GSI Workshop: Exploring synergies between Earth sciences and astronomy

Blog by workshop convenor, Dr Raphaëlle Haywood

The GSI Workshop: Exploring synergies between Earth sciences and astronomy took place on 18 February 2022, bringing together around 40 academics from a wide range of disciplines, both in person and online. Prof. Tim Lenton talked about Exo-Earth system science at Exeter. He emphasized that we need to get the message out that planets beyond the solar system are being discovered. Tim discussed what life might look like on exoplanets and our prospects for detecting it. Simple life emerged on Earth as soon as conditions were favourable, so we can expect it to have evolved on many other planets. Tim argued that “life is not a passive actor set on a stage”; it completely transforms its planet, so we should be able to detect biosignatures  on exoplanets in coming decades (notably with upcoming direct-imaging missions). On the other hand, complex life, including ourselves, results from some very difficult and improbable transformations, so it is unlikely to exist elsewhere.

The Pale Blue Dot was a recurring theme throughout the Workshop. Prof. Tim Lenton pondered: “[We are] thinking about how common life is. Is it going to touch us emotionally in a way that allows us to reflect back on our own presence and existence on Earth, [and will this help us] alter our relationship with Earth?” (slide by Prof. Tim Lenton).

Jake Eager talked about his ongoing PhD work Towards coupled modelling of the biosphere and atmosphere for Archean-like climates. Jake focuses on terrestrial planets that orbit small, cool M dwarf stars. These are the most common stars in our galaxy, and have long lifetimes, which could give life more time to emerge. If life exists on these exoplanets, it might resemble life that existed on Earth during the Archean (about 3 billion years ago) more closely than present-day life. Jake is using the Met Office’s Unified Model for Archean Earth to estimate methane concentrations for these planets. Jake’s work shows that by modelling the atmosphere and biosphere together, we can ultimately improve our understanding of both.

Dr Arwen Nicholson talked about Biosignatures independent of population dynamics. Arwen has created a simple model based on an Archean Earth-like planet that considers air-ocean exchange, carbon-silicate cycling and a very simple biosphere in the form of microbes which produce methane, which then acts as a strong biosignature for the planet. By varying the death rate of microbes, Arwen finds that the concentration of methane in the atmopshere, and thus the planet’s biosignature are relatively insensitive to the detailed properties of the biota.

Prof. Tim Naylor presented the Terra Hunting Experiment, of which Exeter is a major partner. Terra Hunting is the world’s most viable experiment to discover terrestrial, temperate planets orbiting stars like our Sun within the coming decade. For this, Terra Hunting will measure the wobble of 30 stars, on every observable night over 10 years. Based on the occurence rate of these planets (as measured by recent surveys such as Kepler), we expect to discover a handful of planets with similar mass and stellar irradiation as Earth. These planets will be prime targets for direct imaging in the next 20-30 years.

The majority of in-person participants mingled at tea and coffee after the talks (which are available to watch on the GSI’s Youtube playlist). Stay tuned for more talks and opportunities to discuss this exciting topic in future events! Please get in touch with  if you have any ideas and suggestions.

The Climate Change, Conflict and Migration Nexus: Through the Lens of the Syrian Civil War

Blog by Tabitha Watson

Over the past few decades, there has been increasing conversation – and significant news coverage – linking climate change, conflict and migration. However, analysis of the topic remains largely qualitative and anecdotal in nature. This lack of quantitative data makes the development of robust, evidence-based policy challenging, leading to the growth of more reactionary approaches (e.g. securitisation of migration). In this context, with growing nationalism and xenophobia, it is vital to gain a more nuanced, data-driven perspective on the situation. This is where the concept of whole-system analysis of the climate change, conflict and migration nexus comes into play.

Although all three aspects of the nexus have been conclusively linked, the majority of quantitative studies have tended to address pairwise interactions. There is vibrant academic debate over the role of climate; its role in both conflict and migration has been disputed. However, regardless of the current perceived significance of the global climate, without drastic mitigatory action we are projected to vastly exceed the 2C threshold set out in the Paris Agreement. This will have severe consequences for large swathes of the population, and there are likely to be knock-on effects that ripple across society. It is, therefore, important to consider the ways in which this could impact both mobility and security.

