British & European Changes And Solar Impulse

Referendum Results

On the 23rd June 2016 the UK people voted to leave the European Union (EU). The result of the vote was narrowly in favour of leaving the EU by 51.9% to 48.1%. The UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, resigned on the morning of the result as he was in backing the remain in the EU campaign. This decision has been nicknamed BREXIT (Great Britain Exit from the EU).

The result of the vote, which saw around a high 70% turnout for the referendum, has caused many questions to be addressed for both Europe and the UK. It will take a while for a clear plan of what is going to happen to emerge: this may take many months although the rapid replacement of the Prime Minister with Theresa May and a change of Government to deal with the outcome may mean it will be progressed more rapidly than had been thought. A new ministry has been set up to oversee the leaving process which is likely to take at least two years. This will require a formal request under the Treaty of Lisbon.

Initial Reactions to the result were varied: the impact was felt globally with adverse reactions to stock markets and with the value of the UK pound falling against other currencies including the US dollar and the euro. The pound fell to very low levels against the dollar, levels not seen since the 1980s. The economic fallout was caused by uncertainty of the political futures of the UK and Europe.

Across Europe there were several political responses to the result. Some right wing political parties called for their countries to leave the EU (notably in France and the Netherlands for example). Additional comments called for European Union reforms to prevent others following the UK.

Within the United Kingdom there are political calls for a break up of the Union (Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and England) and the Scottish vote outcome highlighted the desire to stay in Europe. The picture of the referendum results shows some interesting paradoxes geographically. As an example many areas voting to leave are area that have benefited from European Structural and Regional Development funding as they are generally poorer areas. The results had a marked geography of areas that voted for remain and leave. There is a map on this BBC web site link. Scotland, for example had an overall vote to remain in the EU.

The impact of the UK leaving the European Union will be reviewed over time. The European Union has been expanding across Europe for several decades and the political impact of this change will see an initial end to that continual growth, perhaps before it resumes or perhaps it may have the consequence of influencing other countries to reassess their place within the EU. With mounting economic issues in Portugal there may be more challenges for the EU to overcome very shortly.

Solar Impulse’s Circumnavigation

The innovative solar plane, Solar Impulse 2 has completed its pioneering around the world journey having made it back to Abu Dhabi. The plane proved it was possible to use solar energy to propel an aircraft. The Solar Impulse 2 plane has 7,000 solar cells that fuel electric motors. The wingspan is larger than a large commercial airliner and it is very light weight. Energy from the solar cells are stored in batteries for night time flying.

The journey took from 9 March 2015 until 26th July 2016. The journey was formed of a 17-stage journey covering around 42,000km. It crossed four continents, three seas and two oceans. The longest section of the journey was a flight of 8,924km (5,545-mile) from Nagoya in Japan to Hawaii, US. The stretch lasted almost 118 hours and broke the world record for longest time for an uninterrupted solo flight. The Pacific flight (originally around June/July 2015) saw the planes batteries being damaged which saw the journey temporarily stopped for ten months.

This innovative and inspiring journey, which used no conventional fossil fuel, has led to some new technological developments, great practical knowledge of those technologies and has developed an International Committee of Clean Technology (ICCT) and solar powered drones. Full details of the journey and highlights of some future benefits that may come from the project are on the Solar Impulse website. The project has advocated clean technology and aims to provide options for a sustainable future and to solve some of the challenges that face society today.

Posted in Europe, Politics, Renewable Energy, Solar, Sustainable Transport | Leave a comment

Crisis In Venezuela

Venezuela: Political or Environmental Crisis?

Venezuela has been suffering recently. Is it a political, economic or environmental crisis though?

Venezuela has the world’s highest inflation rate at 180% and there are shortages of basic goods as well as power shortages. The country is resource rich with the highest proven reserves of oil. The export of oil accounts for 95% of the country’s export revenues. During the period 2014 to 2015 the price of oil has halved deeply affecting the country.

The crises also can trace its roots back over several years: President Hugo Chavez (1999 to 2013) introduced price controls on some basic goods in 2003. The essential goods prices (e.g. sugar, coffee, rice, flour) were capped and then producers could not afford to remain in production: sometimes they made a loss whilst others gave up selling the goods altogether. This resulted in further goods being imported.

