The 50th Anniversary of the Organic Geochemistry Gordon Research Conference

In 1970, some of the world’s leading research held the first Organic Geochemistry GRC.  It was not the first organic geochemistry conference, and our field traces its origins to some 20 years earlier – when Alfred Treibs showed the structural link between biologically produced chlorophylls and hemes and their diagenetic products in rocks and oils.  In doing so, he showed that organic matter in the sedimentary record was nearly entirely of original biological origin – albeit significantly altered by diagenetic and catagenetic processes.  This then was the platform for a diverse discipline that explored topics ranging from the exploration of life on the moon and other planets, the fingerprinting and discovery of fossil fuel deposits (as well as the fingerprinting of fossil fuel contamination), the probing of critical Earth system processes, and the reconstruction of the past – in historical and archaeological contexts to recent climates to deep time and even the early history of life.

I was fortunate to be chosen by my colleagues to chair the 2020 Organic Geochemistry GRC which would have marked its 50th Anniversary.  We had a fantastic lineup of speakers – from diverse backgrounds, international, and with interests ranging from the origins of biosynthesis to the fate of organic matter in polar regions to the structure of membranes (many of the best biomarker tracers for past climates are membrane lipids). Unfortunately, that was cancelled due to Covid.

 

 

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The original 1970 GRC Attendees.
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A larger and much more diverse cohort in 2018. And full of wonderful colleagues spanning several generations of organic geochemistry. But like all of the geosciences, our discipline still has some work to do to be truly racially and ethnically diverse.

Instead we marked it virtually, sharing photos and memories.  This fantastic figure by Keith Kvenvolden captures the origins of the GRC, its attendees and themes.  It has changed in many ways but the seeds of everything we do now – the discovery of new biological and geological materials, the centrality of analytical innovation, the ambition to look at *anything* – were already present.

 

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For the past 20 years or so, the Organic Geochemistry GRC has been hosted at Holderness School in New Hampshire.  We miss you.  But Roger Summons was passing through and took some photos…. we are there in spirit.

 

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And some pictures from the past.  They would not be complete without table football! Who are these fierce competitors.  And where are their shoes?

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And some photos courtesy of Roger!

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Also courtesy of Roger is a photo of the iconic Thursday night lobster dinner.

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Cait Witkowski shared this great photo of the NIOZ group (past and present)

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And others shared photos of meeting up (socially distanced) in other ways!

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Flo and Nadine are evidently still working on that asphate seep paper from Nadine’s masters research!

One of the key events at the GRC is the awarding of the Treibs Medal (by the Organic Geochemistry Division of the Geochemical Society). This year, the very worthy winner is my friend and colleague Kai-Uwe Hinrichs of MARUM. Congratulations, Kai. It is hard to imagine a more deserving winner.

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Kai’s research group (and one visitor!)

Last year’s winner was Sylvie DeRenne (awarded at IMOG in 2019) and the previous GRC Awardee was Stefan Schouten.  Here is a history of Dutch diagenesis that… I guess led to his formation?

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Previous recent winners include Kate Freeman, Marilyn Fogel and Pat Hatcher. But of course Steve Larter had to mark his award with a song… which he forced all of the 2014 Scientific Committee to sing.  I reluctantly share this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rv-dLT2qAPE&feature=youtu.be

Also announced during our virtual GRC: Three members of the MIT Group started an organic geochemistry podcast!  Great initiative by @FatimagulHusain@angelshale, and @wizardofdrozd You can check it out here!

And of course, Gordon Inglis also hosted the second Biomarker World Cup on Twitter – a chance to learn about biomarkers and banter!  The brackets and results are below… and if you follow some of the links, you will be able to learn about these amazing compounds.  And if you follow this link to the twitter thread, you can see the extensive associated banter (including reversals, betrayals, friendships torn asunder)!

From Gordon: To celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the first Organic Geochemistry Gordon Research Conference (GRC), the ‘Biomarker World Cup’ has returned for its 2nd edition! It will feature 16 biomarkers and conclude this weekend. Who will win? Only you can decide!! #50YrsOrgGeochemGRC

Group A, Team 1: 𝘯-alkanes. Veteran biomarkers and reigning champions. Derived from epicuticular wax of terrestrial plants, they are nature’s ultimate waterproofing. Insights into vegetation, C3 vs C4 photosynthesis, rainfall and diagenesis (). Versatile. (tinyurl.com/y2k6ujw3)

Group A, Team 2: Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs). Volatile compounds produced by the incomplete combustion of organics. Usually interpreted to indicate changes in fire occurrence (e.g. Karp et al., 2018; ). Inferno. (tinyurl.com/yxdfgexm)

Group A, Team 3: Ladderanes. Made their debut at the GRC in 2002. Geoff Eglinton took Jan de Leeuw aside and asked if they were a joke (!). Biomarkers for anaerobic ammonium-oxidizing bacteria (e.g. ). Modern Art. (tinyurl.com/y6kj4nqe)

Group A, Team 4: 2,6,15,19-tetramethylicosane (TMI). Perhaps the “…rarest biomarker in the world” (@rpancost, pers. comm). Archaeal origin. An acyclic isoprenoid only found during mid-Cretaceous Oceanic Anoxic Events (e.g. OEA1b; ). Underdogs. (tinyurl.com/yxvu7mk2)

Vote now for the winner of Group A! Only one team will qualify to the semi-finals.

This was contentious with the upstart Ladderanes challenging the iconic n-alkanes. It prompted some discussion on Twitter:

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Wow! The holders (n-alkanes) are knocked out in the first round! Absolute scenes. Instead, the world’s weirdest biomarker (ladderanes) progress to the semi-final. Who will join them? Vote now!! #50YrsOrgGeochemGRC

Group B, Team 1: Crenarchaeol. A funky molecule with a unique structure. Specific to the phylum Thaumarchaeota. Not good enough for TEX86, but a rising star in the paleobarometry community (see @sarahjhurley et al; ). Fluid. (tinyurl.com/y2aqtnsq)

Group B, Team 2: Alkenones. Sea surface temperature proxy. CO₂ proxy. Algal productivity proxy. Salinity proxy (e.g. Gabriella Weiss et al ). Is there anything it can’t do!? Discovered in the late 1970s, but still going strong. Legendary. (tinyurl.com/y3guugju)

Group B, Team 3: long-chain diols. Another oldie, originally discovered in the early 1980s. Multiple sources (diatoms, algae) but new interest as a proxy for input of riverine organic matter (e.g. Julie Lattaud et al., ). Potential. (tinyurl.com/y35azv2b)

Group B, Team 4: 3-methylhopanoids. Once attributed to aerobic methanotrophs. Used to study Neoarchean aerobiosis, but can be produced by other bacteria. Methylation may aide survival under nutrient limited conditions (@PaulaWelander & Summons; ). Diverse. (tinyurl.com/y5e443rn)

Vote now! Only one team will progress!! #50YrsOrgGeochemGRC

A game of two halves. After leading for 12 hours, alkenones faded away in the second half. They will be really disappointed with that performance. Congratulations to crenarchaeol who progress to the semi finals. Next up: Group C!

Group C, Team 1: branched GDGTs. Who produces them? Who cares! First discovered in a Dutch peat, now found just about anywhere. Can help distinguish OM sources. Routinely employed as continental temperature and pH proxies (). Rising star. (tinyurl.com/y5d88lxp)

Group C, Team 2: 24-isopropylcholestane. Unusual molecule found in Precambrian rocks (~650 to 540 Ma). Perhaps the oldest evidence for complex animal life () but may also be produced by unicellular organisms. (). Controversial. (pnas.org/content/113/10…) (tinyurl.com/y6lurj45)

Group C, Team 3: Porphyrins. Discovered and described by Alfred Treibs (“the father of organic geochemistry”) in 1936. Derived from chlorophylls and helped to confirm the biological origin of petroleum. Now used to provide insights into N-cycling (e.g. ). (tinyurl.com/y3ndaope)

Group C, Team 4: Highly branched isoprenoids. Notable for the distinctive “T-branch” in their carbon skeleton. Used to explore the rise of diatoms during the Phanerozoic (e.g. ). Also a useful sea ice proxy. Utility. (tinyurl.com/y35ugl4y) Vote now! Only one team will progress!! #50YrsOrgGeochemGRC

Porphyrins were a formidable force back in the 1980’s. However, they seem to have lost their enchantment as well as supremacy. The golden era is over. Instead, branched GDGTs progress! Now onto Group D

Group D, Team 1: Isorenieratane. Light-harvesting pigment derived from photosynthetic green sulphur bacteria. These bugs like sunshine and hydrogen sulfide but hate oxygen. Regarded as key evidence for euxinia in the geological record (). Indicative. (tinyurl.com/y39n59la)

Group D, Team 2: Phytane. Diagenetic product of chlorophyll (…but other sources likely). Easy to measure using gas chromatography. Pristane/phytane often used as redox indicator. Renewed promise in recent years as a paleo-CO2 proxy (). Revitalised. (tinyurl.com/yye8ysaz)

Group D, Team 3: Archaeol. Abundant in methane-rich settings. Ridiculously low carbon isotope values (-100 per mil) provided early evidence for the involvement of archaea in anaerobic oxidation of methane ( & ). Extreme. (tinyurl.com/yytmrtlf) (tinyurl.com/y2f9fz5g)

Group D, Team 4: Heterocyst Glycolipids. Biomarkers for nitrogen-fixing cyanobacteria (…move aside 2-methylhopanoids!). Remarkably well preserved in ancient sediments and can provide unique insights into microbial ecology (). Potential. (tinyurl.com/y28mjsje) Vote now! Only one team will progress!! #50YrsOrgGeochemGRC

That was the closest race I have EVER seen. Nailbiting. Congratulations to phytane! Now onto the semi-finals

Semi Final 1: Ladderanes vs branched GDGTs. Do you prefer cyclobutane or cyclopentane rings? Only YOU can decide! #50YrsOrgGeochemGRC

Branched GDGTs win!

Semi-final 2: Crenarchaeol vs phytane. Liquid chromatography vs gas chromatography. The winner will face brGDGTs in the final. You have 24 hours to decide!! #50YrsOrgGeochemGRC

Its been a long season for phytane and they looked increasingly fatigued as the game wore on. Crenarchaeol, with its superior mass-to-charge ratio, took full advantage. A big win for the big molecule. Now onto the long-awaited final

The final: branched GDGTs vs Crenarchaeol. Bacteria vs Archaea. Terrestrial vs Marine. It’s the ‘Battle of the GDGTs’. Who will win? You have 48 hours (!) to decide! #50YrsOrgGeochemGRC

It is all over! Crenarchaeol win the 2020 Biomarker World Cup. A deserved victory. Branched GDGTs are runners-up for the second World Cup in a row. Ouch!

