British Archaeology In Fight for Survival

British archaeology is in a fight for survival  [Abstrct]

Mary Shepperson,  Tuesday 20 June 2017.

The first University Archaeology Day marks a point of crisis in British archaeology. As student applications fall, threatening university departments with cuts, commercial demand for archaeologists is soaring, leaving a looming skills shortage.   Archaeology is a great subject to take at university. Why then are fewer and fewer students applying to study it?

On 22 June, the first ever University Archaeology Day will be hosted by University College London. The intention is to paint an inspiring picture of archaeology as an exciting field of study leading to a hearty spread of career opportunities, but University Archaeology Day is also a response to a growing crisis in UK archaeology, both for university departments and for the commercial sector. This crisis is likely to have repercussions well beyond the world of academia.

Archaeology is a great subject to take at university; it brings together a mix of humanities and sciences, and combines social theory, critical thinking and hard practical skills. Adventure abounds, both intellectual and actual. Why then are fewer and fewer students applying to study it? This is the question plaguing beleaguered archaeology departments across the UK which are seeing student numbers drop year on year.

The problem boils down to a combination of perceptions and financial factors. The drop in student numbers began after the 2008 financial crisis but has been exacerbated by the hike in tuition fees and the withdrawal of student loans for second degrees. Unlike earlier generations who saw university as more of a chance to experience and explore, students now increasingly see university as a financial investment which needs a decent prospect of financial reward to make sense. Subjects like archaeology, which don’t obviously lead to well paid careers, have suffered the consequences of this more hard-nosed attitude towards education. The scrapping of A-level archaeology last year is both symptom and cause of the declining profile of the subject among students.

Archaeology is more sensitive to falling student numbers than most subjects. The need for laboratory work and the requirement for a range of practical training makes archaeology an expensive subject to teach. However, archaeology is not classed as a STEM subject (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) or as a SIVS (Strategically Important Vulnerable Subject) which are favoured by government funding and admissions policies. This means that archaeology courses rapidly become uneconomic for universities if course places aren’t filled.

So why should all this be of concern? If students don’t want to study archaeology, the subject isn’t economic and the government doesn’t consider it important enough to protect, why shouldn’t it be allowed to die back in universities? Well, in addition to the loss of the UK’s position at the forefront of international archaeological research, there’s an increasingly desperate shortage of archaeologists in the UK.

Archaeology is part of the process of planning and construction, with UK developers required to pay for any archaeological work which might be necessary. The recent surge in house building is already stretching commercial archaeology units to their staffing limits and it’s hard to see how planned major infrastructure projects, such as HS2 and a third runway for Heathrow, can be managed as things stand. A recent report by Historic England estimates that the UK will need between 25% and 64% more archaeologists by 2033 to meet commercial demand. Brexit has the potential to make the situation even worse as many archaeology units are now heavily reliant on EU nationals.

It might seem curious under these circumstances that students aren’t more attracted to archaeology as a career when there are so many unfilled commercial vacancies crying out for graduates. The problem is that up until now commercial archaeology has been mostly quite horrible.  Pay and conditions in commercial archaeology are frankly appalling for a skilled graduate profession. A new graduate can’t expect more than £16,000 – £18,000 p.a., and even a senior supervisor or project officer doesn’t earn much more than £25,000, including for jobs based in London and the southeast.

In return, a commercial archaeologist is expected to do a heavy physical job in all (British) weather. Job security is poor; permanent positions don’t come easily and many archaeologists are employed on a project-by-project basis. Traditionally, most young archaeologists don’t stay in commercial archaeology for more than a year or two before escaping to another part of the heritage industry or by transferring their many skills to a more lucrative career – by which I mean almost any other career

However, commercial archaeology is finally starting to respond to the looming skills shortage. In 2014 the Institute for Archaeologists (CIfA) managed to get a Royal Charter for the profession, which will hopefully begin the process of elevating archaeology away from its traditional amateurish image of bearded enthusiasts in funny jumpers towards a more serious professional ethos. A host of new training initiatives have been launched, mostly as collaborations between universities, commercial units and the CIfA, aiming to improve skill sets, raise standards and encourage people into the profession.