Power outages have been caused by the lack of rain across the country with hydro generated electricity “drying up”. As a result of the severe shortage of energy the country has had to take drastic action. Measures have included moving clocks forward by 30 minutes to ease the peak load on the electricity system in the evening: the effect of changing the time means more daylight at the time of peak demand. In May the government, led by President Maduro, made government employees work a two day week and prevented school children going to school on Fridays. See this Independent news article for further details.

President Maduro has been under much political pressure to leave office. His current term runs until 2019, but the opposition have suggested a change of government through a referendum. See this BBC report. In June the referendum was beginning to look more likely according to this report.

At the country’s main hydro plant, the Guri Dam, there has been a severe drought affecting electricity production. The plant produces two-thirds of the country’s power and had fallen to near its minimum operating level. The country has no real reserve power generation capacity. This Independent report highlights some of the measures that were being taken to prevent even more power blackouts in the country than had been common over a number of years. The main blame for the lack of power and water supplies has be attributed to the El Nino weather phenomenon. It has caused long drought periods and much lower than average rainfall. Others blame the lack of investment over the years.

Ultimately the El Nino weather, with the drought, has hit Venezuela hard and highlighted a number of the issues that were perhaps caused by political and economic factors such as the drop in global oil prices. It could be argued that the underlying resilience of Venezuela has been impacted by political and economic factors along with under investment in core infrastructure over the years. Either way the cost of food for a population is rising and triggering unrest and much upheaval. The weather event currently affecting the country is certainly not helping matters and the country’s over reliance on oil exports has not helped.

Posted in Economic Crisis, Energy, Geography, Politics | Leave a comment


The Beast: Canada’s Wildfire

The early May major “wildfire” in Alberta’s northern region which spread into Fort McMurray has been nicknamed “The Beast” (see this Guardian news article). The fire grew rapidly within a few days and, due to the weather conditions which were unusually warm and dry, spread rapidly. It quickly spread over an area from 1,200 hectares to more than 220,000 hectares in a few days. It remains active and has covered over 2,000 square miles (3,218 square kilometres). In fact there are several fires, 17 or so, but the Fort McMurray one remains out of control. Several communities such as Fort McMurray, Anzac, Gregoire Lake Estates, Fort McMurray First Nation and Fort McKay First Nation are under a mandatory evacuation order. It is not yet understood how the fire started and if it is indeed a wildfire or not.

The city of Fort McMurray took much of the brunt of the fire which led to the evacuation of thousands of residents: many homes were destroyed by the fire and approximately 88,000 residents had to evacuate at short notice. Residents had to travel for a couple of hours to escape the blaze. It was estimated that around 2,400 homes and buildings were lost to the flames. The majority of the city, fortunately, remained untouched. The impact of the fire is unusual in that some adjacent properties have been either burnt to the ground or left relatively untouched according the aerial imagery that has been put on the Alberta Government web site. Some properties have just their basements left whilst others next door seem to be intact complete with roof surviving. It is a very unequal spatial impact, even along the same road. Some houses are destroyed yet outbuildings or garages remain unaffected by flames. Many houses were in wooded suburbs that contributed to the houses burning but this is not a common factor: many local geographical and possibly meteorological factors may have had an influence on buildings that were either destroyed or survived the inferno. Some houses backing on to the same woodland remain whilst others have been totally burnt to the basement destroying people’s homes and possessions. Typical scenes can be viewed on this Fort McMurray Today Twitter photograph and this one.

The scale and ferocity of the fire makes it unusual. The fire was powerful enough to cross a one kilometre wide river. It has also generated lightning which then generated new fire starts, as an example of a positive feedback loop. It has had a global impact in terms of the smoke trail from Canada reaching as far as Spain and the UK in Europe according to NASA. The smoke and aerosols also travelled as far south as Florida in the USA. The local Alberta Health Services issued health warnings for the entire area with Health Quality Index of 10+. This scale means that there is a very high risk of triggering health issues. See this link for an overview.

NASA has provided information from its Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) Rapid Response Team which is known as the MODIS Rapid Response Team. Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) is from two satellites: Aqua and Terra satellites. Areas that are actively burning are detected by MODIS’s thermal bands and can highlight areas of fire. This illustrates how remotely sensed data can be used to assist in times of crisis: here being able to assess remote areas where the fires may still be present. The vast scale of the fire has made it easy to detect from satellites: it has a very strong “thermal signature” and has also burnt such a large area of territory that it is easy to detect from space (512 kilometres above the earth surface).

