Monday, 2 November 2015

Leaves on the ground

We are inbetween house moves and are back at The Jockeys for a few weeks, a holiday lodge in the stable blocks at Casewick Stud which lies in gently rolling Lincolnshire countryside a few miles east of Stamford.

The Stud adjoins Casewick Hall, the attractive grounds and outbuildings of which have a public footpath running through between the village of Uffington on the main Stamford to Market Deeping road and the attractive little hamlet of Barholm.

Casewick Hall is a medieval country house that was substantially remodelled in the 17th century. It is thought to be the location of a deserted medieval village mentioned as ‘Casuic’ in the Domesday survey and later as Casewick in a tax list of 1334. 

Daylight may be in short supply at this time of the year but compensations abound when the autumn sun breaks through and transforms the late afternoons into fiery golden vistas.

Our short walk from The Jockeys leaves the elegant driveway at Casewick Stud and joins a public footpath at the back of the hall via a gated, tree-lined avenue.

If you turn left the public footpath takes you diagonally across a large arable field until it abuts the main east coast railway, where there is a foot crossing for those heading towards Barholm.

The opposite direction cuts through the grounds and outbuildings of Casewick Hall, many of which have now been converted to homes.

An enclosed driveway lined by a tall beech hedge soon opens into parkland via a cattlegrid and gateway. Sheep wander nonchalantly across the drive and cows graze in the adjoining fields.

After half a mile the driveway crosses another cattlegrid under a second ornate gateway to join a twisting country lane and the pleasant stroll continues towards Uffington.

When the light is right photo opportunities abound and so here is a selection taken on a couple of recent late afternoon walks. Enjoy!


Monday, 19 October 2015

Ship of the Fens

THERE are times when embarking on a journey or overnight stay one is lucky enough to come across not one but several unexpected gems which combine to make such a visit to a new place so much more enjoyable and worthwhile.

Our recent trip to Ely in the heart of the Cambridgeshire Fens proved one such occasion. This ancient Fenland outpost founded on a lump of conglomerate rock rising incongruously above the surrounding flat land is, of course, most famous for its almighty and imposing cathedral.

Mindful of the notional nature of a fleeting visit and our proximity at the time to the town of Stamford it seemed that a cross country train would be the ideal point from which to commence this mini-visit. We alighted from the gently curving platform at Stamford’s neatly styled stone-built railway station and were soon rattling our way into Peterborough alongside the main east coast line.

One of the country’s fastest growing cities, Peterborough straddles flat fen countryside to the east whilst its western reaches extend into a pleasant and picturesque rolling landscape. A junction of styles and ambitions, it often feels like a contradiction - a dual-personality crossover of ancient and new, still defending its ancient coaching past as a stopover on the old Great North Road whilst being home for modern day commuters who flit backwards and forwards to the capital by high speed train.

After a brief stop at Peterborough’s newly re-modelled station our Stansted-bound train splits off on a spur to the east and is soon trundling across a flat, diminutive and featureless countryside. The monotonous mono-culture fields that seem to reach as far as the sky and characterise this region are punctuated by extensive drainage systems with their horizon-defining banks and lone, singular roads appearing from nowhere to intersect the railway.

This late September morning was overcast and grey, offering an indistinct backdrop for the intense arable farming, the dull and distant appearance of which was compounded by greasy train windows. Soon the line passes through March, which was once the county town of the Isle of Ely until the latter ceased to exist by government decree in 1965. Just a few minutes later the distant cathedral of Ely  looms on the closing horizon like some giant alien artefact.

Our short journey through big skies across a bereft landscape has been as stale as the air on this cramped and fusty train that plies its way back and forth between Birmingham and Stansted airport. But the sun is extending a welcome as the coaches slow into Ely’s business-like station which, with its multiple platforms, is a busy cross-country junction linking Norwich, Cambridge, Peterborough and Birmingham, and London.

So what of the gem-like discoveries? Well, first and for such a small place, there is much within Ely that could easily fit the category, not least the stunning architecture of the cathedral itself.

But for now, we are seeking out something on a smaller scale that might otherwise slip by unnoticed. Topping & Company is a suitably fitting name for any high street shop and once inside you can see why the crime author Alexander McCall Smith described it as “the best bookshop in the world”.

For the book lover or casual shopper it is three floors of literary and tactile delight where serious browsers are afforded complementary coffee, served from a cafetiere in china cups all set on a neat wooden tray.

Beside the second floor window is a small wooden table and chairs where one can sip coffee and repose in a literary paradise, surrounded by the smell of book print and with a tantalising view across the street to the cathedral spires and ramparts. There is no sterility here - Toppings is a treasure.

If this is more than a fleeting, day-time visit there are plenty of overnight accommodations to select from. Nowhere is more welcoming option than Peacock’s Tearoom and Fine B&B, just a stone’s throw from the River Ouse and its boating community.

As the name would suggest, this is a traditional English tearoom - tasteful, sumptuous and quirky, with a hint of French eccentricity, all of which makes it popular with locals and visitors alike.

Peacocks is run by the charming and delightful George Peacock, an ex-criminal defence lawyer in another life, and his attractive wife Rachel. More recently they converted the upstairs of the two joined up 1800s cottages into a couple of delightful bed and breakfast suites, each with its own private sitting room, separate bedroom and pleasant facilities.

