The lowest point on Earth

Hywel Griffiths and I recently attended a UK-Jordan workshop on catchment management and water security in Al Kerak, Jordan (23-25th April 2019). The workshop was supported by a grant from the British Council as part of the Newton Fund Researcher Links Programme, and was organised by Jonathan Bridge (Sheffield Hallam University, UK) and Sultan Tarawneh (Mu’tah University). The idea for the workshop originated from a long-standing collaboration between UK partners and Mu’tah University that has addressed catchment modelling and management in central Jordan. Particular focus has been on the Wadi Wala catchment that drains the western Badia Desert and the central highlands south of Amman. The upper 1743 km2 of the catchment was dammed in 2002 to provide irrigation water and function as a managed aquifer recharge (MAR) test site, with the intended benefits of improving drinking water supply to local communities. Since dam closure, however, high sedimentation rates have decreased reservoir capacity by approximately 30%, impacting its MAR performance and prompting substantial new engineering works to raise the dam wall by 15 m.

Water supply issues in the Wadi Wala catchment are emblematic of the wider water challenges in Jordan, which is widely acknowledged to be one of the most water stressed countries in the world. More than 90% of the country has a mean annual rainfall less than 200 mm, resulting in restricted surface freshwater availability and limited aquifer recharge rates, while climate change and rapid population growth – accelerated in recent years by an influx of refugees from neighbouring territories like Palestine, Syria and Iraq – have substantially increased pressures on water quantity and water quality. According to a 2015 joint UNEP and WaterLex report (see http://www.unwater.org/success-stories-regulating-wastewater-management/), available renewable water resources have dropped dramatically from an annual per capita share of 3600 m3 in 1946 to around 130 m3 in recent years. In addition, short-lived flash floods or longer drought episodes periodically blight different regions, leading to soil erosion, ecological disruption, infrastructural damage, and even loss of human life. So what can we do about this? How can we improve catchment management to improve water security in Jordan? Can we integrate existing and new approaches to water harvesting, wastewater re-use, soil conservation, ecological restoration, river management and so on to achieve this objective?

Hywel and myself had been invited to the workshop on the basis of our previous experience with river and wetland processes, human-environment interactions, and catchment management in drylands. Our recent contribution to the British Council workshop in Argentinian Patagonia (see https://stephentooth.wordpress.com/2019/03/24/wet-places-in-a-normally-dry-land/) was also beneficial for identifying parallels and overlap in themes covered by the workshop. A blend of early career and more established researchers from both the UK (7 others, making 9 UK participants in total) and Jordan (11 total) provided complementary expertise in hydrogeology, hydroclimatology, environmental monitoring, water harvesting techniques, irrigation, sustainable water technology, land and soil conservation, among many others.

Welcome and workshop opening at Mu’tah University

Workshop discussions at the Falcon Rock Conference Centre

The workshop was organised in three parts, covering three days. On Day 1, after a welcome from research and administrative staff at the campus of Mu’tah University (located ½ hour’s drive south of Al Kerak), the participants returned to the Falcon Rock Conference Centre for talks from the invited ‘expert mentors’, followed by breakout group discussions to identify areas of mutual interest that might form the basis for project proposals. As one of the mentors, my contribution was a ½ hour talk that provided a global perspective on rivers and wetlands in drylands. The talk highlighted, inter alia, the diversity of dryland river process and form, the role of wetlands in ecosystem service provision, and approaches to management of wetlands in drylands. A booklet from the Wetlands in Drylands Research Network entitled ‘10 Reasons why the Geomorphology of Wetlands is Important’ (see http://wetlandsindrylands.net/downloads-2/) was distributed to participants, along with copies of Tooth and Ralph’s recent ‘awareness-raising’ article in ‘Geography Review’ (2019, v.32). Part of the purpose of the talk was also to contextualise rivers and wetlands in the drylands of Jordan against this wider international backdrop. What are the key characteristics of Jordan’s dryland rivers? Where are the key wetlands in Jordan’s drylands, and is there any legislative protection? What are the ecosystem services provided by these rivers and wetlands and how might the services change in future?

Building on ideas outlined by Grenfell et al. (2014, Geomorphology, v.205) and Larkin et al. (2017, Earth Surface Processes and Landforms, v.42), Tooth and Ralph’s 2019 ‘Geography Review’ article includes a diagram showing how river and wetland processes, forms and associated ecosystem services might be anticipated to undergo change as systems move along an aridity gradient. The diagram hypothesises what might happen to ecosystem services under conditions of reduced flow frequency that results from climate change (e.g. global warming that leads to lower precipitation and/or greater evapotranspiration) but also perhaps from human activities (e.g. abstraction, flow diversion).

One of the images from Tooth and Ralph’s (2019) article in Geography Review (click to enlarge)

But is it a one-way street? Can we envision scenarios whereby rivers and wetlands might move in the other direction towards a condition of greater flow frequency? One of the provocations in my talk was the potential for use of controlled wastewater discharges (i.e. treated used water, or ‘greywater’) to promote more regular flows along sections of normally ephemeral channels, with the aim of enabling within- and near-channel vegetation growth. In both rural and urban settings, this might have a range of benefits, including ecological enhancement, slowing of flow velocities, increased sediment deposition, and promotion of aquifer recharge. This might help provide some level of protection against potentially erosive flash floods and also slow sedimentation rates in downstream dams. But what might be some of the limits to such schemes? Might they just promote riparian monocultures (e.g. reedbeds) with little biodiversity gains and possibly even displacement of native riparian flora and fauna? Might fine sediment deposition under vegetated, slower flow conditions lead to change in bed surface textures, perhaps detrimentally for native fauna (e.g. macroinvertebrates) adapted to living in typically coarse-grained, open framework gravels, as well as having negative implications for rates of aquifer recharge? Might the inevitable decreases in channel cross-sectional area increase local flash hazards? And what might be the consequences of long-term sediment build-up in such vegetated reaches?

As a water scarce country, Jordan is relatively well advanced in the use of wastewater, even being cited as a ‘success story’ of regulating wastewater management in the joint UNEP/WaterLex report (http://www.unwater.org/success-stories-regulating-wastewater-management/). According to the report, over the last 25 years or so, the number of wastewater treatment plants has more than doubled to around 28, with more than 90% of the treated effluent being re-used in agriculture where it is sometimes mixed with rainwater. But could such treated or blended wastewater be used for the alternative purposes outlined above (e.g. ecological enhancement, flow and sediment control, aquifer recharge)? As far as I am aware there have been no studies in Jordan of the potential benefits or disbenefits – in other words, the ecosystem services or disservices – of using wastewater for these alternative purposes, and no rigorous assessments of the trade-offs involved. Farther west, on the other side of the Dead Sea, ongoing focus is on water quality and human rights issues associated with untreated wastewater discharge in Israel and the Palestinian Territories (https://www.btselem.org/download/200906_foul_play_eng.pdf), but one of the only studies of the potential geomorphological impacts of wastewater was published nearly two decades ago by Hassan and Egozi (2001, Earth Surface Processes and Landforms, v.26). These authors showed how nutrient-rich wastewater flow from developing urban areas caused rapid shifts from dry ephemeral channels with intermittent floods to vegetated channels with continuous flow, in some instance inducing marked decreases in cross-sectional areas. Surely, there is an opportunity to revisit some of that work and examine other aspects, including the implications for ecology and surface water-ground water interactions?

Plenty of note taking as workshop discussions continue

On Day 2, workshop participants were treated to a field trip around central Jordan. The trip was led by Esraa Tarawneh, and included visits to the Wadi Mujib and Wadi Wala dams, and the Dead Sea. Technically, the Dead Sea is an inland saline lake, with water that is nearly 10 times as salty as the ocean. Owing to diversion of inflowing water from the Jordan River that enters the Sea from the north, the level of the Sea has been falling steadily (~1 m per year over the last few decades), prompting a suite of environmental and infrastructural concerns (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dead_Sea#Recession_and_environmental_concerns).

Overview of the Mujib Dam, located in the bottom of what one owner of a roadside stop has dubbed the ‘Bedouin Grand Canyon’

Overview of the engineering works being undertaken to raise the height of Wala Dam wall by an additional 15 m

A view over the Jordan Rift Valley towards the Dead Sea and the West Bank

Having descended the spectacular eastern flank of the Jordan Rift Valley to park by the side of the road that runs alongside the Sea, we all scrambled down the steeply-sloping shore sediments to the lowest land point on Earth (~430 m below global sea level). Along with the bubbling evidence of subterranean springs, and outcrops of the famous Dead Sea mud (touted by many for its supposed healing properties for skin complaints and physical ailments), there was the depressing sight of the near-ubiquitous plastic trash lines. The lowest point on Earth and surely one of humanity’s lowest points?

The famous Dead Sea mud

Plastic, plastic everywhere …

One of my earliest memories of learning about the place called the Dead Sea did not involve mention of plastics. Instead, it was a photograph in a children’s atlas from the early to mid 1970s that showed someone reading a newspaper while floating in the Dead Sea. This always intrigued me, but even then I think I vaguely understood the concept of salty water having extra buoyancy. Given the limited time available on the field trip, I decided not to investigate these properties personally (although this did mean passing up a golden photo opportunity) but luckily a random tourist was on hand to provide an ample demonstration. And an impromptu investigation of the influence of buoyancy on stone skimming proved irresistible to many on the trip, myself included.  It was hardly an example of controlled experimentation, but some of those stones did seem to skim just a few extra times off the mirror smooth surface.