Between the shortage of trained archaeologists and the renewed efforts by the commercial sector to improve the lot of archaeology as a profession, it seems likely that pay and conditions will have to improve, especially if developers want their housing estates, runways and high speed rail lines delivered on time. In fact, there might never have been a better time to get into archaeology; that’s if there are university departments left to train at.

Further reading: British Academy’s Reflections on Archaeology Report

Looming Skills Shortage

Sally Weale Education correspondent, Thursday 1 December.

ABSTRACT.  After five years in the job of chief inspector of schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw will [deliver his final annual general report as head of Ofsted on Thursday morning].  The 70-year-old former headteacher, whose reputation was forged in the classrooms of some of the most challenging schools in the country, and who nicknamed himself Dirty Harry after the Clint Eastwood character, has been a colourful figure in the education world, unafraid to upset pupils, parents, teachers and government ministers.

His final annual report is expected to focus on under performance in further education [technical] colleges, a neglected part of the education system, because – as he pointed out with characteristic candidness on Channel 4 News during a visit to a college in east London – “most politicians don’t send their youngsters to these sorts of places”.

Read the full story via the above link.

The Blight of Airbnb

I personally think that the regulations need tightening on this; the housing shortage is so acute that the last hurdle it needs is this type of greed by landlords.

Airbnb introduces 90-day annual limit for London hosts.

Robert Booth and Dan Newling, Thursday 1 December 2016.

ABSTRACT.  A quarter of London homes listed on Airbnb were rented for more than 90 days last year, many illegally and in breach of an act intended to stop landlords turning badly needed housing into unofficial hotels. The booming home-sharing website admitted on Thursday that 4,938 of its “entire home” London listings – 23% of the total – were let out for three months or more, despite a law requiring anyone doing so to apply for planning permission.

Follow the above link for the full story.

London’s Empty Towers Mark a Very British Form of Corruption

The Guardian – Architecture Opinion.

London’s empty towers mark a very British form of corruption.

By Simon Jenkins, Wednesday 25 May 2016.

These monoliths that dominate the skyline expose the tainted wealth that has the capital’s gullible politicians in thrall.


Now we know. The glitzy 50-storey tower that looms over London’s Vauxhall and Pimlico is, as the Guardian revealed yesterday, just a stack of bank deposits. Once dubbed Prescott Tower, after the minister who approved it against all advice, it is virtually empty.

At night, vulgar lighting more suited to a casino cannot conceal the fact that its interior is dark, owned by absent Russians, Nigerians and Chinese. It makes no more contribution to London than a gold bar in a bank vault, but is far more prominent, a great smudge of tainted wealth on the city’s horizon.

In 2003 London’s first elected mayor, Ken Livingstone, was dazzled by a dinner invitation to the Villa Katoushka outside Cannes. His hosts were the titans of London’s property world and he was reportedly soon in thrall to them.

He said he would offer them “the potential to make very good profits” in his new London. He especially wanted tall buildings; the taller the better. The developer Gerald Ronson lauded him for his remarkable “vision”. Tony Pidgley of Berkeley Homes called him “refreshing”.

The mayor was as good as his word. He backed Ronson’s monster Heron Tower in the City. He backed Prescott’s Vauxhall tower. He backed the Bermondsey Shard. He even spent taxpayers’ money on lawyers to support developers at public inquiries. At the time the Tory leader of Wandsworth, Eddie Lister, assailed Livingstone’s obsession with towers as a “one-man dictatorship”. David Cameron’s then cities spokesman, John Gummer, compared Livingstone to Mussolini, and spoke of the towers as “the vulgarity of bigness”.

Yet when Cameron came to power, this was all forgotten. In London, property is the most potent lobby. The Tory mayor, Boris Johnson, increased Livingstone’s rate of tower approvals, while Lister gratefully took office as his tall-buildings champion.

There was no published plan for the drastic surgery being inflicted on London’s appearance. No limit was set to the towers’ location or height. No one took care of their appearance or bulk, their civic significance or their role in the life of the capital. Some 80% of the approvals were for luxury flats, chiefly marketed as speculations in east Asia. Such has been the rate of unrestricted growth, there seems no reason to doubt the dystopian vision of London’s future depicted in the last Star Trek movie.