Thanks to everyone who participated over the last week. It was a blast! #50YrsOrgGeochemGRC @rpancost

Congratulations to crenarchaeol but also to Laura Villanueva who clearly went all out for the cause, appealing to marine deities (and the entire Archaea research community) to support the cause.  Image

 

My Dad

My Dad died three weeks ago.

I am not comfortable about sharing this. I share a lot in this blog and hold little back about my beliefs and politics, but I hide more than it seems. I always have.

But Covid prevented me from saying goodbye to Dad. It is preventing me from going home. It is preventing our family from mourning him together. I miss all of them. So I wanted to write some thoughts down, to put them somewhere they will not be alone and where they will wait until I can say them out loud.

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Dad and my Brother Ed, sharing their goofy and mischievous grins.

I miss him so much.  I remember riding around the country roads and farm fields with him; he had made these small metal-framed chairs for my brother and me and welded them onto the side of the tractor wheel basins. I remember him telling me last year, on the porch swing, to look after Mom the way Mom had looked after him.  I remember him trying to understand my concerns about a foster girl we wanted to adopt – concerns I could not articulate as a 10-year old. I remember him picking me and my girlfriend up and driving us home after I had totaled the family car. I remember him taking me to college exams and interviews, and picking me up after School.  I remember the way he bantered with every waitress, every check-out worker, sometimes crossing the line but never indifferent to anyone, ever. I remember him holding my hand and telling me that Shelli had died.

Dad and I disagreed on a lot of things.  Most things politically.  Many things that I value.  But Dad (and Mom) also taught me my values and my strengths; they helped me become who I am.

Probably the most important thing he taught me was ‘Do not put up with anyone’s bullshit.’  In 1976, he decided that he had enough of working for someone else, at the local factory. So he quit to work for himself.  Our family – the four of us – started a dairy farm.  There is a lot that I could write about working on the farm: carrying the pails back and forth as he milked the cows; stacking hay in the loft, straw slivers sticking to your skin or in your arm, temperatures near the loft ceiling shooting past 100F, wasps buzzing around your head; his shovel scraping my hands in the freezing cold as we filled burlap bags with corn to be taken to the mill; riding in the back of the pick-up truck on the way back from town, soft-serve ice cream whipping away from me in the wind.

I loved parts of it and hated others. I loved the smells – of fresh-cut hay and fresh-ground corn – and I hated the rattling, abrasive noise of the farm equipment.  I loved being with my family nearly every day; even when I claimed that I did not.  But it was not an easy life and it was not a lucrative life – and although that was frustrating, we did not care most days.  Because we worked for ourselves – and although we had to answer the diurnal demands of the cows, the demands of mortgages and loans, the demands of floods and drought, we did not answer to a boss.

Dad, Mom, my brother and I all took different lessons from that life – we all recognised that you could never escape other people’s ‘bullshit’ entirely.  Banks replaced bosses. Dad ultimately embraced a libertarian view while I adopted a socialist one.  And so even though we differed in our beliefs, they sprung from the same outrage against perceived unfairness and stupidity.

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Some Family Photos. On the right are my Mom and Dad in their wedding photo.

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But choices have consequences.  And one of the main consequences of being a rural Ohio dairy farmer was being poor.  Rural poverty, especially when you are a farmer, is an unusual thing. We had land to run about in, room to roam and play; my brother and I hunted frogs and salamanders in our creek, fished in local ponds, and built dams and forts.  We always had food in the freezer or the cellar, beef from the farm and vegetables from the garden.  We did not feel poor in many ways. But we did not have money.  We often did not have new clothes, except as hand-me-downs or ill-fitting gifts. We did not have the cool toys. For a while, we did not have hot water.  Some dental appointments were cancelled. Bills and uncertain weather and farm accidents loomed over us – and occasionally crashed into our lives and reminded us how precarious and precious they were.

But we had ambition and dreams; and Mom and Dad never let their own plans inhibit those of my Brother and me.

They supported us in every possible way.  There seemed to be a contract between them, that no matter what choices they made, we would have every opportunity in the world.

I always loved science.  I had a little blue travel suitcase that was packed full of my science books, mostly astronomy and planetary science, that I took everywhere. The 1980 version of the Larousse Guide to Astronomy was read to tatters. Somehow Mom found me the National Geographic issues associated with the Voyager expeditions and they got me a subscription to Astronomy magazine long before I could understand most of the articles.

But Dad was the first person who helped me how to do science, how to do an experiment. In 7th grade, as I prepared for the Science Fair, he suggested that I think about some recent work on incubating cow manure as a source of energy for rural communities. That’s right – my Dad introduced me to methanogenesis, biogeochemistry and renewable energy… in 1983. He helped me think about how we might test it, and he took me to the Chemistry Department of the local Hiram College to borrow the lab glassware we would need. He always had a knack for rigging things together, and he helped me connect the tubes and balloon reservoirs to our vat of heated manure and a valve that allowed us to burn the methane as evidence of its production. I won 3rd place in the county Science Fair for the project: Methane From Manure – Is it for You?

Dad shares the prize, but shares no blame for the title.

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13-year old Richie and his 7th Grade Science Project, co-created with my Dad. Note the vat of manure and the balloons of methane.

I got good grades throughout School – College was always on the cards.  Mom had to push me pretty hard in elementary School, but by the time of Middle School I had developed a rather strong internalised sense of ambition; my parents nurtured and supported that. In particular, they supported my desire to attend a private and elite High School, which we had been led to believe was key to getting into a top college. The School recruited us and wooed us; and when I got admitted, they told us that there was no prospect for financial aid. I was crushed. So instead, Dad fought for me to have a fast-track High School experience, to compensate for this setback by graduating from High School a year early.  Ultimately, I opted for the experience of the full four years of High School and I sure as hell do not regret missing out on the private High School. But I remember my Dad arguing with admissions directors and guidance counselors on my behalf, fighting for his son to have every opportunity.

I think my strongest memories are of him driving me to Forensics tournaments nearly every Saturday morning for four years, all though the winter, in every weather, weekend after weekend, and already after he had milked the herd. My parents had a simple rule for my brother and me when it came to extracurricular activity: they did not care what we did – sports, band, choir, debate, science clubs – but we had to do something. I think they viewed it as essential for our character, to do something real, something neither from the farm nor from the classroom.

I joined the Forensics (Speech) Team.  And I was good at it, making it the State championships a few times.  The tournaments were every Saturday during the School year and all over NorthEast Ohio. After milking the cows, Dad would drive me to the High School by 8am, so I could catch the Team school bus to wherever the tournament was being hosted.  Through the winter dark, he always drove me.  And through god knows how many blizzards – lake effect blizzards – at those early hours before the snow plows and salt trucks had emerged.

I remember one morning when the snow had fallen so hard, I was sure he would say we could not go.  He did not, and like every other Saturday we headed off at 7:30 am, him fresh from the barn and me wearing my suit. The roads were treacherous with compacted snow. And as we carefully inched down State Route 82 towards Derthick’s Hill, a not unimpressive hill for NE Ohio and so-named because of the owners of the farm at its summit, we saw red lights twisting and turning towards us, the brake lights of cars sliding, out of control down the impassable hill. Some into ditches and some towards us. He turned to me and asked, ‘How important is this tournament?’ And I said that it was really important.  And so he turned down a snow-packed country side road and drove the back way, over uneven and twisting ice-packed gravel and dirt roads and through blizzard-occluded views, until we finally reached the High School and the waiting bus.

I don’t remember a thing about that tournament; all I remember is that my Dad got me there.

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This is one of our family’s favourite photos. Dad and me on Boomer and Ed and Mom on Fancy, after a long ride to our friend’s home.

Not all memories are good. They never can be; nor should they be.  And failing to remember the disagreements or the really tough financial times makes a lie out of remembering the many good times. But I can honestly say that not once in my life have I ever doubted that my parents had my best interests at heart, that even when they did not entirely understand my dreams or decisions, they supported them. They loved the family life we shared on the farm, but we all understood that would end after I started College and my brother followed two years later. They never thought I would move so far, across an Ocean, but they did know I would move away.

These were different choices than they had made. My Dad joined the Army out of School instead of college. But I never would have gone to college nor completed it without him. I never would have gotten my PhD. I dedicated my PhD to both Mom and Dad and gave Dad the only copy of my Thesis I ever printed, which remains unbound in his closet.

Years later, I found myself in a submersible exploring the mud volcanoes and brine lakes of the Mediterranean seafloor, searching for methane seeps and the organisms associated with them. I was so far away from the farm and yet so close; we were exploring the landscape like my brother and I had explored the forgotten corners of our farm, and we were looking for some of the same organisms that I had studied with my Dad in that 7th grade Science Project.

Then and now, I think of Dad and am grateful to him.  For the sacrifices he made, the lessons he taught me and the opportunities he gave me.  I love him and I miss him.  But he has always been with me and he always will be.

 

Actions To Improve Racial Diversity, Equity And Inclusion In Our School

Actions To Improve Racial Diversity, Equity And Inclusion In Our School

Prepared by the School of Earth Sciences Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Committee (NOTE: This version has not been finalised. Consultation with the wider School and Faculty EDI Committee will be done before this is finalised).

Summary

This document was prepared at the request of staff and students to provide resources to help them build a more racially diverse, equitable and inclusive School. As such, it comprises three sections: an introduction; a list of Actions that individuals can take, including references and resources; and a summary of the University and School Action Plan, showing what actions the School is taking. The first two pages are a summary of the more exhaustive information provided on pages 3-11.