A tourist in the Dead Sea. And yes, he really was floating …

Delta sediments exposed by the falling level of the Dead Sea

After returning to the vehicle, we crossed over a number of the spectacular ephemeral wadis that periodically disgorge water and sediment into the Dead Sea, sometimes with catastrophic consequences (https://www.reuters.com/article/us-jordan-floods/jordan-flash-floods-kill-21-people-many-of-them-school-children-on-bus-idUSKCN1MZ2GI). In the blazing afternoon sun, we also had good views of the delta sediments exposed by the falling sea level before we ascended the rift flank for the 30 km journey back to Al Kerak and its spectacular stone castle. From the lowest point on Earth and its plasticized cultural low point to what is certainly one of humanity’s cultural high points.

Approaching Al Kerak, with the castle visible on the outcrop in the upper left

Given time pressures and other priorities for the field trip, there was little opportunity for further examination or discussion of Jordan’s rivers and wetlands. On this trip and more generally throughout the workshop, wetlands in drylands remained largely out of sight and out of mind. And in the evening, one of the regular stumbling blocks to raising the profile of wetlands in drylands surfaced. Jordan has two wetlands on the Ramsar list (Azraq Oasis and Fifa Nature Reserve – see https://www.ramsar.org/wetland/jordan), plus undoubtedly numerous other smaller wetlands. But a Jordanian participant insisted that the Fifa Nature Reserve is not really a wetland because it only floods occasionally and isn’t always wet. No matter if it is on the Ramsar list: in their view, the absence of water year-round means that it is not really a wetland. My protests about the need for a more inclusive definition of wetlands that recognizes and celebrates those wetlands that aren’t always wet – the ephemeral, seasonal or temporary wetlands of the world – seemingly fell largely on deaf ears. Coming on the back of similar confusion at the Argentinian workshop (http://wetlandsindrylands.net/latest-posts/ – scroll down to ‘Wet Places in a Dry Land: Expanding Research into Patagonia’s Desert Rivers and Wetlands’), the growing community of wetlands in drylands researchers clearly has much work still to do.

On Day 3, the workshop again returned to the Falcon Rock Conference Centre, with activities largely revolving around breakout group discussions to identify potential projects to take forward in UK-Jordan collaborations. A range of viable projects was proposed, with most interest crystallising around projects to develop environmental databases, investigate surface water-groundwater interactions, and model climate change impacts on Jordan’s water resources.

Jon Bridge reminding us of the original aims and objectives of the workshop at the start of Day 3

Notes indicating the wealth of ideas to take forward into future activities

At this stage, and amongst this particular group of researchers, it seemed that there was not much enthusiasm for a project to investigate the potential use of controlled wastewater discharges for promoting more regular flows along sections of normally ephemeral channels, and for monitoring the impacts on river and wetland ecosystem services. To be fair, it would be a challenging project to execute, particularly given the need for controlled experimentation and ongoing monitoring over several years (minimum 3-5 years?), most likely using paired catchments. Input from specialists in Jordanian riparian ecology would also be key to the success of any such project. But at least the idea has been sown, and even if it takes some time to grow, may still be worth pursuing in future. In country so water stressed, yet also periodically blighted by disastrous flash floods, it almost seems criminal not to investigate all possible alternative uses and re-uses of the limited water supplies.

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Wet places in a (normally) dry land

Sunday 24th March 2019

“Nid oes yma ddwfr croew ond sydd yn sefyll yn llyn ar ol gwlaw, yr hwn ni chefais ddim mwy o hono er pan wyf yma nag a gefais yn y Bala mewn diwrnod lawer gwaith.”  [“There is no fresh water here, except for that which stays as pools on the land after rain, that which I have not had any more of since being here than I had in one day in Bala many times.”]

So wrote William Jones in November 1865 in a letter sent from eastern Patagonia to his family in Bala, north Wales. Around six months earlier Jones had left Liverpool, England, sailing on the Mimosa into the Irish Sea and then the vast expanses of the Atlantic Ocean with around 150 other Welsh men, women and children. With financial backing from a Welsh emigration committee, and the blessing of the fledgling Argentine government, the intention was to establish a new settlement in the largely unmapped Patagonian region. In late July 1865, the emigrants finally reached the Patagonian coastline, disembarking at a location in present-day Puerto Madryn. Having endured considerable hardships during the first few months, in his letter Jones was comparing the rainfall in eastern Patagonia (mean annual rainfall about 200 mm) to the more familiar quantities in Bala (mean annual rainfall about 1000 mm). The lack of regular, extended rainfall in eastern Patagonia came as a great disappointment to the new arrivals, who had been lured from their old homeland with the promise of abundant water and plentiful pastures. But mean annual rainfall figures can be deceptive, and even arid regions can receive heavy bursts of rain every once in a while. And when these bursts come, they can be very heavy indeed, with totals that sometimes exceed 100 mm in 24 hours. In later months and years, Jones and the other Welsh settlers no doubt would have experienced some heavier rainfalls in their new homeland, as would their descendants. Indeed, in the last few years, extreme rainfall has led to widespread flooding in many parts of Patagonia, including in the still sparsely populated central regions of Chubut Province and the main population centres in the east (Puerto Madryn, Gaiman, Trelew, Rawson, Comodoro Rivadavia).

Front cover of the report on the Puerto Madryn floods of 2016

Extreme rainfall and flooding can have negative consequences, including severe erosion and sedimentation, both of which may pose threats to infrastructure and personal property. On 21st January 2016, for instance, nearly 70 mm of rain fell in Puerto Madryn in just 4 hours, leading to widespread flooding and damage to streets, houses, and industrial and commercial properties. But rainfall and flooding can also be beneficial, even essential, for they can help to replenish groundwater and reservoir supplies, and provide the lifeblood for desert ecosystems. Even in normally arid Patagonia, a variety of rivers, wetlands, shallow lakes and springs abound: wet places in a dry land. These wet places – only temporarily wet though many may be – provide a variety of ecosystem services, including water and food supply, promotion of biodiversity, and provision of recreational opportunities. In fact, in otherwise dry lands, the importance of these wet places as delivers of ecosystem service may be disproportionately important. Nonetheless, as previous blog posts have commented (e.g. see https://stephentooth.wordpress.com/2017/08/03/453/ and https://stephentooth.wordpress.com/2014/11/17/wetlands-in-drylands-how-good-is-the-service/), these ecosystem services are commonly unrecognised or underappreciated, and certainly are rarely managed for optimal or sustainable service delivery. So how do we go about changing this state of affairs?

Providing opportunities for knowledge exchange activities among different interest groups – academics, university students, policy makers, engineers, local communities, school children, and so on – is a good start. And on the back of previous work in Argentina (see https://stephentooth.wordpress.com/2014/01/06/a-potted-summary/) and other lines of research, Hywel Griffiths, myself and Gabriel Kaless from La Universidad National de La Patagonia San Juan Bosco (UNPSJB) were able to secure funding for a project through the British Council Higher Education Links Grants scheme. Entitled ‘Wet Places in a Dry Land: Securing Ecosystem Services from Patagonia’s Desert Rivers and Wetlands’, the project funding enabled Hywel and I to visit Patagonia in March 2019 to help run a series of workshops that would include many of the aforementioned interest groups. Coincidentally, and somewhat ironically, the timing of the trip also enabled us to avoid most of a spell of bad weather in Wales but instead experience first hand the capricious nature of the Patagonian weather.

Saturday 9th to Sunday 10th March

It all started well enough. The Saturday morning replacement bus/train journey from Aberystwyth to Birmingham airport was uneventful, and the Birmingham-Frankfurt and Frankfurt-Buenos Aires flights were bearable and on time. Our baggage arrived in Buenos Aires, and arrived intact. The transfer across Buenos Aires to the domestic airport was done in record time thanks to quiet Sunday morning traffic. For once, even the two hour flight south to Trelew left on time. A window seat enabled us to see first hand the aridity of the eastern Patagonian coastal regions, and we marvelled at the hardiness of the early Welsh settlers, many of whom trekked 40 miles south from their point of initial disembarkation to the lower Chubut valley in order to establish the first settlement.

Flying south to Trelew

The flight to Trelew landed on time, and again our baggage was there. Thankfully, we were at the front of the queue for car hire and despite the usual comedy routine of communications about just what was, and what was not, included in our reservation and just why our credit card details needed to taken, we left the airport swiftly. Given the various mishaps and near-disasters that had dogged various stages of travel in our previous visits to Argentina (for example, see https://stephentooth.wordpress.com/2014/01/11/a-change-of-fortune-and-a-change-of-clothes/), we also left the airport relieved.

A half hour drive west and we were at a house in Gaiman, our temporary base for the next week. Tea and cakes with the owner of our house were followed by a short sleep and shower, both essential for freshening up prior to our first meeting in person with Gabriel. First impressions confirmed what could be gleaned from the previous skype meetings and numerous email exchanges: here was someone who recognized the opportunity provided by the British Council scheme and who had also been working hard to make the workshops a success. We got straight to work with further planning for the week’s activities, and on a breezy night, continued discussions over a meal of milanesa and Patagonian beer in a local eatery.

