the economy and support 69,000 jobs. Clearly the potential loss of coral reefs as a source of revolutionary medicines or as a vital source of income would be disastrous!

However, on a more controversial note, some recent studies suggest that the increasing frequency of ocean warming events could make particular species of coral more resilient and able to recover from environmental stresses. Studies claim that some species could become more resistant to bleaching – however there is currently little scientific evidence which is directly applicable to areas at risk of imminent bleaching such as the Pacific. Therefore I remain skeptical of this claim…

Although we cannot control natural warm ocean currents such as El Niño, I believe we can target the issue of human-induced climate change and prevent harmful human interferences with coral reef ecosystems. Locally caused threats including unsustainable fishing practices decrease the probability that corals will recover from bleaching events. Therefore I believe that more environmental protection schemes need to be introduced on an international scale and closely monitored and regulated (Figure 4). We must think globally and act locally!

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Figure 4: A visual representation of the ‘Adaptive Management Cycle’ for the Great Barrier Reef which is included in the Australian Government’s ‘Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan’. It acknowledges that in order to manage a complex reef system, its components and cause-and-effect relationships need to be understood, and additionally that research, monitoring and modelling should be used to evaluate and adapt management responses.  Source: Australian Government

Additionally, I strongly believe that the topic of coral reef health needs to be considered in detail during the COP21 in Paris this December. Although the aim of the COP21 is to limit global temperature increase to below 2°C, scientists report that this figure would still permit the degradation of coral reefs. Maybe we should therefore be proposing a total warming of around 1°C or less in order to give coral reefs a better chance of survival….

Evidently the current and future health of global coral reefs remains for the short-term questionable and I am deeply saddened by this. I have vivid childhood memories of snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef and of admiring its beautiful corals and vast array of exciting species. I feel a nostalgic connection to the reef and therefore have a strong passion to spread awareness and promote the protection of such captivating environments.

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Figure 5: A photo of my naive younger self preparing to snorkel on the Great Barrier Reef. Source: Family photo album.

At the end of the day, December will be the deciding month. I really hope that the COP21 comes to a sensible decision regarding the temperature limit of global warming and that, if a figure is agreed, it is lower than the planned 2°C increase. If not, I fear that the conference will secure a deadly fate for our global coral reefs!

Additional References:

[1] Reaka-Kudla, L. (1997) The Global Biodiversity of Coral Reefs: A Comparison with Rain Forests, in Biodiversity II, Joseph Henry Press, Washington: 83-108.

Can Palm Oil Plantations Tackle Climate Change?

Over the past year I have become increasingly aware of the environmental impacts of palm oil production (Figure 1). Additionally, after reading reports concerning the declining standards of socially-responsible governance in plantation countries, I am beginning to question the morality of the industry.

Despite recent attempts to make palm oil production more environmentally sustainable by introducing methane-capturing processes at mills in Indonesia, it is unclear whether local people will in any way benefit from this!

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Figure 1: Palm oil awareness schemes often highlight the threat of deforestation to native animal species. Source: Rehab London

Alarmingly, by 2050 global consumption of palm oil is predicted to triple compared to levels in 2000, with demands from the world’s largest food, cosmetic and biofuel companies such as Unilever, Nestlé and Croda accounting for this increase. In Indonesia alone, palm oil production accounts for 4% of global GHG emissions from less than 0.1% of land. There are therefore calls to cut emissions, with the management of wastewater lagoons seen as an appropriate starting point.

The lagoons contain organic matter from the processed palm oil fruit which, in time, decomposes to release methane – a GHG which is 34 times more efficient at trapping atmospheric heat than CO[1]. Production mill owners therefore claim that if the methane could be captured and burnt as fuel instead, the climatic impact of the lagoons could be dramatically reduced.

Leading the way in the implementation of methane-capturing facilities is the UK-based company REA Holdings. REA have recently installed facilities at two of their three palm oil mills in Indonesia’s East Kalimantan province (Figure 2).

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Figure 2: One REA methane capture facility in East Kalimantan, Indonesia. Source: REA Holdings

Since the facilities were commissioned in 2012, REA claim they have decreased the carbon footprint of the two mills by an impressive 50%. Yet REA vow that this is not the only positive environmental impact; they highlight that sufficient electricity is generated from the methane combustion to power all of the company’s mills, reducing their need to burn diesel (Figure 3).

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Figure 3: Graph displaying the amount of electricity generated due to methane capture facilities at the two REA mills (REAK and SYB) and the amount of diesel they consumed for power. Source: REA Holdings

On top of this, REA have reportedly formed a partnership with the country’s state-owned grid in which they commit to supply 8,500 households in 21 nearby villages with methane-generated electricity in an attempt to improve locals’ standards of living.

At first glance it may seem that the palm oil industry could become more environmentally sustainable in the future if other companies also adopt methane-capturing methods. However, although methane emissions per plant would be reduced, deforestation would still continue in order to meet the rising demand for palm oil, with plantations encroaching further into inhabited forest areas.