Introduction: We all have a role but our roles will differ.  We all share obligations to understand our society, our privilege, the sector that employs us, and our university policies; and we all have an obligation to create a respectful, inclusive and equitable workplace and learning environment. But we recognise that those of us in formal and informal leadership roles have different capacity to create positive change.  The introduction also summarises the key resources we drew upon to create the Action List, including a University racial equality ppt presentation: file:///C:/Users/cordp/Downloads/NV%20U.Bristol%20Nov%202019.pdf

Summary: Twelve Actions that Each of Us Can Take:

1) Understand that there is a problem, the depths of that problem and how it manifests in your life and career. Action is motivated by understanding racism and accepting our presence in a racist society. Useful resources include White Privilege: The Myth of a Post-Racial Society.  And discipline specific resources include the following Nature Geoscience articles: No Progress on Diversity in 40 years and Race and Racism in the Geosciences

2) Educate ourselves about the social, historical, political contexts that contribute to these inequities. It is vital to understand the historical roots of racism, how it manifests today and the role of science in perpetuating it.  Some recommended books include:

Renni Eddo-Lodge – Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race – available to read electronically through UoB Library Services: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/library/find/

Angela Saini – Superior, The Return of Race Science

3) Do not expect marginalised groups to do your work for you. We recognise the inequities of society and academia. In doing so, we also recognise that it is profoundly inappropriate to ask them to invest even more labour or revisit their trauma to educate the rest of us.

4) Do platform the voices of marginalised groups. Although we must not create labour for our colleagues, we want to create opportunity, to profile and to give voice. We can invite them to our seminars, advocate for their inclusion in scientific programmes and nominate them for awards.

5) Do not “All Lives Matter” your conversations. There are multiple marginalised groups and most of us come from one or more of them – gender, racial, ethnic and religious minorities, differently abled, neurodivergent, LGBTQ+, working class, indigenous groups and more. This school recognises all of these, celebrates all of our staff, students, alumni and collaborators no matter what their background, privileged or not. But the time and place for discussing different forms of marginalisation requires care and understanding. It requires that we recognise the context and situation: when a house is on fire, that is not the time to say, “All Houses Matter.”

6) Do not intellectualise someone’s trauma. We are scientists.  We like to argue and debate. But there is a time and place for debate and a time for empathy, understanding and support.

7) We make mistakes; learn from them. We will make mistakes, mispronouncing someone’s name or making inappropriate assumptions about culture. We must not be complacent about such mistakes, and we must strive to improve. Crucially, our mistakes are not an excuse to disengage because we are anxious, thereby creating new forms of marginalisation.

8) When challenged, be reflective not defensive. If we have created the environment that we want in our School, marginalised colleagues will feel safe in calling us out on those. When that happens we aspire to be reflective rather than defensive; thoughtful rather than dismissive or argumentative.

9) Understand White Privilege. Understanding how to tackle racism requires an understanding of how white people have benefited from it. Crucially, in the competitive and challenging environment of academia, acknowledging privilege can feel like it detracts from our achievements. It does not. But it does help us recognise what has been taken away from others.

10) Be a vocal supporter and advocate for anti-racism in our organisations.  There are many ways to be visible – in the Common Room, on social media, in seminars. Be a good ally https://guidetoallyship.com/; be an active bystander https://www.ihollaback.org/bystander-resources/; be an advocate for change in our discipline.

11) Do something. Anything. Try. Learn. Improve. Try again.  Start a journal club; focus your outreach on marginalised schools; suggest more speakers for our seminar series.

12) Be in it for the long haul. Black colleagues around the world are happy to see expressions of solidarity from individuals and organisations but are rightfully concerned that the commitment to act is superficial or will fade with time. Commit now and revisit your commitments in the future.

University and School Actions: Although this document focuses on the actions we can all take, we recognise that it is ultimately the legal and ethical responsibility of the institution to ensure that our School is a diverse and equitable place to learn and work.  We have included a partial list of the actions the University and School are taking in the second part of this document but summaries of these can be found on the University and School EDI websites.

 

 

 

We All Have A Role but Our Roles Will Differ

We all share obligations to understand our society, our privilege, the sector that employs us, and our university policies; and we all have an obligation to create a respectful, inclusive and equitable workplace and learning environment.

However, our legal responsibilities, influence and visibility will vary, such that our potential – and tools – for affecting change will also vary. Those of us with formal roles, such as the EDI Director, Head of School or Institutional Representatives, have the capacity to advocate for structural change in laws, systems and policies that promote or reinforce inequalities in the University. All of us who serve in formal roles in the School have obligations to embed EDI principles into our delivery of those roles. Colleagues involved with UK or international geoscience organisations or members of esteemed societies will have power to influence these institutions to take a more active role, thereby strengthening our discipline.  Some of us do not have formal roles, but still have leadership obligations arising in informal ways, including from our profile and visibility in the School or our discipline.  All of us can lead by example, amongst our peers and friends, in the School and in wider society.

Crucially, all of us have the capacity to improve our School for racially marginalised groups, to help create a more equitable working and learning environment and ultimately a more diverse community.

This document collates principles and advice to help us, adapted from a number of resources, including the following:

For those keen to further explore the topic beyond the geosciences and STEM links below, a compilation of UoB academic research on racism and anti-racism is available on the Univeristy EDI webpage. The BAME Staff Network have produced a statement in relation to Black Lives Matter which has more information and resources for staff.

Notes:  This document was completed during the global protests in support of Black Lives Matter.  Many of the resources below, however, are broader.  Some focus specifically on the experience of black people; others on broader groups of racially, ethnically and religiously marginalised groups.  They draw on international resources, referring therefore to BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic), BME (Black and Minority Ethnic), VME (Visible Minority Ethnic), POC and WOC (People of Colour and Women of Colour) and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour). These terms are more or less appropriate in different contexts, but it is critical to note that each of them conflates a great variety of marginalised groups, each with disparate histories, experiences and forms of marginalisation.  As such, we recognise the limitations of their use.  Further commentary on the sometimes problematic conflation of different marginalised groups is in this essay by a colleague in the School of Law: https://folukeafrica.com/the-only-acceptable-part-of-bame-is-the-and/

Actions That Each of Us Can Take

1) Understand that there is a problem, the depths of that problem and how it manifests in your life and career. Action is motivated by understanding racism and accepting your presence in a racist society. A powerful book on this topic is: White Privilege: The Myth of a Post-Racial Society, written by Kalwant Bhopal and published by Bristol Policy Press – https://policy.bristoluniversitypress.co.uk/white-privilege

It is not enough to have a superficial understanding, our motivation fuelled solely by events deemed newsworthy or that provoke outrage.  The violence by police against black people or the shockingly higher Covid-19 fatality rates among some BAME populations are terrible and therefore catalysts to act. But a focus on only those can obscure the fact that they are only the most shocking and appalling examples of racism in our society, much of it invisible to those with privilege.

The racism and marginalisation that permeates society includes the Earth Sciences and academia.  Not a single permanent member of academic staff in our School is Black or Minority Ethnic, a pervasive issue in the Earth Sciences discipline:

No Progress on Diversity in 40 years https://www.nature.com/articles/s41561-018-0116-6?proof=trueMay

Race and Racism in the Geosciences https://www.nature.com/articles/s41561-019-0519-z?proof=trueMay

Those both explore the issue using USA data and perspectives. The situation is no better in the UK or Europe, but comparable studies cannot be done because the data have not been rigorously collected and the data we do have has not been made public.  More recent UK trends were explored in a Leading Routes study which revealed that from 2017 to 2019, of 19,868 PhD funded studentships awarded by UKRI research councils collectively, only 245 were awarded to Black or Black Mixed students, with just 30 of those being from Black Caribbean backgrounds.  https://leadingroutes.org/mdocs-posts/the-broken-pipeline-barriers-to-black-students-accessing-research-council-funding

Some of us have asked NERC if we can explore this further, via discipline centric data, and we cannot.  There are so few NERC-funded Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) students that they cannot disclose numbers without violating privacy data. However, HESA data reveal that only 10% of geology undergrads are from a BAME background and just 2% of geology undergrads are Black. There are no published data, but these numbers will drop at PhD, postdoc, and faculty level; an unofficial survey by Tanvir Hussain reveals that of current PhD students (June 2020), only 1% of NERC students are BAME and 0% of STFC students. There are two Black geology professor in the UK.

We must accept that this is a problem – not just in society but academia, in science, in the geosciences, in our School. We must accept that it is in part a consequence of our own action and inaction, that we have not sufficiently appealed to diverse society to join our discipline nor created an environment that welcomes those who do. We must accept our responsibility to act. Finally, to our BAME students and colleagues we commit to changing this in our own School and our discipline through advocacy and via our privileged roles in, i.e. NERC, the Royal Society, GSL and other organisations.

2) Educate ourselves about the social, historical, political contexts that contribute to these inequities. It is vital to understand the historical roots of racism, how it manifests today and the role of science in perpetuating it.  This is a great reading list provided by Leanne Melbourne:

Renni Eddo-Lodge – Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race. This is a really detailed discussion on white privilege and structural racism. It is also available to read electronically through UoB Library Services: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/library/find/

Akala- Natives – Akala uses his experiences to discuss the structural systems in place today

Angela Saini – Superior, The Return of Race Science – This is an excellent book which talks about how science has been used to fuel racist motives.  (Saini also wrote the excellent Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong – and the New Research that’s Rewriting the Story).

Adam Rutherford – How to Argue With A Racist – A similar topic to Angela Saini’s but not as detailed.

David Olusoga – Black and British: A Forgotten History – This book is a large one but covers a lot of black history in Britain (and by someone with a strong connection to Bristol)

Yomi Adegoke and Elizabeth Uviebinene – Slay in Your Lane (The Black Girl Bible) – This book gives an excellent insight into what it is like to be a Black woman in the UK

Candice Braithwaite – I Am Not Your Baby Mother – Black women are five times more likely to die in childbirth die as a result of complications in pregnancy than white women in the UK. Candice’s book discusses this and also more about being a black mother in the UK.

Colin Grant – Homecoming: Voices of the Windrush Generation – Different stories from the Windrush generation told in their own voices

There also many excellent documentaries.  They will not offer the forensic examination and critical advice that the books above do but they do help understand the black experience, both historical and contemporary: https://www.standard.co.uk/stayingin/tvfilm/netflix-uk-movies-shows-documentaries-racism-a4459721.html?amp

Our colleague Foluke Ifejola Adebisi in the School of Law has written this powerful summary of the history of slavery in the city of Bristol and how it is embedded in the financing of our University and still expressed in the names of our buildings and our logo: https://folukeafrica.com/decolonising-the-university-of-bristol/

Beyond the inequities in academia and society, the Earth Sciences has its own problematic history. An extensive reading list on the colonial history of geology can be found here: http://mineralogy.digital.brynmawr.edu/blog/geology-colonialism-reading-list/

3) Do not expect marginalised groups to do your work for you. We recognise the inequities of society and our own systems, the extra trauma experienced by marginalised groups and the extra labour they will have had to invest to achieve what they have. In doing so, we recognise that it is profoundly inappropriate to ask them to invest even more labour or revisit their trauma to educate the rest of us.

