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On Thursday morning, there was a knock on my office door – “The BBC wants to talk to someone about snowmen” – “okay…” I reply, not quite sure where this is going. Five minutes later I am on the phone to a reporter.


It had been in the newspaper that morning about reducing flood risk by building snowmen. The Environment Agency was concerned about a rapid warming in the weather melting the snow and this released water creating a flood risk. The proposed solution from the Environment Agency was based on the fact that snow in large piles, either stacked up or as a snowman, takes longer to melt and hence would slow the delivery of the water to the rivers (see BBC News article). My first thought on this was that we would need to build a huge number of snowmen to capture enough water to have an effect. Having travelled from Durham to London and back this week, it was clear how much of the country was covered in snow. I was about to calculate the number of snowmen required to capture a significant fraction of the water (Prof. Kevin Hiscock at UEA has done this for the River Wensum catchment and estimated 6 million snowmen in that area alone) before I started to think about the problem from another perspective.

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Diffuse pollution is a challenge for environmental management: the problem is seen as originating from an extensive area and there are limited funds available to undertake mitigation works. This combination of factors means that it is important to target the mitigation works within the landscape to ensure maximum benefit. IHRR researchers at Durham University have been working with researchers at Lancaster, Reading and Bristol to build solutions to these problems at the national, regional and local scales. These tools enable the assessment of the landscape dynamics and the identification of the optimal placement of mitigation features, such as new woodland planting, for maximum benefit. These tools can also identify sites and measures most likely to give multiple benefits in terms of biodiversity improvements, diffuse pollution risk reduction and flood risk reduction.

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Many environmental hazards are visually impressive including floods, landslides and volcanic eruptions. All of them have a wow factor in that they grab news headlines. However, other environmental hazards can pose a significant problem, but originate from the accumulation of many small events spread out over a huge landscape. These small events would not be a big problem if water didn’t move across the landscape concentrating the material into streams, rivers and lakes. Diffuse pollution (or non-point source pollution) is one of the widely distributed problems that is having a significant impact on the water quality of rivers and lakes, and leads to significant environmental hazard.

Excessive algae growing in the river as a result of an oversupply of nutrient. This algae causes ecological problems in the river. As the algae decompose it uses oxygen and the low oxygen levels in the water can kill fish.

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The American Geophysical Union Fall meeting is held every year in San Francisco and is one of the largest geosciences meetings with over 19,000 people attending.  The meeting is held over five days in two huge meeting spaces (think multiple indoor football pitches, and then two floors of them).  The sheer scale of the meeting means it’s hard to see every presentation that is relevant to you, let alone the sessions on topics that are a step away from your core interests.  It is these sessions that often lead to new ideas for your core problems – stepping over that disciplinary divide often pays dividends. Read more

Hazard Risk Resilience Magazine Issue 2 Out Now!

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