Impact case studies
A selection of examples from our world-leading academic research staff making a major contribution to society and addressing key global challenges.
Climate change poses a large threat to ice masses globally, with stark consequences linked with increased rates of global sea-level rise and modification of atmospheric and ocean circulation and heat transport. Glaciologists at the School of GeoSciences have developed novel satellite remote sensing methods to constrain the current contributions of the polar ice sheets to sea-level rise and help predict its future. These Earth Observation techniques are capable of accurately monitoring ice thinning in both the Arctic and Antarctic, helping to then predict subsequent impact on sea-level rise.
This work is being used to support current and future satellite missions, including the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Cryosat-2 mission, as well as a new mission concept under the European Commission Copernicus Sentinel programme. Scientists at ESA use the group’s research to inform techniques and applications used by Cryosat-2 to measure and monitor polar ice masses, with Edinburgh team playing a key role in developing new applications.
Beyond supporting scientists at ESA, the team’s work leads to numerous interaction with industry (e.g. Airbus, OHB, CLS, isardSAT) and is widely used by policy makers and multiple agencies to predict (and mitigate) the effects of sea-level rise, which has informed policy globally (and underpins relevant climate observations required under the Paris Agreement). Other users include the Climate and Cryosphere (CliC) project, one of the core projects of the World Climate Research Programme (WCRP), and scientists across the world (the work supports the World Glacier Monitoring Service which provides climate information for a wide user community, and is active in over 30 countries).
Research on earthquake risk estimation and forecasting has directly impacted the policy recommendations of the International Commission on Earthquake Forecasting and, in turn, the policies of governments in numerous countries.
Can science predict when and where an earthquake will occur? Given the enormous impact earthquakes can have, the ability to predict an earthquake (i.e. state that an earthquake of a certain magnitude will occur in a specific region over a certain period) would be of great value and save many lives.
The L’Aquila earthquake in Italy in 2009 killed 309 people, injured 1,500 and displaced 65,000. The breadth of devastation, paired with the lack of short-term warning from government and scientists, spurred questions about the role of science in civilian protection.
Headlines asked, ‘Should scientists stop giving advice?’ and six members of the Italian Grand Risks Commission were convicted of manslaughter as a result of their perceived poor communication of the risks involved, although they were later acquitted on appeal.
The Director of Civil Protection in Italy appointed Professor Ian Main (School of GeoSciences) as the sole UK member of the International Commission on Earthquake Forecasting (ICEF), based on Professor Main’s record of research into multiple aspects of earthquake predictability.
Professor Main’s research, using both statistical and rock physics approaches, has illuminated the difficulties of earthquake prediction. He found that global earthquake data can identify increases in the probability of earthquakes, whereas deterministic predictive models for individual events, sufficient to justify a general evacuation, are unreliable.
Emphasising the uncertainties involved in estimating recurrence rates, he also found that models for seismic hazard can easily be altered through the inclusion of single extreme events (for example the earthquake off the coast of Sumatra that led to the devastating tsunami on Boxing Day 2004).
Professor Main’s rock physics studies included the development of a model for the quasi-static nucleation of unstable fracturing and slip. The resulting highly nonlinear behaviour within the model provides a rationale for the practical difficulty of accurately forecasting the failure time in brittle failure events - even in controlled laboratory and engineering settings.
While reliable short-term prediction of individual earthquakes remains elusive, long-term probabilistic forecasting provides a useful baseline for developing building design codes, and the shorter term clustering properties provide an opportunity to calculate and communicate periods of heightened risk.
Professor Main’s research conclusions directly impacted the policy recommendations of the final Reports and Recommendations of the ICEF.
The report stated: ‘Any information about the future occurrence of earthquakes contains large uncertainties and, therefore, can only be evaluated and provided in terms of probabilities’.
The report emphasised the lack of clear and reliable precursors needed for deterministic prediction, and recommended investment in ‘operational’ forecasting with clear communication of probability and uncertainty.
The ICEF report stimulated policy innovation across the world. The Italian Department of Civil Protection committed €1 billion to a 10-year research project on operational earthquake forecasting and implemented a public education programme to better communicate probability and risk.
Authorities in the US and New Zealand also took their cues from the ICEF report and initiated similar programmes. The report has also influenced policy development in Greece, Japan and Russia.
Another outcome of the L’Aquila earthquake and the legal proceedings against officials was media discourse about the role of scientists in providing advice or commenting on risk. Although the six Italian officials were eventually acquitted, it is clear that the communication of risk by scientists to the public and to governments is an area where all parties are in need of greater mutual understanding.