Institutionally, this means we take care in how we ask community partners to help diversify our institution, i.e. for our recruitment and outreach projects.  At a School level, we must take care in who we ask to serve on committees. And at an individual level, we must take care in asking friends or colleagues to explain racism.

This is not a simple rule. As an institution, we do seek guidance from community partners, but then we must compensate them. As a School, we can ask marginalised groups to serve on EDI committees but only if we ensure that service is truly recognised and rewarded to the same degree as other contributions, within the School and the University.  As an individual, maybe our friends want us to ask, to talk to us and share experience, but we must not expect them to do so and we must respect one another if we are instead requested to reflect, do our own research or read a book instead.

4) Do platform the voices of marginalised groups. Although we do not want to create labour for our colleagues, we want to create opportunity, to profile and to give voice. We can:

Invite colleagues from marginalised groups to present in our school seminars or at conferences.

Advocate for their inclusion in scientific programmes.

Nominate them for fellowships and awards.

Celebrate them and showcase them on social media.

In doing so, respect them for who they want to be.  Please do not ask Black scientists to speak in Conference diversity sessions but not in scientific ones.

5) Do not “All Lives Matter” your conversations. There are multiple marginalised groups and most of us come from one or more of them – gender, racial, ethnic and religious minorities, differently abled, neurodivergent, LGBTQ+, working class, indigenous groups and more. This school recognises all of these, celebrates all of our staff, students, alumni and collaborators no matter what their background, privileged or not. We are a community and we are committed to diversity in every respect.  We are committed to every single one of you.

But the time and place for discussing different forms of marginalisation and sharing experiences requires care and understanding. It requires that we recognise the context and situation. When a house is on fire, that is not the time to say, “All Houses Matter.”  These conversations are challenging, but you can be guided by:

Reading the room: What is the nature of the conversation, what is its context? If we are discussing School policy, then of course we discuss all dimensions of marginalisation.  But if we are discussing a specific issue – sexual harassment in the field, the murder of black people by police, or the harassment of our overseas students – then our focus must remain on that issue. Conflating other issues can dilute the cause and the conversation, undermine the quest for solutions, and undermine the voices of the victims.

Not centring yourself: There are moments where we might wish to share our own experiences as an act of solidarity. It is perfectly natural to do so, to make a connection and build empathy and understanding. But do so with care and consideration. Question your rationale – is it compassion and reinforcement of your colleague’s concerns or is it deflection? If you do so, ensure that any such sharing is quickly followed by a return to the concerns that started the conversation in the first place, to those who have experienced the trauma. Do not allow the conversation to become recentred on yourself.

Recognising intersectionality: The term intersectionality was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw  as a way to explain the oppression of African-American women. Since then, the term has expanded to include the intersection of any minoritized characteristics (although that wider definition is contested, with many arguing it should only be used as originally intended). Truly understanding this concept – on a deep personal level – is essential to balancing our own personal experiences of repression with our privilege. Many of us come from a poor working-class backgrounds, but we retain privilege from our white identity; we have had setbacks and faced unfair obstacles, but we have also been afforded privileges that our black colleagues have not.

6) Do not intellectualise someone’s trauma. We are scientists.  We like to argue and debate. But there is a time and place for that.  There is a time to discuss and debate government policy over Prevent, Windrush, Grenfell, austerity or military interventions.  But consider the origin and context of such conversations and especially if they have been initiated by a colleague’s pain, arising from their concerns as a person impacted by those policies.  If someone is concerned that Prevent targets them or their family, that is a moment for solidarity and understanding not a debate about government policy.

Or course, this applies to a huge range of issues beyond just policy, including forms of activism, appropriate climate action, sports, current events, the jobs we will seek after graduation and even how we conduct science.  There is a time for scholarly debate and a time for empathy.

7) We make mistakes; learn from them. We will misread the above situations.  I have, time and time again.  We mismanage or misread the situations articulated above. We mispronounce someone’s name and then try to laugh it off.  We make assumptions about culture that are inappropriate. We laugh at racist jokes and can be poor allies. But we must not be complacent about such mistakes, and we must strive to improve.

Crucially, our mistakes are not an excuse to disengage because we are anxious, thereby creating new forms of marginalisation.  We must engage, accept the discomfort that comes from not knowing, accept that we will make mistakes, learn from them, apologise, and improve.

One might argue that these attributes are also those that we aspire to as scientists; there is little excuse to not embrace them in an EDI context.

8) When challenged, be reflective not defensive. When we engage with these issues, we will make mistakes.  But if we have created the environment that we want in our School and our society, marginalised people will feel safe in calling us out on those.

Reflect when that happens. Do not deflect, make excuses or become defensive. Take a moment to think about it.  In academic environments, we are quick to argue. Instead, become quick to listen.

This tendency to defensiveness is also socially embedded. “Socialised into a deeply internalized sense of superiority that we either are unaware of or can never admit to ourselves, we become highly fragile in or conversations about race. We consider a challenge to our racial world as a challenge to our identities as good, moral people. The smallest amount of racial stress is intolerable – the mere suggestion that being white often triggers a range of defensive responses. This includes emotions such as anger, fear and guilt…These responses work to reinstate white equilibrium…I conceptualize this process as white fragility.” Robin DiAngelo from White Fragility 2018.

Further Reading on this includes:

White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Race by Robin DiAngelo

How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi

A counterpoint to defensiveness is empathy for the experience to those challenging inappropriate behaviour. It is difficult to speak up to a friend or mentor when something they have said is inappropriate.  No one wants to be uncool and take offense at a joke. No one wants to start another argument.  No one wants to see their concerns dismissed again. Therefore, often when someone calls you out it is an act of friendship and trust. They are doing so because they trust you, they think you will listen, they care about you.  It takes little effort to just listen, to ask more questions, to ask for some time to reflect on what they have said.

9) Understand White Privilege. Understanding how to tackle racism requires an understanding of how white people have benefited from it.  The term white privilege has a long history can be traced back to the beginning of the 20th century; it came into contemporary fashion following a 1989 essay by Peggy McIntosh “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”: https://www.racialequitytools.org/resourcefiles/mcintosh.pdf  She defines it as: ‘an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day …. An invisible, weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank cheques.’

You can find many more contemporary discussions on it, such as this one: https://www.tolerance.org/magazine/fall-2018/what-is-white-privilege-really It helps explain what white privilege is, why it is important to recognise, and crucially it empathises with the reluctance some have with the term: “The two-word term packs a double whammy that inspires pushback. 1) The word white creates discomfort among those who are not used to being defined or described by their race. And 2) the word privilege, especially for poor and rural white people, sounds like a word that doesn’t belong to them—like a word that suggests they have never struggled.” The http://www.carryourweight.org/reflect website has resources focused on reflecting on these issues.

Crucially in our hyper-intensive academic environment, understand that your privilege does not take away from what you have achieved. In academia, every single one of us has overcome a huge number of obstacles to achieve what we have. It is hard to be admitted to our School, hard to get a degree, hard to get a PhD, hard to get a job, hard to get grants funded, hard to become a Professor.  And aligned with that, we like to believe that our field is a meritocracy, that we have earned our success.

Academia aspires to be a meritocracy, but it is not one (see Superior and Inferior, above). Our privilege helped us, and our success is partly conditional upon that.

But that does not undermine our achievements.  If we can acknowledge the role played by our parents, or our teachers and our mentors, then we can also acknowledge the role played by our privilege. It takes nothing away from us, but it does help us recognise what has been taken away from others.

10) Be a vocal supporter and advocate for anti-racism in our organisations.  There are many ways to be visible – in meetings and on social media, in invited talks and award lectures, in conversations both private and in the coffee room. We must all learn to call out problematic statements and learn how to be a good ally; from https://guidetoallyship.com/, to be an ally is:

In more serious situations, be an active bystander. There are excellent online resources:  https://www.ihollaback.org/bystander-resources/ and The University has put together an Stand Up Speak Out online training toolkit to guide you through how to be an Upstander.

We can advocate for change in our societies, either through the official roles we have or as visible members of our geosciences community. We can advocate for change in our own School, in our own committee meetings, in our hallways.

Sometimes the most effective course of action is a confidential mail or a private conversation with a colleague in a senior role; sometimes it is by publicly calling out an individual or an organisation for insufficient action.  However, if those of us who are privileged only pursue the former, our allyship and support is invisible to those who need it most. Our actions must – a significant amount of the time – be public and visible. Members of our community from marginalised groups must see the rest of us make a stand and commit to solidarity.

Crucially, in doing so we must resist the temptation to centre ourselves. We use our influence to sometimes protect others from further trauma and sometimes to create a platform on which they can stand. We do not do so for our own reward and we are vigilant against White Saviour complex.

We will make mistakes. But by publicly and vocally advocating for change, we share the labour with marginalised groups. And we create an environment where they feel empowered to raise their own concerns and speak for themselves.

11) Do something. Anything. Get stuck in.  Try. Learn. Improve. Try again.  All of the above are starting points. By understanding these issues we can speak more confidently.  By speaking publicly we are implicitly committing ourselves to act.  And by taking small action, we are building the capacity to take stronger ones.

Here is a list of ten further actions you can take to make academia a more inclusive workplace, by Jacquelyn Gill: https://contemplativemammoth.com/2016/01/07/ten-easy-ways-to-support-diversity-in-academia-in-2016/ These can serve as ideas or stimulate your own: Start a journal club or a discussion group; focus your outreach on marginalised schools or wards; suggest more speakers for our seminar series; when you are invited to speak elsewhere, ask how diverse their seminar series is; discuss a statement on behaviour, values or code of conduct for your lab or group (https://ecoevorxiv.org/4a9p8/). Some of these are actions that we are taking as a School but many of these can be taken by individuals or by groups, they can be formal or informal.  And of course your actions can and should include challenging the School and University.

Finally, you may wish to engage with anti-racism issues in wider society. In Bristol, Beyond the Hashtag has been established by Black campaigners; it is full of resources on Bristol’s history – including the activism that has transformed it as well as tools and advice: https://beyondthehashtag.co.uk/resources/

12) Be in it for the long haul. Black colleagues around the world are happy to see expressions of solidarity from individuals and organisations but are rightfully concerned that the commitment to act is superficial or will fade with time.