Getting straight down to work

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Designing baseline surveys for the workshop participants

 

Monday 11th March

Monday’s activities took place at the Trelew campus of UNPSJB, where there was a mixed audience of around 70 academics, students, representatives of government and other decision-making authorities, and other professionals. Before the start of our workshop, we had some hurried meetings with our translator (English-Spanish, Spanish-English), as we knew that she would be essential for ensuring smooth dialogue. Thankfully, email exchanges beforehand had answered most of her and our questions, and we were ready to go.

Crossing fingers and gritting teeth: nervous anticipation by Hywel and our translator ahead of the opening presentation

Pre-presentation activities for workshop participants

Cramming notes ahead ahead of presenting

In a room that seemed to get hotter with every minute thanks to the healthy attendance and the sun that blazed through the single-paned windows onto the blinds, the morning theme focused on flood risk and perceptions. Opening presentations were given by Hywel and myself on flood memories and adaptations among the early Welsh settlers and their descendants, and were followed by presentations by local Argentine researchers on the common mismatch between technical assessments and social perceptions of urban flood and mudflow hazards.

Paula Ferrari talks about past floods in Trelew

Gabriel chairs a plenary discussion

The afternoon theme focused on desert and semi-desert rivers and wetlands and involved a presentation by myself and Hywel that provided a global perspective on these wet places in a dry land, and one by Gabriel and colleagues on the measurement, recording and impacts of extreme rainfall and flood events. Following each set of presentations, there was lots of engaged, rapid discussion in Spanish among the audience, both in the smaller breakout group activities and the ensuing plenary discussions. Plenary discussions were chaired by Gabriel, with the translator helping Hywel and I to keep track of the key points, and it was clear that there was plenty of interest in the Welsh settlement history and the unique historical perspective that this brings to the analysis of environmental change in the Patagonian environment. Furthermore, despite some confusion over the very concept of a wetland in a dryland – a confusion that Gabriel later admitted might have been due to the choice of word ‘humedal’ as a translation of wetland – there was obvious interest in developing more of a Patagonian perspective on desert and semi-desert wetlands.

What do you mean by ‘a wetland in a dryland’? Some confusion is evident

The source of the confusion

Reflection on the first day’s activities

 

Tuesday 12th March

Tuesday’s activities took place at El Centro Nacional Patagónico (CONICET-CENPAT) in Puerto Madryn, located about 1.5 hours drive from Gaiman. The location had been chosen specifically to ensure wider engagement with academics and researchers based in the city, and around 25 people were present.

The format was essentially a repeat of the previous day’s presentations, activities and discussions, but the smaller, more specialist audience helped to bring a more technical, research-led perspective on discussions. While many similar issues were aired – particularly the complex definition of wetlands in drylands – others were given more prominence than on the previous day, such as the importance and challenges of communicating the science of rivers, wetlands and ecosystem services to different interest groups, and the potential strategies for doing so.

Taking notes during a plenary discussion session

More food for thought emerging from the discussions

El Centro Nacional Patagónico is located just a short distance from where the first contingent of Welsh emigrants set foot on the Patagonian shore. On a warm and sunny yet breezy day, Hywel and I took advantage of the generous lunch break to walk to the shore, where we tried to imagine the first thoughts of those emigrants as they contemplated their new home. At the end of the day, in the setting sun and enveloping dusk, we also did a quick tour of the various monuments to the Welsh settlers that are dotted along the Puerto Madryn seafront, some of which rightfully acknowledge the role played by the native peoples in helping the fledgling settlements. And thanks to CENPAT’s generosity, we were then treated to a meal in a local seafood restaurant. In setting out for the 1.5 hour drive back to Gaiman, we ran into the inevitable late night police roadblock on the outskirts of town, but luckily our immaculate paperwork and knowledge of the Welsh footballer Gareth Bale smoothed the potentially awkward conversation, and the delay was only minor.

The south end of Puerto Madryn seafront, located near to where the first contingent of Welsh emigrants disembarked 154 years ago

 

Wednesday 13th March

Reflections on the second day’s activities and a look forward to day 3

Wednesday’s activities again took place at the Trelew campus of UNPSJB. Again, there was a mixed audience of about 70 people but today the room was much cooler thanks to cloud cover and periodic burst of rains. While the coolness was welcome, the rain provided a portent of things to come. This day’s theme was different yet complementary to those on previous days, focusing more explicitly on ecosystem services. Presentations were given by CENPAT and UNPSJB researchers on aspects of ecosystem service delivery and landscape restoration approaches in the lower Chubut River valley, while a presentation by Hywel and myself highlighted how geotourism can tap the often underappreciated cultural ecosystem services.

A view from the back of the room as day 3 gets underway

Just before our presentation, we had been whisked away to a noisy corridor to give an interview to a local TV network about the workshops and its intentions. While the interview went well, it was brief, and plans were made for a more extended interview the next day at the network’s station. After our presentation, breakout group activities and a plenary discussion took place. As with the previous days’ discussions, I found it hard to follow everything that was said: my understanding of rapidly spoken Spanish is just not up to the task. But I had quickly realised that this was not the point anyway. Instead, it mattered more that discussions had been generated amongst a cross section of people who live and work in Patagonia, and who need to be engaged with the issues. And even with a partial understanding, and the translator’s summary of the main points, we got the feeling that the relatively unknown topic of geotourism had created a genuine buzz amongst many of those present, with positive feedback being given to our presentation and several useful contacts for potential future projects being made.

Andrés Malnero gives a colourful presentation

 

Hywel presenting some of Sioned Llywelyn’s PhD findings: can approaches to geotourism developed in Wales be applied in the Patagonian context?

Wednesday lunchtime and afternoon provided a chance to start fleshing out the details of the numerous possible future collaborative projects, identification of which is a key requirement of the British Council scheme. Luckily, there was no shortage of enthusiasm, more a need for prioritisation and logical sequencing of projects, especially bearing in mind the necessity for additional funding.

A working lunch at the Touring Club.  One side of the table …

… and the other.

Hywel opens his presentation to the Welsh Association of Trelew San David

Wednesday evening involved a presentation by Hywel (in Welsh, with Spanish translation) to the Welsh Association of Trelew San David. A tremendous electrical storm that was breaking in the valley around the time of the presentation had kept a few potential attendees away but added a tinge of excitement to proceedings. The presentation provided lots of scope for discussion among the local Welsh-speaking community, some of whom are descended from the early settlers, particularly as we were able to report a summary of our findings from our previous project undertaken in early 2014.

Heavy rain creates problems in some of Trelew’s bars and restaurants

After the presentation had finished, we heeded reports of a power cut in Gaiman that had resulted from the storm. As such, we stayed in Trelew with some people from the presentation, enjoying food and a drink in a restaurant despite the continuous heavy rain that ensured a steady drip of water through parts of the roof.

We returned to Gaiman late in the evening, finding in the still incessant rain that the electricity was still out in much of the town.

Thursday 14th March

In the morning, still there was no power and the rain continued. We headed into Trelew for a meeting with Gabriel who would take us to the intended interview at the TV station, but a power cut there had meant that this had to be cancelled. This news came too late for our translator who had travelled all the way down from Puerto Madryn, but we made good use of a meeting in a local café with a review of the previous day’s activities and plans for future projects.

Heading into the desert on a very wet day

The rain had raised some uncertainty over whether our initial plans for a trip to stream gauging sites located in the Patagonian desert should go ahead. Heavy rain can make the dirt tracks in the desert tough going or impassable. But with the rain seemingly easing, we decided to go for it. Travelling up the north side of the lower Chubut valley by tarred road, then crossing the irrigated floodplain and river onto the dirt tracks on the south side of the valley, after about an hour we found ourselves passing through increasingly more rugged terrain. Some very heavy bursts of rain continued, but having got this far, we were not going to be deterred.

A flow gauge but with nothing to measure

Our first visit was to a stream gauging station located along one of the numerous normally dry creeks that dissects the desert margins of the valley on its course to the permanently-flowing Chubut River. Since starting my PhD studies in Australia just over 26 ago, I have spent many hours wandering up and down similar creeks – technically known as ephemeral rivers – in various parts of the world, yet had never witnessed any actually flowing. And I’ll admit that I was a little disappointed when even the heavy rain seemed to do no more than simply dampen the sandy bed. Just what sort of rainfall does it take to get these creeks to actually carry flow?

A view across a very wet desert

But as we drove around other parts of the desert, it became obvious that on the usually sun-baked surfaces above the rivers, water was starting to pool or be shed downslope, while smaller creeks were starting to carry flow. We walked across rugged hillsides to larger creeks, many of which were also now starting to flow, and flow more forcefully. We were wet through but hey, ‘merece la pena’ … it was worthwhile. Finally, I would have my own photos and videos of a water-activated desert to use in future presentations. But after a few hours, we were all getting a bit cold, and it was time to head back to town for an evening parilla (barbeque).

A desert pavement, shedding water in the rain just like one constructed of concrete

Walking across the hillside to a creek in flood

A desert creek roaring ever more loudly

A flow gauge, now with something to measure

The desert had other ideas. As we returned to cross the previously dry creek with its gauging station, we found that a raging torrent now blocked our exit. With a depth of around 1 m and an estimated flow speed of about 2 m per second, this was far too dangerous to cross by vehicle, and we had no choice but to wait it out and hope that the water level would drop sufficiently in a couple of hours.