This really is English bed and breakfast as it should be. Peacocks exudes character and charm - overflowing book cases, comfortable old chairs, antique furniture and a restored market trolley doubling as a coffee table.

Pick the day of your visit to Ely wisely and you can also enjoy the city’s lively traditional market on Thursdays and Saturdays, along with an eclectic craft, flower and food stalls on occasional Sundays through the year.

On non-market days, however, the large, block-paved square is rather featureless and seems surplus to requirements - bland, unimaginative modernity contrasting starkly with the magnificent stonework and intrinsic creativity of the city’s cathedral - a ‘Ship of the Fens’ dating back to 672 AD when St Etheldreda first built an Abbey Church.

Words and photos: Clive Simpson

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Renewables under attack

If you are colour blind there is sometimes a blurry line when it comes to discerning the difference between green and blue - as British Prime Minister David Cameron seems to be making increasingly clear.

His bold claim on coming to power for the first time in 2010 to be leading the “greenest government ever” was rapidly dismantled - almost as quickly as the floods and storms of 2013 destroyed homes and livelihoods.

This summer the UK has experienced one of its wettest ever August months and globally the year once again promises to be amongst the hottest on record. Glaciers are retreating and global sea levels have risen by 8 cm in two decades as a result of warmer ocean water and melting ice caps.

A growing body of evidence suggests that climate change is very real - and international negotiations on the establishment of climate change controls are scheduled to reach their peak in Paris in December.

Yet within a few months of being elected for a second term, Cameron’s majority Conservative government has pretty much made it clear it wants very little to do with renewable technology.

In June it announced cuts to financial support to developers of new onshore wind turbines, the cheapest form of renewable power available. And last week it announced it intends to slash subsidies that help families and small businesses install solar panels.

Why have David Cameron and his chancellor George Osborne decided over the last few months to abandon key government commitments to protecting the environment and its pledges to create new green technologies that could wean us off our urge to burn fossil fuels?

Meanwhile, a commitment by Britain’s biggest suppliers six biggest energy companies to help tackle climate change has been called into question after it emerged all have quietly dropped their green electricity tariffs.

Despite the major suppliers - which together provide 90 per cent of UK household power -  all making public commitments to tackle climate change by reducing carbon emissions not one of now offers a renewable energy tariff.

The UK’s solar industry, which is already reeling from a wave of damaging policy changes, was shocked and taken by surprise by last week's government publication of its scheduled review of the Feed-in-Tariff  (FIT) scheme for supporting small-scale renewables.

The Solar Trade Association (STA) had already been engaging with officials and ministers over the last few months demonstrating how the FIT framework could be reformed to provide better value for money while targeting parity with fossil energy around 2020.

Its ‘Solar Independence Plan for Britain’, published in June, sets out proposals based on a detailed budget model of the solar Feed-in Tariff. The STA estimates that it will cost just another £1.70 per year on energy bills between now and 2020 to deliver a million more solar homes and grid parity.

Mike Landy, head of policy at the STA, says: “We don't agree with these self-defeating proposals and will be urging DECC to take up our alternative. A sudden cut combined with the threat of scheme closure is a particularly bad idea – it will create a huge boom and bust that is not only very damaging to solar businesses and jobs but does nothing to help budget constraints.

“We really are astonished at how self-defeating these proposals are. Instead, we are calling on the government to work with the solar industry to deliver our plan for a stable glide path to subsidy-free solar.”

Like a number of other issues that have suddenly come to the fore, the Conservative manifesto for the elections in May said nothing about attacking the British solar industry, which has flourished thanks to public support and delivered unprecedented cost cuts.

The STA, along with 100 local authorities, community energy groups and professional associations, has already written to the Prime Minister in support of FITs and days that when Parliament returns it intends to grow this alliance and fight hard for a more sensible policy.

Landy adds: “If DECC (Department of Energy & Climate Change) and the Treasury insist on making such damaging and unjustified cuts they will need to develop alternative policy proposals to drive commercial sector deployment. The upcoming Energy Efficiency Tax Review provides exactly the opportunity to do so. But we need to see some positive proposals very quickly to mitigate the shattering of confidence across the solar industry.”

It would seem that the government has once again adopted a short-sighted, market-driven attitude - not just from the perspective of national prestige but also in terms of lost opportunity. Sooner or later the world is going to end up depending on renewable power and the UK has much to gain from developing not shrinking its expertise and influence.

The proposals set out by DECC, which is itself under threat, will see tariff rates for domestic schemes (now up to 10kW) cut from 12.9p today to 1.63p/kWh next January. The deadline for responses to the consultation is 23 October and you can make your own comments using this link - online survey

Sunday, 19 July 2015

Sea levels rising

Detroit skyline.                                                                                                          Clive Simpson

Essential indicators of Earth’s changing climate continue to reflect trends of a warming planet, with several markers such as rising land and ocean temperature, sea levels and greenhouse gases all setting new records in 2014. 

The findings are included in the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) 'State of the Climate in 2014' report published this week.

NOAA warns cities and businesses to expect ever higher levels of coastal flood risk after sea levels hit record highs. The agency confirmed that average sea levels have risen by 3.2 mm every year since 1993 - meaning that in 2014 sea levels were about 67 mm higher than in 1993.