Commit now and revisit your commitments in the future.  Create an action plan or a checklist. Put a note in your diary for six months time to reflect and refresh your actions: you can revisit the outrage that motivated you to speak up today; book a day off to read one of the above books; or simply audit what actions you have taken between now and then.

 

Finally, if you wish to financially support Black Lives Matter projects in the UK, there is a compilation here:

https://docs.google.com/document/d/10iIz_pFB8DzPkwddc8dcmJdJ0ZMITfTs7lvs4uyusZk/preview?pru=AAABcpk9kiI*KXe1KQSnVEDy_8YpzJtp8A

It includes various campaigning groups, educational links, petitions and even a sample letter for sending to an MP. The School does not officially endorse it given some links to political parties, but it contains many useful resources. Thanks to Frances Robertson for sharing.

 

 

What Actions Has the University and School of Earth Sciences Taken and Will Take

In early 2020, the University of Bristol published its Institutional Race Equality Statement which sets out the key areas of focus for our evolving race equality strategy, establishing our direction of travel for the coming years.  Central to that have been the following actions:

  • Undertaking our first Ethnicity Pay Gap Reportand taking action to address any inequalities;
  • Establishing a BAME Staff Networkwhere people can share a sense of community and work with us to ensure that our BAME staff have a consistent and positive experience at the University;
  • Participating in the Stepping Upinitiative, a positive action programme aimed at improving the representation of BAME people, as well as other groups, in senior leadership roles within Bristol and the wider region;
  • Launching an apprenticeshiptalent pipeline to drive ethnic diversity while taking into consideration the skills gaps present in underrepresented groups in industry demand areas such as Finance, IT, Human Resources, Engineering and the Creative Industries;
  • Working with schools and colleges and local community groups and leaders to ensure that our recruitment opportunities reach potential staff from diverse backgrounds;
  • Delivering role and application workshops in the local community;
  • Participation in city-wide events – such as St Pauls Carnival and the African Caribbean Expo – while sharing employment opportunities at the University and helping people become more aware of the range of jobs on offer.

University-led initiatives aimed at supporting students include:

  • Launching the online Report and Support service that offers students and staff a quick and easy way to tell us about specific incidents.
  • Funding research internships which provide paid experience in research for new graduates, in order to increase the number of Black, Asian and minority ethnic students progressing to postgraduate study.
  • Setting a target to eliminate the BAME awards gap at the University by 2025 and developing a comprehensive action plan to address this, informed by research done by Bristol SU.
  • Beginning the work of decolonising our curricula, led by academic colleagues with expertise in this area. It is only one of two UK Universities in which this is explicitly included in our strategic plan.
  • Working closely with Bristol SU and the student BME Network to understand and improve BAME students experience at the University.
  • Providing staff training in race equality; harassment and hate crime awareness training delivered by SARI; and intercultural awareness training delivered by Kynfolk.

At School level, we endorse all of these. Most of the actions we have taken or will take as part of our 5-year Strategy are included in our Athena Swan Silver document and action plan (soon to be available on the School EDI website). The Athena Swan process and data collection focuses on gender issues; as such, we deem it incomplete with respect to racial diversity. However, our School survey identified BAME diversity as a top priority and our Action Plan specifically addresses that, including:

  • Build an influential EDI Committee and empower the EDI Director. We have a large EDI Committee that is empowered to drive the school’s social and community building agenda. The Director sits on School Board, ensuring a voice comparable to that of our Research and Education Directors. As a result of our survey and action plan, the Committee and Director are mandated by the School to devote specific effort to BAME diversity and equity.
  • Ensure that support for BAME diversity is embedded in our staff recruitment and appointment. Our commitment to diversity is included in all advertisements and all core academic staff appointments require a diversity statement. We are currently expanding this for PDRA recruitment.
  • Require all Staff to complete the University EDI Training module and advocate for its improvement. The UoB-provided training module centres gender issues and is somewhat less developed on wider EDI issues, including those around BAME equity; we have advocated that the University commit to a more comprehensive training approach as part of their commitment to the Bristol Equality Charter and this will be introduced in the autumn.
  • Ensure our School outreach and UG recruitment reaches BAME groups. Our outreach programmes, including the Bristol Dinosaur Project, are increasingly engaging with Schools from Bristol’s most marginalised wards. We are working with UK organisations, civic partners and the University to ensure that the Earth Sciences is promoted in Schools from across the UK where our discipline has traditionally had low visibility. This has resulted in an increase in BAME student admissions over the past two years.
  • Fully fund all travel for undergraduate field courses, so that no one is excluded due to personal financial constraints.
  • Seek funding to support all of our students, regardless of background, to buy field equipment and fully enjoy our field trips.
  • Seek funding to support all of our students to access summer internships. In doing so, we will expand on the Palaeobiology Group’s Bristol Summer Diversity Internship.
  • Diversify our Seminar Series. We currently require a gender balance in suggestions for School Seminar speakers and encourage suggestions of BAME speakers. In the future we will require at least one BAME School Seminar speaker per term.
  • Lobby UKRI to allocate additional funding and create targeted schemes to recruit racially diverse PhD students and Fellows.
  • Support and reward staff who lead on diversity initiatives within the University and geological societies
  • Ensure that our social events are welcome to those from all backgrounds, including all racial, ethnic and religious groups.

This remains an incomplete plan and revising it will be a priority in 2020-2021, with a focus on taking bolder action on outreach, recruitment, curriculum review and diversity training.

The Organic Geochemistry Unit’s ‘Mission to the Moon’

Y’all! A blog adapted from my 19 July 2019, 50th anniversary twitter thread about the Apoll0 11 #Apollo50th lunar samples and the search for life. Adapted from a presentation by @ogu_bristol founder Geoff Eglinton, who led the search for biomolecules. The team included him, James Maxwell, Colin Pillinger, John Hayes and others, titans of the organic geochemistry field. University of Bristol press release here:  (bristol.ac.uk/news/2019/july…)

Today, the @ogu_bristol studies archaeology, past climate, the Earth system, environmental pollution, astrobiology and the evolution of life. We are all proud to build on the legacy of Geoff and James, shared between @UoBEarthScience and @BristolChem (bristol.ac.uk/chemistry/rese…)

Geoff’s involvement dated back to 1967 when @NASA first commissioned proposals for analyses of the rocks! (Geoff – like all of us – also smelled an opportunity for investment in fantastic new kit!)

Slide from one of Geoff’s iconic presentations

This was exciting news in Bristol – but the @bristollive (Bristol Post) headline rather captured the gender stereotypes of the day. As we know, there were many hidden figures at NASA. And although the OGU was mostly men in 1969, women were a critcal part of the group.

“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do these other things, not because they are easy but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills’ JFK, 1962. A thrilling statement of scientific intent.

Everyone had their own role to play in the post-mission effort do derive as much scientific value as possible from this great human endeavour. This is Geoff’s list of the ‘Big Questions’:

Images of the launch…

… and some of Geoff’s favourite images from the mission. All courtesy of @NASA

The Rocks Arriving at NASA! They had to be quarantined for three weeks in the Lunar Receiving Lab to ensure they were not contaminated with extraterrestrial life, radiation, toxins.

And then processed via different labs for different analyses, partitioning, etc. This flow chart looks SO simple, given what we have all personally experienced in distributing far less precious samples!

Love these photos.

This discussion over how to process some of the most valuable samples in the history of humanity just looks too damn chill.  I’ve seen scientists nearly come to blows over how to partition a marine sediment core!

Bristol newspapers took this seriously: “The Four Just Men of Bristol.” The rocks arrived in Bristol on 23 Oct 1969, an event that we celebrated with a talk by James Maxwell and a fantastic introduction by Colin Pillinger’s wife, Judy.

Sidebar: (John Hayes was Kate Freeman’s PhD supervisor; and she was mine. The legacy of this mission and the analytical techniques that spun out of it is vast. And now I co-lead this same group. This is humbling.)

This is James Maxwell and Colin Pillinger transferring the moon dust. I never had the privilege of working with Colin, but James, Geoff and John are titans in the field from whom I had the privilege to learn.

This is it. This is what we got.

The most precious samples in the history of humanity. Looking for trace quantities. That could change how we perceived our place in the cosmos. No pressure.

What. Did. They. Find?? The @ogu_bristol had two scientific goals. The first, as we are organic geochemists), was looking for molecular evidence for life.

And?

They found none. Despite at least some pop culture suggestions to the contrary!

Including our own Bristol pop culture, right @aardman?

One of my fondest memories of Geoff was Richard Evershed asking him at the end of the seminar ‘Did you expect to find any evidence?’

Geoff: ‘Ha ha ha ha… No.”

Another newspaper article reporting the findings. The press back then was really keen on making sure we knew what gender these scientists were….

But they did make fascinating discoveries! They found traces of methane embedded in the lunar soil. This important organic compound could be formed in minerals by solar wind bombardment of the surface with carbon & hydrogen. But lunar surface is also bombarded by micrometeorites

So which was the correct mechanism? Geoff’s explanation in his own words/slides and drawings!

And the inevitable @nature paper!  (It turns out that it is more complicated than that.  It is partially contamination and partially carbon chemistry on the lunar surface)

The adventure did not end there. They continued analysing samples from not only the Apollo missions but also the Soviet Luna missions.

Colin Pillinger went on to pioneer UK space science for the next three decades. And the scientists and methods thrived as the foundation for a multitude of disciplines here on Earth, from chemical archaeology to climate reconstruction to tracing pollution in the environment. And the legacy thrives through over 1000 scientists – undergraduates, PhD students, post-docs, visitors, and users of the Bristol node of @isotopesUK.

Many debate the cost and priority of space science and exploration, compared to tackling real world problems. That might seem especially true now as we grapple with the immediate challenge of Covid-19 and the long-term challenge of climate change. And I agree with that, especially when exploration becomes a vanity project rather than a shared and collective intellectual endeavour. But when done right, it brings out our very best, with inevitable and profound benefits for all of society. It ensures we retain our ambitions. It ensures we remember what we can achieve together. And it creates a legacy of knowledge, innovation and scholars #Apollo50th

The Weirdness of Biomolecules in the Geological Record

In the 1930s, Alfred E. Treibs characterised the structure of metalloporphyrins in rocks and oil, revealing their similarities to and ultimately proving their origin from chlorophyll molecules in plants.  From that the field of biomarker geochemistry was born, a discipline based on reconstructing Earth’s history using the molecular fossils of the organisms that once lived in those ancient lakes, soils and oceans.

