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BBC Reith Lectures 2010

Prof Martin Rees, this year's Reith lecturer, chose to close this year's lectures by calling for the UK to stay at the forefront of scientific research and discovery - a timely response to funding cuts proposed by the recent UK austerity budget. Watch all this year's Reith Lectures.


New online simulation tool – eFish

Kristian Lindgren has devleloped another online simulation tool – eFish.

It is a new multiplayer online strategy game built on the objective of creating a fish company. You and other players share a lake, from which you catch fish. You can then sell your fish on the market, and for example buy new equipment.


The game is constructed to address questions associated with the so called Tragedy of the Commons dilemma: 

  • Will resources shared by competing interests always be overused? 
  • Is community ownership of finite resources a guaranteed road to ecological disaster? 
  • Or can perhaps a shared resource successfully be managed and maintained by the people who use them, without government regulation or privatization?


This application was developed by the Physical Resource Theory Department of Energy and Environment of Chalmers University of Technology to investigate the problem of human behavior when sharing a common resource.


Kristian has previously developed two online tools for understanding potential impacts of fuel consumption: GETonline & Chalmers Climate Calculator.


Please note that this game is a prototype. It is recommended that players read the manual before playing (also on the game homepage).



Julian Hunt addresses UK House of Lords on Complexity and Policy Making

June 2 2010 


See Julian Hunt's profile page

I will comment on the points made in the Queen's Speech about manmade climate change and economic recovery. The rise in global temperatures during this century is a very serious matter. Several climate centres, including the Met Office, the Danish met office and the Chinese met office are predicting that the result at the end of the century will be nearer 4 degrees than the 2-degree target agreed at Copenhagen. It would be possible to keep to the last figure only if worldwide carbon emissions stopped growing. Because of the complexity of climate change science and policy we must have more open discussion. Scientific and engineering aspects must be considered. The Royal Society and others now advocate that. 

Policies to deal with the situation must be international and realistic. However, they probably cannot be based on a Kyoto-style global agreement, as we saw at Copenhagen. One might compare the UK's ambitious plan to reduce emissions by 80 per cent by 2050 with China, which has stated in many public remarks that while its energy may be more efficient it will double emissions by 2050. Nevertheless, the UK must collaborate and trade with all countries of the world, particularly those which are rapidly industrialising. One way in which we can do that is through our development of nuclear power, and through R&D into future technology. I part company slightly with the interesting remarks of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool in believing that future nuclear technology will enable us to eliminate waste. An article in the New Scientist explains this.

As the EEC Commissioner for Climate Change recently commented when she came to London, carbon trading is now operating as an important aspect of making industry more efficient and stimulating energy emission reduction. In China, there are about five or six centres. There are others in the north-east states of America, and on its west coast. This may be one way in which we will find practical methods for reducing emissions. These should also be complemented by policies in the cities of the world. They are the areas where there is a maximum usage of energy, and policies have begun in London and around the world. We heard last night from the mayor of Mexico City, who was visiting London, about its remarkable policies, working with other cities. Policies to reduce carbon emissions can be similar to those for reducing air pollution, which is a major issue for people living in the cities of the world. 

The Government should also, in the most cost-effective way, not only negotiate with other Governments and encourage cities, but work with United Nations specialised agencies, which are continuing. They were given leave to continue by the Copenhagen meeting. The World Meteorological Organisation is monitoring the climate. The Food and Agriculture Organisation is working on forestry. The International Maritime Organisation, the other side of the Thames, is working on reducing pollution from shipping. This is very cost effective, but gets little publicity in Parliament.

I will also comment on the work of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which we have been discussing this afternoon. These three strands come together in government policies for research in industry. High-tech companies in the UK have made many comments about the importance of maintaining the taxation policies of the previous Labour Government, to provide tax relief for research in industry. Again I declare an interest as director of such a company. For example, a professor of chemistry at Cambridge explained how this had been essential for the establishment of several companies. 


How Prepared Are We for Another Tsunami?

Five years after the deadly wave in the Indian Ocean, our ability to forecast and warn of a dangerous tsunami has increased considerably.

by Lord Julian Hunt


It is now estimated by the United Nations that the devastating Indian Ocean Tsunami of Boxing Day 2004 killed around 187,000 people, with approximately 43,000 still missing. The tsunami was the largest in the Indian Ocean for more than 700 years, triggered by the fourth-largest earthquake in the world since 1900.