In some spheres, the ongoing Syrian civil war is considered to be one of the first climate-affiliated conflicts. To unpack this, and the controversy around it, it is important to delve a little into the context. Historically, Syria has been relatively fertile and agriculturally productive. However, since the 1980s, it has experienced three severe droughts. The most recent of these, starting in 2006/7, has been recorded as the worst in 900 years. As an exacerbating factor, this drought came on the heels of a deep and long-term agrarian crisis; this had been brewing for decades as the Syrian regime pursued an agrarian development plan which relied on the super-exploitation of water resources, especially groundwater. Groundwater extraction, in turn, relied on the availability of cheap diesel – kept that way by massive government subsidies.

For a variety of reasons, Assad chose to remove these subsidies in 2008/9. This caused the price of diesel to rocket up by over 300%, rendering vast areas of land unviable and causing the displacement of at least 1.5 million people from rural to urban areas. The infrastructure in cities and towns was already sub-par, and it has been argued that the influx of the rural population caused some degree of tension on top of pre-existing ethnic fractures and tensions within Syrian society.

So, with the scene in Syria set with drought, loss of livelihood, mass displacement,  creaking national infrastructure and a general undercurrent of discontent, the Arab Spring began rippling out from Tunisia across the Middle East. In March 2011, pro-democracy protests in Syria were crushed with deadly force. This sparked further protests and, as we know, spiralled into the ongoing conflict. As various factions became involved and the fighting intensified, people began to flee and seek refuge. This has been framed by Western media as a migration ‘crisis’. Here, we see the contested link between climate and conflict snowball into conflict leading to migration. This can then be seen to lead to a different type of, largely ideological, conflict in the destination countries.

However, the presence of a climate signal in the outbreak of civil war in Syria is disputed. Geopolitical events have muddied the water; this is especially sensitive in this case, as the Assad regime have sought to push the climate-conflict narrative in order to absolve themselves of the blame for fomenting the catastrophic agrarian crisis that preceded the drought. Some commentators have also pointed out that neighbouring countries experienced a similar lack of precipitation but did not topple into civil conflict. Therefore, there must have been some Syria-specific factors. However, neither of these arguments are mutually exclusive of a climate signal.

It is important to note that those who argue that there is a climate signal are not stating that climate change is a primary cause of the conflict, rather, that the presence of the drought exacerbated existing conflict precursors and ‘oiled the wheels’, causing the conflict state to occur faster than it may otherwise have done. The question, for both sides, is: would the agrarian crisis alone have been sufficient to trigger the civil war?

To answer this, modelling the climate change, conflict and migration nexus as a complex system is the next logical step. It will allow for the identification of emergent properties, such as a conflict, from the combination of social, environmental and political variables. A vehicle for complex systems analysis is agent-based modelling. Here, the system is made up by a set of agents, each with bounded free will. By programming these agents with relevant parameters, it should be possible to gain a bottom-up perspective of human behaviour under different conditions and scenarios. Through this, it should be possible to elucidate the significance of each factor within the climate change, conflict and migration nexus in relation to each other.

GSI Seminar Series: Dr Raphaelle D. Haywood – There’s no place like home: Placing Earth in its astronomical and geological contexts

Blog written by Daneen Cowling

A new year and a new set of interesting seminars!

The first of 2022 was from Dr Raphaëlle Haywood, a Senior Lecturer in Physics and Astronomy at the University of Exeter. Dr Haywood gave an immense talk covering the hunt for exoplanets, how we find another Earth-like planet, and shared some important insights into why we should not assume there is a planet B.


On a finite world, a cosmic perspective is not a luxury, it’s a necessity

Caleb A. Scharf, 2014

Dr Haywood began with thought-provoking set of quotes and statistics that brought home the importance of why we need to have this astronomical view and appreciation of our position within it. To realise – like our humble blue planet – the existence of planets orbiting other stars is extremely common.

Particularly important – the occurrence of “Earth-like planets” are also common, potentially between 9-21% of suns have a planet like Earth. But what is a planet like Earth?

An Earth-like planet is similar to us in size – around a 1/2 to 1 radius of Earth. But importantly, it also sits within the habitable zone. This means it is a suitable distance from it’s sun to allow for 30-100% of heat received on Earth to permit liquid water.