The Canadian fires have been quite exceptional on a number of levels: their rapid growth, the vast extent and the global aerosol impacts. They come at a time of a very strong El Niño & the Southern Oscillation event and are very early in the season. There is some irony that the fires are hitting an area of oil sands extraction where production is of oil is typically quite inefficient (compared with conventional crude oil supplies) and generates much carbon dioxide perhaps having a large impact on the changing climate. The people of Fort McMurray and other places will have to undertake a major rebuild when the fire eventually dies out.

Posted in Air Quality, Data Quality, Earth Science | Leave a comment

OpenStreetMap Volunteers: Professional Mappers?

Volunteered Geographical Information

OpenStreetMap is a crowd sourced map of the world. It can be seen as a project that has excelled on many levels: for example opening up geographical information, providing copyright free maps that can be shared, providing detailed up-to-date mapping and providing a major source of volunteered geographical information. The community of OpenStreetMap has been seen as a broad set of contributors although research has suggested that contributions are largely from a more limited set of volunteers and this set is not as amateur as may be perceived.

An article by Yang, Fan, and Jing in the International Journal of Geo-Information reviews the contributions of volunteers in terms of the quality of their work. It is entitled “Amateur or Professional: Assessing the Expertise of Major Contributors in OpenStreetMap Based on Contributing Behaviors” (sic), 2016. Contributing behaviours are reviewed to assess the professionalism of mappers to OpenStreetMap.

Several past studies have shown that the quality of OpenStreetMap information is often very good. Results from several countries that have proved this empirically. As a contrast to volunteered geographical information (VGI), professional geographical information (PGI) quality is traditionally regarded as excellent and production uses well trained and highly disciplined experts to achieve excellent and “definitive” results.

Like Wikipedia, OpenStreetMap relies on a small minority of contributors who actually account for the vast majority of the information. This study has considered a number of behaviours of OpenStreetMap’s core users who add geographical data and edit the map. They have also proposed a conceptual model to assess if contributors are professional or not. Professionals are classed as skilled and highly disciplined whilst amateurs tend to lack in skills and lack the deeper understanding of their subject area. Using probability theories and Bayes’ theorem the authors considered the likelihood of being either a professional or amateur contributor to OpenStreetMap. The approach is essentially statistical inference. Key themes for professional contributions include those of practice, skill and motivation.

The paper concludes: “Most of the contributors represent several behaviors [sic] that amateurs rarely have. The major contributors in the three countries [UK, France and Germany] should be confidently regarded as professionals instead of amateurs.” The research has largely inferred this result although it is highly probable that professional contributors have provided OpenStreetMap with much data on a regular basis. The research considered eight main behaviours for contributors and used OpenStreetMap metadata to link the behaviours to large geographical data additions.

This research, like others, has suggested that OpenStreetMap is much more than a map created by amateurs or novices. Several core users exhibit highly professional traits to their contributions. OpenStreetMap allows almost daily changes to be mapped rapidly and is a framework that enables much map detail to be captured.

Posted in Data Quality, Geography, Mapping, OpenStreetMap | Leave a comment

Mapping Pollution & Carbon Dioxide Rapid Increases

Mapping Pollution from Space

Over the last few decades there have been many projects that have been monitoring pollution and gathering environmental information from satellite technology. One example is the NASA Aura spacecraft that is monitoring air quality on a global scale.

In 2004 the space craft was launched and since then has provided a valuable temporal record of the global air quality. It is recording trace gas signatures in the atmosphere from their unique spectral signatures. There are several instruments on board. One of these, the Ozone Monitoring Instrument, has observed and measured changes in nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels over time. Nitrogen dioxide is a noxious gas emitted by motor vehicles, power plants and other industrial facilities. The instrument also measures pollutants such as ozone (O3), sulphur dioxide (SO2), and atmospheric aerosols. These particular atmospheric constituents pose a serious threat to human health and agricultural productivity. The pollutants can be measured at “near urban levels” which provides a high-level of information accuracy.

The results of recording atmospheric data for almost a decade, over the period 2005-2014, show that nitrogen dioxide has increased in several places and declined in others. The information captured for this chemical compound shows great global, regional and city level variation in pollution levels.

Aura has recorded a decline in nitrogen dioxide levels over most European cities for example. This is likely to be due to much stricter vehicle emission standards. Cities showing the largest decreases include Madrid (48 percent), Lisbon (47 percent), and Barcelona (44 percent).