Our route out of the desert is blocked

We made good use of the delayed departure, visiting other flooded creeks to capture more footage. But as the day wore on, the rain continued in bursts, and the water level did not seem to be receding very fast, concern set in. Serious thoughts were being given to spending a night in a nearby house that formed part of a kaolin plant set in the desert, but with just what food provisions I didn’t dare ask. I was more concerned about the almost unthinkable possibilities of not being able to exit the desert even the next day and then missing our flight back to Buenos Aires. “Cuando en el desierto patagónico los arroyos braman” (“When the creeks roar in the Patagonian Desert”). So goes the title of an article written by Gabriel and colleagues. The creeks were roaring for sure, and I was doing some inner roaring of my own. Luckily, just when all seemed lost, at dusk the owner of the kaolin plant took us to the creek to assess the situation. It was still flowing, albeit slightly less deeply and swiftly than a hour or two beforehand. But it was enough to convince the plant owner that it was safe to cross, and without much warning he did just that, barreling through the turbid current and soft sandy bed to the drier, firmer gravel on the far side.

With some trepidation, we followed, and also crossed safely. A slow journey at dusk then ensued along the rest of the dirt road, which now supported significant pools of water. But after dark, we finally reached the relative safety of the tarred road that runs along the more central and northern part of the lower Chubut valley, and we all breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Eventually, we made back to Trelew and the parilla, tired but with a tale that will live long in the memory.

Friday 15th March

The Chubut River in Gaiman with its cargo of desert sediment

After breakfast, we packed and left Gaiman, heading into Trelew for a meeting at the university with Gabriel and others to discuss future project proposals and British Council reporting requirements. The rain was easing but in Gaiman the Chubut River had turned the colour of milky hot chocolate thanks to the sediment-laden runoff from the desert creeks that join the river farther upvalley, while in Trelew, large puddles occupied many of the side roads. Reports were also being received of heavy rain and flooding in Puerto Madryn. While not on the scale of some previous rural and urban flood events that have impacted on this part of eastern Patagonia in recent years, the potential for the severe disruption that can result from rainfall and river flooding was abundantly clear.

A flooded side road in Trelew

A whiteboard full of potential project ideas …

The discussions about future project proposals and reporting requirements were easy. With no shortage of ideas, instead the difficulty was scribbling every idea into the available whiteboard space. We would have plenty to contemplate during our return trip and in the weeks and months to come.

… but which ones to prioritise?

 

Remainder of Friday 15th, and Saturday 16th to Sunday 17th March

As for the return trip …. one quick stop at a lifesize model of the world’s largest dinosaur (a 42 m long, 12 m tall titanosaur sauropod, located near Trelew airport) before we returned our hire car. One uneventful mid evening flight to Buenos Aires. One night in a very noisy downtown Buenos Aires hotel. One Sunday morning walk around the decaying streets of San Nicolás, Monserrat and San Telmo. As for the very turbulent, cramped flights to Frankfurt and Birmingham, the less said the better. The same goes for the expectedly awful train/replacement bus journey from the Birmingham Airport to a location close to Aberystwyth (note the emphasis on close to, but not actually to, Aberystwyth, thanks to rail engineering works and the seemingly little thought given to those who actually needed to reach the end of the line). But thanks to the generosity of a local friend who arranged to pick us up late at night, both Hywel and I got back to our respective homes just before midnight.

Postscript

People sometimes question why academics at a Welsh university are doing geographical research in Argentine Patagonia. We typically counter by saying that despite the great distance between the two regions, we share some common history and have enduring cultural ties. But also relevant is that despite considerable differences in average climatic conditions, we also face many common environmental challenges, including dealing with extremes of rainfall, flood and drought, and ensuring wise use of the ecosystem services provided by rivers and wetlands. And to neatly illustrate this point, as we were leaving rain-soaked, partially flooded eastern Patagonia and making our journey back to Wales, we learnt of heavy rain in Bala and many other parts of Wales. According to Natural Resources Wales, Capel Curig, located only about 30 miles by road from Bala, had received more than half a month’s worth of rain (136.6 mm) in 24 hours.

Screen shot of a BBC website highlighting heavy rainfall and flooding in Wales

The Conwy, the Dyfi, the Wye and many other rivers were in flood, with flood warnings issued for several towns (including Bala), while landslides had occurred in some steeper terrain, leading to severe disruption to rail and road transport. Meanwhile in parts of eastern Patagonia, the bad weather had also continued: we later heard that since Friday schools in parts of Puerto Madryn, Trelew and Rawson had been closed and many people had not had potable water in their houses.

Under a warming, more variable climate, the overwhelming scientific consensus is that such weather extremes are likely to be more common in the years ahead, a situation that inevitably will influence the nature and quality of ecosystem service delivery and regularly test community and wider societal resilience. Significant challenges will be faced, to put it mildly. But through schemes that promote knowledge exchange between academics and other interested parties, such as those funded by the British Council, we are more likely to be able to identify strategies and solutions that will help us rise to such challenges.

Extreme events, restricted coverage

Saturday 13th January 2018

After the end of a year that has been declared to be the one of the warmest on record (see http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-41859288 and http://www.noaa.gov/news/2017-was-3rd-warmest-year-on-record-for-us), a year marked by yet another series of extremes events (e.g. floods, droughts, hurricanes, wildfires), you might think that 2018 would be relatively quiet in comparison. Not a bit of it … at least not based on the first two weeks of the new year. January 2018 has started in ferocious mood, with a ‘bomb cyclone’ (technically ‘explosive cyclogenesis’) in North America, extreme heat in Sydney, coastal storms in Britain, and heavy rain, flash floods and mudslides in California. It’s unclear whether this mood will last through 2018 (e.g. see an article in The Conversation) but the signs are not positive.

Much of the mainstream media coverage of these extreme events understandably focuses on the ‘disaster’ element: infrastructural damage, travel disruption, and the human tragedies, lucky escapes or heroics. But is there room for just a little more science? Having skimmed the media coverage of the later two events – British coastal storms and Californian mudslides – two things strike me.

The first is an observation that despite abundant opportunity to use terms such as ‘geomorphology’, ‘geoscience’. ‘earth surface processes’, ‘topographic change’ or ‘landscape change’, rarely is this done, even alongside the potentially suitable graphics that accompany such articles. Surely, readers of the BBC and other quality news outlets can handle a smattering of these terms as part of a wider, human-focused story?

The second, and more important, is the underlying tone of surprise that seems to accompany the reporting of the sediment movement that may be associated with extreme hydrometeorological events. Large amounts of sand are moved during extreme coastal storms, leading to chopping back of the beach face, creation of ‘sand cliffs’, and shifting of the course of beach-traversing rivers. Sediment-laden flows are generated by heavy rains on steep, weathered, burnt, hillsides. Isn’t all this to be expected? You can forgive British readers for not being so familiar with flash floods and mudslides that sometimes follow intense fires. But anyone who has visited the British coastline on a regular basis should know that in the absence of hard engineering works, sandy beaches are highly dynamic. Extreme wave events typically accomplish substantial erosion, with large volumes of sand commonly moving offshore, but ensuing large, moderate and small wave events will gradually move this sand back onshore to ensure beach rebuilding. Case studies from Ireland have shown how sandy beaches can suddenly disappear and then re-appear months, years, or even decades later (http://theconversation.com/why-beaches-lose-their-sand-and-then-suddenly-reappear-77503). Much depends on the sequence of different size wave events, and there are legitimate concerns over the apparent greater frequency of the extreme events that may be disrupting the historically roughly balanced rhythm of offshore-onshore sand movement and initiating a longer term trend towards increasing erosion. But even if this is the case, there are opportunities as well as threats. Previous events in places like eastern Ireland, west Wales and the English coastline have shown how mobile beach sand can lead to serendipitous discoveries, including new exposures of mid Holocene submerged forests, Bronze Age deer antlers and wattle walkways, as well as numerous other archaeological finds. For flanking coastal wind-blown sand dunes, erosion and continual sand mobility – perhaps during extreme wave or wind events – in many cases may actually be essential for maintenance of biodiversity, as shown by case studies of dunes along the south and west Wales coastlines (https://stephentooth.wordpress.com/2015/10/29/10-reasons-why-10-rheswm-pam-8/).

In other words, extreme events provide both threats but also opportunities for renewal, discovery and change, with potential for geotourism, ecotourism and archaeologically-based tourism initiatives. Admittedly, in the aftermath of events like the Californian mudslides that have led to serious infrastructural damage and loss of life, it’s hard to see any positives. But in other cases, can the opportunities provide a counternarrative to the prevailing tone of pessimism or surprise commonly associated with reporting on extremes? This idea of ‘erosion as attraction’ has been raised by others (e.g. Matless, D. 2016. Climate change stories and the Anthroposcenic. Nature Climate Change, 6: 118-119, doi: 10.1038/nclimate2862) but why does this alternative perspective rarely feature in the mainstream media coverage of extreme events?

The duality of wetlands in drylands: deluge and drought

Thursday 3rd August 2017

The 2nd Wetlands in Drylands (WiDs) meeting took place at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, between 24-26th July 2017.  Organised by Tim Ralph, the meeting involved presentations and breakout group discussions, and was followed by a four-day excursion to the Macquarie Marshes in inland central New South Wales.  Following on from the inaugural WiDs meeting held near Parys, South Africa in November 2014, a meeting that led to formation to formation of the Wetlands in Drylands Research Network (see http://wetlandsindrylands.net/), this post is an attempt to cast a perspective over the activities.  The activities provided an opportunity not only to assess progress in wetlands in drylands research since the Parys meeting, but also to place these activities against the backdrop of more than two decades of research and management in the Macquarie Marshes in particular.