Dr Haywood estimated that there could be 63 BILLION temperate Earth size planets in our galaxy.


How to find other Earths

Find Earth-like planets goes far beyond it’s size and sun distance – we have tools that help us find the signatures of Earth – of life.

Earth is a complex self-regulating system composed of interacting systems of the planets rocks, atmosphere, ocean and biosphere. We can use the biosphere and the signatures it produces to help in our exploration. But what does this look like?

Key components of our biosphere can be identified through their signature wavelengths. through the reflectance signatures, we can identify:

  • Water and Water Vapour
  • Oxygen and Methane – this tells us there is a chemical disequilibrium and therefore there is life, as oxygen and methane are the bi-products
  • Near-Infared (NIR) “red-edge” – a sharp rise at around 700nm on the reflectance spectrum tells us there is a prevalence of vegetation

This means, using these signatures and tools we can understand what might be on another planet.

This is an exciting time for planet search and discovery – as from this year (2022) a new TerraHunting project will kick off a 10-year survey of 40 sun-like stars, to explore the planets and their resemblance to Earth. From this project and the huge dataset it will create, NASA plan to use this data to strategically begin a direct-imaging project, able to measure actual temperatures and investigate the prevalence of atmosphere on these potential Earth-like planets, and ultimately contribute great strides to the search for extra-terrestrial life!


No Planet B

As exciting as finding another planet with life on, Dr Haywood set it straight that regardless, there is no planet B. Even if we wanted to set up camp on another planet, the distances involved are way beyond our technological capacities – our nearest Earth-like planet is 300 years away at the speed of light. Even our Mars neighbour is out of our technological capability to transform into a habitable planet for humans.

Dr Haywood then went onto remind us that our planet, through its geological history, has never been the same state – it has consistently shifted into new versions of itself. Even human civilisations have shifted the planet trajectory of Earth – in its appearance and its observable signatures from space. Our current state of Earth has electromagnetic signatures, masses of waste, chemical signatures in our atmosphere – but what would an Earth signature look like it if it was inhabited by only indigenous communities? Communities that are able to live harmoniously with the Earth and the complex systems that regulate it. Maybe, this sustainable way of life isn’t even detectable? What’s to say other occurrences of life won’t be living so sustainable they are undetectable?

Lots of questions and exciting developments taken to get closer to answer them will make the next decades of planetary exploration an exciting one.


To learn more about Dr Haywood’s work, see her profile here.

If you’re a member of staff or student of the University of Exeter, feel free to join a mini-module called “No Place Like Home”: https://vle.exeter.ac.uk/course/view.php?id=13080

It was created by Dr Arwen Nicholson, Federica Rescigno and Dr Haywood as part of last year’s Summer School on Sustainability that was organised by CEMPS.

To view the full seminar, you can watch the recording here.

For more GSI events, stay up to date on the GSI website.

GSI Seminar Series: Prof. Patrick Devine Wright – Are local climate emergency declarations leading to transformation in the politics of climate change?

Blog post by Daneen Cowling

On 17/11/2021 Professor Patrick Devine-Wright, Dr Fionnguala Sherry-Brennan and Dr Alice Moseley, gave a seminar discussing whether local climate emergency declarations are followed by a transformation in the politics and solutions around climate change. Professor Devine-Wright, Dr Fionnguala Sherry-Brennan and Dr Alice Moseley gave a valuable insight into the planning, structure and outcomes of the first climate change citizen assembly in Devon to inform the Carbon Plan. The seminar was met with a lively discussion and positive messages to end on.


We were first introduced to the structure of the climate emergency and Devon Net Zero Task Force organisation at Devon Council, and how this filtered into the Carbon Plan. The citizen Assembly was then discussed, with the risks that come with hosting such a discussion. Deliberations and an interim Carbon Plan brought out before the assembly due to covid, meant topics for the assembly were reduced from 6 to 3, resulting in:

  • Oneshore wind
  • Roads and Mobility
  • Retrofitting

Food and diet was one of the topics dropped from the final decision to run 3. From this followed discussion in the chat around the importance for this topic in Devon, given the extensive farming presence in the county and the carbon footprint it carries. Explanations and discussions were shared in the Q&A, viewable here.

