On 7th March B.C., during those heady days of frollocking in the sun/rain-shine, wholesome hugs and re-usable coffee cups, the University of St Andrews held a Science Discovery Day. I was unable to attend unfortunately, but put together a poster for my research group – the Tropical Wetlands Consortium – to pop up as part of their peat paraphernalia. Below are two copies of the poster: (a) the poster before our seven year old consultant checked it for readability by the society members he was representing; (b) the revised version, edited in response to his valuable feedback. There are four major differences. Can you spot them (click on images to enlarge)? And understand why the items in (a) weren’t accessible to our next generation of budding scientists? The feedback was eye-opening for me, and I shall now be using this consultant regularly to accessibility-check my primary school-level outreach work.
I’ve just been included in this article, written to celebrate International Women’s Day: Ten BES women you should know about. Probably a networking-related turn of events that meant I was on the author’s mind, but I thank her very much for including me. “They” always says this…but it really is an honour to be on this list with those other babes. I will endeavour to keep putting my energy into things that I believe are important – engaging people in ecology and conservation, building the confidence and vision of individuals and nurturing kind communities.
And here’s a poem for these times that a hugely inspiring female friend sent me:
I’ve made a pact with myself that I will write a plain language summary for each paper I publish as the first author, to make my work more accessible for people beyond the ivory tower. Some journals, e.g. People and Nature, now encourage this for each of their publications. Whether you believe or not that scientists have a role in advocacy, I believe that sharing the treasure of knowledge with the people that funded our adventure is our responsibility. And perhaps it’s better to tell the story with scientific facts, than ‘facts’ derived through alternative means? Here is my first attempt at an accessible summary for my last publication. (Though it’s still too sciency, a good friend pointed out – I’ll try for properly plain next time! All comments welcome!)
Over the past year, it’s been rare to pass a day without hearing of forests burning, whether in Australia, Brazil or Siberia. The frequency and intensity of forest fires seem to be increasing, with devastating impacts on people and nature. But fires in forests are not a new phenomenon and can be vital to the resilience of these ecosystems. Historical and palaeoecological work can provide context from which to compare these contemporary fires and provide evidence to demonstrate the impact of management and policy.
One type of forest that has gained a global reputation in recent decades for its spectacular fires is degraded tropical peat swamp forest. In an intact state, these waterlogged ecosystems accumulate carbon under their prevailing anaerobic conditions, making them hugely important for mitigating the effects of rising GHG emissions. But are fires unique to degraded tropical peatlands or do intact peatlands burn too?
Our recent paper* answered this question for three peatland sites along the coast of northern Borneo, within the Malaysian state of Sarawak. We collected a set of peat cores from each site and spent many hours in front of the microscope gathering data on elements of the landscape over the last 7,000 years. Fossil pollen grains were identified to provide knowledge on the floral components of the landscape over time and distinguish major ecosystem types. Fossil charcoal particles were counted to reconstruct past fire regimes in these swamps, including incidences of forest burning that were above the background levels. We also looked at a wide range of historical and contemporary literature to explore the interactions that people have had with these peatlands over the last 500 years: the approximate time of people’s arrival in the flooded coastal forests, the changes in land titling and the political pressures on land management in recent millennia.
Our results demonstrate that intact tropical peatlands do burn. They probably burnt more in years when the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) – a climatic phenomenon that brings drier, warmer weather to this region in irregular, sub-decadal intervals – was stronger, but the peat swamp forest seemed to recover even from these more intense fires. However, cue people’s entry into the story, c. 1850s, and the narrative changes. Fossil charcoal levels reach unprecedented levels, in parallel with indicators of deforestation. And the peat swamp forest shows signs of losing its long-standing stability – the ecosystem’s resilience appears to be compromised by the simultaneous forces of fire and deforestation.
Many of the forests standing in the Anthropocene have been degraded. Their resilience has been compromised by unusually low precipitation (resulting from regional climatic drying) or by management interventions that disrupt natural disturbance regimes, or by both, pushing them beyond the limits of their ecological memory. Our work suggests that tropical peatlands have recovered from episodes of burning throughout the Holocene. But the presence of people, agriculture and fire in peatlands seems to be a recipe for disaster. There is no shortage of contemporary literature and news reports supporting the notion that a drained peatland burns. Our work contributes to the common narrative that for climate change mitigation and for the universal long-term benefit of people and nature, drainage and deforestation are not compatible with sustainable management of tropical peatlands.