Johnson’s current legacy to London is 54,000 luxury flats priced at over £1m, about to hit a market that even before the present downturn needed just 4,000 a year. This bubble simply has to burst. The waste of building resources, energy and space, the sheer market-wrecking bad planning, beggars belief.

Towers have a perfectly reputable place in the history of cities. By their nature they dominate. They mark victories and royal palaces; they signify civic centres and clustered downtowns. The tallest towers, in the United Arab Emirates, Malaysia, Singapore and China, reflect the priapic obsessions of dictators and the celebrity cravings of banana republics.

Civilised cities such as Paris, Rome, Amsterdam – even New York, Boston and San Francisco – either ban new towers from historic areas or zone them into clusters. Above all they show some consideration for the aesthetics of place.

No such considerations applied to the Vauxhall tower. Some people like towers, though few want them everywhere. Architects love them as “icons”, as bankers love money.

Some cities desperate for space, such as Hong Kong and Shanghai, build high to cram in the poor, often in dire conditions. Studies from Jane Jacobs to Lynsey Hanley catalogue the impact of high living on family life and community cohesion.

In London, as the Guardian shows, these buildings have nothing to do with housing supply, let alone low-cost supply. Their front doors are manned not by concierges, but by security guards, like banks. They are the product of speculative flows of often “dodgy” cash, seeking an unregulated property market that asks no questions and seeks a quick profit. That is all.

Most cities, ironically including Hong Kong and Singapore, in some way restrict foreign or non-resident acquisition of property, as do most New York condominiums. In London gullible politicians and venal architects have conspired to suborn a great city, simply because towers seemed vaguely macho and money smells sweet.

Nor do towers have to do with population density. The idea that modern cities must “go high” as part of the densification cause is rubbish. External landscaping and internal servicing makes them costly and inefficient. The densest parts of London are the crowded and desirable low-rise terraces of Victorian Islington, Camden and Kensington. The recently proposed Paddington Pole, the height of the Shard, had just 330 flats on 72 storeys. Adjacent, Victorian Bayswater could supply 400 on the same plot.

London has seen nothing yet. A row of giant blocks is about to rise around the Shell Centre behind the National Theatre. The 50-storey cucumber-shaped One Blackfriars is emerging on the bank of the Thames opposite the Embankment. It will intrude on views of the City far more than does the Shard.

The line of the Thames will be marked by a series of jagged broken teeth. Prescott’s tower at Vauxhall is to be joined by two more apartment stacks next door, one even higher.

Next to Battersea power station is a crowded over-development on an almost Hong Kong scale, named Malaysia Square and aimed at the Asian super-rich. Johnson helped sell it in 2014 by actually unveiling the development not in London but in Kuala Lumpur. It will probably go bust and end up as slums. At least the poor may one day live there.

Livingstone and Johnson promoted these towers not because they cared where ordinary Londoners would live, or because they had a coherent vision of how a historic city should look in the 21st century. They knew they were planning “dead” speculations, because plenty of people told them so. They went ahead because powerful men with money and a gift for flattery just asked. It was very British sort of corruption.

The appearance of these structures on the London horizon must rank as the saddest episode in the city’s recent history. We must live with them forever. But we shall not forget their facilitators.


How London is Shifting the Nature Debate

How London is shifting the nature debate.

Posted on 29 January, 2016         by Green Alliance blog.

This post is by Peter Massini, principal policy officer – green infrastructure, at the Greater London Authority. He writes here in a personal capacity.

The natural environment sector shares a general aim: the protection, conservation and improvement of nature. It has had some notable successes, mainly relating to the protection and enhancement of the most special parts of the natural environment. But, despite the array of policies, protocols and projects the sector has helped to develop and deliver, most of us would admit we haven’t been as successful as we would have liked. Most indicators show many UK habitats and species continuing to decline.

We struggle for coherent and compelling narratives that can be understood and embraced by the wider public and championed by politicians and decision makers. While some of us want to reconnect people with nature to establish a groundswell of public support, others promote rewilding which, perhaps unintentionally, can be perceived as excluding people from the equation.

Nature means different things to different people.