With context given to the question framing and speaker selections, the outcomes of the assembly were outlined. Although anticipated to be largely rejected, onshore wind as a net zero resolution was supported by 89% participants. While resolutions provided for mobility such as increased parking charges and workplace parking levies, were largely rejected. This is likely a representation of the relatively greater reliance on private transport in rural Devon, where public transport is not sufficient to be an appropriate alternative.

It was clear the citizens assembly was a useful tool to provide a platform to voices representative of rurality, which usually go unrecognised. However, there still remains complexities to contend with for the value and effectiveness of the assembly. For example, the value can be relative for different participants – stakeholders may hold more value to the solutions whereas the citizens involved might value the space to discuss issues affecting them, more.

It was also interesting to consider the key concept of place from the outcomes of the assembly. What is Devon? What inequalities are there to consider and contend with for these discussions? Where does trust lie in communities and how does this alter decisions? Centring thinking around Devon as a place helps contextualise the rejection to such mobility suggestions, and (hopefully) will result in a fairer acknowledgement of these inequalities across the county and avoid a blanket urban-centric solution.


To watch the full seminar as well as the discussion after, please click here.

The interim Devon Carbon Plan can be found here.

All Devon Climate Emergency information can be found here.

Voices of the Dart – hearing and helping our water bodies

A September workshop activity by Darcy Howle (GSI Intern) and John Bruun (GSI SDG Zero Hunger theme lead). Blog post by John

We can view the Dart as a form of living entity that many people share and benefit from. The Dart, one of our local rivers flows from its upland Dartmoor catchment, and as it gathers momentum travels down and past the wood and grassy landscapes, local villages and towns and joining the sea at Dartmouth. In recent years the land is getting drier, climatic we think. Since 2015 water has been extracted from the river to irrigate the land, which had not been needed before. There is a deep concern about how we can adapt to these changes.  The Bioregional learning centre, a South Devon Community Interest Company have convened a generic conversation to identify the Voice of the Dart. In September groups from GSI, Tidelines, South West Water, Soundart Radio, Westcountry Rivers Trust, the Environment Agency, the Bioregional learning centre (host) as well as artists and film makers, gathered for a workshop next to the river in Dartington: the start of a six month activity. A few from GSI joined: Darcy Howle found: ‘The artistic approach to viewing water was really eye opening. The mindfulness approach heightened your senses and made you experience aspects of the Dart that we take for granted.’ We all participated through walking 1-1 meetings down to the river, then group ideas sharing both at the river, later around a fire and a river story board. The emphasis was on active listening to one another, enabling formation of creative sharing ideas for the science and art. In essence the goal of finding the Voice of the Dart (and indeed any river) is to help save and share our water resources more effectively with this art and science fusion showing the importance of water in people’s lives – we heard the feeling of hope.

One of the workshop feedback activity sessions – where we all found these mushrooms living in a tree next to the river; experiencing the river (John Bruun): with sound, its living smell’s and touch.

GSI Seminar Series – Victor Leshyk: Philosophy of Science Art; a tool for building science literacy

Reposted from Daneen Cowling’s blog

For our second seminar of our summer series (11/05/2021) Victor Leshyk gave an art-filled talk on his philosophies for the creation, use, and power of Science Art. Victor led the audience through an extensive portfolio of his jaw-dropping work, exemplifying it’s importance of getting Science Art right to improve science literacy, but also fight back against the progress-limiting conspiracists.


Victor Leshyk is the Director of Science and Art at the Centre for Ecosystem Science and Society, Northern Arizona University. Victor has over 20 years experience expressing scientific knowledge through fine art. He has used this alliance to help scientists have means to be better communicators, and for the public to have the means to be better learners. Through this experience Victor has developed philosophy to apply to creating, developing and applying Science Art.


Victor explained his found philosophy through his artwork. To see examples of his work, please visit his website (we definitely recommend you check it out!). Victor started to question what Science Art can do and what we are aiming for, starting with the conjured images and meanings of a ‘worldview’. From this exploration, Victor took us how these views and depictions have changed overtime. These depictions have been limited by the edges of knowledge, but as Victor scaled down from the world view, to cells to particles – it is clear the frontiers of knowledge opened by science discoveries, have created new bounds to what we can understand and what we now compromise for a worldview.


