Thursday, 26 January 2017

NFU flood risk strategy

Photo: Clive Simpson

Farmers in Lincolnshire have a key role to play in flood management – but the Government must ensure that measures to address flood risk are properly funded, the NFU (National Farmers' Union) said today.

The call comes in the NFU’s 'Flood Manifesto', launched at Westminster in London just two weeks after communities, properties and productive farmland along the UK's east coast were threatened by a storm surge.

The manifesto urges the Government to adopt a ‘plan, protect and pay’ approach as part of a long-term strategic blueprint for flood and coastal risk management.

NFU East Midlands’ Environment Adviser, Paul Tame says: “The response to the storm surge earlier this month was an excellent example of local and national authorities, emergency services and communities working together in the face of a significant flooding threat.

“We want to see more of this joint working as we plan for long-term challenges, an approach that will include more decisions made at a local level, including devolving responsibilities to Internal Drainage Boards (IDBS) where the Environment Agency is no longer fully funded to carry out maintenance.

“There also needs to be proper assessment of the value of agriculture when looking at flood management. This is crucially important in Lincolnshire, where so much highly productive farmland is at risk of flooding.

“And where agricultural land is part of the solution to flooding, such as providing flood water storage, this must be planned, agreed and paid for.”

The manifesto lists recent flooding events that have affected agriculture, including the winter of 2013 and 2014 when about 45,000 hectares of agricultural land were flooded, at a cost to the sector of £19 million. This included more than 1,000 hectares in Lincolnshire.

NFU Deputy President Minette Batters said: “British farming provides the raw ingredients for an industry worth £108 billion to the UK economy, which also provides 3.9 million jobs.

“It’s the bedrock of the food industry, feeding the nation and playing a part in feeding the world. Some of our most productive and highest value agricultural land lies in floodplains or coastal regions, vulnerable to flooding, and deserves to be protected.

“In short, the Government’s strategy to manage future flood risk must be to plan, protect and pay.”

Photo: Clive Simpson
Improving coastal flood defences is vital to protect agricultural land and rural communities from tidal surges and rising sea levels.

Whilst the frequency of coastal flooding events is lower than fluvial events, the impacts of them can be catastrophic to agriculture. Many low lying areas on the East coast of England, which are vulnerable to storm surge events, are also some of the country’s most productive land.

Lincolnshire, an area affected by the 1953 and 2013 storm surges, produces 25 per cent of all UK-grown vegetables, supports an agri-food industry worth £1 billion annually. Saline water intrusion can lead to long-term reductions in productivity, and large costs in restoring the land. The county is also home to 225, 000 people and handles a high proportion of UK offshore gas imports.

Improving coastal flood defences is vital to protect agricultural land and rural communities from tidal surges and rising sea levels. Funding for coastal defence activities must consider the long-term implications of the inundation of saline water on some of England’s most important and productive agricultural land.

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Climate change accelerates

Photo: Clive Simpson

Europe’s regions are facing rising sea levels and more extreme weather, such as more frequent and more intense heatwaves, flooding, droughts and storms due to climate change, according to a European Environment Agency (EEA) report published today.

The report assesses the latest trends and projections on climate change and its impacts across Europe and finds that better and more flexible adaptation strategies, policies and measures will be crucial to lessen these impacts.

Temperatures in mountain ranges such as the Alps and the Pyrenees are predicted to soar to glacier-melting levels, while the Mediterranean faces a ‘drastic’ increase in heat extremes, droughts, crop failure and forest fires.

Hans-Martin Füssel, a lead author of the EEA report, said that scientific evidence was pointing increasingly to a speeding up in the pace of climate change.

“We have more data confirming that sea-level rise is accelerating,” he said. “It is not a linear trend, largely due to increased disintegration of ice sheets. There is also new evidence that heavy precipitation has increased in Europe. That is what is causing the floods. Climate projections are coming true.”

Earlier this month, NASA, NOAA and the UK Met Office confirmed that 2016 had broken the record for the hottest year ever - previously held by 2015, which had itself broken the record that had been set in 2014.

Hans Bruyninckx, the director of the EEA, says there was now “not a snowball’s chance in hell” of limiting global warming to 2C without the full involvement of the US, which has just elected a climate-sceptic president.

Europe’s thermal growing season is now 10 days longer than in 1992, with delays to the end of the season more dramatic than the advance of its start. In countries such as Spain, warmer conditions are expected to shift crop cultivation to the winter.

