Tackling environmental change


We live in uncertain times. Rising temperatures are disrupting our ecosystems and our weather. Cities are struggling to adapt to the challenges of 21st-century living. Our energy supplies are under threat, just as demand for food is increasing.

Researchers at the University of Bristol Cabot Institute are working to find answers to some of the biggest environmental questions we currently face, and philanthropy is helping drive discovery faster than would otherwise be possible. Over the course of the Centenary Campaign, the Cabot Institute received more than £3.5 million to support its work. Here are just a few of the ways philanthropy is helping secure a more certain future for our planet.

Saving our oceans

The world’s oceans are a natural sponge, absorbing much of what we, as humans, put into the atmosphere. And when that includes nearly a third of our CO2 emissions since the Industrial Revolution, it’s perhaps no surprise that, today, our seawater is more acidic than ever.

Ocean acidification is not just putting the world’s coral reefs – fragile, delicate and important ecosystems – in jeopardy. One in three of us depend on life in the ocean as our primary source of protein. And one in ten of us rely on fisheries for our livelihoods.

Lead donations have brought PhD students and post-doctoral fellows to Bristol – people with the talent and ambition to better understand how marine organisms are adapting to falling pH levels, and how the biodiversity of our oceans might change as a result.

While they gather samples and analyse data, others, like Professor Daniela Schmidt, have been able to provide the world’s decision-makers with the information they need to take action. Professor Schmidt assessed the impact of global environmental change on the ocean and summarised the most urgent and important findings for the 2014 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

‘Without funding for post-doctoral posts to support my research, it would have been impossible for me to dedicate so much time to my role as a lead author of the IPCC’s Working Group report,’ says Professor Schmidt. ‘Through that work, I’ve been able to ensure that the message about the speed of ocean acidification, and its effects on marine organisms, is clearly heard on an international platform. I’m especially proud that our message has made it into the Summary for Policy Makers – the key document that will influence policymaking at both a national and an international level.’

Our oceans are our biggest and most important natural resource. We do not yet know whether we can turn the tide on ocean acidification. But, thanks to substantial philanthropic investment during the Centenary Campaign, scientists at Bristol hope to fully understand its impact, before it’s too late.

Blowing off steam

What has golden syrup got to do with volcanoes? It’s the same thickness as magma, and is helping scientists here at Bristol better understand how volcanoes work. The more we learn, the safer we’ll be – especially the next time Iceland’s largest volcano, Eyjafjallajökull, erupts, sending a giant ash cloud across northern Europe.

Professor Katharine Cashman, AXA Research Chair and Professor of Volcanology, explains: ‘We want to develop better scientific methods for predicting how volcanic plumes behave – to benefit local communities who live near volcanoes, and help airlines know if it’s safe to fly.’

Professor Cashman’s team are studying the movement of air – similar to volcanic gases – as it passes through golden syrup and other liquids. These experiments help them identify what causes gas loss (a less explosive eruption) or gas build-up (a more explosive eruption), and better understand the physical characteristics of a volcanic ash cloud. They are also studying samples of Icelandic volcanic ash to learn more about the size, shape and texture of ash particles, and how these characteristics might affect ash cloud dispersal.

Thanks to a seven-figure grant, Professor Cashman’s research has strengthened Bristol’s position as one of the leading volcanology research groups in the world.

Earlier this year, another member of the group, Professor Stephen Sparks, won the 2015 Vetlesen Prize (the ‘Nobel Prize of the earth sciences’) for his work in improving our ability to forecast deadly volcanic eruptions.

So the next time Eyjafjallajökull erupts, and the Civil Aviation Authority decides it is safe for planes to fly, rest assured it has made that decision based on quality research done right here at Bristol.

Testing the waters

As home to one of the biggest concentrations of water researchers in the UK, Bristol’s expertise in flood risk is plain. And thanks to philanthropic support, we are able to put this knowledge to work not just in the UK, but in vulnerable areas all around the world.

Dr Dai Yamazaki is a hydrologist whose fellowship at the Cabot Institute was funded, in part, through donations to the Centenary Campaign. By processing satellite measurements of rivers and floodplains, Dr Yamazaki was able to create realistic simulations to help identify areas prone to flooding in different climate change scenarios.

Philanthropy has also helped Professor Paul Bates build a comprehensive picture of how water behaves in the Amazon floodplain, from the geometry of its flow paths to the chemical make-up of its run-off. By examining a river this size, Professor Bates and his team hope to get even closer to fully understanding the global water cycle.

Building resilience

Conversations about climate change often focus on developed countries and low-carbon solutions. But for small island states in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans, like St Lucia or Fiji, rising sea levels and extreme weather are already a reality.

PhD student, Terra Sprague (MEd 2008, PhD 2014-), is exploring how these communities are coping with these changes by talking to climate change experts, community leaders and schoolchildren in these three regions.

‘We have much to learn from their collective experience,’ explains Terra. ‘Their insight (largely absent from international literature) will provide researchers and policymakers with powerful real-life examples. One of my objectives is to consider ways these can be introduced to the wider international development community.’

Terra’s PhD is collectively funded by alumni donations to the Centenary Campaign. ‘Being an alumna myself, receiving this funding is particularly meaningful – it makes me especially proud to be part of the Bristol community. The support I’ve received has allowed me to address my research at pace, and work with people across the globe. Thank you.’