The report, which is compiled annually by US government climate scientists, also revealed land and sea temperatures reaching record highs in 2014, while atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases also soared.

Ocean temperatures are at their warmest since records began 135 years ago, the report says. The record warming is contributing to sea level rise - helping to melt glaciers more quickly and causing ocean expansion (water slowly expands as it warms).

Greg Johnson, an oceanographer at NOAA's Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, suggested thinking of the warming effect as if it were a fly wheel or freight train.

"It takes a big push to get it going but it is moving now and will continue to move long after we continue to stop pushing it," he explained.

The report also noted that warmer ocean temperatures raise the risk of severe storms, which are made more dangerous by high ocean levels. Warm ocean temperatures in the Pacific are also producing warmer winters and worsening drought conditions on the US West Coast, scientists said.

The news came on the same day as a new joint report was released by the Rockefeller Foundation and the Lancet Commission, revealing that climate change is jeopardizing the future health of the human population.

Braulio Ferreira De Souza Dias, scientific advisor for the Lancet Commission, said: “We are moving closer than ever before to triggering potentially irreversible impacts, and jeopardizing the health of our ecosystems and that of present and future generations.”

It also comes in the same week as a major report argued that we should prepare for climate change in the same way as we would a nuclear war or terrorist attack - by planning for the worst-case scenario.

Even a small increase in sea level can cause a large increase in the risk of flooding. A global sea level rise of just one metre - the most we are likely to see this century, according to the report's lead author Sir David King - turns what would have been a one-in-a-hundred year flood in New York into a twice a year catastrophe.

State of the Climate in 2014

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Logo goes up in smoke


I always enjoy a good rocket launch and last night's Ariane 5 from French Guiana carrying Europe's latest weather satellite for EUMETSAT was no exception.

It was especially good to see the giant MSG-4 logo on the side of the Ariane rocket because the logo was designed for EUMETSAT by myself and Andrew Hunt back in 2002.

At the time I ran the award-winning media agency SimComm Europe, which was based in Havant near Portsmouth, and Andy freelanced for us.

I worked extensively for both EUMETSAT, based in Darmstadt, Germany, and for the media and public outreach departments of ESA's Paris headquarters and Netherlands technology base, writing and producing annual reports, newsletters, website copy, press releases and brochures.

For our humble MSG logo this last night’s launch was its fourth and final flight into space on the side of an Ariane 5 rocket. This was the press release we issued back on 22 August 2002: 

Giant logo emblazoned on European rocket

The design work of a Havant company will quite literally be going into orbit shortly before midnight tonight.

A giant logo created by SimComm Europe is on the side of Europe's Ariane 5 rocket which is due to blast a new European weather satellite into space.

The launch of the first Meteosat Second Generation satellite for Europe's German-based Eumetsat weather organisation is scheduled for 2330 BST from French Guiana in South America.

SimComm, based in Brockhampton Lane, has been working with Eumetsat for a number of years and designed the logo for use in various kinds of publicity material connected with the launch.

"The logo has been used in many documents and on stickers, pens and notebooks," said SimComm managing director Clive Simpson.

"However, we're delighted to see  our work on the side of a rocket - it's quite a coup for a PR and design agency, and not every day you get such prestigious exposure."

Meteosat Second Generation will replace the current series of weather satellites which provide the pictures and information for our daily weather forecasts.

In 2003 SimComm also wrote, produced and handled the worldwide distribution of Eumetsat’s MSG information book and user guide.

The 80-page full colour document, in both English and French versions, promoted the value of the Meteosat Second Generation programme.

SimComm writer Lucy Owens (now Mrs Lucy Kemp), who also acted as deputy editor for myself on Spaceflight magazine, went on a press trip to French Guiana for the first MSG launch.

Unfortunately, as is so often the case with launches, her trek to South America proved in vain as far as witnessing a spectacular launch was concerned after a technical fault delayed it beyond the scheduled length of the press trip.

Article by Clive Simpson

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

They do it with lenses

Hot and sunny days like the current mini-heatwave across the UK are just what are needed for the testing of a ground-breaking experimental solar power system which has the potential to generate carbon-free electricity in a new way.

The pioneering solar steam project is undergoing a series of tests this summer to further prove and develop the system as a potential alternative form of renewable technology.

Surrounded by protective fencing and with its own mini control centre, the test structure dominates the sky-line at the offices of sustainable development company the Larkfleet Group in the small market town of Bourne.

With the support of Cranfield University and its own modest R&D budget, the Larkfleet solar steam plant is believed to be the largest practical demonstration anywhere of a fresnel lens (as opposed to fresnel reflector) system for the concentration of solar power. 

The futuristic construction is essentially a collection of giant lenses - manufactured in plastic to keep costs low - designed to concentrate the energy of sunlight onto metal piping and heat water to boiling point.

It measures just over 13 metres (42 feet) long by 5.5 metres (18 feet) high when extended to its maximum and the metal framework holds a series of lenses which concentrate refracted sunlight onto a 9 metre (30 feet) long metal pipe to heat water circulated inside. Full-size systems will be very much larger.

To maintain maximum power generation the lenses need to constantly track the sun in both azimuth and elevation - and so the rig needs to be automated.

"The principle is already proved and we are now looking at enhancing the tracking system to make it fully automatic," says Simone Perini (pictured below), a solar energy expert who joined Larkfleet's R&D team from Cranfield University last year.