The terms ‘nature’ and ‘natural environment’ lack clarity and meaning for most people. They can suggest anything, from the biosphere to local green spaces, from wilderness to farmed landscape. For most people I would suggest nature equals wildlife; and the natural environment is a catch all for landscape and countryside that is not urbanised. For some, nature is a spiritual concept and, for others, it is the sum of the species and habitats that we have so rigorously named and counted since Linnaeus gave us the ability to classify the natural world.

Concepts like ecosystem services can raise awareness and understanding of the importance of the natural environment. Some in the sector are concerned by the potential implications of putting anthropocentric and utilitarian values at the centre of the debate. But it is just what we need to do to provide the growing, and increasingly urbanised, population with better reasons to welcome, and pay for, different approaches to land use and management. This is particularly important given the pressures from other legitimate and necessary demands, like housing, on our limited land resources.

Using the term green infrastructure is one way to increase public appreciation of environmental benefits. It presents features, like trees, woodlands, wetlands, and fabricated green spaces, like green roofs and rain gardens, as useful products providing necessary services that can make our lives easier, healthier, happier and more productive.

It is a way to frame the issue for some of the people we need to convince. As a society we don’t often dispute the need for investment in better and more efficient utility and transport infrastructure; because collectively we understand its benefits.

Changing the way we think about nature.

This is most relevant in our towns and cities, where the majority of us live and work. In London we are challenging the way we think about how we plan, design and manage nature and green spaces. The recent report of the Green Infrastructure Task Force aims to encourage a shift in policy, away from the intangibles of nature towards services that address people’s needs, but in ways that also make the city greener and more ecologically robust in the longer term. These benefits include flood mitigation, improving air and water quality, cooling the urban environment and enhancing activities like walking and cycling.

It is an idea that helps to reinforce the premise that existing green spaces and new green infrastructure should address the city’s contemporary and future challenges, rather than simply reflecting historic design and uses. Should we, for example, maintain and manage a park primarily as a place to promenade as its Victorian layout might have intended, or should we turn in into a floodable space because that is the more urgent current and future need?

Nature is not excluded from these objectives; it is bound up with them. A green infrastructure, based on the principles of ecology, requires systems and approaches that are nature based or mimic natural processes. And they are not an attack on heritage and beauty. A space that has high intrinsic heritage and cultural value, including sites which are a refuge for rare species or a designed landscape, should be protected and managed to conserve that value, just as we would conserve a notable painting or a listed building.

Dame Fiona Reynolds asked the question, in a previous blog post, ’Will beauty be the source of our salvation?’ She argues eloquently that “we need to give people…first hand experiences of the natural resources on which we depend, including the beauty of nature and our countryside” and that we should strive for “more beauty in town and country, bringing nature closer to people and people closer to nature”. I agree, wholeheartedly. The beauty and intrinsic value of nature has always been my personal inspiration. But a more consumer orientated, outcome based approach may, for now, prove to be the most persuasive way to bring the benefits of nature into sharper focus.

Water Abstraction Reform Urgently Required in UK

Water abstraction reform urgent, says CCC

Maureen Gaines, Editor, WET News. 24/02/2016.

The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) is urging the government to include primary legislation for water abstraction reform in the next Queen’s Speech.

Professor Lord Krebs, chair of the CCC’s Adaptation Sub-Committee, said the government’s proposed water abstraction reforms announced last month were welcome but said: “The importance and urgency of abstraction reform is such that we strongly recommend including the necessary primary legislation in the next Queen’s speech.”

Lord Krebs’ comments are included in a letter to environment secretary Elizabeth Truss. He highlighted the findings of CCC research where more than third of demand might not be met in about 60 of the 296 UK catchments under a high population and a high climate change scenario.

“There remains a high degree of uncertainty in projections of future seasonal rainfall and what this might mean for the frequency and intensity of water shortages and drought. Therefore, a flexible water licensing system which can be adjusted to reflect changing water availability from future weather patterns and the pace of population growth is critical,” he said.

While noting that continued work is needed to ensure the reforms are successfully implemented by the early 2020s, Lord Krebs said the choice of which catchments to classify as ‘enhance’ should be based on where water is projected to most likely be scarce.

And he warned that if delivery of the water companies’ Water Resource Management Plans between now and the 2030s fall short, then projected deficits “will be even more pronounced”.



Landfill Dumps Across UK at Risk From Flooding

Landfill dumps across UK ‘at risk of leaking hazardous chemicals’

Tom Bawden, Environment Editor, Sunday 21 February 2016.