As well as the terrible human cost, the physical and environmental devastation wrought was truly massive, with the impact disproportionately felt by the poor. In Aceh alone, hundreds of thousands of homes were flattened, around 800 kilometers of coastline was destroyed, and approximately 3,000 hectares of land were washed away, taking roads, ports, bridges and other vital infrastructure with it.


Five years on, there remains much left to learn about tsunamis, but our understanding of their risks and how to reduce them through forecasting, warnings, and better tsunami-resistant construction and design has advanced considerably.



Warning systems

One reason the Indian Ocean tsunami proved so catastrophic was the fact that warning systems in the region were virtually nonexistent. Since then, there has been progress in most aspects of warnings across the world, and the Indian Ocean itself now has a regional system in place.


The value of warning systems was underlined yet again this month when they were used very successfully after the Dec. 4 Samoa tsunami.


However, other countries around the world have not benefited in this same way. Warning systems tend to be more effective and reliable where natural hazards recur on a regular basis. Tsunamis are an example of an infrequent and variable type of secondary geophysical hazard, and thus warning systems are still not in place in all areas.


The further complication is that, even with a warning system in place, some communities close to epicenters still may not receive the relevant information in time. Indeed, had the current Indian Ocean warning system been in place in 2004, it may not have helped many of those who were earliest to be hit by the tsunami.


This is why 80% of tsunami casualties tend to occur before any official or technically based warning actually arrives, unlike the case of more slowly evolving and propagating hazards such as hurricanes or flood waves, which generally have limited numbers of casualties.


However, for more distant communities (e.g. the Kenyan fishermen community, where the tsunami arrived six hours after its initiation off Sumatra in December 2004), warnings can be communicated effectively. These warnings (which came through community groups, mobile phones and TV in Kenya) save many lives, as was shown most recently in Samoa. Research shows that the key is to distribute data quickly, openly and locally, so that it is available in the right form, at the right place and at the right time to prevent loss of life.




The tsunami warning systems in the ocean, which are currently coordinated by the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, are not integrated between countries. However, there will be discussions about enhanced exchange of the data and forecasts as warning systems become more reliable. This will place a premium upon better forecasting.


Although early indicators of tsunamis have been identified, this has usually been after the event, and these are still not reliable enough to be widely used. Certainly, the standard seismic models did not predict the December 2004 earthquake that caused the tsunami and might not have predicted other tsunami sources such as submarine landslides or volcanic eruptions.


Perhaps the most promising research for enhancing our predictive capability is holistic geophysical forecasting. This makes use of the fact that the sizes of tsunami-related disturbances are so large and so powerful that they disturb the solid earth, the oceans and the atmosphere. These disturbances do not just lead to mechanical forces and release of heat, as in storms, but they also affect electrical, magnetic and molecular processes, especially higher up in the atmosphere.


Modern instruments have become so sensitive that they can measure magnetic fields one millionth of the strength of the earth's magnetic field, so that tremors in the lithosphere can be detected long before large earthquakes and tsunamis actually occur. Research at the Geoelectromagentic Research Center in Moscow also confirms that the motions in tsunami waves, once initiated, can be detected over many hundreds of kilometers from distant measurements of weak, slowly changing magnetic fields.



Resilient infrastructure

Even with better prediction and warnings, the Indian Ocean tsunami underlined the need for more resilient infrastructure and community planning. Since 2004, for instance, many people near coastlines in the region sleep at higher elevations to avoid surprise tsunamis at night.


Research is now leading to more ambitious solutions for building resilient infrastructures. At several research institutes, including Delft University of Technology, University College London, the University of Arizona, and HS Wallingford, work is under way to explain why, in December 2004 when the waves approached beaches, the sea retreated and then roared up the beach in a huge surge that drowned thousands of people and destroyed many buildings.


With specially constructed laboratory wave-makers, these events have been reproduced; but mathematical models and computations are now needed to turn the experiments into reliable estimates for engineers and for community planners to build tsunami proof-structures and plan more resilient communities. With global warming, these calculations also take account of the increasing danger as the sea level rises—which is happening three times faster in tropical seas where tsunami risk is greatest.


Originally published on the Wall Street Journal.



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