New records continue to be set on global and European temperatures, sea levels and reduced sea ice in the Arctic. Precipitation patterns are changing, generally making wet regions in Europe wetter and dry regions drier. Glacier volume and snow cover are decreasing.

At the same time, climate-related extremes such as heat waves, heavy precipitation and droughts, are increasing in frequency and intensity in many regions. Improved climate projections provide further evidence that climate-related extremes will increase in many European regions.

“The scale of future climate change and its impacts will depend on the effectiveness of implementing our global agreements to cut greenhouse gas emissions, but also ensuring that we have the right adaptation strategies and policies in place to reduce the risks from current and projected climate extremes,” adds Bruyninckx.

All European regions are vulnerable to climate change, but some regions will experience more negative impacts than others. Southern and south-eastern Europe is projected to be a climate change hotspot, as it is expected to face the highest number of adverse impacts.

This region is already experiencing large increases in heat extremes and decreases in precipitation and river flows, which have heightened the risk of more severe droughts, lower crop yields, biodiversity loss and forest fires. More frequent heat waves and changes in the distribution of climate-sensitive infectious diseases are expected to increase risks to human health and well-being.

Coastal areas and flood plains in western parts of Europe are also seen as hotspots as they face an increased risk of flooding from rising sea levels and a possible increase in storm surges. Climate change is also leading to major changes in marine ecosystems as a result of ocean acidification, warming and the expansion of oxygen-depleted dead zones.

The report is intended to spur Europe’s sluggish moves towards adaptation strategies for dealing with the impacts of climate change, ahead of an EU review later this year.

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Land of make believe


“Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast,” said Alice in Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland.

And at times in recent months it has seemed that we too might be living in some kind of political fantasy land. But as we jump from one preposterous situation to another one thing is becoming clear - the world is being rapidly transformed in a period of dizzying transition.

For centuries the dominant form of information was always the printed page, meaning knowledge was primarily delivered in a fixed format that encouraged readers to believe in stable and settled truths.

Now, we are seemingly caught in a series of confusing battles between opposing forces: between truth and falsehood, fact and rumour, kindness and cruelty; between the few and the many, the connected and the alienated.

Between too the open platform of the world wide web - as its architects envisioned it - and the gated enclosures of Facebook and other social networks; between an informed public and a misguided mob.

What is common to these struggles - and what makes their resolution an urgent matter - is that they all involve the diminishing status of truth.

Which is not the same as saying there are no truths because, as 2016 has made clear on both sides of the Atlantic, it simply means we can no longer sensibly agree on what those truths are.

In our 24/7 inter-connected culture what now counts as fact is increasingly a view that someone feels to be true. And technology (social media like Facebook have become purveyors of ‘news’) has made it very easy for these ‘facts’ to circulate in a cascade of information with a speed and reach that was unimaginable even a decade ago.

It means the political bombshells of the year, such as the UK’s referendum vote result and the emergence of Donald Trump as President-elect, are not simply the by-products of a resurgent populism or the revolt of those left behind by global capitalism.

Like Brexit, the rise of Trump is also partly a symptom of the rise and rise of social media and at the same time the mass media’s growing weakness, especially in controlling the limits of what it is acceptable to say.

During a vitriolic campaign Trump articulated many ‘truths’ which quickly circulated on social media and became enough on their own to help him secure a winning share of the popular vote.

Such a situation reflects too the ‘promises’ made by those campaigning to leave the EU during the UK referendum. Even basic scrutiny at the time revealed many to be empty, vacuous and unworkable promises. But they all too easily became accepted as ‘truth’.

For the UK, an unsavoury picture of a post Brexit world is now beginning to emerge: one where the rule of law, due process and even fact itself might easily crumble before the might of the mob, who themselves are directed by the Machiavellian schemes of press barons and wannabe dictators.

It seems that prime minster Theresa May appeals to a stereotype that has a deep grip on the English psyche. Sober and commonsensical, she portrays a moral seriousness one might expect from a vicar's daughter, whilst at the same time displaying an Alice in Wonderland quality.


Her public image - based on a track record of capitulation since taking office - might be described as something akin to "pretence” and, so far, her dominant side seems even more superficial than David Cameron.

It is a tribute to the power of cliches and soundbites that we fail to see what is in front of our noses and so few have noticed - the main reason Teresa May is prime minister is because she put ambition before principle.

During the referendum campaign, and probably ever since, May has proved herself somewhat ordinary as an orator of any note. There is certainly no evangelical fervour that her upbringing as a vicar's daughter might have instilled.