Thousands of landfill dumps around the UK are at risk of being compromised by flooding and coastal erosion, sparking fears that dangerous substances could spill into rivers, streets and beaches, academics warn. The UK faces a “toxic time bomb” after an analysis of its ageing dumps revealed that 2,946 are located in flood plains, experts say.

Furthermore, 1,655 of these “historical” landfill sites contain dangerous materials such as hazardous chemicals and asbestos, according to calculations for The Independent by Dr Daren Gooddy of the British Geological Society (BGS).

Dr Gooddy is especially concerned about these sites because they are in areas with a high flood risk, and they are very unlikely to have a protective lining because they predate tough EU waste regulations introduced in the 1990s. These significantly strengthened requirements to insulate landfill waste from the surroundings and protect it from severe weather.

“The research is alarming,” said Friends of the Earth Campaigner Guy Shrubsole. “Britain’s leaky landfills could turn out to be a toxic timebomb – and it’s clear that some are already leaching waste and chemicals into our watercourses.”

Details about the contents of the UK’s 21,027 historic landfills, which date from about 1890 to 1990, are sketchy, making it hard to assess their individual vulnerability to flooding and coastal erosion. But with nearly 3,000 of them located in flood plains – and a further 1,264 in low-lying coastal areas, often by the sea – many waste sites risk being flooded from heavy rain, storm surges and coastal erosion.

Many of these landfill sites are protected by flood defences and will be able to withstand extreme weather. However, experts are concerned that many others may not be adequately protected and point out that heavy flooding in recent years demonstrates that even robust defences can be overcome by heavy rain.

“There are major gaps in our knowledge about historical landfills and huge uncertainty about the scale of contamination they have caused in water and on land,” said Dr Gooddy, principal hydrogeochemist at BGS. “While it’s hard to say for sure, I would suggest that many of these legacy sites are vulnerable to flooding.”

Furthermore, historic landfill sites across the country pose a risk to their surroundings even if they don’t flood because they can still discharge waste that eventually washes into the waterways.

“Even when flooding does not occur these sites leach out contaminated waste, which generally gets transported towards the nearest river,” said Dr Gooddy. His estimates relate to England and Wales but there are also numerous historical landfills in Ireland, Northern Ireland and Scotland which are thought to pose similar risks.

Last year, waves washed away the clay walls of a disused landfill north of Bray, near Dublin, giving an indication of the risks at other sites. Environmental group Coastwatch revealed that about 200 metres of the tip has been exposed, with asbestos, rusted metal, heavy plastics, bricks and bags seen at the foot of the eroded cliffs. Waste has also been reported hanging out of the side of the riverbank near the village of East Tilbury in Essex as a result of erosion.

With climate change set to increase heavy rain, storms and storm surges, these historical sites will become increasingly vulnerable – putting marine wildlife at risk, scattering rubbish over river banks and beaches and posing a risk to people, especially children, coming into contact with the waste.

“The work we’ve done in the South-east suggests that there has already been widespread pollution from historic landfills,” said Dr Kate Spencer, of Queen Mary University of London. “And at one site we actually found a blue poison bottle from a pharmacist that had a skull and crossbones on it, with a stopper and liquid inside.”

She added: “These sites date back to a time when there were no protective linings, no regulation about what went in and little in the way of records about the contents. Many are on coastlines highly vulnerable to coastal erosion, storm surges and flooding and the big concern is that they will become even more vulnerable as climate change makes storms more frequent and intense.”

Dr Spencer and her PhD student James Brand are working with the Environment Agency to create a “vulnerability” index ranking to identify those sites posing the greatest danger – based on the risk of flooding and the contents of the dump.

Francis O’Shea of University College London, who researched the state of Britain’s historical landfill sites for his PhD at Queen Mary, said: “I was surprised how many historic landfill sites are lying in areas at risk from flooding or coastal erosion. With little information about their current state and what could be released if they flooded this is an area of considerable concern that needs to be investigated.”

An Environment Agency spokesperson said: “We are supporting a research project by Queen Mary University of London to assess the potential impacts of flooding and coastal erosion on historic landfill sites close to the coast. We hope the research findings may provide a useful contribution to future shoreline management plans.”