Most biomarkers are lipids – or fats – although there are exceptions such as the porphyrins. Lipids are ideal biomarkers because they have marvelous structural variability, recording in their own way the tree of life and the adaptation of that life to the environments in which they live(d). And they are also ideal, because they are preserved, in sediments for thousands of years and in rocks for millions, often hundreds of millions and in some cases billions of years.

The classical way in which we use these biomarkers is to exploit those subtle structural changes as a record of environmental conditions – using the number of rings or branches or double bonds as a microbiological record of ancient temperatures or pH. We also use them to identify the sources of organic matter to ancient settings, helping us to characterise an ancient lake or sea or documenting the biotic response to a mass extinction.

They can even record the evolution of life. The rise and diversification of eukaryotes, the Palaeozoic colonisation of land by plants, the Cretaceous emergence of the angiosperms, the Mesozoic rise of red algae and the Cenozoic rise of certain coccolithophorids are all documented in the molecular record.

But that record also documents moments of profound weirdness in ancient oceans, transient events in which some ancient organism appeared, dominated the seas and thus the sedimentary record, and then disappeared, taking with them a suite of biosynthetic machinery.

The Jurassic Ocean

Take for example, the ancient Kimmeridge Sea, which covered much of the UK during the Jurassic about 155 million years ago and within which many North Sea oils were deposited as well as the magnificent sedimentary sequences of Kimmeridge Bay.

Image
A core cutting from Jurassic Kimmeridge Clay Formation, collected from the @NERCscience-funded Kimmeridge Drilling Project. The slight colour changes reflect changes in lithology, with darker colours reflecting more organic-rich horizons.

 

The Blackstone, oil shale, east of Clavell's Hard, Kimmeridge, Dorset
Ian West has some great photos and descriptions of Kimmeridge Bay black shales at https://www.southampton.ac.uk/~imw/gif/kimblack.htm

Within the archived sediments of this ancient basin, we observe many of the biomarkers for common life that we’d find in any sediment from the past 600 million years: eukaryotic-derived steranes (from sterols, such as cholesterol, which occur in every plant and animal) and bacterially-derived hopanes (from compounds similar to sterols but present only in Bacteria).  But we also find very odd compounds, unusually-branched linear isoprenoids.  The isoprenoids, compounds constructed of the five-carbon atom unit isoprene, are not odd; in fact, steranes and hopanes are just linear isoprenoids folded into rings, and the membrane lipids of the third domain of life, the Archaea, predominantly comprise linear isoprenoids. More on them below.

But the isoprenoids from some sedimentary horizons deposited in the ancient Kimmeridge Sea have extra branches or missing branches, revealing an assembly from smaller molecules in a manner unlike any organism on Earth today.

Image
A gas chromatogram from the KCF (you can view this like a bar chart – each peak is a compound and its area reflects its concentration). It shows the distribution of the unusual isoprenoids (letters and letter combinations), which in some parts of the KCF such as this particular sample dominate the entire assemblage.

In those horizons, they eclipse all other biomarkers in abundance, indicating that these ancient organisms did not just persist at the fringes of life, an idiosyncrasy in a complex ecosystem, but were one of the dominant organisms.

And then they disappeared, taking these peculiar lipids with them.

An Archaeal Event in the Cretaceous

Deep in the Cretaceous, near the boundary between the Aptian and Albian Ages, about 110 million years ago, organic-rich sediments were deposited across the North Atlantic Ocean.  The event is called Oceanic Anoxic Event (OAE) 1b. Such events are not uncommon, especially in the Cretaceous when combinations of algal blooms, restriction of ocean circulation and depletion of deep ocean oxygen facilitated the burial of the organic matter (that in many cases became the oil and gas that fuels the Anthropocene). But unlike earlier and later organic burial events, this event was not an algal event; it was not a plant event.

This was an Archaea event.

Archaea are ubiquitous on the planet, but rarely do they dominate, instead ceding the modern Earth to the plants and Bacteria. Their hardy physiology allows them to dominate in very high temperature geothermal settings and they are uniquely adapted to a handful of ecosystems. Some Archaea, those involved with the oxidation of ammonia, also appear to dominate in parts of the ocean, but only in scarce abundances, representing a significant proportion of the biomass only because other organisms find it even more challenging to eke out an existence in that sunlight-starved realm.

But 110 million years ago not only did they dominate, they dominated in a way that led to the deposition of thick layers of archaea-derived organic matter on the seafloor.  We know this because nearly all of the organic matter – analysed through the lens of multiple analytical techniques probing the various pools of sedimentary organic matter, with names like bitumen and kerogen, maltenes an asphaltenes, saturates, aromatics and polars – are all dominated by compounds diagnostic for the Archaea.

Amorphous organic matter from OAE1b – structureless with no evidence of plant or algal cell walls. In many ways, this is a mundane image, similar to much organic matter in sediments, and keeping the secrets of its origin to itself. But its chemical composition is less opaque, revealing its unique archaeal origin.

But OAE1b was evidently not merely a brief explosion of the same Archaea that thrived at much lower abundances prior to and after it, and thrive at low abundances even today. No, this event included Archaea that biosynthesised subtle variations of classical Archaeal lipids, variations restricted -as far as we know – to this single event in all of Earth history.

A library of compounds found in OAE1b sediments. The archaeal isoprenoids I-V and XI to XIV dominate. And in the kerogen, similar fragments (XVII and beyond) dominate, indicating that the archaea dominate the production of all OM. But of all of these compound I is particularly unique, similar to the others but apparently confined to this one event in all of Earth history.

Compound I from the figure above might not look that special; it takes a keen eye to distinguish it from Compound II below it.  But like the unusual lipids of the Kimmeridge Clay Formation, it is apparently restricted to (and abundant during) only this one event.

 

These are weird biomarkers and that is why we love them. They prompt us to ponder the organisms that made them – and how and why?  And this prompts further questions that are perhaps more fascinating and profound, and not just the interest of organic geochemists.

Why have no other organisms chosen to make them?  Are these lipid simply an accident of phylogeny? Or are these a specific adaptation to the environmental and ecological needs of a particular moment in time, in a particular ocean basin? And that is both enigmatic and beautiful.  It speaks to the rapid emergence and then the casual discarding of a biosynthetic pathway and the associated enzymatic machinery.

And surely that must say something of the organisms that have produced them. Because these weird and unique biomarkers also reveal the expansion and disappearance of the microorganisms that made them, organisms comprising not just a truncated branch on the tree of life but a branch that what was, for a brief while, thick and thriving.  And now gone.

 

But as fascinating as these microbiological events are I am even more curious about those that we have we missed? Most life does not make such weird and singular lipids, relying on similar biomolecular solutions to similar ecological needs. Consequently, I suspect that there are many cryptic microbiological evolutionary events, invisible to the molecular fossil record. And by extension, are these simple organisms – the single-celled bacteria, archaea and microalgae – as primitive and eternal as we assume?  Or is Earth history replete with exotic microbiological events – a multitude of failed experiments or singular innovations appropriate only for a moment in time – and then rendered invisible even to organic geochemists because they have not been signposted by a peculiar lipid?

The Origin of the Uncertain World Art

Everyone, gather round! I want to tell you how the marvelous @LucasAntics Park Row artwork came to pass!
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In 2014, Bristol was preparing to be the European Green Capital in 2015. Many great projects were envisioned, including collaborations with Bristol’s outstanding artists, like @lukejerram who created Withdrawn: lukejerram.com/withdrawn/ and many curated by @FestivalofIdeas.
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It had been about 50 years since the publication of J.G. Ballard’s iconic disaster novels, The Drowned World, The Burning World and my favourite, the surreal and biologically disturbing The Crystal World. Consequently, ideas were brainstormed around these.Image
These did not happen. That was probably for the best as no matter how brilliant and perceptive Ballard is, these novels have a very white, male, colonial perspective. Not ideal for our diverse city. But it simulated conversations. As @cabotinstitute Director, I was asked: “What will be the nature of our future world, under climate change?” And my answer was ‘An Uncertain World.’ We can predict warming & rainfall, but we are creating a world beyond all human experience. This was informed by our work on past climates. It has been about 3 million years since the Earth last had so much carbon dioxide in its atmosphere. And the rate of increase is nearly unprecedented in Earth history. For more on these, see other Uncertain World blog pages:

richpancost.blogs.bristol.ac.uk/2018/08/17/evi…

richpancost.blogs.bristol.ac.uk/2018/08/17/an-…

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Reconstruction of climate over the past 60 million years. The d18O values show the long-term cooling of the Earth, compared to the lower figure showing the similar long-term decline of PCO2 to levels of 270 ppm… Before the Anthropocene increase to 417 ppm.

And hence the Uncertain World.

And to visualise that, we thought it would be fascinating to juxtapose our city – specifically St Werburgh’s – with it’s ancient Mesozoic past. Flooded and thriving with plesiosaurs, ammonites and icthyosaurs. And who better than @LucasAntics?Image

And so Alex created these! Thanks to @ERC_Research and @NERCscience for helping to fund it!Image
And we all loved them so much, that we got permission to paint them on the side of the @BristolUni Drama Building!
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Learn more about Alex’s great work at her website: Visit. It. Now. And be filled with joy.

lucasantics.com

To read about what we learned about the challenges of living with Uncertainty, more relevant now than ever, go here:

richpancost.blogs.bristol.ac.uk/2020/01/11/the… 

Fun fact: @DrHeatherBuss and I have all of the original artwork in our house! Including these drawings of a soon to be flooded St Werburgh’s. Views toward St Werburgh’s City Farm and Graffiti Tunnel!
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AND…. all* of the original drawings of the menagerie of critters, not all of whom made it into the art!

*All but one that we gave away to a young fan of Mary Anning!Image

Thank you for listening. I thank Alex and others for inspiring me to use some quirkiness, wonder and silliness as a gateway to the very serious conversations we must have about climate change and biodiversity loss. 💚 

Postscript: The Green Capital Year was amazing. I loved it our collaborations with artists, engaged citizen movements and innovators. But it was not as inclusive as it should have been. And from that lesson arose the Green and Black Ambassadors!

