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Climate change poses seemingly insurmountable obstacles for the human species, not to mention all other species on the planet. It is not the only environmental pressure that humans are putting on planet Earth, but seems to be intricately tied to all others including the shrinking availability of natural resources necessary for survival.

Whatever you may think of TED, these talks help define the climate conundrum people are in at the moment and speak about ways of cultivating resilience by preparing for environmental change, such as extreme weather events.

The speakers talk about climate change in terms of ecological systems as well as personal impacts to homes and livelihoods. Relating the big picture of ongoing environmental disasters like climate change to the small, individual lives of communities seems one of the best ways to communicate its impacts and to encourage people to ready themselves for when they occur.


Ground crack induced by fault reactivation during the 2010 earthquake near Santiago. © Sergio Sepulveda

Dr Sergio Sepulveda from the University of Chile is visiting Durham University as a Cofund Senior Research Fellow through the Institute of Advanced Study, to work with the International Landslide Centre at IHRR that is led by Professor Dave Petley and Dr Nick Rosser from the Department of Geography. Sepulveda is from Chile, one of the most seismically active parts of the world that regularly experiences earthquakes, landslides, debris flows, volcanic eruptions and other geohazards.

Sepulveda is a leading researcher on landslides in South America and is well-known in the field. Most of the fatalities caused by natural hazards in South America are from earthquakes, floods and landslides that affect both urban and rural communities. Sepulveda is working closely with colleagues in IHRR to identify the vulnerability of populations in Latin America and the Caribbean to landslides, in order to acquire a better understanding that would lead to developing measures to help reduce fatalities, and is testing a number of volcanic soils from Chile to understand the role they play in landslides and other hazards.

Research at Durham

Working with Prof Dave Petley, Sepulveda is studying records of fatal landslides that have occurred in Latin America and the Caribbean using the Durham Fatal Landslide Database, a global record of landslide- induced fatalities from the past 10 years. The database is a useful tool for identifying vulnerability to landslide hazards, ‘…there is a very strong correlation between population density and fatal landslides, and most of them are induced by heavy rainfall’, said Sepulveda. Along with this research Sepulveda is also studying the geomechanics of landslides themselves with Prof Dave Petley and Dr Matthew Brain. Read the rest of this entry »

Air pollution caused by industry and other human-made sources is a determinant of health that continues to be largely overlooked despite its disastrous consequences. In 2012 the World Health Organization estimates that seven million people died as a result of pollutants in the air people breathe, this includes both indoor and outdoor air quality.

While many countries have banned smoking in public places it is less likely to see a similar ban on toxic emissions from cars or coal-fired power plants, although there have been attempts in limiting them. Many outdoor air pollution deaths are linked to heart disease and stroke. Health risks from air pollution is a major problem in urban areas throughout the world, but especially in cities in developing countries such as Kathmandu, Dhaka and Beijing.

Both Nepal and Bangladesh rank at the bottom of the air quality ranking from the Environmental Performance Index. China is just above Nepal and its air pollution problems have been well publicised as much could be done to mitigate the problems caused by poor air quality.

This satellite image taken January 2013 shows the extent of air pollution in China:

Read the rest of this entry »

The Oso (Steelhead) landslide – mechanisms of movement

The desperate search for the up to 90 missing people at Oso has continued (see my earlier post on the landslide). Survival rates for landslide victims are very short, so this is not a rescue operation any longer. During this time some very interesting information has emerged about the landslide in the form of a seismic record of the slide.  There is an excellent blog post from Kate Allstadt about this seismic signal on the PNSN blog – their understanding of this data is much better than is mine, so I won’t try to replicate it here.  For me the most interesting aspect is the double seismic signal generated by the landslide, which indicates two major movement phases (followed by lots of small slips, which we would expect):


The start of the two movement events were about 4.5 minutes apart; the first lasted about 2.5 minutes, the second was somewhat shorter and less energetic (i.e. the movement rate was probably slower).

So what does this tell us about the landslide?  We need to compare this with an image of the landslide after the failure – this Wikipedia image remains the best that I have seen for getting an overview of the whole landslide: Read the rest of this entry »


© Emma Norman, Durham University

We are seeking to recruit 4 fully-funded PhD students to work on the Coastal Behaviour and Rates of Activity (COBRA) project, from September 2014. The outputs of the four PhD projects will be used to develop a new understanding of rocky coast processes and will feed into local and regional shoreline management.

The 4 new PhDs are a new addition to COBRA, an ongoing collaborative research project between Durham University and Cleveland Potash Ltd (CPL). The overall aim of the project is to understand the past, present and future controls on coastal erosion within the North York Moors National Park. This stretch of coastline varies dramatically, with some of the UK’s highest near-vertical rock cliffs, softer glacial tills, extensive rocky foreshores and sandy beaches. CPL operates the Boulby Mine – the UK’s most important non-hydrocarbon mineral operation. The coastline presents a fascinating natural laboratory to address key research questions into: i) rockfall and erosion, ii) nearshore sediment dynamics, iii) coastal rock weathering, and iv) post-glacial coastal evolution.