The Anthropocene – Has a New Geological Epoch Arrived?

Human impact has pushed Earth into the Anthropocene, scientists say

New study provides one of the strongest cases yet that the planet has entered a new geological epoch.

By Adam Vaughan, The Guardian, Thursday 7 January 2016.

There is now compelling evidence to show that humanity’s impact on the Earth’s atmosphere, oceans and wildlife has pushed the world into a new geological epoch, according to a group of scientists.  [Possibly – do read on though. ML].

The question of whether humans’ combined environmental impact has tipped the planet into an “Anthropocene” – ending the current Holocene which began around 12,000 years ago – will be put to the geological body that formally approves such time divisions later this year.

The new study provides one of the strongest cases yet that from the amount of concrete mankind uses in building to the amount of plastic rubbish dumped in the oceans, Earth has entered a new geological epoch.

“We could be looking here at a step-change from one world to another that justifies being called an epoch,” said Dr Colin Waters, principal geologist at the British Geological Survey and an author on the study published in Science on Thursday.

“What this paper does is to say the changes are as big as those that happened at the end of the last ice age. This is a big deal.”

He said that the scale and rate of change on measures such as CO2 and methane concentrations in the atmosphere were much larger and faster than the changes that defined the start of the Holocene.

Humans have introduced entirely novel changes, geologically speaking, such as the roughly 300m metric tonnes of plastic produced annually. Concrete has become so prevalent in construction that more than half of all the concrete ever used was produced in the past 20 years.

Wildlife, meanwhile, is being pushed into an ever smaller area of the Earth, with just 25% of ice-free land considered wild now compared to 50% three centuries ago. As a result, rates of extinction of species are far above long-term averages.

But the study says perhaps the clearest fingerprint humans have left, in geological terms, is the presence of isotopes from nuclear weapons testing that took place in the 1950’s and 60’s.

“Potentially the most widespread and globally synchronous Anthropogenic signal is the fallout from nuclear weapons testing,” the paper says.

“It’s probably a good candidate [for a single line of evidence to justify a new epoch] … we can recognise it in glacial ice, so if an ice core was taken from Greenland, we could say that’s where it [the start of the Anthropocene] was defined,” Waters said.

The study says that accelerating technological change and a growth in population and consumption have driven the move into the Anthropocene, which advocates of the concept suggest started around the middle of the 20th century.

“We are becoming a major geological force, and that’s something that really has happened since we had that technological advance after the Second World War. Before that it was horse and cart transporting stuff around the planet, it was low key, nothing was happening particularly dramatically,” said Waters.

He added that the study should not be taken as “conclusive statement” that the Anthropocene had arrived, but as “another level of information” for the debate on whether it should be formally declared an epoch by the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS).

Waters said that if the ICS was to formally vote in favour of making the Anthropocene an official epoch, its significance to the wider world would be in conveying the scale of what humanity is doing to the Earth.

“We [the public] are well aware of the climate discussions that are going on. That’s one aspect of the changes happening to the entire planet. What this paper does, and the Anthropocene concept, is say that’s part of a whole set of changes to not just the atmosphere, but the oceans, the ice – the glaciers that we’re using for this project might not be here in 10,000 years.

“People are environmentally aware these days but maybe the information is not available to them to show the scale of changes that are happening.”

The international team behind the paper includes several other members of the Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy’s Anthropocene working group, which hopes to present a proposal to the ICS later this year. The upswing in usage of the Anthropocene term is credited to Paul Crutzen, the Dutch Nobel prize-winning atmospheric chemist, after he wrote about it in 2000.

Prof Phil Gibbard, a geologist at the University of Cambridge who initially set up the working group examining formalising the Anthropocene, said that while he respected the work of Waters and others on the subject, he questioned how useful it would be to declare a new epoch.

“It’s really rather too near the present-day for us to be really getting our teeth into this one. That’s not to say I or any of my colleagues are climate change deniers or anything of that kind, we fully recognise the points: the data and science is there.

“What we question is the philosophy, and usefulness. It’s like having a spanner but no use for it,” he said.

Gibbard suggested it might be better if the Anthropocene was seen as a cultural term – such as as the Neolithic era, the end of the stone age – rather than a geological one.