Light weight, low cost plastic lenses make accurate tracking possible both horizontally and vertically using relatively light mechanisms.

An automated dual-axis tracking system being developed as part of the project will concentrate solar irradiation with limited external input.

The system creates a solution for industrial heat users in areas of high direct sun/clear sky locations for modular thermal energy production deployment

"Cost reductions and accurate tracking more than compensate for any loss of optical quality,” explains Perini. “Plastic lenses are less expensive to produce than vast arrays of glass mirrors now being used on comparable power generation systems throughout the world.

"It is challenging but a lot of work has been done already and it is an innovative project with great potential. For the same reason is very exciting."

Data will be gathered during a summer of testing before an evaluation phase leading to the next stage of development starts in September.

A quick search under solar steam on the internet does reveal a plethora of small scale amateur projects using a few lenses. “The difference here in Bourne is that we are running a full-scale demonstration R&D project,” says Perini. “I did find a similar plant being built in Japan but this was based on a point focus solar furnace so is quite different.”

As well as developing the system itself, Larkfleet is also assessing the potential market for such solar steam renewable technology.

One possibility is using it to generate electricity by driving a turbine - but it has many other potential uses so there are big incentives to make it as efficient as possible.

"We believe this is the sort of system that could be attractive to SMEs in the small scale solar market for any process heating system that requires heat of between 80 and 250 degrees," says Matthew Hicks, the group's renewables investment director.

"It would be extremely valuable in parts of the world where the sun is the only readily available source of energy and could be used to power desalination plants, refrigeration, sterilisation, chemical purification and numerous kinds of waste treatment," he added.

The system - already attracting interest from around the globe - might even be integrated into traditional power stations to reduce the burning of fossil fuels.

"The solar steam could be fed to the power station generators so gas or coal would only need to be burned at night or on days when solar power is not enough to meet demand," Hicks suggests.

"The solar steam rig provides an opportunity for looking into a new method of low carbon energy generation and is very much a long-term project - we will trial the technology fully before coming to any conclusions about its future potential."

Larkfleet Group is a privately-owned house building and development organisation with a strong record in creating high quality homes and communities.

It specialises in building energy-efficient housing and continually invests in research and the development of innovative new sustainable building designs, materials and construction methods.

It is also a major developer of sustainable energy projects and a provider of energy-efficiency improvements for new and existing buildings.

Larkfleet Group companies are currently developing large photovoltaic (PV) solar farms, adding PV panels to new and existing buildings at a variety of scales, and refurbishing existing homes to reduce their carbon footprint, energy use and energy costs.

Photos & article by Clive Simpson

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Day trip into history


I’ve arrived at Moscow's Domodevovo airport and seem to have been delivered through customs surprisingly quickly. Taxi drivers congregate and I scan their handwritten signs.

I head for one with a Metop logo, the spacecraft I have been brought out to see. I ask if it is for me but he says no. Ten minutes later he comes up and asks “are you Mr Simpson?” It's for me.

It’s a rough old car. None of the dials on car dashboard work so there is no speedo but I guess that’s no problem here. More importantly, perhaps, the radio is working fine, blaring out music and chat in Russian.

Moscow has many airports, both civilian and military. There is a lot of public transport too - trolley buses, railways and trams. At this time the main airport was not linked by rail to the city so it was a one hour taxi ride, if the traffic favours you.

I’m struck by the number of people walking on the side of busy multi-carriageway roads. There also seem to be a disproportionately large number of cars either broken down or parked on the roadside. It’s all very congested and polluted on this warm, summer’s evening - my first experience of Russia.

The sun is still quite high and brings a crisp, reddish outline to the buildings, homes and offices as we speed towards central Moscow and the ‘grand' Metropole hotel, which I understand is close to Red Square.

By now it is 9 pm in the evening local time and it has been a long day. I am one of the last of the international journalists to arrive to join this Press trip so there is just time to check in before we are whisked out and around the corner to a ‘traditional' tourist-style Russian restaurant.

Our hosts are dressed in colourful costume. It is dark and dimly lit inside and we are offered chunks of crusty bread to dip in salt, a traditional Russian greeting. There are shots of mead and of vodka for each of us, along with much cranberry juice and wine for the meal.  We dine on a Russian ‘tapas', followed by a salmon main course and apple pie. Mmmm, slightly English that - didn’t expect salmon and apple pie for my first Russian meal.

It's 11 pm and dusk is falling by the time we finish. Though it is late and the coming day will be long too, I decide to take a stroll to Red Square. It will be my only chance to see this Russian icon.

There are many people about, Muscovites, tourists and a few guards. It is beginning to get quite dark and the illuminated buildings look stunning. I take many photos and wish I had a tripod to reduce the low light camera shake.

The next morning we are braced for a 5 am (2 am UK time) alarm call. No time for any breakfast but there is a table to help yourself to hot takeaway teas and coffees as we are whisked onto a coach for a ride through early morning Moscow. There are many beautiful buildings. The sun is rising into a blue sky. It is still very quiet on the wide roads and boulevards. Much of the city is still asleep.

The trip to Baikonur involves a charter flight from Moscow’s Pulkovo airport. We board a Tupolev TU-134, which I would describe as a rather quaint, twin-engined jet.