*Cole, L.E.S., Bhagwat, S.A., and Willis, K.J. (2019) Fire in the Swamp Forest: Palaeoecological Insights Into Natural and Human-Induced Burning in Intact Tropical Peatlands. Frontiers in Forests and Global Change. https://doi.org/10.3389/ffgc.2019.00048
Earlier this year, as a result of making friends at a conference years ago, I had the privilege of working with a bunch of the world’s most knowledgeable peat-ple on this article for the FAO, published to coincide with COP25: Peatlands: the challenge of mapping the world’s invisible stores of carbon and water. (Page 46-57 in the linked document).
Our main message, watered-down, is that mapping peatlands is no easy task and there is still much work to do on the ground, and across the globe….but we are fast working on these knowledge gaps and know enough about the important role that peatlands play in mitigating climatic change that we would be fools to let them squander.
Back in February, the British Ecological Society’s Special Interest Group in Conservation Ecology (which I’m enjoying Chairing) ran a thoroughly interesting event in London on what Brexit might mean to/for early career ecologists. It was a sell-out, despite concerns of Brexit-fatigue. And I was so impressed by the level of engagement of those that attended. It was expertly organised by Dr Andy Suggitt, whom wrote a great piece on the event here. Kate Howlett has also written this and this piece on the day, which provide another interesting perspective on the event and learnings from it.
One of the key learnings I took away from the event was concerning the one (ONE) positive outcome that could (COULD) result from Brexit: the ability for the UK to manage their agricultural landscapes independently from the top-down regulation currently dictated by the Common Agricultural Policy. Leaving the EU would mean we could reform the policies which dictate how we manage the countryside, mostly those rules and structures which presently determine to what degree we degrade our rural environments in the different corners of our green and pleasant island. “Common” is perhaps a warning sign for any environmental policy, which requires the particularities of the “local” to be central in decision-making if a policy is to stand any chance of being “sustainable”. But that was never the central aim of the CAP. Perhaps, if someone does finally make a decision on which direction the UK will go in (before it self-implodes) we can create a nature-focused LAP: a Local Agricultural Policy, which considers the lay of the land, the local livelihoods, and the living biodiversity, above- and below-ground (e.g. our down-trodden worms).
But we only could leave the EU. And we only could have the bravery and sense in Leadership to listen to the evidence for how to responsibly, perhaps even sustainably manage our countryside and the resources within it. And if we don’t leave the EU, we could try to reform things from within; building on the important research (e.g.) that is already being done in the UK and Europe on what sustainable agriculture might look like. We need to hook those scientists up with the policy makers and shapers. And wouldn’t that be great – to have a leading influence across Europe. The worms would be proud.
Back in September, I spent five magical days with a bunch of 14 young people, on the beautiful National Trust Stackpole Estate in Pembrokeshire. I was volunteering for Action for Conservation (AFC): a UK-based charity that started some three years ago, when one masters student (the inspirational Hendrikus) noticed a gaping hole in the secondary school syllabus when it came to environmental education. It’s an ongoing privilege to be involved with the charity, and from the days of its inception; I watch, with pride, as it grows so unfalteringly, testament to its perceived, and real importance in society today. I’ve written more about AFC in this blogpost. If the next generation don’t feel any connection to the (semi)natural world, they will not work to protect it. And if it’s not protected, wars and famines will likely be commonplace in the future, with the inequality we see today becoming even more extreme. The recently published Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5oC gives some insights (from actual experts) into what our future already holds.
Vitally however, we need to spend more time and effort imagining positive futures (as a talk by Frank Cottrell-Boyce at the Liverpool Literary Festival reminded me last weekend) in order for them to become a reality. And that’s what AFC encourages young people to do. My week with AFC on the welsh riviera back in August, was a real privilege. We spent five days exploring the different environments around the coastline; experiencing “sit-spots” in enchanted forests (slightly confusing the beach-goers when they spotted 20 silent elves lying in the leaves) and on wind-swept beaches under the stars; learning about the different constellations whilst reclining (accidentally) on cow-pats; searching for anemones in a rocky harbour; getting grass-stains playing stuck-in-the-mud, and imagining future landscapes that could accommodate wildlife and people. The young campers came up with all sorts of incredible ideas, full of innovation, interdisciplinary thinking and understanding of how some kind of ‘harmony’ could be achieved.
In essence, the goal of the AFC camps is to take young people outside (some of whom have never seen the sea before). By exposing people to the wind and rain, sunshine and sea, mud and sand, they feel a connection with their environment that they increasingly don’t or can’t get in their everyday lives. The campers are led through all sorts of exercises that teach them how to reflect on their internal situation and their external surroundings, to learn about and be aware of the perspectives and situations of other campers and to think about how they can improve things in their local environment.