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Bristol Clear – My Life in Science

Bristol Clear is a University of Bristol initiative to build support, create voice and connect Early Career Researchers.  One of its activities is sharing the stories of more senior researchers, stories that are honest about the challenges many of us have faced, the hurdles we have overcome, the love for research or teaching that keeps us going, and the sacrifices we have made. Academia is a wonderful career; but we lie to ourselves and the next generation if we are not open about its challenges and demands.  Here is my (abbreviated) story.

What I do:

I study how the Earth works as a system, how all of the biological, climatic, geological and chemical components interact today and how they interacted in the past.  I was also Director of the Cabot Institute, which was a chance to not only work across disciplines and research environmental problems but to support a wide range of academics and partners studying solutions to those problems.  Currently, as Head of School, I have all sorts of new obligations but am particularly enjoying connecting to a new group of amazing students.

Why Academia?:

How I ended up in academia and even higher education is a complicated question.  Part of it was because I was good at it: I was smart, good at exams and course work and got good grades.  Part of it was because I loved it; I followed every Shuttle launch and was glued to the television as Voyager 1 and 2 whipped past Jupiter and Saturn. And part of it was because it could get me out of poverty.  I try not to overly mythologise growing up on a small dairy farm in Ohio, but I did love it.  I loved working outside and working with my family.  But I also hated the machinery, the brutality of it; the ceaselessness of farm life, no matter if you are sick or if there is a heat wave or a blizzard; the uncertainty, the worry, the continuous worry about the weather and the bills. It seemed like we were always talking about bills – for the farm equipment, the mortgage, the water and electricity, the dentist and the doctor….

So university always seemed inevitable.  I could go. I wanted to go.  I needed to go.

Our dairy farm in Ohio – photo taken just before we sold the farm (which is why there are no cows or horses)

 

College was fantastic.  I loved the intellectual freedom and the variety.  My god, especially the variety.  Then and now, that has to be one of the most amazing things about academia.  Every day is different.  Every hour is different.  I had come to college to study astrophysics.  Or political science. Or literature.  In the end, I studied geology. I loved it all.  [During the summer after my Freshman Year, with discussions of environmental crises beginning to trouble the news, with my family’s farm seen in a new light after being away for a year, and with my interest in both science and politics growing, I decided I would merge my interests.  I would study geology and then go on to Law School and become an environmental lawyer.]

However, it also took a long and awkward time for me to fit in, this farm boy at a big university, first generation, working class, a bit of a country hick. I was anxious about belonging in this different world. I was anxious about my grades – I’d lose my scholarships if my GPA dropped below 3.0.  I was anxious about my family, who had to give up farming when my brother and I went to college because they just did not have the labour to keep it going.  I was anxious about money – money to join activities and money to even pay tuition (I could not work during the summer after my 3rd year because I was at Geology field camp; thankfully I got a last minute alumni scholarship).  But I did not know I was anxious.  There was no time to contemplate that.  And in any case, where I come from, you don’t get anxious; you fight.

I had support, but I wish that support had been more aware.  I wish that they could have seen past my good grades and enthusiasm for scholarship and seen the kid who was suffering from anger and anxiety. I wish they could have seen that my bravado was a lie and that my cuts and bruises were a sign of someone using sports and contests to inflict self-harm. I wish that I had been more self-aware.  I wish that I had realised that some of my actions were signs of self-doubt, fear of appearing foolish or uncool, and anger at being mocked and poor and unable to afford what others could.

But friends – even those who inadvertently made me feel that way – supported me. Lecturers championed me.  And helped me financially.  They paid me on internships and work study and once, when money was really tight, even to paint their house. And they taught me with passion and love for the subject. They gave me good grades; and when I was complacent, they gave me my first bad grades.  They were patient and then impatient and patient again.  And finally, they gave me advice, support and wisdom.  I graduated top in my class and won a PhD Fellowship to the Department of Geosciences at Penn State.

There are two stories that explain why I went to graduate school rather than becoming an environmental lawyer, and they are both true in their own way.  In the first, Geology stole me from that path by showing me a stunning and beautiful world: I found my first fossil in the Cleveland Shale in Rocky River Park; I felt my first sense of wonder at geological time in an outcrop teeming with Ordovician brachiopods and trilobites in the Cincinnati Arch; I marvelled at the forces that had shaped the Appalachian Mountains. And then, in the summer of 1991, my field project in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming, one of the most beautiful parts of the world, revealed to me 500 million years of Earth history over the course of an exhausting, exhilarating, sweaty, blistering, eye-opening summer.

And the second story? I would have had to go further into debt to attend Law School, whereas graduate school would pay me a stipend. That’s all. Your choices are never entirely your own.

My career path / the big decisions:

 I loved graduate school, but the first two years were a battle.  A battle to flip from being a straight-A student who had excelled at learning and tests, who could solve problems and equations to a scientist who could conceive new ideas, new questions and design the experiments to test them.  I had a brilliant supervisor – Kate Freeman – but also a network of mentors and advisers across the department who tolerated my fumbling journey, pushed me at times, and let me make a few astonishingly poor decisions – but not too poor. I was allowed to learn and to fail and learn again.  And it was frustrating and it was amazing and always always always interesting.

And thrilling.  Nothing is as thrilling as discovering something, whether it be something fundamentally new, like a new biogeochemical pathway or a new compound, or even just being the first person in the world to analyse a particular rock.  And related to that is the thrill of having an idea, nursing it, testing it, patiently, rigorously and then proving it right – bringing a new sense of understanding into the world.

 So clearly I was hooked.  I would finish my PhD.  Get a post-doc. And then get an academic job. And I am still hooked, almost like a drug, addicted to those thrills, those moments of discovery, those moments when you know something – even if it is just a small something – about the universe that no one else does. And then sharing that with the world.

But addictions require sacrifice.  The post-doc opportunity was in the Netherlands.  I’d only been out of the country once before and no one else in my family even owned passports. You don’t travel when you have no money.  You don’t travel when you own a dairy farm. My parents always wanted the best for me, they wanted me to go to college, they wanted me to excel and to be successful; but at heart, we were still a farm family from Ohio and they never thought I would move that far away.

But I did.  And then I made that permanent when I moved to Bristol.  I have no regrets about those moves; I love this University, my School, my discipline, this city and my academic career.  But it would be a lie to say that this career does not demand sacrifices from us.  It would be a lie to say that this move was not hard and painful, that it has not had consequences, that family connections are more fragile and that some have been lost.  My parents cannot fly, they still do not have passports; they have never seen my house or my home or my city.

My advice to my younger self:

 I’d tell him that he could ask for help. I’d tell this kid, who was proud of his working class background but who had also buried some anxiety and fear and anger,  that he could ask for help.  That it is not a sign of weakness.

I’d tell him to stay true to who he is; it will have consequences but you cannot betray who you are.  Academia is less prone to class prejudices than other disciplines, but they do persist.  I always felt out of place at the wine tastings and expected cultural literacy.  I still have some dodgy teeth because we could not get dental care when I was a teenager. And even now, despite a great deal of success, I can still be told that I ‘lack gravitas’…

And I’d tell him that we always have choices. They can come with financial or emotional risk, but we do have them.  You can embrace the addiction of academic life or you can kick the habit if the thrill is not worth the sacrifice. I think he would have made all of the same decisions, but I wish he had known that the world is vast and full of options.  I would tell him that he will have an amazing life no matter what choices he makes as long as he remains true to himself and his values.

This was originally posted on Bristol Clear Blogs.

Tackling climate change is fundamentally a question of justice

This is one of my very first blogs, co-authored with friend and colleague Patricia Lucas.  It was written for Business Fights Poverty (hence the questions at the end), and it stakes out the central themes of my research then and now: that the biggest challenge climate change poses is a world with profoundly greater uncertainty – and with that, confusion, opportunism and victimisation; and that it is the poor and vulnerable who will bear these risks.
Tackling climate change is fundamentally about justice.  About fairness. About equality.
In September 2013, the IPCC published the Fifth Annual Report on the Physical Basis of Climate Change.  It devotes little attention to the human and ecological impacts of global environmental and climatic change, topics that will be addressed by working group reports released in early 2014 .  Nonetheless, the trajectory of climate and other environmental changes and their implicit impacts on society are stark. Despite numerous treaties and efforts at mitigation, concentrations of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases continue to increase, and at greater rather than diminished rates. If those rates continue they will result in global warming of 3 to 5.5°C by 2100. This in turn, will result in dramatic changes to the global hydrological cycle, including both more evaporation and more rainfall.
A More Uncertain Climate
Flood; photo by Paul Bates

The results will be a more hostile climate for many as land can become either drier or more flood-prone or both, changes exacerbated in coastal areas by sea level rise.  Freshwater supply will also be affected by the forecast changes in climate. The quantity of water flowing in glacier or snow-melt fed river basins will change, affecting around a sixth of the world’s population[i], while coastal freshwater will be contaminated with saline water[ii]. Areas of the Mediterranean[iii], Western USA[iv], Southern Africa[v] and North Western Brazil[vi] are projected to face decreased availability of freshwater.

Key to understanding who will be affected is our ability to predict changes in rainfall, seasonality, and temperature at a regional scale.  However, regional climatic predictions are the most challenging and least certain, especially with respect to the nature and amount of rainfall. For vast parts of the world, including much of South America, Africa and SE Asia, it is unclear whether climate change will bring about wetter or drier conditions. Thus, uncertainty will become the norm: uncertainty in rainfall; uncertainty in weather extremes and seasonality; and most importantly, uncertainty in water resources.

Those combined effects lead to an additional and perhaps the most profound uncertainty for the latter half of the 21st century: uncertainty in food production and access. In the absence of other factors, climate uncertainty and more common extreme events will compromise agriculture at all scales, yielding increased food prices and increased volatility in markets.