Evidence we’ve started an ‘Anthropocene.’

  • We’ve pushed extinction rates of flora and fauna far above the long-term average. The Earth is now on course for a sixth mass extinction which would see 75% of species extinct in the next few centuries if current trends continue
  • Increased the concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere by about 120 parts per million since the industrial revolution because of fossil fuel-burning, leaving concentrations today at around 400ppm and rising
  • Nuclear weapon tests in the 1950’s and 60’s left traces of an isotope common in nature, 14C, and a naturally rare isotope, 293Pu, through the Earth’s mid-latitudes
  • Put so much plastic in our waterways and oceans that micro-plastic particles are now virtually ubiquitous, and plastics will likely leave identifiable fossil records for future generations to discover
  • Doubled the nitrogen and phosphorous in our soils in the past century with our fertiliser use. According to some research, we’ve had the largest impact on the nitrogen cycle in 2.5bn years
  • Left a permanent marker in sediment and glacial ice with airborne particulates such as black carbon from fossil fuel-burning


Unprecedented Storms and Floods are More Common Than We Think.

Unprecedented’ storms and floods are more common than we think.

The recent ‘unprecedented’ flooding in north-west England might be more common than currently believed, a group of scientists has warned. A team of experts from the Universities of Aberystwyth, Cambridge and Glasgow have drawn on historic records to build a clearer picture of the flooding.

They conclude that 21st-century flood events such as Storm Desmond are not exceptional or unprecedented in terms of their frequency or magnitude, and that flood frequency and flood risk forecasts would be improved by including data from flood deposits dating back hundreds of years.

Dr Tom Spencer from the University of Cambridge said: “In the House of Commons on Monday (December 7), the Environment Secretary called the flooding in north-west England ‘unprecedented’ and ‘consistent with climate change trends’. But is this actually true?

“Conventional methods of analysing river flow gauge records cannot answer these questions because upland catchments usually have no or very short records of water levels of around 30 or 40 years. In fact, recent careful scientific analysis of palaeoflood deposits (flood deposits dating back hundreds of years) in the UK uplands shows that 21st-century floods are not unprecedented in terms of both their frequency (they were more frequent before 1960) and magnitude (the biggest events occurred during the 17th–19th centuries).”

Professor Mark Macklin, an expert in river flooding and climate change impacts at Aberystwyth University, said: “UK documentary records and old flood deposits dating back hundreds of years indicate that these floods are not unprecedented, which means we are grossly underestimating flood risk and endangering peoples’ lives.

“In some areas, recent floods have either equalled or exceeded the largest recorded events and these incidences can be ascribed to climate variability in Atlantic margin weather systems.

“It is of concern that historical data suggests there is far more capacity in the North Atlantic climate system to produce wetter and more prolonged flood-rich periods than hitherto experienced in the 21st century. Looking forward, an increased likelihood of weather extremes due to climate change means that extending our flood record using geomorphology science must be placed at the centre of flood risk assessment in the UK.”

Professor Macklin suggests that new approaches to flood risk analysis be adopted to include instrumental, documentary and most importantly palaeoflood records.

He added: “Current approaches using flood frequency analysis and flood risk assessment based on 40-50 year long flow records are far shorter than the design life of most engineering structures and strategic flood risk planning approaches. They are not fit for purpose now, let alone in a changing climate.”

Professor John Lewin from the University of Aberystwyth said: “What is needed, is far more resilience for already-developed floodplains, and much more serious insistence that future floodplain development should be virtually curtailed. Somewhere along the line floodplain development has been allowed by local authorities and the UK government to continue regardless.”

Dr Larissa Naylor from the University of Glasgow said: “These floods and the 2013/14 storms have shown us that our landscape is dynamic rather than static – where rivers reshape floodplains and erosion remodels our coastline – with large economic and social costs. We need to urgently consider how we plan our cities and towns, and rebuild in the wake of large flood and storm events, to live safely in our changing landscape.”

Spencer, Lewin, Macklin and Naylor are members of the British Society for Geomorphology’s Working Group on Stormy Geomorphology, who are currently finalising a global state-of-the-art analysis of the role geomorphology science can play in an age of extremes in the Wiley journal Earth Surface Processes and Landforms.

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