At the end of the trip, I felt the children had taught me just as much as I’d tried to teach them. Here are some of my main learnings, with all credit going to the inspiring young people whom AFC is proud to now call Ambassadors:
- Child safeguarding – what this involves, and just how important it is today;
- How much young people are already defining the future through their knowledge and actions;
- How much we can learn from them (not just on how to attach rabbit ears to your Insta-face-gram), with every individual (inevitably) being a reflection of the adults they’re exposed to as they prepare to fledge their nest; and,
- Most importantly, how essential it is that each individual is given the space to learn, to love and to develop their values, and all in an environment where they feel nurtured.
Without space to grow and learn how to be a responsible and compassionate person in this challenging world, young people, or in fact any people, are unlikely to give a **i* about the natural environment on which we all depend. Fact.
Another privilege of joining the AFC camp, was waking up on the Pembrokeshire coast, with the sound of sheep munching in the next field, putting on my trainers and skipping down to the sea for a sunrise swim. A magical place, and space.
I wrote this piece for Blog and Log – the blog site that records outreach activities of the Institute of Integrative Biology and the School of Life Sciences at the University of Liverpool, to which I currently belong (for two & a bit more months).
Several weeks ago, I had the opportunity* to talk, twice, about a topic related (slightly tenuously) to my research and very close to my heart. On the evening of Wednesday 19th September I stood on the stage at Leaf, facing the Ignite Liverpool crowd, to present on “The Three Ps”; and on Saturday 22nd September I stood on a soapbox in Sheffield’s busy shopping district, to shout about “Peanut butter, palm oil and peat; getting un-stuck in the mud” to a bunch of slightly bemused passers-by. They were quite different forums with which to share my knowledge and passion, but I learnt a good deal from preparing for and presenting at each. Here’s a quick low-down of each event, which might hopefully inspire you to get involved in the future.
Ignite Liverpool is the brainchild of a community organisation that runs quarterly events, providing a platform on which anyone can talk for a whistle-stop five minutes about a subject they are passionate about. The challenge is to convey a coherent story in five minutes, in synchrony with the visuals on your 20 slides which flash up for five seconds in a continuous reel. I managed to mumble in time to the slides until the penultimate one, where my dialogue turned to dust! It was a fun experience though, and useful in considering how to design succinct propaganda. If you’d like to know more about the tale of The Three Ps, you can watch my performance here. I would recommend giving Ignite a go if you live in Liverpool, or any of the other cities where it’s held (e.g. Sheffield); it’s a great opportunity to practice your public speaking and communication skills on any topic of your choice, in front of a very supportive, slightly tipsy crowd. The most hilarious talk at the last event was entitled Any Colour you like, where all of the slides where shades of black!
Soapbox Science proved a less well-polished, more chilled-out and slightly chillier event! The initiative was started eight years ago by two female Biologists, with the goal of creating a public outreach platform on which female scientists could promote their science, whilst simultaneously increasing the profile of women in the STEM sector.
I chose to talk about the same issues on the soapbox as I did on the stage: a narrative around the prolific commodity, palm oil, which links our consumption behaviour in the UK to the draining and deforestation of peat swamp forests in Southeast Asia. Orang-utans, the people of the forest, were the protagonists, of course. As part of my PhD research (a few years ago now!), I explored the long-term ecology and contemporary management of the coastal peat swamp forests of Sarawak, in Malaysian Borneo, and have since been monitoring their declining condition and the ever-expanding state of industrial oil palm plantations across the region. Though my Soapbox performance was not as succinct as I’d hoped (more prep required next time to catch the attention of a transient audience), I managed to have an interesting discussion with several members of the general public on topics of environmental sustainability and the RSPO. The conversation with one chap, as engaged as he was disillusioned, only concluded when we decided that capitalism needed to be scrapped. Unfortunately, I didn’t feel qualified to propose an alternative solution.
I found both experiences hugely valuable, primarily because I gained some idea of the level of knowledge amongst the general public on some everyday consumer issues. People were less aware than I’d realised. To place your science into a ‘real world’ context, to understand how it might fit into the lives of your neighbours, and to learn how you can inspire people to care as you do, I would recommend standing up on as many platforms as you can.
*The opportunity was created by me through signing up to two events without realising they were in the same week! I questioned my life choices many times when preparing for them into the wee hours of the morning …. though as per usual have no regrets, in retrospect.