It was old and stylish, with wooden fittings, and curtains at the windows. The seats had seen better days and I guessed the aeroplane had already plied many decades of service. Our flight time would be about three hours and ten minutes.

We were headed for Baikonur, the legendary Russian launch site where Yuri Gagarin blasted mankind on the first step of its on-going journey to the stars.

Though we would get to see just about everything else, on this occasion we were not there to witness an actual launch. We would, instead, be briefed on the final preparations for the upcoming flight of a new European weather and climate monitoring satellite, called Metop.

Baikonur is a Russian controlled enclave in Kasakhstan so thankfully there was no need for an additional visa. It is two hours ahead of Moscow, five hours ahead of UK time.

Even from the air you get the feeling that Baikonur is a remote and desolate place. After 30 minutes or so we've flown just east of the Aral sea, a shrinking area of water. Five times the size of France, Kazakhstan is bordered by Russia to the north, the Caspian Sea, and China to the southeast.

Most of the country is made up of steppe, the sand massives of the Kara Kum and the vast desert of Kizilkum, while in the southeast the mountains of the Tien Shan and the Altai form a great natural frontier with tens of thousands of lakes and rivers.

To the east of the Aral Sea, in an area of otherwise un-inhabited desert, lies the Baikonur cosmodrome. There are check points at all major entry points and its airport has two scheduled flights per week to Moscow.

Flying into Baikonur by plane, one can’t help but be struck by the huge expanses of flat sandy desert, broken only by patches of scrub vegetation and deep red scars of rock, exposed by the elements.

The plane looses height quickly, and with a couple of turns we are lined up on the runway. This is the 20 km of tarmac built for the Buran shuttle, which landed here after its one and only flight.

Despite the rough tarmac appearance our landing is smooth and the pilot lets the plane run out for some distance, before executing a sharp u-turn. Eventually he eases off and we come to rest near a near a green shed where two dogs run out to greet their Russian visitor. Luggage is carried from our aircraft in an army truck. There are no civilians in sight, it’s all uniformed military personnel.

This really is like a frontier town, nothing for miles around and about a 40 minute drive for project workers everyday to the famed cosmodrome. As western visitors we are definitely not allowed the freedom of hire cars so a coach has laid on by our hosts Starsem from the hotel.

When it was founded in 1955, the Cosmodrome was dubbed ’Baikonur’ in an attempt to mislead the West about its true location. Infact, the original Baikonur is actually a mining town about 320 kilometres northeast of the space centre.

Administered by Russia and constructed to service the cosmodrome, the city outside the space centre (now called Baikonur as well) went by the name Leninsk until 1995, when it was renamed by the then President, Boris Yeltsin.

Baikonur town is a shadow of its former self. Once formal parks and gardens are now patches of dirty sand and overgrown grass. At the height of the Buran/Energia programme - Russia’s answer to the Space Shuttle - the population peaked at around 130,000 but is now down to around 30,000.

As well as Yuri Gagarin, first human in space, the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, was launched from Baikonur. All subsequent Russian manned missions have lifted off from here, as well as other Earth orbiting, lunar and planetary missions.

As a republic within the USSR, Kazakhstan suffered greatly from Stalinist purges and environmental damage, and saw the ethnic Russian portion of its population rise to nearly 40 percent.

Our appropriately named Sputnik hotel was an unimaginative slab of a building, basic but pleasant enough inside. Opposite the main entrance was it’s saving grace, a monument to Sputnik.

There are monuments everywhere - no mistaking this as a space town. But the parks are mostly overgrown and many of the huge apartment blocks lie half empty.

Outside of the town, the desert-like scenery is unforgiving on the eye and it seems a long drive to Baikonur’s cosmodrome. The scrub landscape is an orange dusty colour and the landscape is littered with regimented and dissecting lines of pylons carrying electricity to the power hungry launch facilities. A railway track alongside the road adds some interest to the wide, flat landscape.

The cosmodrome, too large to fence-in, is a scattering of sites. Old facilities are left to decay, as is any unused or unclaimed item. Derelict buildings, discarded machinery and metalwork populate this desert.

The facilities in use today are smart and efficient. A big attraction of the launch site continues to be its cheapness and reliability in recent decades a significant amount of Western money has come into Russia’s satellite launching business..

We are waiting to catch sight for the first time of the famous launch gantries. The railway bends off to right on a spur. The big sky is overcast and grey but it's very warm, around 40 degrees. I’m pleased we're in an air conditioned coach. As we finally arrive at the cosmodrome there's a very real sense of walking in the footsteps of history.

Article and photos by Clive Simpson. For travel or writing commissions please email.

Monday, 16 February 2015

Mashed bananas

There's no real debate about the fact that bananas and milk both taste good and are generally a healthy option in our diet. But these modern-day food staples also have in common a much less savoury side. And the murky economics of 21st century banana retailing might be doing us all disfavour in the long run.

British supermarkets - and in particular the in-vogue Aldi and Lidl discounters - use both bananas and milk as huge loss leaders. And in the process are driving all but the biggest producers of both out of business.

“To industry observers, bananas demonstrate how low European hard discount pioneers will go to secure their customers' loyalty,” says Alistair Smith, international coordinator of Banana Link.

“The banana business model they have adopted is uncompromising and the impacts of the strategy on people and the environment are very serious.”