But as a politician on the make she seems close to perfect. When Craig Oliver, David Cameron's former chief of communications, wondered if she was secretly an ‘enemy agent’ for the leave side, he was perhaps being too devious.

In fact, May was just making a smart political and career move. Apart from speaking in secret to the likes of Goldman Sachs, she kept her views about the economic consequences of Brexit quiet - so that the Conservative right might accept her as leader if Cameron lost.

Failing to state your honest opinion on the most important decision Britain has taken in decades may seem cowardly enough. But the consequences of May's pretence do not stop with the referendum.


Her manoeuvres since the summer (including on Hinckley B, Heathrow airport and Nissan) have forced her into a position where she must make arguments she cannot hardly believe, on behalf of causes she cannot possibly believe in.

Far from ‘taking back control’, her leadership to date also shows that Brexit is depriving ordinary people of the ability to take decisions, giving privileges to the special interests the leave campaign claimed it was fighting against, and imposing burdens on the taxpayer far greater than the mythical £350 million a week that Vote Leave claimed was sent to Brussels.

May and her defenders say she is responding to the absolute will of the British people but even without the muddy waters of truth versus untruth and a still confusing Brexit strategy, a 52-48 vote was hardly the people speaking as one.

Perhaps, in this post-referendum, pre-Brexit Britain we can more easily understand our prime minister by seeing that she is no different to many others when it comes to abandoning beliefs in favour of ‘truths’.

Disappointingly since taking office, she has failed to level with the public and confront them with the hard choices ahead. Rather than speak plainly, she has proffered the notion that Brexit will be painless.

Now, as prime minister of 'pretences', May is running a government where feelings seem to matter more than fact. She pretends the country should leave the EU, even though she knows its best interests are as a member of the single market.

She offers the illusion that the people are taking back control, even as the freedom to act is lost. She cuts deals in secret, in the hope that the public will never realise that her land of make-believe is going to be an expensive and very different place to live.

For many reasons, the political earthquakes of 2016 have been tectonic in nature and herald a significant lurch to the right in global politics where false truth and self-interest trumps rational and reasoned argument.

How far this continues - and even spreads to other countries in the year ahead - remains to be seen. Strong, statesmanship-like leadership is called for as the clouds of chaos amass menacingly on the political and economic horizons.

Monday, 12 September 2016

Clear and present danger


We’ve had a record-breaking summer and records continue to tumble. And this is not just where the Olympics or Paralympics are concerned.

It’s almost mid-September and a large part of the UK is experiencing one of its hottest days on record for the time of year.

Take a snapshot view of the world in any month of 2016 so far and it seems that we are slipping faster than anticipated into more extreme and unpredictable weather.

Unprecedented temperature levels around the globe mean more heatwaves, flooding, wildfires and hurricanes - climate change is very much becoming a here and now thing rather than something for the future.

In the light of our planet's record-breaking month-on-month temperatures, experts admit they have been taken by surprise and had expected "nothing like" this level of global warming.

The first six months of 2016 averaged 1.3 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial average, which seems too close for comfort to the ambition agreed at the Paris climate summit last December to limit warming to 1.5C.

Globally, July was the warmest month since modern record-keeping began in 1880, with each month since October 2015 setting a new high mark for heat.

The planet is warming at a pace not experienced within the past 1,000 years at least, making it “very unlikely” that the world will stay within a crucial temperature limit agreed by nations just last year, according to NASA’s scientist Gavin Schmidt.

Temperature records  going back further than the 19th century - taken via analysis of ice cores and sediments - also suggest that the warming of recent decades is out of step with any period over the past millennium.

“In the last 30 years we’ve really moved into exceptional territory,” says Schmidt, who is director of Nasa’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. “It’s unprecedented in 1,000 years. There’s no period that has the trend seen in the 20th century in terms of the inclination of temperatures.


Schmidt believes there is a 99 per cent chance that 2016 will be the warmest year on record, with around 20 per cent of the heat attributed to a strong El Niño climatic event. Last year is currently the warmest year on record, itself beating a landmark set in 2014.

“It’s the long-term trend we have to worry about though - there’s no evidence it’s going away and lots of reasons to think it’s here to stay,” Schmidt warns. “There’s no pause or hiatus in temperature increase and people who think this is over are viewing the world through rose-tinted spectacles. This is a chronic problem for society.”

Recent research has established that just five more years of carbon dioxide emissions at current levels will virtually wipe out any chance of restraining temperatures to a 1.5C increase and avoid runaway climate change.

Temperature reconstructions by NASA - using data from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) - show that the global temperature typically rose by between 4-7C over a period of 5,000 years as the world moved out of ice ages.