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Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is the only currently available technology that can directly reduce CO2 emissions arising from the combustion of fossil fuels. CCS can massively reduce emissions from electricity generation, industrial processes such as cement and steel manufacture and can be paired with bioenergy combustion to offer the potential of large-scale negative emissions. However, geological storage of CO2 requires prediction of the fate of stored CO2 for ~10,000 years after injection, a period much longer than can be observed in engineered injection experiments. The only means to observe the fate of CO2 in crustal reservoirs and to identify how CO2 may migrate out of such storage site over such periods is to study natural CO2 accumulations and areas of natural CO2 release.
Motivated by this challenge, geochemists at the School of GeoSciences have developed novel CO2 fingerprinting tools to identify how CO2 within natural CO2 reservoirs has been stored for millions of years and these have provided important lessons on how to securely engineer CO2 storage. These tracing techniques were adapted to identify natural CO2 migration above a CO2 reservoir in Arizona directly leading to the researchers being invited to participate in the international investigation that successfully disputed CO2 leakage allegations linked to the Weyburn-Midale CO2 storage project, that made world-wide media headlines. Recently, these fingerprinting tools have been used to track the fate of the CO2 injected into the Southeast Regional Carbon Sequestration Partnership (SECARB) Gulf Coast Stacked storage Project at the Cranfield CO2 enhanced oil recovery field in Mississippi, USA and the world-leading CO2CRC Otway test CO2 injection site in Australia.
Beyond supporting the fledgling CCS industry, the team’s work has lead to numerous interactions with industry including Total and Petrobras. The team are currently involved in using their fingerprinting tools to identify the origin of CO2 in Argentinian shale gases and in deep offshore hydrocarbon fields in Brazil, along with resolving the connectivity of a west of Shetland hydrocarbon field in the UK North Sea. They have recently been invited to apply their fingerprinting tools resolving the fate of CO2 being injected into Reykjavik Energy’s Hellisheidi geothermal field in Iceland, as part of the EU funded CarbFix 2 project, which is investigating the rapid mineralisation of CO2 in basalts.
A Darwin Initiative mapping project in Belize has provided environmental organisations with valuable resources for biodiversity monitoring and plant identification in the country’s important savanna habitats.
Darwin Initiative Grants are awarded to projects that will have a lasting impact in the host country. The remote sensing and mapping project described here did just that, directly influencing the creation in 2009 of a new Environmental Research Institute (ERI) at the University of Belize.
The ERI, the Ministry of Natural Resources and environmental non-governmental organisations (NGOs) based in Belize now conduct high quality work in biodiversity monitoring and plant identification. This work has been built upon the mapping databases and plant reference collections created by Dr Neil Stuart’s Darwin Initiative project, and on the training of more than 40 local environmental services professionals by UK scientists.
The local professional organisations are now able to fulfil monitoring and reporting requirements (for example to the United Nations) in order to protect plant diversity and to influence government initiatives such as the 2012 National Land Use Policy and Planning Framework which includes commitment to the monitoring and protection of biodiversity in the Belize savannas.
The savannas of Belize are an important source of plant biodiversity within the Neotropics as they contain a unique mix of species from both North and South America.
The botany of the lowland Belize savannas was relatively unknown before exploration by Professor Peter Furley and colleagues from the Royal Botanical Garden Edinburgh (RBGE), in 1996. This expedition discovered a unique diversity of plant species in this area, underscoring the global significance of the Belize savannas.
In 2005, Dr Stuart showed that savanna habitats can be mapped in detail with radar and optical satellite data. Thanks to this discovery, Dr Stuart secured funding from the Darwin Initiative, which is run by the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, to conduct the first comprehensive mapping and botanical assessment of savannas in Belize in partnership with the Belize government and scientists in Belize and at the RBGE.
The Darwin Initiative mapping project, published in 2011, revealed that 10% of the savanna had been lost in the previous 20 years.
It also guided a systematic, nationwide programme of plant collecting. More than 10,000 plant specimens were collected and 54 new species identified.
Savannas were shown to contain 33% of the total floristic diversity of Belize and, importantly, 43% of all national endemic species, challenging the popular impression of savannas as areas of low biodiversity.
These new data were combined with existing historical collections from around the world to produce, in 2013, the first comprehensive botanical checklist of the savanna flora of Belize.
Engaging the next generation
The Darwin Initiative project’s research findings have been used in Belize to engage the nation’s children and create the next generation of conservationists.
In 2011, the ‘Savanna Trail’ and an accompanying classroom were established by the Belize Botanic Gardens and to date there have been visits by more than 2,000 children and 90 teachers (supported by Belize’s Ministry of Education). The findings have also been incorporated into a board game that teaches children to value the plants and animals of the savanna.
Belize Zoo is the most popular visitor attraction in the country. In 2012 it opened a 5km network of savanna trails inspired by the Darwin Initiative research findings, with interpretive signs designed by Dr Stuart and colleagues.
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