Unions representing plantation and packhouse workers believe the hard discounters are using the fruit as a hook to get new customers through their doors at the expense of those who labour hard to produce it.

It seems that Aldi, followed by Lidl, play the competition rules in their home market closer to the letter than to the spirit of the law.
Banana prices fixed by Aldi on a quarterly basis (since 2011) are for fruit delivered to the ripener, but the transport costs from there on are not included in the company's retail price-setting calculations.

If they were to include transport costs to depots and on to their stores, then Aldi (and other supermarket chains that follow the same business model) would almost certainly fall foul of the German competition authorities for below-cost selling when they retail bananas at 79 or 85 euro cents per kilo.

In the UK supermarkets like Asda - and retailers who only offer Fairtrade-labelled bananas, like J Sainsbury - have been selling loose bananas at or below cost for several years, making up some or all of the 'sacrificed' margins on bagged fruit. Unlike in France or Germany, below-cost selling in the British market is not illegal.

“This allows the major retailers in the UK who, with the exception of The Co-operative Group, all sell loose bananas at or below cost to argue legitimately they are not breaking any law and it is their own sovereign decision to fund this near-permanent rock-bottom price,” claims Smith.

“And so, led by Aldi and Asda, the race to the bottom in the European banana market is fuelled by the belief that cheap bananas are what everybody needs or wants.”

Even more serious for those trying to construct a sustainable future for the industry is that all attempts to reverse this race in Europe's two biggest markets are frustrated.

Tesco, Sainsbury and Waitrose have all attempted to raise the loose banana retail price since the permanent price war set in four or more years ago in the UK.

“But every time the cynical Asda price-setters have sat it out - safe in the knowledge, from their point of view, that every kilo sold at £0.68  (0,87 euro at 5 January 2015 rates) hurts their competitors' margins more than it hurts their own,” says Smith.

And it seems that as long as customers prefer a ready-bagged 'Pack of 10' that costs £1.00 a kilo in Asda, there are still profits to be recouped.

Other banana retailing worlds do exist. In France, apart from the occasional short-lived price promotion at 0,89 or 0,99 cents/kilo, it seems major retailers have little or no appetite for systematically sacrificing their margins as hard discounters do in Germany and the UK.

Carrefour, Auchan, Leclerc or Intermarché are far from infringing national legislation that prohibits below-cost selling.

Banana retail margins in France are more substantial, with an average retail price across all outlets exceeding 1,50 euro/kilo. Typically, a kilo of loose bananas from the same supplier sold in the UK at £0.68 can be found at €1,49 in a French hypermarket. Loose bananas in smaller city centre outlets are usually €1,79 or €1,99.

Of course, none of this value generated at the retail end in France is systematically available for investment in producing countries; and the Fairtrade market share is very small compared to the UK, even though it is growing again for the first time in many years; Fairtrade loose bananas are non-existent.

In North American markets banana retail margins are more typically where they were in the UK before price wars became a permanent feature.

“Along with consumption retail prices have risen in the USA - bananas have always liked to confound conventional economic theory,” adds Smith.

As US retail pricing shows, a global giant like Asda/Walmart does not have a single global policy when it comes to pricing. “We are dealing with what the retailers call 'price-flexing', but at a planetary scale when it comes to Walmart,” explains Smith.

Bananas are, of course, not the only Known Value Item (KVI) that suffer from inter-retailer price wars in the UK. Milk, oranges, bread and pork pies are victims too, with producers and those they employ at home and abroad the ones who have to pay the not-so-hidden costs.

More worrying for the competitors of Aldi and Lidl is it seems bananas may be helping bring people through the doors of the hard discounters as consumer change their shopping habits.

Complexity lies behind such a simple statement and Aldi's banana retail prices per kilo for conventional bananas in the UK are even harder to work out than in other retailers.

First, the retailer does not deal in loose bananas (where prices per kilo are posted for customers to see). They sell packs of three in a plastic tray at £0.39, a seven 'Funsize' pack at £1.09, or Organic Fairtrade at £1.39 per kilo.

Second, however, a truth that is of great concern to their UK competitors is that Aldi and Lidl both sell more than double the volume of bananas than their overall food market share would indicate.

Intriguingly for banana-watchers, it seems this high banana volume is not based on price, especially as the Aldi per kilo retail price works out at well above the £0.68 the other major retailers espouse.

Aldi and Lidl are attracting increasingly 'up-market' customers away from the big four or five traditional retailers, in many cases through massive advertising campaigns. And thesenew consumers are not the traditional hard discount customers with whom the German discounters forged their entrance into the UK.

“The lack of visibility of a price per kilo reinforces the theory that, actually, the great majority of banana consumers do not look at the price; they just know they are cheap,” says Smith.

Tesco trades almost one banana in every 13 sold in the European Union, more than any other retailer. But its biggest single food-line is barely contributing to profits, as bananas do for almost all other retailers worldwide.

Now that almost all the bananas they sell are sourced directly from growers across six countries, with written multi-annual contracts to boot, the company is feeling the market heat.

In both the UK and Ireland Tesco is losing customers to hard discounters who buy their bananas cheaper and sell them at a higher price. Economics on its head - but ethics too.

So Europe's biggest banana seller has decided to differentiate itself through a responsible sourcing strategy, which is still in its infancy but which shows enormous promise.