1 WIDs Day 1 intro

Tim Ralph giving the opening address at the WiDs 2017 meeting at Macquarie University (Photo: Will Farebrother)

A day-by-day outline of activities at Macquarie University is provided elsewhere (see http://wetlandsindrylands.net/latest-posts/).  Stepping back a little, it is noteworthy that compared to the Parys meeting, which was specifically for 16 UK and South African wetland researchers alone (this was a stipulation of the catalysing funding scheme), the Macquarie meeting was larger (~50 attendees) and more diverse.  A common lament at the Parys meeting was the absence of involvement from other people whose social and professional lives revolve around wetlands in drylands (e.g. representatives of local community groups, subsistence and commercial farmers, wetland managers and policy makers).  Most wetlands in drylands are living and working landscapes, such that the relatively new term ‘social-ecological system’ can be readily applied.  While blue-skies wetland research remains important, in many instances this can benefit from, and dovetail with, additional perspectives.  But thanks to Tim’s sterling organisational efforts, the Macquarie meeting and the associated excursion was blessed with inputs not only from wetland researchers spread across four continents but also from additional constituencies: wetland managers and policy makers, wetland landholders, and – importantly – representatives of the Traditional Owners of the Macquarie Marshes (the Aboriginal Wayilwan nation).  As befitted the meeting theme of ‘Dynamic Landscapes’, specialist sessions focused on hydrogeomorphological, biogeochemical and ecological dynamics, and the resilience and sensitivity of wetlands in drylands, but later sessions were set aside to consider the interactions between science and management, and indigenous knowledge and management.

As a consequence of this diverse involvement and structure, discussions following presentations and in the breakout groups were considerably enriched, with particular attention focusing on how best to build and maintain strong relationships between scientists, managers and other stakeholders to address the many challenges facing wetlands in drylands.  What are the main barriers to, and opportunities for, communication and sharing of wetland knowledge and insights?  How best can wetland researchers translate findings into forms that can be assimilated by wetland managers?  To what extent should management concerns help to shape wetland research priorities?  Can environmental water flow releases from reservoirs work in synergy with ‘cultural flows’ to enable maintenance of local customs associated with water (e.g. fishing)?  And how can cultural perspectives on wetlands – oral histories and the like – be dovetailed with scientific perspectives?

The excursion – dubbed the ‘Macquarie Marshes Research Outreach Event’ – provided an opportunity to continue such discussions in a specific field setting.  This is one of Australia’s iconic wetlands in drylands, known especially for its diverse aquatic and semi-aquatic habitats that occur amidst the otherwise dusty, semi-arid plains of inland New South Wales.  Internationally, these wetlands are best known for their periodic profusion of waterbird populations, which in large part led to their 1986 listing as a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance (https://rsis.ramsar.org/ris/337).  Fed largely by seasonal rainfall gathered in its southern headwaters, historically the Macquarie River flowed freely northwest and north past towns such as Wellington, Dubbo and Warren, eventually disgorging its water and sediment amongst a confusing tangle of active and abandoned channels, marshlands, swamplands, floodplains, woodlands and lagoons.  In particularly wet years, the extent of flood inundation could expand to around 3000 km2 (300 000 ha) – an area roughly fifty-five times the size of Sydney Harbour or 1% of the total area of the United Kingdom – only to shrink back to much smaller areas of more-or-less permanently wet, ‘core wetlands’ during drier years.  Such a wetting-and-drying dynamic is the natural norm in inland Australia’s highly variable climate, and is associated with a well-adapted boom-and-bust ecology.  The local Aboriginal peoples would have known these rhythms well, adapting their cultural practices accordingly.  But European explorers and colonists took far longer to appreciate them.  In 1818, John Oxley arrived at the edge of the marshes in flood and turned around, concluding that he had arrived at an inland sea.  A decade later, Charles Sturt came during a drought and found largely dry floodplains, albeit ones dotted with small waterbodies, concluding instead that only in very heavy rains could the marshes and adjacent lands be inundated.  Even with the benefit of nearly 200 years of collective hindsight, fleeting visits still colour many people’s perceptions of the value of wetlands in drylands.  The marshes offer a very different personal experience in a wet year compared to a dry year, but both are needed for a fuller comprehension of the system’s workings.

2 middle Macquarie River

Winter low flows in the middle Macquarie River between Dubbo and Warren (Photo: Stephen Tooth)

3 Marshes wet & dry 2008-2010

The southern part of the Macquarie Marshes Nature Reserve in times of drought (late September 2008) and flood (late November 2010) (Photos: Tim Ralph)

And like many other wetlands in drylands around the globe, the absence of this longer-term perspective has been partly culpable for a steady decline in the health of the Macquarie Marshes, whether this be measured in terms of tree deaths, reduced diversity of vegetation and fish communities, or declining waterbird numbers.  Upstream dam construction and associated flow regulation, urban and agricultural flow extractions, and creeping encroachment from irrigated lands have all taken their toll on the marshes.  To this toxic mix, add complications from river and floodplain engineering schemes, marsh-dissecting roadworks, and greater flow variability resulting from climate change, and their declining health should come as no surprise.  In short, apart from a few areas of the marshes where inundation is now more-or-less permanent (and somewhat ironically can result in tree deaths and adverse soil geochemical changes), in many other parts, flooding events are now less frequent and less extensive, while desiccation events are becoming more frequent and more severe.

4b swamp stomp compiled

Swamp stomping in Buckiinguy Swamp (Photos: Stephen Tooth)

4a Willancorah swamp

Willancorah Swamp in the southern marshes (Photo: Stephen Tooth)

Roughly 90% of the Macquarie Marshes is now in private ownership, with the remaining 10% in protected areas, most notably the Ramsar-listed Macquarie Marshes Nature Reserve, but even these sorts of designations have not provided immunity from the overall health decline.  The two main portions of the reserve (southern and northern) are not accessible to local people or visitors from farther afield, so many of the deleterious changes that have taken place within the southern portion especially – desiccation, tree deaths, channel erosion, and so forth – have gone largely unnoticed.  In itself, this lack of public awareness is part of the problem.  In a 1992 commentary in the National Parks Journal, Bill Johnson (a former ranger with the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service) argued that that while there was a need to halt many of the processes contributing to their decline and to begin restoration, the long-term viability of the Marshes is “totally dependent upon the involvement of the wider community in the management of the wetlands and the Macquarie River”.  An Australian Geographic article from March 1996 provided a snapshot of conditions in the marshes, highlighting the rich birdlife in particular, but not shying away from reporting some of the negative ecological changes, including tree deaths, waterbird declines, and the spread of invasive species such as the European carp and feral pigs.  It also sampled a wide range of local community views on the management of the marshes, including a quote from a now-departed local resident: “If people can’t visit the marshes, they won’t care about them”.  In this respect too, personal experience is vital for influencing perceptions of the value of wetlands in drylands.

5 dry marshes nature reserve

The entrance to the dominantly dry southern portion of the Nature Reserve (Photo: Stephen Tooth)

5b kangaroos

Mobs of roos within the Nature Reserve (Photo: Stephen Tooth)

Johnson’s commentary and the Australian Geographic article both focused on the key issue facing the marshes, namely the diverse views regarding the provision of water for urban, agricultural, environmental, and cultural purposes.  In a 1998 article in the Australian Geographer, Philippa Brock (then-time member of the Macquarie Marshes Catchment Committee) provided an overview of the declining physical status of the marshes and the evermore complex water allocation and distribution framework that was trying to balance the competing demands.  She highlighted the need for scientists and managers to work together to develop expertise in addressing natural and artificial changes in the marshes, concluding that the best that we could hope to achieve was: “… management of this unique ecosystem in a manner as close as possible to a ‘natural state’.  In an already regulated river system … this may require some degree of intervention and ‘active management’.”

These articles were published during the 1990s when La Niña conditions were still generating moderate rainfall and flooding.  In retrospect, this decade might be referred to as the last heyday of the marshes.  Ecological health worsened dramatically during the ‘millennium drought’ (c. 2001-2010), but has improved slightly in recent years, as a new La Niña phase has led to the return of moderate flows.  Intense competition for water has remained, however, and the policies and practices for water allocation and distribution have undergone further evolution.  So two decades or more later, where do we stand against the views and opinions expressed by an earlier generation of marshes managers and residents?  Has any progress been made against the calls for greater community involvement, and for closer working between scientists and managers?  Has scientific research provide any traction with the issues of negative ecological change?  Have channel and floodplain restoration efforts succeeded or failed?  Are there improved policies to balance the competing demands for water?  And how have local community perspectives fared within the negotiating rooms?

The excursion to the Marshes provided an opportunity for myself and others to ponder these sorts of issues.  And it’s mixed news.  Thanks especially to the work of Tim Ralph, his academic colleagues and students, our knowledge of the geomorphology, sedimentology, and environmental history of the Marshes has improved considerably.  Along with important contributions from other research groups, the links between landforms, earth surface processes, and ecological functioning in the marshes are now much better known, albeit still incomplete.  There is, for instance, much greater cognisance of the intrinsic dynamism of these ‘wandering wetlands’ and how lateral channel shifts, erosion and sedimentation can lead naturally to changes in wetland location and extent, regardless of conservation boundaries (http://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/news/keeping-watch-over-a-wandering-wetland).  Suggestions that the degraded and drying southern portion of the Nature Reserve should be abandoned in favour of focusing efforts on the wetter northern portion can be rebuffed with the argument that a longer term perspective is needed: wait for the next lateral channel shift, keep patient during the drought, and wetter conditions will likely return.

