Geography: Current Research
Geography is an extraordinarily rich and diverse discipline that brings together the physical and human dimensions of our world, shedding light - through a unique combination of mathematicians, physical scientists, life scientists, social scientists and humanities scholars - on some of the most important challenges facing society. Bristol's School of Geographical Sciences is a major international centre for the development and delivery of geographical research and scholarship, the only Geography department in the country to come in the top category across every RAE that has been undertaken since 1986.
Building on Bristol’s long standing reputation for theoretical and methodological innovation, human geographers are moving into new areas such as geographies of knowledge and political economic geographies, and providing evidence for important policy impacts in finance, elections and health. Physical geographers lead research in Earth system science, producing new environmental data and novel numerical models for academic and applied contexts, and deploying expertise in evaluating models using large-scale datasets.
1 Flood Risk and Uncertainty in Prediction (Professor P D Bates)
In the UK alone, more than 5 million people in 2 million properties are at risk from flooding. Of these, over 200,000 homes do not have a minimum standard of protection, and flooding costs approximately £1 billion every year. Flood risks are even greater in the developing world: in 2004, according to UNESCO, global flooding caused 7000 deaths, affected 116 million people and led to at least $7.5 billion in damages.
However, despite the threat, our knowledge of where and what is at risk is still highly uncertain, severely constraining our ability to make the necessary multi-billion pound investment decisions. For example, the UK has limited long time series data to assess how flood risk has, and is, changing, and lacks reliable observations of flooding with which to build and test predictive models. Assessments of future flood risk are highly problematic as current global and regional climate models do not accurately predict rainfall.
These significant problems require input from scientists, engineers, social scientist and lawyers. Bristol's researchers are addressing these challenges through a variety of ground-breaking studies, including the development of new computationally efficient flood prediction models to simulate flood patterns in exceptional detail; new ways to use data from laser and radar systems on board ground vehicles, aircraft and satellites to map terrain and flooding patterns; new techniques to analyse the uncertainty in flood predictions. Researchers are also working with climate scientists to understand and reduce errors in the prediction of future rainfall, and with engineers and social scientists to develop these insights into solutions that can be used by governments and the insurance industry.
Airborne laser survey of urban terrain at 50cm resolution for flood prediction studies being used in a collaborative project between the University of Bristol and the Environment Agency (image copyright Geomatics Group, The Environment Agency of England and Wales).
High resolution computer model of flooding at the above site using experimental software developed in the School of Geographical Sciences.
Oceans cover 70% of Earth’s surface, supporting vast biodiversity and providing major food resources for humankind. Since the industrial revolution, the oceans have restricted the extent of global warming by taking up approximately half of the carbon dioxide (CO2) released from fossil fuel burning and cement manufacture. But the oceans pay a price for helping remove CO2 from the atmosphere. CO2 forms carbonic acid when dissolved in seawater, increasing the ambient acidity (lowering pH) of surface waters globally in a phenomenon known as ‘ocean acidification’. Ocean acidification stresses and even endangers some marine organisms, particularly those making shells and skeletons out of calcium carbonate (the material of chalk and limestone rocks).
The animation models the stability of one type of calcium carbonate in the ocean. The dark blue are unstable regions due to ocean acidification. The calculation used actual CO2 from 1750 to present, and then a standard IPCC “business as usual” type scenario into the future. In 1750, almost the whole ocean is stable. However, by 2150, all areas of the ocean are blue, and coral and sea butterflies, among other things, will dissolve in an ocean 1pH unit more acidic and become extinct. Scientifically, this is a much more confident prediction than the climate change in 2100 and is largely independent of it. However, what is much less certain is the impact of the death of corals and some plankton will have on the ocean ecosystem.
A team of researchers from Geographical Sciences, Earth Sciences, Biological Sciences and Chemistry are pioneering research into the potential implications of ocean acidification for marine life and hence for natural resources. The research ranges from the development of complex models of the global carbon cycle to predict the extent and spatial and seasonal patterns of ocean acidification, to understanding potential impacts on individual organisms and ecosystems. Because of the difficulties in predicting future biological changes, particularly at the ecosystem level, the team is employing an innovative approach using past ocean-acidification-like events to help better understand the future. By looking into the geological record as far back as the dinosaurs to reconstruct the ancient biotic and environmental changes, this provides a benchmark against which to compare predicted future ocean acidification. Closer to home in time, Bristol scientists are also intensively engaged in reconstructing historical changes as recorded in corals and the calcareous shells deposited in muds of in deep sea, and answering the question: ‘Has ocean acidification already affected marine organisms?’.
Sea Butterfly Pillar Coral
The animation shows a measure of the stability of a type of calcium carbonate in the ocean. Areas which are dark blue indicate regions where it becomes unstable due to the acidification of the ocean. The calculation used actual CO2 from 1750 to present, and then a standard IPCC “business as usual” type scenario into the future. In 1750, almost the whole ocean is stable. However, by 2150 all areas of the ocean are blue and things such as coral (right) and the sea butterfly (left) will not survive. They will effectively dissolve in an ocean (that will be a 1pH unit more acidic) and become extinct. This is scientifically a much more confident prediction than the climate change at 2100 (and is largely independent of it). However, what is much less certain is the impact of the death of corals and some plankton will impact on the ocean ecosystem.
3 The Hands of Time: Shaping the Day (Dr P D Glennie)
Dr. Paul Glennie investigates the history of timekeeping and its influence on us all. With co-author Nigel Thrift, Glennie recently published a book called Shaping the Day: A History of Timekeeping in England and Wales 1300-1800, a ground-breaking study of the practice of timekeeping in England and Wales. Timekeeping is an essential activity in the modern world; we take for granted that our lives are shaped by the hours of the day. Yet what seems so ordinary is actually the extraordinary outcome of centuries of technical innovation and circulation of ideas about time. Drawing on many unique historical sources - from personal diaries to housekeeping manuals - the book illustrates how a particular kind of common sense about time came into being, and how it developed during this period.
Traditionally it had been argued that the industrial revolution in the late 18th century ushered in a new sense of timeliness into our lives. However, research has shown that “clock-time” has been part of everyday life far longer than many historians have admitted. Mechanical clocks appeared in 1270 and started influencing village life well before the 17th century, when an explosion in clock and watch ownership - the so-called “horological revolution” - changed our perception of time for ever. The remorseless ticking of those treasured timepieces transformed the way we worked, ushering in a new era of rigorous time-discipline.