Victor then highlighted the quote by Neil Degrasse Tyson: “The good thing about science is that it is true whether or not you believe in it”. But using the pandemic and the protests against orders to stay home backed by science, the science is still irrelevant if you can’t communicate the science to the other people. Hence, Victor proposes an alternative of: “A great thing about Art is that is can help determine whether people do believe in Science”.

Victor backed the ‘a picture tells a thousand words’ phrase with the stats – pictures can be understood 60000 times faster than words. Then told the importance of this during the Renaissance period, whereby much of scientific knowledge was stored through art, which has increased in detail. Scientific knowledge, artistic detail and storytelling accuracy have increased in tandem.

Victor then told the story of his own journey with Science Art. But soon discovered that simply making more art does not make the world more scientifically literate. Highlighted by the prevalence of conspiracy theorists and flat-earthers, Victor stated we are living in a crisis of science literacy. SciArt is hope to address this – existing as a spectrum. On one end ‘Found Art’ – the beauty in this existing in nature, or ‘Fine Art’ – free-form abstract art creating experiences. SciArt has capacity to create new worldviews – to communicate the breadth of life, the different behaviours, the diversity of past life and environments, mass extinction events and the biogeochemical changes that caused them. Victor demonstrated how he has used SciArt to ultimately help us learn from the past using these lenses. Learning from the past helps inform the present, which is especially true in the context of anthropogenic climate change and the pressures we are putting on the earth systemm. As Victore displays through his art – this is in parallel to the atmospheric and oceanic chemical changes that have happened before.


But what about data visualisation? Can’t graphs serve the same purpose as art to communicate science and data? Victor proved otherwise, arguing that the data can speak for itself but still not be heard. Reading graphs and understanding attributes is not accessible or as instantaneous as absorbing art. Word-less art can still communicate the same message of a comprehensive graph.

Science Art also lets us see through an experts eyes. Victor used the example of how, through the eyes of an expert, a lump of chert is rich evidence of past environments and life. SciArt can tell the story visible to the expert and reveal it to the world.

Science Art helps us care about things we cannot see, e.g. ecosystems exchanging and cycling matter. Victor also highlighted the power AciArt has to communicate the danger and urgency of a changing landscape. He has used the case of peatlands, which to view the landscape as is, it’s a peaceful, beautiful thing. But through the ‘x-ray’ of SciArt, erupting CO2 from thawing, dynamic movement of the peat, methane bursting through ice – this can all be revealed to show the true dangerous nature of the landscape.

As real as mud is – it’s a personality, this can be conveyed through SciArt. Responsible personification can help bring the process of microbe behaviour change with thawing, we can then easily see these real mechanisms. SciArt can therefore help build responsible drama with accurate passion. Science does not have to be emotionally sterile, the passion behind the work and it’s importance should also be illustrated. Victor shows the impact of this when climate change impacts such as wildfires, unlock legacy carbon that has been buried for geological-scale time. This gives emotion to the irreversibility of these tipping points.

The ‘Trowl Problem’, as Victor describes it, is the case of media communications of science that use a trowl to illustrate the finding. A missed opportunity and failure of imagination; use of SciArt instead would add tenfold to the article to help put the science into peoples understanding. This is evidently a current barrier to the application of SciArt.

Victor also explored the role of SciArt as invoking our intuitive visual reasoning – how we respond best and have done through history, to props and visuals to communicate and understand things. He exemplified this with mapping supply chains, and the additions of simple toy-like graphics can have for the digestibility of the science. Intuitive thinking also helps the use of SciArt to help us see into the future. Either through the pressures that will amount of services with future climate changes, or how iconic landscapes are projected to change. This helps reinforce changes to be very real and comprehendible further than statistics of temperature and precipitation change.

Popularisation of science in TV, movies etc. has also helped give science a face – but as a double-edged sword. It has portrayed scientists in a certain way that creates distrust and sensationalism. Victor argues, science fiction is another avenue for SciArt to create accurate portrayals and repair the trusts.

Victor finished on two services of SciArt: How it allows us to keep updating our ideas, we can continually add and develop past and current understandings through art and developments of it’s various mediums. Finally, Science Art helps us see our place in the world. The world is big, it is old and it is complex. SciArt helps make sense of the parts and processes of the world and the role we play amongst it all.