Impacts on the Poor

Although the human impacts of climate change will be diverse, their effects will be worst for the most impoverished and, by extension, least resilient population groups.  The UN reports that climate change could “increase global malnutrition by up to 25% by 2080.”  And all of this occurs against a backdrop in which access to food is already a challenge for the poorest of the world already a challenge for the poorest of the world [p5], a situation exacerbated by the global financial crash.These risks to the poorest result from a lack of resources to mitigate harm, lack of power to protect resources, and the global competition for resources.
Those who lack the financial resources to migrate or build more hazard-resistant homes will suffer most from extreme events, as has been sharply illustrated by those suffering most in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan.  Those who can least afford to dig deeper wells into more ancient aquifers as water resources diminish will go thirsty.  Subsistence farmers – and those dependent on them – are less resistant to climate shocks (desertification) and adverse weather events (flooding) than commercial farmers.
Land ownership for the poorest is often tenuous, and displacement from land a serious problem for many.  Previous switches to biofuels have led to land competition, resulting in both loss of land to subsistence [p6]  farmers, and diversion of commercial production leading to shortages [p7]  and increased food prices. Within communities, these effects are not evenly spread as marginalised groups, such as women, are the least likely to hold land tenure [p8] .  Similarly, there is increased competition for water [p9]  between peoples, but also between water for industry (including agriculture) and water for drinking. When water is scarce, pollution of fresh water is common, and governance is weak, the poorest are likely to lose out.
Food security comes in many forms, reflecting not just climate and environment but culture, politics and other social constructs. Image by Mammal Research Unit, University of Bristol

Food competition will most likely be exacerbated by other factors: rising demand from a rapidly expanding population and a growing demand for meat from a global ‘middle class’; the increased economic divide between post-industrial and developing nations; the ongoing depletion of soil nutrients and associated impacts on the nutritional value of our food.  The combination of these factors will result in profound impacts on food security. Who decides what gets grown? Who can afford it in the context of global markets and the loss of agricultural land? The poorest members of even the wealthiest societies are the most vulnerable to dramatic and unpredictable changes in food costs[p10] .

‘Wicked Problems’

These issues yield a profoundly challenging ethical issue: the wealthy who are most responsible for anthropogenic climate change, via the greatest material consumption and energy demand, have the greatest resilience to food market fluctuations and the greatest means for avoiding their most deleterious impacts.  Therefore, these issues challenge all governments to dramatically and swiftly act to decrease greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate the associated climate change.
Unfortunately, many proposed mitigation strategies could also have negative consequences for food prices and availability. Increasing energy prices, such as those brought about by a carbon tax, will be passed onto food prices.  Genetically modified foods could be essential to feeding a growing population, and we would urge that future efforts expand to incorporate a greater degree of climate resilience in crops; however, the patents on those crops can make them financially inaccessible to the poorest nations or build critical dependencies.
Although sustainable agriculture and crops might reduce the impact of climate change and uncertainty in some countries, these solutions can be deleterious for the poorest.  They are more likely to live in regions and areas most negatively affected by climate change, most likely to be relying on subsistence/small scale agriculture and least likely to have access to the global market as consumers.  In other words, a stable global market will be of little direct benefit to them; in fact, most of these populations are likely to face competition for land/water use from globalised markets (for biofuels or commercial farming).  In short, what builds food resilience in one nation might be exposing the most economically vulnerable in another.
In fact, when properly mobilised for the benefit of the community, access to new energy sources – even if in the form of fossil fuels – can be transformative and facilitate the economic growth needed to access increasingly globalised food markets [p12].    Domestic access to gas reduces the need to collect wood for fires, reducing deforestation, improving air quality, and freeing up time for communities to address other development needs.
This is not an argument against mitigation of climate change, far from it!  We must continuously and aggressively try to minimise the harm that climate change will cause.  But it does need to be balanced against human development needs, and this represents one of the world’s most profound challenges. In some circles, we consider this a ‘wicked’ problem: a problem that has multiple causes, probably in interaction, and where information is incomplete, such that proposed solutions might be incomplete, contradictory, complex and work across multiple causes in complex systems.
Challenges and Opportunities

Wicked problems are not intractable, however, and previous studies of land use for biofuels provide clues as to how a complex solution could be more sustainable for all; well planned switches to biofuels which consider local custom in land tenure can provide more land for agriculture, and reduce deforestation pressure.

In such situations, we argue, solutions which focus on halting or slowing climate change alone, and then coping with the business and development problems that they might create answer the wrong question.  Our challenge to the business (and academic) community, then, is to engage with some wicked questions:

  • What are the business opportunities in improving the social and physical environment?
  • Can the global agricultural system be a single resilient network, rather than a competition?
  • What technology or innovation is needed to support a resilient food network?
  • How can innovative solutions to these challenges generate local income, allowing reinvestment in education and development?
These are difficult questions but they also represent opportunities for development and growth in poor communities.  A world with increasing environmental uncertainty is a challenge for both businesses and vulnerable communities.  But it could also be a shared opportunity for growth and development: to innovate and identify new solutions, to co-invest in local resilience and risk reduction, and to share the growth that arises from more stable communities.

[i] Z Kundzewicz, L Mata, N Arnell, P Doll, P Kabat, K Jimenez, K Miller, T Oki, Z Sen & I Shiklomanov, Freshwater Resources and their Manegemtn. Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaption and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Cambridge University Press2007
[ii] R Buddemeier, S Smith, S Swaaney & C Crossland, The Role of the Coastal Ocean in the Disturbed and Undisturbed Nutrient and Carbon Cycles,  LOICZ Reports and Studies Series2002, 84
[iii] P Etchevers, C Golaz, F Habets & J Noilhan, Impact of a Climate Change on the Rhone River Catchment Hydrology,Journal of Geophysical Research2002, 4293
[iv] J Kim, T Kim, R Arritt & N Miller, Impacts of Increased CO2 on the Hydroclimate of the Western United States, Journal of Climate2002, 1926
[v] M Hulme, R Doherty & T Ngara, African Climate Change, Climate Research2001, 145
[vi] J Christensen, B Hewitson, A Busuioc, A Chen, X Gao, I Held, R Jones, R Kolli, W Kwon, R Laprise, V Magana Rueda, L Mearns, C Menendez, J Raisanen, A Rinke, A Sarr & P Whetton, Regional Climate Change, The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,2007, 847
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This blog is written by Prof Rich Pancost, Director of the Cabot Institute and Dr Patricia Lucas, School for Policy Studies, both at University of Bristol.
Dr Patricia Lucas
Prof Rich Pancost
This blog has kindly been reproduced from the Business Fights Poverty blog.

Ancient global warming caused extreme rainfall events

Some reflections by my co-authors and me on our recent paper in Earth and Planetary Science Letters, showing that ancient global warming was associated with an increase in the number of extreme rainfall events and this had a profound impact on the land and coastal seas.

The Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), which occurred about 56 Million years ago, is of great interest to climate scientists because it represents a relatively rapid global warming event, with some similarities to the human-induced warming of today.  Although there have been many investigations of how much the Earth warmed at the PETM (about 5 to 8C), there have been relatively few studies of how that changed the hydrological cycle.  This newly published work shows that rainfall increased in some places and decreased in others, according to expectations, but that much of the world experienced more intense and episodic (or ‘flashy’) rainfall events.

Lead author Matt Carmichael (School of Chemistry and School of Geographical Sciences) explained: ‘With the same climate models used to study future climate change, we studied how a doubling of carbon dioxide concentrations would affect rainfall patterns on a world with Eocene geography. This increased the overall global precipitation – warmer air holds more water.  But it also changed the pattern and frequency of extreme events.  The tropics became wetter and the incidence of extreme events increased, by as much as 70% in some tropical regions. In other places, total annual precipitation and the number of extreme events became decoupled; in other words, those areas became drier, with less frequent but more extreme events.  All of this illustrates the complexity of how global warming will affect our local, regional and global rainfall patterns.’

Co-author Professor Rich Pancost (School of Earth Sciences), explained how these findings agree with a range of geological and chemical features of the Palaeocene-Eocene global warming: ‘This warming event is associated with major changes in how soil and sediment were eroded and moved around the landscape.  In many places, river systems that had been transporting silt or sand became associated with fist-sized rocks or even boulders; and more sediment was transported to and buried in coastal margins. In some locations, the rate of sediment accumulation increased by a factor of ten. But at the same time, there is also evidence that these systems became more arid.  Our climate simulations reconcile this; many locations do experience an increase in aridity but also more intense rainfall events.  Those events were likely responsible for increased energy in these systems, moving around more material and larger objects. Ultimately it flushed more sediment to the ocean, causing eutrophication, blooms of algae and in some cases hypoxia.’ [Analogous but less severe than Oceanic Anoxic Events.]

Photo of the Claret Conglomerate by Rob Duller, University of Liverpool.  I wrote about this here: “In central Spain, outcropping on dusty hillsides overlooking apparently endless miles of gnarled olive trees, is the Esplugafreda Formation. The Formation consists of hundreds of metres of rusty-coloured palaeosols and the remains of ancient channels, part of a more-than-55-million-year-old braided river system. What is particularly striking about these rocks is that atop them sits the Claret Conglomerate, a unit not of silt, sand and ancient soil, but of pebbles, fist-sized stones and even boulders. These stones are part of the same river system but were deposited under conditions with far more energy: the Conglomerate represents a relatively transient moment in Earth history of remarkably intense rainfall events. And these events were probably caused by ancient global warming.”

Co-author Professor Dan Lunt (School of Geographical Sciences) elaborated on this: ‘There are many similar events in Earth history, where warming appears to have been associated with changes in rainfall and sedimentary systems.  Although we have not investigated them here, it is very likely that our results are translatable – because the physics that underpins them remains the same.  Thus, the collective body of research confirms that global warming in the past and the future will be associated with more ‘flashy’ rainfall, with implications for flooding and water management.’

Professor Pancost elaborated: ‘Past climate has lessons for our future.  Not only do the models show evidence for more intense rainfall events – with all of the associated implications – but they are consistent with all of our other data. In fact, they explain inconsistencies in our other data and confirm some long-established hypotheses. In doing so, they foreshadow our potential future with complex and dramatic changes in rainfall, more flooding and more soil erosion.’

Response of the hydrological cycle to doubling of carbon dioxide concentrations:

Fig. 2

From the paper: Figure a shows the expected impact of a doubling of CO2 on global precipitation patterns – dry areas get drier and wet areas get wetter. However, (b) shows that the number of actual precipitation events decreases almost everywhere.  Both (c) and (d) show different mathematical expressions of ‘extreme’ events, and both show that nearly global increase in the number of extreme events.

The article is: Carmichael, M., Pancost, R.D. and Lunt, D.J. (2018) Changes in the occurrence of extreme precipitation events at the Paleocene-Eocene thermal maximum.  Earth and Planetary Science Letters 501, 24-36.

It is available here: https://authors.elsevier.com/sd/article/S0012821X18304643