6a chewing the fat 1

Chewing the fat at Willie Retreat (Photo: Stephen Tooth)

Some of these insights have been implemented in management policies and practices.  Some attempts at restoration of parts of the marshes have failed, even threatening the Ramsar status of the Nature Reserve (see http://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/wetlands/20130104mmrsart32.htm), but lessons have been learned and are being incorporated into management practices (e.g. improving the design of channel-spanning weirs).  Some private landowners are fully on board with attempts to better understanding the landscapes and ecosystems of the marshes, and readily facilitate scientific research efforts.  While the Nature Reserve is still not publically accessible (a decision that seems to be based mainly on attempts to exclude unwelcome visitors such as illegal pig hunters), local community (including Wayilwan) perspectives are now given greater prominence in round-table discussions about the management plans for the reserve and the marshes more widely.

6b chewing the fat 2

Discussing the long history of Aboriginal occupation and use of the marshes.  A degraded mound (lower right) provides evidence of a ceremonial site alongside the old Macquarie River (Photo: Stephen Tooth)

Progress on other issues remains unclear, at least to me.  In a short visit of only two full days, it was impossible for me to get my head around the intricacies of the current marshes water allocation and distribution system, let alone its long and complex history.  Each year, many tens or hundreds of thousands of megalitres of water are released from the Burrendong Dam, but this is divided between environmental flows, irrigation flows, by pass flows and so on …. it’s a complex terminology with complex definitions that is coupled with complex demands competing in a complex social web.  All that is best left for others to elaborate on (see http://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/environmentalwater/macquarie-profile.htm).  Similarly, local issues of environmental management and social justice can’t be debated and resolved in a few quick conversations: for instance, just when do we intervene – or not intervene – in natural process such as channel abandonment and flow diversion, and how do we compensate those downstream users who may be deprived of water, or inconvenienced by changing flood patterns?  But the main point is that rarely can science and management be divorced from social context and consequence.

6c chewing the fat 3

Debating the options for channel and floodplain wetland restoration in the southern portion of the Nature Reserve (Photo: Stephen Tooth)

Even if answers can’t be provided immediately, approaches to a search for solutions can be outlined, at least in theory: namely, the need to facilitate ongoing communication, dialogue, and exchange of ideas between different scientists, managers, local community groups, and other stakeholders.  There is no simple recipe for doing so, but discussions at the meeting and on the excursion provided anecdotes and case studies to highlight at least some best practice principles.  Building trusting relationships by taking the time to listen to people’s views, engaging with environmental education projects in local communities, and organising open field visits such as the Macquarie Marshes Research Outreach Event …. none of these are magic bullets, but they can help lay the foundations for moving forward.  And in the Macquarie Marshes, many of the foundations are there already, not least because there seems to be sufficient shared concern about the future of the marshes for people to be open to ongoing communication.

Maintaining and building on these foundations is a constant challenge.  As discussions in the field, around the campfire, and on the bus home unfolded, it struck me that people within living and working wetland social-ecological systems enter and depart the scene, much like many of the waterbirds come and go with floods and droughts.  Like stately River Red Gums that line the Macquarie River banks, some individuals, families, social groupings and institutions provide continuity across the decades, persisting through cycles of flood and drought and withstanding the changing water allocation and environmental management frameworks.  But like Bill Johnson and others that frequented the Macquarie Marshes in the 1980s and 1990s, many move on or pass away.  Other people take their place, but with each entry and departure, knowledge and wisdom has to be re-learned and trusting, working and social relationships have to be rebuilt.

Of course, such issues are not unique to the Macquarie Marshes.  Institutional policies and practices can provide some sort of inherited memory and learning to enable ongoing progress, regardless of individual involvements.  In environmental management circles, ‘adaptive management’ is now the mantra.  Adaptive management practices acknowledge that despite uncertainty, decisions must be made and actions implemented, but emphasise learning from the outcomes to inform future decision making.  The Macquarie Marshes has its own adaptive management plan (written by Bill Johnson in a new role – see http://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/resources/environmentalwater/100224-aemp-macquarie-marsh.pdf), something that may well be essential in managing for a future that seems to be getting just a little more uncertain with each passing year.  Let’s hope that in two decades or more, a retrospective similar to the one attempted here will provide positive rather than negative commentary on the state of the Macquarie Marshes social-ecological system.

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Footnote: I gratefully acknowledge sponsorship from the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH) and Macquarie University for the Macquarie Marshes Research Outreach Event.  I also thank OEH staff, local landholders and representatives of the local community for their support and participation.  I thank Tim Ralph in particular for additional discussions and suggestions.  While informed by discussions on the excursion, the views expressed in this post are of course my own.

A glossary for the Anthropocene?

Wednesday 9th March 2016

New Scientist recently ran an interesting competition: can we help shape the linguistic direction of the Anthropocene? In the spirit of ‘Landmarks’, a book of terms for natural phenemona, Robert Macfarlane had pondered the words that might belong to this proposed new geological time interval (https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22830523-200-desecration-phrasebook-a-litany-for-the-anthropocene/). What new words will we need to describe the planet in the Anthropocene, and which words will die?

Landmarks coverMacfarlane made some preliminary suggestions for a ‘desecration phrasebook’ (e.g. ‘trash vortices’ to describe the plastic garbage patches that swirl in ocean gyres …. ‘plastic soup’ is another possibility – see https://stephentooth.wordpress.com/2015/01/10/plastics-plastics-everywhere/) and pondered whether we yet have words to describe the rain that falls when a cloud is seeded with silver iodide or the glistening tidemarks that are left on coastlines by oil spills. Had I been aware of the mid-January deadline before it had passed, I might have entered the competition with some suggestions of my own.

But never mind. Given what I think are some rather uninspiring, even obscure, winning entries (‘saltscape’, ‘ghostroost’ and ‘langing’ – for definitions and some other entries, see https://www.newscientist.com/article/2075987-competition-results-winning-words-to-describe-the-anthropocene/), and on the back of new terms already circulating (e.g. ‘manthropocene’ – http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/oct/20/anthropocene-working-group-science-gender-bias; ‘plastiglomerate’ – http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2014/06/rocks-made-plastic-found-hawaiian-beach; ‘quoquake’ – https://www.newscientist.com/letter/mg22930561-100-anthropocene-nomenclature/), here are some other suggestions:

Anthroposcene – the hubbub of debate and activities that loosely revolves around the idea that humanity may have created a new geological time interval. [Nb. this is a term already adapted by at least two Facebook discussion groups – AnthropoScene and The Anthropos.Scene].

Anthroposense – intelligent, intelligible opinions that are expressed about the putative new geological time interval, whether one agrees with a formal definition of a term or not.

Nonthroposense – the polar opposite of the above.

Anthroposcenic – landscapes that have come to be viewed as picturesque (i.e. ‘scenic’) but that actually are in a far-from-natural, highly-altered state (e.g. the reservoirs in the Elan valley of mid Wales – see http://www.eurig.cymru/elan-valley–january-2016.html). [Nb. in a recent RGS-IBG presentation, this term has been used in a rather different sense by David Matless to mean specific landscapes that have become emblematic of environmental transformation, such as where houses and graveyards have become undermined by coastal erosion, or where buildings and fields have been drowned by rising sea levels. To this alternative definition, one could also add the examples of buildings and fields drowned by rising waters behind human-constructed dam walls (e.g. Treweryn or Elan valleys in Wales), which in turn may have become Anthroposcenic in my sense of the term (certainly not to all, but to some)].

Anthroposore – a variant on ‘eyesore’, to reflect a more-or-less permanent sore, scar or wound on the Earth’s surface and geological record that has resulted from human activities (e.g. open cast mining, or land contamination and water pollution resulting from a legacy of mining activities).

Glasstic load – clastic sediment (e.g. sand- and gravel-sized material) that now contains a significant component of human-made glass (e.g. beach sediments in Aberystwyth – see https://stephentooth.wordpress.com/2015/10/29/10-reasons-why-10-rheswm-pam-8/).

Plastic load – as above, but with plastic instead of glass forming a significant component of the clastic sediment.

The Plasticene – an alternative name for the Anthropocene, if the main signature of human impacts on the Earth’s geological record is taken to be a widespread plastic horizon in sediments formed from about AD 1950 onwards. [Nb. this is likely too similar to the already-existing, formal geological term ‘Pleistocene’ for this one to ever stick but, hey, we’re playing with words here].

The Capitalocene – a term that formally acknowledges the fact that the main driver of changes to the Earth’s environment – and potentially its geological record – has been the rampant growth of capitalism.

The Hollowscene – a play on the already-existing, formal geological term ‘Holocene’ to indicate the geological epoch preceding the Anthropocene (or Plasticene or Capitalocene), left forlorn and bereft of meaning and purpose (assuming a formal declaration of the Anthropocene).

And finally, what about some new collective nouns or verbs?

A refuse (a garbage? a detritus?) of gulls – the flocks of gulls that wheel, squeal and squabble at rubbish/trash dumps.

A gangsta of gulls – the menacing squads of gulls that have become too used to human handouts and now hover around and/or stalk people eating at popular attractions (e.g. seafronts).

To be gulled – a mugging by a gull (e.g. food stolen but no personal injury).