In Asia generally there has been an increase in pollution in a number of large cities such as Dhaka, the Bangladesh capital, where nitrogen dioxide increased by 79 percent. This is the highest increase recorded. Other cities such as Lahore in Pakistan and India have also experienced growth in pollution levels. Interestingly China, where in Beijing there have been many reports of very bad air quality, has shown mixed results. Some cities have shown steep rises in pollution whilst others have experienced a decline. Shanghai saw levels drop by 30 percent, Hong Kong dropped by 28 percent, and Beijing showed a 10 percent decline. This can be attributed to policy decisions to improve the air quality in these urban centres. Other cities in the north and central plains of China saw the pollution levels rising.

Having long term monitoring such as this can be invaluable to showing the impact of policy decisions on improving environmental conditions. Here it is the atmospheric air quality. For some images of the changes described here have a look at the NASA Earth Observatory web site article.

Carbon Dioxide Levels Rapidly Increase In 2015

At a more down to earth base of the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii, monitoring of carbon dioxide concentration continues. The NOAA observatory has monitored global carbon dioxide levels for the past 56 years. It has shown that levels rapidly increased during 2015. During the year levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide increased by 3.05 parts per million. This may not seem much but it is highly significant as carbon dioxide levels have not accelerated as much for hundreds of thousands of years. Worryingly it is also the fourth consecutive year where carbon dioxide (CO2) had increased by more than 2 parts per million (ppm).

The current El Nino event, or warm climate phase, which occurs regularly over 2 to 7 years disrupting global weather patterns. This event also has partially accounted for an increase in the CO2 levels (this has been observed in previous El Nino events). Changes to weather has an impact on terrestrial systems such as forests and other plant life which respond to changes in weather, precipitation and drought. As a result there is a corresponding natural increase in carbon dioxide concentration levels.

This big increase in CO2 is not, however, generally a natural phenomenon; NOAA state “high emissions from fossil fuel consumption are driving the … growth rate over the past several years.” This big increase is partially explained by El Nino but is mostly attributed to human emissions or anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD). See the NOAA news item detailing the measurements here.

Global monitoring is showing global impacts of man on the environment. Both NOAA and NASA’s Aura are two examples of scientific monitoring that is alerting us to change whether it has been encouraging news or more concerning. We ignore the science at our peril.

Posted in ACD, Air Quality, China, Data Quality, Earth Science, Mapping, Pollution | Leave a comment

Barriers Up: Schengen On The Brink?

Schengen Suspense?

Recently there have been a number of talks in the European Union about the possibility of suspending the Schengen agreement that allows freedom of movement between national states.

The immigration crisis has led to the talks which are now questioning the passport free travel zone which applies across 26 countries (the Schengen area). The open borders could be suspended for up to two years if there is no change in the influx of migrants from the Middle East and Africa. Shorter-term dispensations for border controls end in May. The free travel rules have been strained with many asylum seekers moving into Europe through Greece to Germany and other north European countries. There have been several examples of attempts by nations to block the movement of migrants across Europe. Domestic opinion is the main reason for the suspension of passport free borders. There has been a nationalistic view which could affect Schengen, the euro and perhaps even the European Union as well. Several former East European countries, and others, have been vocal in not accepting “too many” refugees.

Greece has been at the forefront of the routes into Europe from the Middle East in particular. Part of the problem with Schengen is that the inability to control external borders has pushed the problem of immigration towards the centre of Europe. Initially Hungary was quick to re-erect border fences to keep migrants out. Hungary was doing this a few years ago. This had the impact of diverting the routes used by migrants to other countries such as Slovenia, Macedonia and Croatia: migrants simply went around the barriers. Greece has also been criticised for not protecting the borders around it and in particular its border with Turkey. The EU are now threatening to remove Greece from the Schengen area so that border controls will have to be imposed again. Greece has been given three months to impose better border controls.

Some countries such as Germany, Austria and Sweden have put in place temporary controls at specific frontiers to deal with the refugee flows. This has impacted the free flow of trade and slowed border crossings.

The context of the talks are the fact that the flow of migrants is not slowing. Some reports, such as this Guardian article, show a 20 fold increase over the last year. If anything the numbers are still increasing despite efforts to contain many thousand in Turkey for example. Germany is under internal political pressure to reduce numbers coming to that country.

In mid-February Greece has been given three months to fix its border controls (see this BBC report). It is likely that other temporary border checks will also be extended beyond this May.