Figure 4: A ‘spoof’ advertisement for Doritos highlighting the environmental impacts of the palm oil industry. Source: Sum Of Us

Considering that Indonesia was announced as the country with the fastest rate of deforestation in 2008, can we really afford to sit back and watch the industry expand whilst risking the extinction of endemic species?

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Figure 5: An example of the deforestation extent in Indonesia due to the expansion of palm oil plantations and their access routes. Source: The Guardian

In addition to this, a social issue which I find equally disturbing to contemplate concerns the apparent corruption of economically-minded state officials. These  figures often overlook the impacts on indigenous communities when finalising agreements with corporations, allocating large areas of territorial land for plantation development without consulting locals in a process known as ‘land grab’. Communities are either displaced or forced to work in poor conditions on plantations in order to earn an income. I am therefore unsurprised to learn that the number of conflicts between local communities and palm oil companies is on the increase [2].

I remain skeptical about this idea of ‘green growth in Indonesia’. From an economic perspective, I believe that the palm oil industry has the prospect to grow at such an alarming rate that it may take several years before methane-capturing processes are universally adopted at all mills. I am also doubtful that local communities will gain long-term access to the power produced; with the reported price collapse of the UN Clean Development Mechanism, an emissions reduction credit system, current funding for methane-capturing projects is uncertain!

Although the public can make donations through Greenpeace in an attempt to prevent further deforestation, personally I think it would cause a greater impact if consumers opted to abstain from purchasing products containing palm oil. However I understand that this would need to be a mass consumer movement to substantially affect the market, and would also mean a reduction in the use of biofuels which brings back into debate our utilisation of fossil fuels.

It is clear to see that palm oil consumption is an extremely contentious topic: on one hand organisations such as RSPO argue that sustainable palm oil can be made a norm within global markets. However, I cannot see this happening due to the growing demand for plantation land, the impacts of deforestation and the potential fragmentation of indigenous communities.

I think governments world-wide need to also recognise the role of deforestation in climate change and ideally provide financial help to countries with tropical forests to protect their resources. Additionally it might be more environmentally-sensible to halt our use of palm oil as a biofuel altogether and instead invest in other renewable energy options such as solar and wind power.

Sadly I am pessimistic as to whether global societies will be prepared to stop purchasing products containing palm oil; it is so widely used in thousands of commodities on an international scale that avoiding it completely may prove an almost impossible challenge!

Additional References:

[1] Gray, J., Karageorgou, V. and Westra, L. (2015) Ecological Systems Integrity: Governance, law and human rights, Routledge, Oxon: 100

[2] Li, T.M. (2015) Social impacts of oil palm in Indonesia: A gendered perspective from West Kalimantan, Centre for International Forestry Research, Indonesia.

Is Shell leading the Arctic towards Destination Disaster?

Not a month passes by without a climate change issue exploding onto our news feeds. July 2015 was certainly no exception…

The month commenced with the announcement that multinational oil and gas company Shell had been granted the final permit required to begin drilling beneath the ocean floor for oil in the Arctic. But what could the implications of exploratory drilling be and why is this controversial headline such a timely issue to consider?

After committing £4.5 billion to the contentious project, Shell has now begun to drill two wells into oil bearing rock off the coast of Alaska (Figure 1). Experts have reported that in excess of 18% of the world’s undiscovered oil supplies can be found in the Arctic – therefore it is understandable that the area could be seen as an attractive solution to supplying the world’s growing energy demands over the coming decades. Additionally, with high-profile public figures such as Conservative politician David Howell and the founder of Crystol Energy Carol Nakhle claiming that ‘easy-to-extract oil lie waiting under melting Arctic ice’ [1], the technical feasibility of extraction is brought into the limelight.

Map showing the location of the current drilling site off the coast of Alaska. Source: BBC
Figure 1: Map showing the location of the current drilling site off the coast of Alaska.
Source: BBC

Supporting Howell and Nakhle’s claim, it has been reported that temperatures in the Arctic region have risen more rapidly than anywhere else in the world over the past 50 years, increasing by a staggering 7°C [2]. Linked to this, satellite data has provided evidence that Arctic sea ice coverage is shrinking by nearly 3% each decade [3]. Considering these facts, it is clear that climate change is permitting the exploitation of reserves with increasing ease. Positive feedback mechanisms due to melting sea ice and declining levels of albedo mean that not only the accessibility of offshore oil is increasing, but also the logistical ease of navigation across the Arctic [4]. With this in mind, it is clear to see why Shell is so keen to explore the oil reserves in this area!