If anyone can add to or better these terms, I will be interested to receive suggestions, and might even feature some on a future blog.

Art and science collaborations in an age of change

Saturday 23rd January 2016

“The Anthropocene is up there with Copernicus’s heliocentricity or Darwin’s theory of evolution as one of the most profound shifts in worldview that has emerged from scientific endeavour” (J. Rockström in The Guardian, 17th Nov 2015)

This is a bold claim indeed. But what exactly is the profound shift that is referred to? The Anthropocene (from anthropo– for ‘human’ and –cene for ‘new’) is a term that has been proposed to signify the pervasive role of human activities – air pollution, species translocations, ploughing, mining, damming, dredging and construction, among many others – in influencing atmospheric, biological, and land surface changes. Some of these changes appear to be ‘dominating’, ‘overriding’ or ‘overwhelming’ natural forces, and to be sufficiently significant and permanent to have shaped Earth’s recent and potential future geological record. In short, have we now exited from the Holocene epoch (the present interglacial time division that started around 11 700 years ago) and entered a new geological interval, one defined by humanity?

The answer to this question, and thus as to whether the Anthropocene should be formally adopted as a new, uppermost time division in the geological column, is still subject to vigorous debate. Some geoscientists remain unconvinced of the justification, practicality or utility of a formal adoption (for an extreme viewpoint, see: http://theconversation.com/enough-anthropocene-nonsense-we-already-know-the-world-is-in-crisis-43082).  Amending the current subdivison of the geological timescale is a slow, contentious business, although a judgement from the International Commission on Stratigraphy is expected sometime in 2016. But beyond geological committee rooms, the answer – whether positive or negative – also has philosophical, ethical and moral dimensions, with implications for debate and practice across the natural sciences, social sciences, humanities and arts. For this reason, use of the term ‘Anthropocene’ in printed literature has seen an explosive rise (neatly charted by Google Books Ngram Viewer) since Crutzen and Stoermer first outlined its geological significance in Global Change Newsletter (v.41, 2000), a short but influential article that prepared the ground for subsequent debate and speculation.

Google Books NgramOne could in fact argue that the term has now gone viral, and perhaps represents just one more environmental buzzword in the zeitgeist; indeed, as geologists Autin and Holbrook ask, is the Anthropocene debate an issue of stratigraphy or pop culture? (see http://www.geosociety.org/gsatoday/archive/22/7/article/i1052-5173-22-7-60.htm). Certainly, the term has now travelled far beyond academia, and commonly features in the titles of popular books, newspaper and magazine articles, and exhibitions. For recent examples of the latter, see:

http://www.hkw.de/en/programm/projekte/2014/anthropozaen/anthropozaen_2013_2014.php

http://www.deutsches-museum.de/en/exhibitions/special-exhibitions/anthropocene/

http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/conference/anthropocene-project

To provide our own perspective on this rising tide of Anthropocene-related debate, visual artist Julian Ruddock and I recently held a one-day symposium entitled ‘Strata: Art and Science Collaborations in the Anthropocene’ (Aberystwyth Arts Centre, January 15th 2016). The symposium was supported by the School of Art and the Department of Geography and Earth Sciences at Aberystwyth University, and by the Visualising Geomorphology Working Group of the British Society for Geomorphology (http://www.geomorphology.org.uk/node/1023). Building on the successful ‘Future Climate Dialogues’ symposium (Aberystwyth Arts Centre, June 13th 2013 – see http://cargocollective.com/artscienceclimatechange/Future-Climate-Dialogues-Abstracts), over 25 oral, poster and film presentations focused on art-science collaborations around the nominal themes of ‘Earth’, ‘Water’ and ‘Ecosystems/Life’ (few submissions were received for an intended ‘Air’ session).

Pimm strata tweetEven prior to the call for contributions, it had become clear to us that the Anthropocene is already a term that means many different things to many different people. For some, it is a scientific term that carries a precise geological interpretation. For others, the Anthropocene also represents a political project (after all, what better way to make a statement about humanity’s environmental impacts than to name a geological time interval after ourselves?). Many use the term as a convenient catch-all for any form of human influence on the environment, including multifaceted technological and behavioural developments that may not have any significant or lasting geological impact. And for others still, the Anthropocene is less a scientific than an aesthetic event; something to be re-imagined as an affective rather than a scientific fact (see, for example, Davis and Turpin’s edited collection of writings about art in the Anthropocene).Davis & Turpin

Key questions that we hoped to address through ‘Strata’ included: i) how are the arts and sciences exploring these multiple meanings, either in isolation or in collaboration?; and ii) how can we encourage greater art-science collaborations, especially around the Anthropocene theme?

The full programme of events, along with the oral and poster presentation abstracts and the biographies of contributors, is hosted at http://cargocollective.com/artscienceclimatechange/Strata-Art-and-Science-Collaborations-in-the-Anthropocene [nb. the plan is to add some images and sound to the site, depending on contributors’ permissions]. Following an introduction by Julian and myself, Dan Harvey (one half of the respected Ackroyd & Harvey artistic partnership) provided the keynote address, drawing on personal examples from a long history of art-science collaborations in confronting environmental issues. One particular work (Ice Lens) has even graced the front cover of the prestigious science journal Nature Climate Change (March 2012).Nature Climate Change cover 2

Subsequent presentations – both during the day and in the linked evening session – mined a rich vein of art-science approaches, including those using different combinations of visual art, sculpture, film, poetry, writing, sound and music. Intervening discussion sessions and refreshment breaks provided opportunities for questions and debate. Despite the inevitable time constraints – and the unwanted interjections of a drunken interloper who nonetheless slurred one of the more concise but most scientifically-contentious questions of the day (‘Are we now in the Anthropocene?’) – overall the symposium appears to have been a qualified success.Whalley strata tweet 3

How so? The first of the key questions posed above was addressed more than satisfactorily. The range of presentations at ‘Strata’ provided ample demonstration of the plural meanings now attached to the Anthropocene. Many presentations – highly entertaining and informative though they were – made little or no reference to the term’s original geological meaning. Clearly, the Anthropocene has escaped far beyond these confines, and regardless of whether the term ultimately is formalised as signifying the latest interval of geological time, it is here to stay.

The second of the key questions proved less easy to address. Discussion both within and outside of the formal sessions highlighted some obvious difficulties in art-science collaborations. By and large, scientists want to communicate facts, figures, terms and concepts in ways that are as unambiguous and precise as possible. Established scientific conventions dictate how we should observe and describe the world; meaning (‘interpretation’) then follows. By and large, artists tend to see their role as introducing ambiguities and free thinking in their filtering and presentation of material. Rather than operating in a didactic mode, they commonly want to challenge convention; the beholder of the artwork is then tasked with searching for, perhaps even generating, meaning. Of course, such stereotypes can be challenged, and even highly contrasting worldviews are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but the task is to identify ways to identify and pursue shared agendas in order to produce work that is both scientifically meaningful and aesthetically challenging. Ackroyd & Harvey’s work – along with that of other contributors to the symposium – shows that it can be done. Discussions at ‘Strata’ touched on the importance of creativity, intuition and inspiration in art and science practice, and some practical strategies for encouraging interdisciplinary collaborations were outlined. Hopefully, the seeds of some good ideas have been sown in fresh furrows. For instance, could a follow-up meeting be organised as an art-science workshop, with short presentations being interspersed with breakout sessions to encourage blue-skies thinking and creative collaborations? Could fieldtrips be used to inspire creative collaborations? The evening contribution entitled ‘Argae: Writing the Anthropocene in the Welsh Uplands’ provided an example of the possibilities that could result from the latter; four writers and poets (some with science backgrounds) provided very different creative responses to a shared landscape experience, namely a day tour through the Elan valley in mid Wales, where a series of reservoirs, dams and HEP generators serve as highly visible (although likely not long-lasting) symbols of human manipulation of the hydrosphere. Similar tours – perhaps broadening out to incorporate film makers, visual artists and musicians alongside scientists – could pave the way for other creative responses to various human-impacted landscapes.Griffiths strata tweet 2Partway through the day, one contributor had reminded us all of a quote from Leonardo da Vinci (AD 1452 – 1519):

“Principles for the Development of a Complete Mind: Study the science of art. Study the art of science. Develop your senses – especially learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.”

As we approach the quincentenary of da Vinci’s death, we now have vastly more ways of sensing the world, some going far beyond direct human experience. Yet in the face of a tidal wave of environmental problems, many brought to greater prominence by the Anthropocene debate, we are still scrabbling for the best ways to see, especially the myriad interconnections. Symposia like ‘Strata’ provide glimpses of the possibilities but remind us that a full view has yet to emerge.

Frack to the Future?