In 2014, two inter-related commitments set the stage for a transformation of the European banana market that should be welcome news for all.

Last March, a public document called ‘Trading Responsibly’ committed Tesco to covering the costs of sustainable production in all their banana supply chains; for the time being they are using the Fairtrade ‘minimum price’, set by Fairtrade International, as the benchmark for a sustainable price to its suppliers.

Where this price was not attained in 2014, the difference in price to suppliers has been set aside whilst a mechanism to transfer the money to workers and their families is being designed.        

Linked to that, in November, the company stated in a blog on its website that it will ensure that by 2017 living wages will be paid on all the banana plantations that grow and pack exclusively for Tesco (of which there are growing number spread across the four major Latin American exporting countries).

“A race to the top in the ethical content and the prices paid for bananas is now only being held back by the short-sighted strategies of a couple of other powerful multinational retailers,” says Smith.

A good rallying-point for all concerned is the third global conference of the World Banana Forum in the Dominican Republic at the end of June this year.

According to Kevin McCullough, head of campaigns at the Fairtrade Foundation, loose bananas bought in the UK today are so cheap that around three in four banana workers in countries that supply UK supermarkets live below the poverty line.

"Over the last 10 years, the retail price of loose bananas has halved while the cost of producing them has doubled - and it is banana farmers and workers in the developing world that pay the price, with many trapped in an unrelenting cycle of poverty,” he said.

"Retailers including Sainsbury’s, Waitrose and The Co-operative sell 100 percent Fairtrade bananas, which means they can provide an independent assurance that banana farmers and workers are not suffering as a result of low prices for shoppers.

"Recent research for the Fairtrade Foundation’s ‘Make Bananas Fair’ campaign found that more than eight in ten UK consumers are willing to pay more for their bananas, if the farmers and workers who produced them benefit.

"Instead of being shocked by the price of bagged bananas over loose ones we should be ensuring that banana farmers and workers aren’t being asked to pay the price for our cheap fruit."

Article by Clive Simpson. Note: Aldi, Lidl and Asda declined the opportunity to provide a response prior to publication of this article.

Friday, 6 February 2015

Global is new local

It turns out that the residents of Beijing and Delhi are not the only ones feeling the effects of their cities’ air pollution - an unwanted by-product of coal-fired economic development.

Researchers looking at how Asian pollution is changing weather and climate around the globe and have found pollution from China affects cloud development in the North Pacific and strengthens extra-tropical cyclones.

These large storms punctuate US winters and springs about once a week, often producing heavy snow and intense cold.

Tainted air is known to cross the Pacific Ocean, adding to homegrown air-quality problems on the US West Coast. But now scientists say the story doesn’t stop there - because pollution doesn't just pollute.

Researchers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and the California Institute of Technology, both in Pasadena, California, are looking at how Asian pollution is changing weather and climate around the globe.

Scientists call airborne particles of any sort - human-produced or natural - aerosols. And the simplest effect of increasing aerosols is to increase clouds.

To form clouds, airborne water vapour needs particles on which to condense. With more aerosols, there can be more or thicker clouds.

During the last 30 years, clouds over the Pacific Ocean have grown deeper, and storms in the Northwest Pacific have become about 10 percent stronger. This is the same time frame as the economic boom in Asia.

JPL researcher Jonathan Jiang and his postdoctoral fellow, Yuan Wang, designed a series of experiments to see if there was a connection between the two phenomena.

They used a numerical model that included weather factors such as temperature, precipitation and barometric pressure over the Pacific Ocean as well as aerosol transport - the movement of aerosols around the Earth.

They did two sets of simulations. The first used aerosol concentrations thought to have existed before the industrial revolution. The other used current aerosol emissions. The difference between the two sets showed the effects of increased pollution on weather and climate.

"We found that pollution from China affects cloud development in the North Pacific and strengthens extra-tropical cyclones," said Wang.

He explained that increased pollution makes more water condense onto aerosols in these storms. During condensation, energy is released in the form of heat. That heat adds to the roiling upward and downward airflows within a cloud so that it grows deeper and bigger.

"Large, convective weather systems play a very important role in Earth's atmospheric circulation," Jiang said, bringing tropical moisture up to the temperate latitudes. The storms form about once a week between 25 and 50 degrees north latitude and cross the Pacific from the southwest to the northeast, picking up Asia's pollutant outflow along the way.

Wang thinks the cold winter that the US east coast endured in 2013 probably had something to do with these stronger extratropical cyclones - and the intense storms could also have affected the upper-atmosphere wind pattern, called the polar jet stream.

Jiang and Wang are now working on a new experiment to analyse how increased Asian emissions are affecting weather even farther afield than North America. Although their analysis is in a preliminary stage, it suggests that the aerosols are having a measurable effect on climatic conditions around the globe.

Closer to home - a gas-fired power station in Spalding, Lincs, UK.                    Photo: Clive Simpson

Jiang says that Asian emissions have made him and some other climate researchers conceptualise Earth differently.

"Before, we thought about the north-south contrast: the northern hemisphere has more land, the Southern Hemisphere has more ocean. This difference is important to global atmospheric circulation and now, in addition, there's a west-east contrast.

“Europe and North America are reducing emissions - Asia is increasing them. That change also affects the global circulation and perturbs the climate."