Victor Leshyk introduced, explained and demonstrated the power, potential, and inspirational beauty of Science Art. As well as demonstrating his portfolio and progression of science art, Victor also shared his courses he’s run with students to help these scientists be better communicators through SciArt. For information on this course, the questions posed to Victor and his seminar in full, the recording is available here.

Please keep up to date with GSI events via the websiteTwitterLinkedIn, or join the mailing list by contacting infoGSI@exeter.ac.uk

Business Green – Positive tipping points to net zero and how to finance them

Professor Tim Lenton, GSI & Eoin Murray, Federated Hermes
Published in Business Green 1st December 2020

The finance sector has the means, and the scientists have the data, to
model interventions with much greater impact than we see today, explain
Federated Hermes’ Eoin Murray, and Tim Lenton from the Global Systems
Institute.

Of President-elect Joe Biden’s many campaign commitments to address
the climate crisis, the most significant is the United States re-joining the
Paris climate agreement. Climate change is a global issue and requires
an international response, and American leadership is critical to success.
Biden’s win may therefore come to be seen as a tipping point in the
history of action on climate change.

Tipping points are normally used in climate science to describe small
changes in the earth system that result in much broader, often damaging
impacts that accelerate climate change. Well-known examples including
sea level rise resulting from the disintegration of the Greenland and West
Antarctica ice sheets, or the release into the atmosphere of
climatewarming methane deposits from thawing Siberian permafrost.

For many years, researching and understanding these tipping points
underlined the urgency of climate action. Today it is widely understood
that we need to decarbonise the economy, and to do this rapidly. Right
now, we need tipping points in the other direction – small interventions
that accelerate large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

We have already witnessed many of these positive tipping points and
have learned much about how they function. So far, it is the
governments who have produced the most effective ones. Section 172
of the UK’s updated Company Act, for example, requires businesses to
disclose material risks from the long-term impacts of their activities on
the environment. An escalating tax on carbon emissions has brought
about a collapse in coal’s share of the UK power mix, from 40 per cent
to just three per cent in six years. These policy interventions are
important, but we cannot regulate our way out of the climate emergency.
Unregulated positive tipping points are also necessary.

The transformation of the power sector is taking place due to the
economics of technological innovation. The first tipping point arrived
when renewable energy started producing electricity more cheaply in
some places than fossil fuel-burning power plants. The next will come
when the costs of building new wind or solar capacity become cheaper
than a new coal or gas plant. The entire power sector will have tipped
towards full decarbonisation when the cost of new renewable power
becomes cheaper than maintaining existing hydrocarbon power plants.

Tipping points can also occur with changes in people’s behaviours. The
trend towards plant-based diets in the food sector is one example, or the
collapse in demand for air travel that could potentially outlast coronavirus
travel restrictions. Changes in public opinion however can be much more
difficult to orchestrate than policy or economic interventions.

This is why the finance sector is critical to action on climate change.
Since capital touches every facet of economic decision-making, from
project finance to portfolio allocation, the quickest route to success is the
greening of money.

More and more shareholders recognise their role in shaping these public
goals. They actively engage with management on corporate climate
strategies. Institutional investors, who have a responsibility to mitigate
systemic climate risk, increasingly back climate-related shareholder
resolutions. One pension fund was mandated by the courts to consider
climate risks in its investment strategy. It responded by setting a net-zero
target for financed emissions by 2050.

But are these really tipping points? Could the finance sector deliver more
for climate action? If bankers and fund managers knew where and when
to invest to tip the low-carbon disruptors businesses towards exponential
growth, then finance could have a key role in accelerating climate action.

Understanding these tipping points, and engaging with companies to
capitalise on them, would bring outsized returns to both shareholders
and citizens.

The reality of day-to-day business may prove more challenging to predict
than the future of the climate. But the finance sector has the means, and
the scientists have the data, to model interventions with much greater
impact than we see today. Given the limited time available to stop
climate change, we must all work together to prioritise these new
models.

Eoin Murray is Head of Investment at Federated Hermes International,
and Professor Tim Lenton is Director of the Global Systems Institute at
the University of Exeter