Currently available funded PhD projects:

  1. High-resolution monitoring of rocky coast landscape dynamics
  2. Monitoring & modelling: Sea-bed deformation, waves & sediments
  3. Upscaling weathering & rock mass strength degradation to coastal cliff erosion
  4. Nature or nurture? Controls on long-term evolution of rocky coasts

More details on each project are available on the COBRA website. Read the rest of this entry »

The Durham Energy Institute hosted a visit from Professor Susan Christopherson, Department of City and Regional Planning at Cornell University, whose research focuses on political-economic policy. Sam Almond from DEI reviews Susan’s talk entitled: ‘A Distinctive US Approach to Shale Gas Development? Local Responses to Complex Risks’, that examined how communities react to and prioritise perceived risks from hydraulic fracturing operations. The talk was organised and hosted by Durham Energy Institute, Department of Earth Sciences and the Institute of Hazard, Risk and Resilience.

Shale gas exploitation (or ‘fracking‘) has revolutionised the US energy market over the last decade, with the country as a whole experiencing lower gas prices and increased energy independence. Some gas-rich regions have seen booms in their economy with reduced unemployment and large financial rewards for landowners and certain local businesses.


Production of natural gas from shale in the United States has expanded rapidly in the last ten years, and is projected to continue through 2040 (EIA 2013a).

However, many local residents have opposed such developments and are concerned regarding issues such as safety, industry regulation, and disruption to their way of life. With shale gas exploitation becoming ever more likely in the UK, it is important to learn from the US experience to understand how communities react to the industry, and how best to regulate the industry to alleviate public concern and to mitigate any negative impacts of the shale gas industry.

Read the rest of this entry »


By Tom McLeish, Durham University; Phil Macnaghten, Durham University, and Susana Carro-Ripalda, Durham University


The UK Council for Science and Technology recently called on prime minister David Cameron to reassess EU rules on GM crops. Two days later the Observer published an editorial bluntly declaring: “There’s no choice; we must grow GM crops now”. There is a high risk that a new round of the shouting match that mired the debate 15 years ago will begin again, with little real progress.

But research since the first failure of the debate on GM crops in the EU suggests there is a better way. Our GM-Futuros project has recently explored the GM debates in depth at national and local levels in India, Mexico and Brazil – highlighting some stark lessons for the EU and UK. Quality engagement with the public is key.

Both of the recent UK publications call for a positive move towards GM agricultural technology. Ostensibly this is driven by forecasts of global population increases and a shortfall in food supply from current agricultural land by 2050. The Council for Science and Technology letter also appeals to the current loss of economic opportunity in the UK from present over-restrictive EU regulations. The Observer piece is dismissive of objections: “Thirty years ago, it could be argued that we should proceed cautiously because of potential health dangers. That argument is no longer acceptable.” Read the rest of this entry »

Brownfield or previously developed land is everywhere. Nearly everyone has visited or lived near an area that was once used for industrial purposes, making it unsuitable for redevelopment. Besides being an eye sore, brownfield is also known to be detrimental to the health and wellbeing of communities who live near it, but often the financial costs are too great for it to be restored and developed.

As the global population rises and land for agriculture and housing increases in demand, redeveloping brownfield may hold a solution to some of these challenges, but how do we do it? Some technologies are available, while others are in the making, but how can they be used sustainably? Read the rest of this entry »

earth at night

Earth at night. (NOAA)

Similar to other geohazards, floods are unpredictable and complex. This makes preparing for them challenging especially for communities that deal with unexpected or unforeseen flood events that may occur. Flooding is an interesting case study for understanding how geohazards and society interact which can have disastrous consequences if little preparation is made in advance. As far as floods in society are concerned they are usually understood in terms of risk, such as the likelihood that someone’s home or business may be flooded.

If the flood risk is low perhaps little is done to mitigate flooding. In some situations insurance can be purchased to cover extreme events if they should happen, but little is done overall. If the risk is perceived as high or of concern to an individual, community, county or nation, then usually flood mitigation efforts, including research, should be prioritised. If flood risk is high it begs the question why is this the case? This comes down to exposure and vulnerability.

If property or people themselves are exposed to the flood hazard, with little to no flood protection, they are at risk of losing their home, business, livelihood, way of life or even their lives. But better ways of identifying flood vulnerability are needed to help make communities resilient to flood hazards.

Professor Alberto Montanari from the University of Bologna visited IHRR recently to give a seminar on the damages and fatalities caused by flooding that has been increasing in countries throughout the world. As a hydrologist, a scientist who studies the movement, distribution and quality of water, he presented some of his recent work in identifying areas of flood vulnerability in Italy. He said ‘that flood vulnerability and frequency are intimately connected’, which includes the effects of climate change and other factors that affect flooding, such as land use. Read the rest of this entry »

brownfield flickr russelljsmith 300

Brownfield or previously used land often has levels of contamination that make it unsuitable for development. It also has known risks for the physical health of people and the environment. In some cases it may not even be highly contaminated but because it requires remediation, little is done with it. But what effects does brownfield have on people’s health outside of people coming into close physical contact with environmental contaminants? Does the mere presence of brownfield lead to poorer health outcomes?

Many communities live near brownfield spaces (there are 62,000 acres of brownfield land in England alone), which may have serious consequences for their health according to a new study from Regeneration Brownfield Land Using Sustainable Technologies (ROBUST) project based at IHRR and in collaboration with the Wolfson Research Institute. Research led by Professor Clare Bambra, Dr Karen Johnson and Dr Steve Robertson finds that people who live close to brownfields have worse health compared to those that do not, or only live near small amounts of brownfield.

Professor Clare Bambra, lead author of the study said:  “Our study shows that local authorities and central government need to prioritise the remediation and regeneration of brownfield land to protect the health of communities.”

Read the rest of this entry »

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