There are likely to be several implications of these changes to the Schengen area: whether they are with Greece, wider European integration or on day to day travel and trade. There may be impacts to the euro currency and perhaps the flow of migration. That is very much subject to wider talks and getting a peaceful resolution to the war in Syria and the wider area. It is likely that it will be a while before the fallout will be fully appreciated.

Reference: ‘Running out of time’, EU puts Greece, Schengen on notice.

Posted in euro, Europe, Middle East, Politics, Population | Leave a comment

Coupled Transport Systems & Start of the Anthropocene?

Coupled Transport Systems

A recent Royal Society research article considers studying different transport modes together as “coupled systems”. The road networks and public transport networks in large cities such as London and New York should be studied as a holistic system that functions together and not in isolation. As an example, the local roads may experience a peak in demand as commuters leave a station and proceed to their destination from the transport “hub”. Similarly the roads will be feeding into a train going towards the city centre in the morning rush hour. The situation is obviously more complex with metro systems, rail systems, bus networks, road transport and other modes all interacting.

Local spatial network differences can make a difference to how wider transport systems perform and interact. Studies have considered many factors in the past such as the network topology, social factors, relationships with the street network, the robustness of the network and even the evolution and the structure of the network. Coupling of networks mean that impacts are spread, sometimes on an international scale.

The research shows that, for example, increasing the speed of urban rail networks may not always beneficial. It could lead to an uneven spatial distributions of accessibility. The precise accessibility will vary according to the city based upon its morphology: London for example would need an optimal transit system speed but this would not apply in New York. The optimal speed can affect global congestion. The research suggests that it is crucial to consider the full, multi-modal, multi-layer network aspects of transport systems in order to understand the behaviour of cities. By understanding this behaviour it would be possible to avoid negative transport side-effects of urban planning decisions. A brief of the research is shown at the Royal Society web site.

This shows that multiple transport modes are being increasingly linked together but the impact varies according to the local geography. Mass transport systems can reduce congestion in city centres but actually increase it elsewhere at the transport stops or terminals. Here the road congestion becomes tied into the rail network. This model has useful implications for transport planning and needs to focus on empirical evidence of how much traffic is using each network and how they are actually linked together: if people walk from stations then there will be little impact compared with all people continuing journeys by driving cars. If modes are changed for other public transport (e.g. buses) then the impacts again will not be as great as a fewer buses accommodate many more people than many cars. Other factors such as the amount of other traffic present also affect the local congestion that can be related to the coupled systems.

This study highlights the power of geography and the advantages of considering impacts at a much more holistic level than narrower studies that focus on just single networks.

Anthropocene: the time has come?

Sometime in 2016 the case for a new geological epoch will, or will not, be made: the Anthropocene. In 2000 Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer came up with the phrase to highlight the current human impact on the geological condition and processes. Human activities are impacting several areas such as:

  • changes in sedimentation
  • changes in sediment transport
  • increases in erosion
  • altering the chemical composition of the atmosphere
  • alterations to the chemical composition of the oceans
  • changes in chemical composition of the soils
  • significant anthropogenic change in the element cycles (i.e. carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus and metal cycles)

The perturbations to processes are viewed through global warming (or Anthropogenic Climate Disruption), ocean acidification, spreading of ocean “dead zones”. There are also biospheric changes on the land and sea with habit loss, predation, species invasions as well as chemical changes.

The Quaternary working group is considering the adoption of the geological epoch the Anthropocene. It is a potential geological epoch at the same level as the Pleistocene and Holocene epochs within the Quaternary Period. It might be considered at a lower (Age) hierarchical level which would be a subdivision of the on-going Holocene epoch. Full details can be found on the Working Group on the Anthropocene web site.

There are still debates around when the epoch begun: was it the 1950’s with a “Great Acceleration” of population, industry, nuclear testing and impact on the natural world? Was it, perhaps, much earlier around the start of the industrial revolution as early as 1620? There have been debates on when the epoch begun, but the evidence is in the stratigraphy. Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are at their highest for 800, 000 or possibly 1,000,000 years. Lewis and Maslin debated the start date in their 2015 Nature paper.

Human actions have released 555 petagrams (Pg) of carbon since 1750. 1 petagram is 10 to the power 15 grams or 1 billion metric tons. The total is therefore around 555 billion metric tons being emitted to the atmosphere. It looks likely that the impact of humans is, finally, now to be recognised with the new geological epoch: the Anthropocene.

Posted in ACD, Carbon Dioxide, Cities, Climate Change, Geography, railways, Sustainable Transport | Leave a comment