The temperature rise clocked up over the past century is around 10 times faster and the increasing pace of warming suggests the world will heat up at a rate at least 20 times faster than the historical average.

Dr David Carlson, director of the World Climate Research Programme, adds that models of future warming failed to predict the high temperatures recorded this year, suggesting we might be under-estimating how hot the world will get.

“What concerns me most is that we didn't anticipate these temperature jumps,” he says. “We predicted moderate warmth for 2016 but nothing like the temperature rises we’ve seen.

As we in the UK swelter in abnormally hot September weather it seems that massive temperature hikes, volatile weather and extreme events like floodings and droughts are already becoming the new normal for the world at large.

One might expect such impending natural catastrophe to be something of a priority for any new leader but it seems British politics is determined to bury its head in a quagmire of introspection and banality.


Prime Minister Theresa May, without so much as a nod to the country’s representative democracy, is doggedly pursuing a spurious policy to calve up the United Kingdom and separate it from the rest of Europe.

And, while London burns - to borrow a metaphor from last week’s anniversary of the Great Fire - she also sees it as a priority to pursue an unpopular new policy to create more Grammar schools over and above all else.

Many of the athlete's who accomplished greatness at the 2016 Olympics and Paralympics faced obstacles along the way but found their success by moving through and overcoming their personal roadblocks.

Will our politicians show the same kind of courage? The challenge ahead is a daring one, calling for exceptionally brave and visionary political leadership.

So far in this record breaking summer the UK’s new political masters have shown little sign of that, seemingly content to re-arrange deckchairs on the sun-deck while HMS Brexit heads for the nearest iceberg (assuming there are any left).

Friday, 29 July 2016

Rosetta inspires Vangelis album


Legendary composer and pioneer of electronic music Vangelis has produced a brand new album, ‘Rosetta’, inspired by ESA’s Rosetta mission.

The release of the album by Decca Records on 23 September will coincide with the culmination of Rosetta’s 12-year mission to orbit and land its Philae probe on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Rosetta is set to complete its journey in a controlled descent to the surface of the comet on 30 September.

The story of this mission fuelled Vangelis’ long-held passion for space and inspired him to create his first new studio album in 18 years.

Vangelis’ music is often linked to themes of science, history and exploration. Alongside his Academy award-winning score for ‘Chariots of Fire’, he has written for films including ‘Bladerunner’, ‘Antarctica’, ‘1492: Conquest of Paradise’, ‘The Bounty’ and ‘Alexander’.

“Mythology, science and space exploration are subjects that have fascinated me since my early childhood. And they were always connected somehow with the music I write,” said Vangelis.
ESA’s connection with Vangelis goes back several years to when ESA astronaut André Kuipers was on the International Space Station. André is a big fan and he had a lot of Vangelis’ music with him in space.

After sharing stories and experiences with André via video call from the ISS, Vangelis was inspired to write some music for ESA to mark the landing of Philae on the comet in 2014.

To Vangelis, music is a sacred, basic force of the Universe, its purpose to elevate, inspire and to heal humankind. Never has this been more obvious than on ‘Rosetta’, an album that perfectly blends his fascination with the Universe and his ability to compose stirring music.

“With music, you can enhance emotions and create memories: I believe that what Vangelis wanted to do was share a lasting memory of our Rosetta mission through his music,” says Carl Walker, from ESA’s communication department.

Vangelis has dedicated this new album to everyone who made the ESA’s ongoing Rosetta mission possible, in particular extending the track called ‘Rosetta’s Waltz’ as an expression of his appreciation to the mission team.

“Rosetta has been an amazing journey for everybody involved, both scientifically and technically, but it has also connected emotionally with so many people around the world,” says ESA’s Prof Mark McCaughrean, senior science advisor in the Directorate of Science.

“So you can imagine how proud we were when one of the world’s great composers Vangelis made some music for us at the time of landing, and how excited we are that he’s put together a whole album of original music about this astonishing adventure.”

Thursday, 14 July 2016

Peake surprised at Brexit

ESA's first British astronaut Tim Peake during his spacewalk in January.
Britain must ensure that its world class scientific research is not harmed as a result of the country's referendum decision to leave the EU, the astronaut Tim Peake has said.

Speaking ahead of his visit to the Farnborough International Air Show, the former helicopter test pilot, who returned from a six-month mission to the International Space Station (ISS) in June, described the referendum result as “a surprising decision for everybody”.

But he added that it was important for the country to reunite and get on with securing the best future for Britain.