Report by Clive Simpson freelance journalist

Friday, 16 January 2015

Beagle found on Mars


This is what it should have looked like. A tiny series of platelets no bigger than a dustbin lid flattened against the reddish dust of Mars, gathering sunlight and sending back juicy data.

It was the mission that inspired a generation and we thought it had been lost for ever. But now it has been discovered by scientists operating a camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO).

Beagle 2 - named after Darwin's exploration ship - hitched a ride on ESA's Mars Express orbiter as the only robot up to that time designed specifically to look for signs of life on the red planet.

It left the mother craft on 19 December 2003 and was on course to land on the Martian surface on Christmas Day but in the end sent no signal back.
In February 2004, after two months of attempts to make contact, the project's scientists and engineers led by Prof Pillinger of the Open University, finally accepted their mission was lost.

Beagle 2 was planned to hit the thin Martian atmosphere at 13,000 mph and mission scientists favoured the theory that a freak thinning of the atmosphere caused the lander to go in too fast.

They thought the craft may have burned up in the atmosphere, its parachute could have failed or become entangled, or the shock-absorbing air bags may have under performed.

As Editor of Spaceflight magazine at the time I wrote about the inspirational British programme on many occasions and interviewed the late Prof Colin Pillinger about its fate.

At a press conference in London in May 2004, Prof Pillinger (pictured below) told me that it could also have been something as simple as a failed transistor or a piece of wiring. It turns out he might not have been far from wrong.

Prof Pillinger at the May 2004 press conference

Of course, the ever-optimistic Prof Pillinger was always of the view that one day the tiny craft created and built in British laboratories and cheekily flown piggyback on a European space probe would be discovered.

So, at an eagerly anticipated press conference organised by the UK Space Agency (UKSA) today, a new and perhaps final chapter was written in the story of the first British mission to Mars.

It was all made possible by an instrument known in NASA-speak as ‘HiRise’ on MRO, the only camera in Mars orbit that can image the surface in high enough detail to spot missing spacecraft.

It has already found the twin Viking landers, which touched down on Mars in the 1970s, and photographed Nasa's Phoenix, Curiosity and Opportunity rovers. The team had been actively hunting for Beagle 2 for several years.
"HiRise is the only camera at Mars that can see former spacecraft like Beagle 2,” said Shane Byrne, a scientist on the HiRise team at the University of Arizona. “It's definitely pretty close to its intended landing spot, no matter what. It entered the atmosphere at the right time and place.”

Designed to look for signs of life on Mars, Beagle 2 carried a drilling instrument to poke beneath the surface. Its release from Mars Express went smoothly, placing Beagle 2 on course for a landing site at Isidis Planitia, a huge plain near the Martian equator.

The lander deployed a parachute on its way down to the Martian surface and inflated triple air bags at the last minute to cushion the impact.

Rumours that remnants of the lander had been found were sparked at the beginning of this week when the UKSA scheduled a press conference to announce an unexpected “update” on Beagle 2.

Dr David Parker, UKSA chief executive, opened the packed press conference in London by confirming what we pretty much already knew by then - that Beagle 2 is “no longer lost”.

He said: “We are not looking at a crash site. The new images show good evidence of Beagle 2 resting on Mars. They are consistent with the spacecraft having landed on the planet’s surface.”

Alvaro Giménez, ESA’s director of science and robotic exploration, described how not knowing what happened to Beagle 2 had been a nagging worry.

“We are very happy to learn that Beagle 2 touched down on Mars,” he said. “The dedication of the various teams in studying high-resolution images in order to find the lander is inspiring.”

The images were initially searched by Michael Croon, a former member of the Mars Express operations team at ESA’s Space Operations Centre, ESOC, in Darmstadt, Germany, working in parallel with members of the Beagle 2 industrial and scientific teams.

The small size of Beagle 2 – less than 2 m across when fully deployed – meant this was a painstaking endeavour, right at the limit of the resolution of the camera technology.

After the identification of potential parts of Beagle 2 in the expected landing further images were obtained and analysed by the camera team, the Beagle 2 team and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

They show the lander in what appears to be a partially deployed configuration, with only one, two or at most three of the four solar panels open, and with the main parachute and what is thought to be the rear cover with its pilot/drogue parachute still attached close by.

“The size, shape, colour and separation of the features are consistent with Beagle 2 and its landing components, and lie within the expected landing area at a distance of about 5 km from its centre,” said Prof Mark Simms, of Leicester University.

Pictures of such a lost lander are of huge interest to space scientists in helping them plan future missions to Mars, such as ESA's Exomars mission, which is due to launch in 2018 and land the year after.

“Beagle 2 was very much more of a success than we previously knew,” added Dr Parker. “The history books will now have to be slightly re-written to say Beagle 2 did land on Mars on Christmas Day 2003.”

In the final analysis, scientists admit that it is frustrating that such an ambitious mission came so much closer than we all thought to realising its aims - but that is the nature of space exploration.

Sadly, the discovery of Beagle 2 came just too late for Prof Pillinger who died last May without ever knowing what really happened.

With mutton-chop whiskers, an eccentric choice of clothes and distinctive west country burr, he was a natural enthusiast and the epitome of a scientist. He would have been overjoyed at today’s announcement.

Blog post by Clive Simpson, Editor of Spaceflight magazine 2001-2011 and now working as a freelance journalist