Map showing the extent of summer sea ice projected for 2040, as viewed from the north pole. The prediction is for a fringe of ice to remain in Northeast Canada and Northern Greenland when all other large areas of summer ice are gone. Arctic ocean navigation routes would become increasingly operable. Source: WWF
Figure 2: Map showing the extent of summer sea ice projected for 2040, as viewed from the north pole. A fringe of ice is predicted to remain in Northeast Canada and Northern Greenland while all other large areas of summer ice disappear. Arctic ocean navigation routes would become increasingly operable.
Source: WWF

Like many others I acknowledge news headlines which describe ‘societies on the verge of encountering a global energy crisis‘, resulting from our rising demand for energy yet our apparent inability to increase production [5]. However, I maintain some skepticism regarding the rate of our approach to this so-called ‘crisis’ in the immediate short-term. This is because:

  1. The International Energy Agency has predicted that globally we will not reach peak oil until after 2020 [6]
  2. Scientists claim we can’t even afford to burn all of the fossil fuels we have already discovered
  3. On a national scale, a low carbon energy scenario model demonstrated that by 2030, 90% of the UK’s energy demand could be met by renewable energy sources 

Therefore the question I urge you to consider is whether, at this moment in time, it is essential to continue Arctic oil explorations?

Would it not be more sensible to invest in programmes developing new renewable energy options instead?

If we already have enough fossil fuel supplies to utilise for the next few years, is it just financial greed rather than present day demand fuelling Shell’s actions?

Sadly there is a lack of legal framework and few prescriptions of international law which apply to the Arctic [7] meaning that the EU and individual Arctic States have little power in preventing Shell’s actions. Additionally with Shell arguing that they will ensure their drilling operations are ‘environmentally sensible’ and that they will mitigate any possible risks to the landscape, it is proving difficult for anyone to stand in the way of one of the World’s most valuable companies.

However, Shell’s operations are being questioned, with the NGO Greenpeace leading the opposition. Environmental campaigners argue that the risks of drilling in such a pristine and biologically rich environment are far too great, claiming there is a 75% chance of an oil spill occurring. Undoubtedly, Shell’s actions in the Arctic are likely to come under increased scrutiny, with the concerns of environmental campaigners further fuelled by reports that the multinational company recently paid a £55 million bill to clean up pollution after a major oil spill in Nigeria.

One impact of Shell's operations: An oil-soaked fish farm in Bodo, Nigeria. Source: Amnesty International UK
Figure 3: One impact of Shell’s operations: An oil-soaked fish farm in Bodo, Nigeria.
Source: Amnesty International UK

I strongly believe that we must do something to prevent Shell’s operations continuing in the Arctic; at this present time they are non-essential and pose great risks to an increasingly fragile part of the world. I am therefore joining 7.5 million people across the world in supporting Greenpeace’s campaign ‘Save the Arctic’. The campaign draws attention to the timely state of melting sea ice which further threatens:

The 'Save the Arctic' mascot draws attention to the possible loss of polar bears due to habitat destruction and currently stands in front of Shell’s London office to protest against Arctic oil drilling.
Figure 4: The ‘Save the Arctic’ mascot draws attention to the possible loss of polar bears due to habitat destruction and currently stands in front of Shell’s London office to protest against Arctic oil drilling. Source: Greenpeace

To solve the controversy surrounding drilling in the Arctic, I think that policies need to be devised which:

  • recognise the differences between different areas of the Arctic,
  • consider the opinions and needs of local communities,
  • resolve the concerns and conflicts between individual Arctic States.

We need to establish successful stewardship of the environment while ensuring prosperity and opportunities for all societies impacted by Arctic affairs.

Nationally, the UK remains dedicated to supporting the stability and security of the Arctic region. Although the UK is a non-Arctic State, it does recognise the risks associated with drilling for hydrocarbons and fully supports the application of the highest environmental standards in the Arctic.

However recognition alone is not enough!

I ask you to to also support Greenpeace’s campaign by sending an email to Shell’s CEO in objection to their actions. I find it horrifying that Shell could financially benefit from the impacts of climate change and, in turn, finance further environmental degradation and pollution!

Please help to break this destructive cycle, raise your voice and save the Arctic before it’s too late!

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Figure 5: Greenpeace’s ‘Save the Arctic’ campaign logo.    Source: Greenpeace

Additional References:

[1] Howell, D. and Nakhle, C. (2007) Out of the Energy Labyrinth, Tauris, London: 88-92

[2] Giddens, A. (2009) The Politics of Adaptation, in The Politics of Climate Change, Polity Press, Cambridge: 129-161

[3] Giddens, A. (2009) Climate Change, Risk and Danger, in The Politics of Climate Change, Polity Press, Cambridge: 17-34

[4] Halden, P. (2007) The Geopolitics of Climate Change, Swedish Defence Research Agency, Stockholm.

[5] Leeb, S. (2007) The Coming Economic Collapse, Warner, New York: 1-2

[6] International Energy Agency (2007) World Energy Outlook 2007, OECD/IEA, Paris.

[7] Airoldi, A. (2008) The European Union and the Arctic, Nordic Council of Ministers, Copenhagen.