“Though I missed a lot of the campaigning I’m aware now it caused divisiveness and some of it was not done in the most positive fashion,” he told The Guardian newspaper. “We have to put that behind us now and work on unity and moving forwards.”

Peake said the protection of UK scientific research was a priority in the negotiations that lie ahead.

“We have to make sure we don’t harm ourselves in areas where the EU was particularly good for us. I don’t want to see scientists being punished, and this having negative effects on our science. These are important areas for us to focus on now.”

Night-time Britain and France by Tim Peake taken from the ISS in April.
Scientific research is a major contributor to the UK economy but ironically could be one of the biggest losers as a result of Brexit.

UK universities receive 10 per cent of their research funds from the EU and much of the country’s science is supported by grants from Brussels.

After only two weeks there are already signs that UK organisations are being passed over for EU science collaborations because their future involvement cannot be guaranteed.

Peake had barely been back on Earth a week when Britain voted to leave the EU in a marginal referendum that threw the future unity of the UK into doubt and sent the major political parties into crises from which they have yet to recover.

“I have seen some comments on Twitter saying everything was fine until Tim Peake came back to Earth,” he told the Guardian. “That did make me feel rather bad.”

Yesterday  (Wednesday, 13 July) Peake flew into London Heathrow from Houston to be greeted by a welcome poster featuring his own face. He was back in England for the first time in seven months following his six-month trip to the ISS.


To celebrate his mission as ESA’s first British astronaut and to welcome him home to the UK, Heathrow unveiled Tim as one of its iconic welcome posters which will be viewed by 75 million passengers a year.

Photographs of Tim with his arms outstretched in his distinctive blue overalls, will be showcased across all terminals as part of Heathrow’s welcome campaign which has become a well-recognised greeting for passengers arriving at the airport.

Monday, 11 July 2016

Seeing the (LED) light


There is something of an evangelical fervour about the way public lighting authorities are installing new LED lighting on our streets and roads across the UK.

But in the rush to cut power consumption and save money long-term, our public authorities and the lighting industry itself may be turning a blind eye to serious health risks posed by this new technology.

Increased risks of cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular disease is hardly being championed by the lighting companies that market and promote the benefits of light emitting diodes (LEDs).

A report released this summer by the American Medical Association (AMA) Council on Science and Public Health confirms suspected impacts to human health and the environment caused by excessive amounts of blue light.

‘Human and Environmental Effects of Light Emitting Diode Community Lighting’ presents significant implications for the ongoing, worldwide transition to LEDs as the outdoor lighting technology of choice.

While it supports the use of LED lighting in order to reduce energy consumption and the use of fossil fuels, it also recognises that some LED lights are harmful.

The report details findings from an increasing body of scientific evidence that implicates exposure to blue-rich white light at night to increased risks for cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Blue-rich white LED street lighting can be five times more disruptive to our sleep cycle than conventional street lighting, according to the report.

Recent large surveys have documented that brighter residential night-time lighting is associated with reduced sleep, impaired daytime functioning and a greater incidence of obesity.

As a result of a potential risk to public health from excess blue light exposure, the AMA report encourages attention to optimal design and engineering features when converting from existing lighting technologies to LED.

These include requiring properly shielded outdoor lighting, considering adaptive controls that can dim or extinguish light at night, and limiting the correlated colour temperature (CCT) of outdoor lighting to 3000 Kelvin (K) or lower.

Colour temperature is a measure of the spectral content of light, and higher CCT values indicate a greater amount of blue light.

"This is a timely and important policy statement by the AMA," says Richard Stevens, a cancer epidemiologist at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine and co-author of the report.

"As with most new technology, everyone is enamoured at first because it's so great and does so much for us, but the downsides eventually become apparent. Electric light has great attributes, but we now realise, when poorly used and abused, there are also many problems."

The AMA findings also underscores the fact that detrimental effects of blue-rich LED lighting are not limited to humans.

 “Other species are just as vulnerable to disruption of their circadian rhythms as are humans, and often more so,” explains Travis Longcore, Assistant Professor of Architecture, Spatial Sciences, and Biological Sciences at the University of Southern California.

“Those impacts and others can be reduced by limiting blue-light emissions. Policy makers, government officials, and the American public now have the science and the imprimatur of the AMA to insist that LED installations be designed to reduce impacts on wildlife and human health.”

The issue is an important one and we should have the confidence that it is being properly addressed by those in the UK responsible for our night-time lighting - including local authorities, public bodies and the lighting industry itself.