Sunday 3rd May 2015

In an energy-hungry world, ‘extreme energy’ has been defined as “the process whereby energy extraction methods grow more intense over time, as easier to extract resources are depleted” (see http://extremeenergy.org/2013/07/25/defining-extreme-energy-a-process-not-a-category/). Such methods include mountain top removal for coal, open cast mining for tar sands, hydraulic fracturing for shale gas, and deep water drilling for oil, and their wider deployment across the globe is proving to be highly contentious. And depending on perspective, the method of hydraulic fracturing – commonly shortened to ‘fracking’ – is turning out either to be the bête noir or the poster child of our growing energy crisis. In essence, fracking involves drilling vertically and horizontally into shale rocks at depth and then pumping a mixture of water, sand and chemicals at high pressure to fracture the rocks, enabling any trapped gases to flow into the borehole and then to the surface (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-14432401). Over the last couple of decades, widespread fracking has enabled the USA to become one of the world’s leading gas producers, and large shale gas resources are known to exist globally, including in Canada, Argentina, China, and Western Europe. Potential shale gas resources are thought to underlie many parts of the UK, which raises the possibility of fracking operations becoming part of our energy landscape, sitting alongside coal-fired power stations, nuclear power stations, HEP reservoirs, and wind farms. Opponents of fracking fear the potential litany of local environmental impacts that may result, including ground and surface water pollution, soil contamination, induced seismicity, and noise. They also point out that shale gas is a fossil fuel, the exploitation of which will simply add to the seemingly inexorable rise of global atmospheric CO2 concentrations and so contribute further to regional and global climate change. Proponents see fracking as an important way to develop a more balanced energy portfolio that reduces dependence on foreign energy imports. They also argue that shale gas may serve as a ‘transition fuel’, gradually substituting for ‘dirtier’ forms of energy production (e.g. coal burning) and so may form one of the stepping stones necessary for attempts to de-carbonise our economy.

While the debate over fracking is commonly caricatured as being played out by two opposing lobbies – the vociferously anti ‘frackivists’ and the rabidly pro ‘hydrocarbon barons’ – the reality is not quite so binary. Many people (including myself) are genuinely interested in the middle ground and the vexing but key questions that lie therein. Can fracking be managed sustainably (economically, socially, environmentally)? Will fracking be a boon or a burden for ailing rural economies? Can fracking improve energy security and be part of a balanced energy supply? Without posing such questions and getting a firm handle on any available facts and figures, meaningful debate can’t take place.

A potential opportunity to examine these and other questions was provided by the public forum entitled “Fracking and the Imagination: Scraping the Barrel or Saving the Day?” that took place at Aberystwyth University Arts Centre on 23rd April 2015. I had a minor role in the organisation of the meeting, which was intended as a transdisciplinary forum that would bring together natural and social scientists, artists and environmental activists from across Wales and beyond. Such variety is essential, for fracking is a complex, multi-dimensional issue that can be examined from many different perspectives. At an early stage, I could see the possibility of the forum serving as a prism for splitting and dispersing the fracking issue into its constituent parts (‘wavelengths’), so enabling informed debate.

fracking tweet 1

My presentation opened the forum by briefly raising many of the above issues, while attempting to focus on the geological context, technologies and possible climatic and wider environmental consequences of fracking.

fracking tweet 2a

As a particular contribution to the ‘imagination’ theme, I tried to look forward in time and ponder the legacy that fracking might leave in the long-term geological record. Would a forensic geological examination of the future Earth reveal signs of the deep physical disturbances associated with fracking, alongside other forms of hydrocarbon extraction, mineral mining, groundwater exploitation and underground construction? Will fracking ‘scars’ be our enduring ‘trace fossils’, cutting across multiple geological strata to mark a putative Anthropocene time interval, in which human activities dominate over nature and influence the geological record? Do we care about this? Should we care about this?

fracking tweet 2b

How successful was the day? You can judge for yourselves by watching some of the presentations online:

http://abercast.aber.ac.uk/Panopto/Pages/Viewer.aspx?id=8cccef00-fed0-4721-a5e8-a279961b99fa

and

http://abercast.aber.ac.uk/Panopto/Pages/Viewer.aspx?id=21bcdb2a-6d54-48d9-8c12-232de167ab74

Some of the tweets from the day have been ‘storified’ (https://storify.com/Samsaville/getting-started), cherry-picked examples of which are embedded in this blog, and the twitter feed is ongoing (#imaginefracking). Other contributors to the forum will be posting their own blogs on the event, and these will provide additional retrospectives (e.g. http://kelvinmason.weebly.com/blog and https://anthropocenedotcom.wordpress.com/).

I thought that the event was very successful: the open forum worked well as a means of debating vexing issues from a variety of perspectives in a non-confrontational atmosphere. Geological, environmental and social perspectives were all covered, including from academic, artistic, activist and political angles. Personally, I would have liked to have heard more about the economic arguments for fracking: other than from one audience member who played devil’s advocate by raising these arguments, this perspective was effectively absent from the forum. Can shale gas really help to reduce energy bills? Can fracking developments lead to long-term jobs creation? Can shale gas really act as a transition fuel? Such questions were left largely untouched.

As someone primarily interested in physical geography and geomorphology, the fracking theme clearly sits some distance outside my comfort zone, and preparing a balanced ‘scene setting’ opening talk had proved more of a challenge than anticipated. Afterwards, I was told that someone had described my talk as ‘factually correct and dispassionate’, so that’s a result as far as I am concerned. Or is it? On such important issues, should scientists like myself always be dispassionate, remaining rigidly impartial and free from personal feeling or emotion?

To retain credibility as a scientist and university educator, the answer is probably ‘yes’. But as a citizen interested in the evolving state of the world, perhaps the answer is ‘no’. For sure, one should stick to known facts and figures, but when these run out – and in the case of debates over fracking, this position seems to be reached quite quickly – surely one has the right to venture opinions and offer value judgements that may be influenced more by gut feeling and perhaps even raw emotion?

Balancing dispassion and passion is like walking a tightrope, but this is a tightrope that increasing numbers of scientists are being forced to tread. The climate change debate – of which fracking forms a part – is a prime example. Over the last 10-15 years, many climate scientists have become increasingly vocal in raising awareness of the environmental and societal consequences of climate change. Some have even eschewed their data crunching safety net to become strong advocates for drastic actions to reduce our fossil fuel addiction, and in the process have found themselves embroiled in fierce media and political battles with climate change denialists, sceptics, politicians and big business interests. Jim Hansen (http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2009/jan/18/obama-climate-change), Michael Mann (http://www.theguardian.com/environment/video/2012/feb/17/climate-scientist-michael-mann?intcmp=239) and the late Stephen Schneider (http://climatechange.net/) are just three names that spring to mind. Any stumble on the tightrope can be injurious to one’s career and reputation. But surely some scientists have to engage in such activities, if only to bring some counterbalance in debates that would otherwise be populated with less-informed participants and ‘business as usual’ advocates.

fracking tweet 3

The nice thing about the “Fracking and the Imagination” forum was that there was the opportunity to show both dispassionate and passionate faces. My presentation tried to show the former, but by taking part in the afternoon panel discussion, I found myself venturing those opinions and value judgements. Is fracking akin to scraping the barrel or will it save the day? Despite the virtual absence of the economic arguments, it does seem that fracking and other extreme energies reflect extreme desperation: ‘sprinting in the wrong direction’ to quote another panellist (Damien Short). The amount of energy that needs to go into extracting the energy from unconventional resources reflects diminishing returns, and just like conventional gas, coal and oil, surely fracking and similar developments can only have a finite lifetime (a few decades)? Shouldn’t society reverse, turn 180 degrees and sprint the other way, throwing more efforts towards developing renewable energy resources? If we can put people on the Moon, control rovers on Mars, and land instruments on comets more than 6 billion kilometres miles away, surely we can improve the scales and efficiencies with which we extract energy from the Earth’s internal heat and its sunshine, wind, waves and tides? Of course, such renewables may also have environmental impacts. But my hunch is that the impacts will be far less widespread and far less enduring than a full rollout of fracking operations across the globe.

Against this backdrop, what should we make of Ceredigion County Council’s decision to become the first ‘frack free’ local authority in Wales? The vote on the motion (28th January 2015) wasn’t unanimous (13 for, 9 against, 15 abstentions). Regardless of the numbers, given that Ceredigion has no viable resources of shale gas (or indeed coal bed methane or shale oil), is this a meaningless gesture or symbolically important? The motion made clear that, if adopted, it would demonstrate the Council’s commitment to a cleaner energy future and set an example for the rest of Wales. And on a broader, global front, there are calls to go even further and pressurise companies and institutions to divest from oil, coal and gas companies, as exemplified most prominently by a group of Stanford University Professors (http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/jan/11/stanford-professors-fossil-fuel-investments). The outgoing editor of The Guardian newspaper has urged more scientists to ‘speak up’ on such fossil-fuel divestment (http://www.nature.com/news/scientists-must-speak-up-on-fossil-fuel-divestment-1.17325?WT.ec_id=NEWS-20150416). It remains to be seen just how many will be willing to walk that part of the tightrope.

While I was finishing this blog, it struck me that opposition to environmental developments – be it for energy or something else – is often characterised as NIMBYism (Not In My Backyard-ism). But in the case of Ceredigion County Council, as well as supporters of fossil-fuel divestment, surely it’s NIABYism (Not In Anyone’s Backyard-ism). It’s a horrible acronym. But my feeling is that this is the least of our concerns if the UK and other countries really do roll out large-scale fracking operations and we don’t wean ourselves off fossil fuels, conventional or unconventional.

So, frack to the future? Do we really understand all the potential environmental consequences of fracking? Is it really possible to know the legacy that fracking might leave in the long-term geological record? In both cases, the truthful answer is ‘probably not’. But just as we attempt to deal with the environmental hazards left by Victorian era lead, zinc, copper and coal mining – many of much surely could not have been foreseen at the time – will future generations have to grapple with the hazards of fracked landscapes and a CO2-enriched climate? Will those generations wish that they could jump into Doc Brown’s modified DeLorean and race back in time to intervene in our current energy policy decisions, so changing the course of future events?