About Professor Simon Haslett

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Cardiff, Wales, United Kingdom
Professor of Physical Geography and Pro Vice-Chancellor at the University of Wales and the University of Wales Trinity Saint David.

Friday, 3 September 2010

Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) Annual Conference (Day 2)

Day 2 of the RGS-IBG Conference (2nd September) looks as good as the first. My main interest for the day was the Higher Education Research Group (HERG) sessions taking place in The Pavillion: Innovative spaces of learning: debating their origin, nature and significance', which was the second in a series started at the Association of American Geographers Conference in April this year. Session 1 started with a guest lecture from Prof Steve Wheeler (University of Plymouth) 'New spaces, new pedagogies: harnessing the power of social media in education' (the slides will eventually appear on Steve's slideshare page). It was an exciting presentation that discussed surface vs deep learning, knowledge and wisdom, formal and informal learning, and educational change culminating with an exploration of the role of social media in personalised learning, and how the learner can create their own VLE. It was very thought provoking.

Jenny Hill (UWE) chaired the session and gave two talks: (1) A Space to reflect: using online discussion boards to enhance students' understanding of global climate change, and (2) Evaluating the flexible spaces of learning created through exotic video podcasts. Derek France (University of Chester)also spoke on 'Does technology enhance student learning in physical geography fieldwork?', which looked at the successful use of video reports in the field in New Zealand.

Derek then chaired the second session after coffee, which began with another guest lecture this time from Ruth Weaver from the Experiential Learning CETL at Pymouth. Ruth looked at 'The role of built pedagogy', that is the physical spaces of learning, and discussed fieldwork, Lab plus, and an Immersive Vision Theatre constructed out of a disused planetarium. The student perception of learning as being either fragmented (isolated bits of learning) or cohesive conceptions (integrated - deeper - learning) was an interesting concept, and one that I took on board and mentioned in my paper at the end of the session.

Kenneth Lim (Singapore) then discussed the use of Second Life in geography education 'Avatar dreaming: considerations of place and space in the design of learning environments in Second Life', and gave an inspirational example of how school children were terra forming using the technology. Carolyn Roberts (Oxford University) and Mick Healey (Glos) followed with a report of 'Bringing about change in teaching and learning at departmental level: an innovative mental and physical space for planning curriculum changes'. They discussed the HEAs Change Academy scheme in conjunction with the Leadership Foundation, which involved four teams involved in projects seeking a change of culture in their institutions. I then finished the session with my talk 'Regions as geographical learning resouces in Higher Education'.  Altogether, the sessions were very interesting and gave a lot of food for thought for geographical education and HE in general.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) Annual Conference - Day 1

Rita Gardner Keynote 'Geomorphology, impact and influence'
This blog post relates to yesterday's (1st September) Day 1 of the RGS-IBG Annual Conference. However, it was also the 2nd day the British Society for Geomorphology (BSG) Annual Conference. Since the two conferences were jointly hosted and the programmes merged, I went to bits of both. I think co-hosting like this is an excellent idea and has allowed me to mix with the two communities because, unfortunately, physical geography is usually under-represented at the RGS-IBG Annual Conference.

I started the day with Oliver Korup's (University of Potsdam) Keynote 'Earth surface processes: five grand challenges for the 21st century' in which he talked about natural dams (often created by landslides or terminal moraines) and the hazard they sometimes pose. He promoted the use of Google Earth and included it as part of what he called the 'infosphere'. After going through his five challenges, he ended by addressing the students present saying 'the biggest challenge in geomorphology is getting a job'!

Paul Bishop (University of Glasgow) on behalf of his co-workers then presented 'Bottom-up bedrock river response to rock uplift: unravelling the controls of landscape responses to transcience'. He began by introducing steady state orogenic landscapes in which bedrock incision by rivers is linked to uplift, and that surface processes also have an affect on tectonics through erosion and unloading, which he referred to as a 'top down effect, illustrated by his work in Taiwan. But he then went on to say that non-steady state landscapes (post-orogenic e.g. Australia) were the rule, where a 'bottom-up response' was dominated by knickpoint retreat up river valleys.From his work in Scotland, he observed that knickpoints migrate further upstream in bigger catchments, and that strath boulders deposits are left stranded high up when channel incision migrates upstream with the passing knickpoint. One important conclusion is that these streams didn't 'see' the rock structure and were similar on different rock-dip settings. Cosmogenic dating also indicates that there appears to be a reduction in the rate of incision and knickpoint retreat through the Holocene. One question from the floor asked about any influence of post-glacial isostatic rebound in Scotland, but Paul indicated this was not significant.

There followed two presentations by Cherith Moses (University of Sussex) on behalf of her colleagues. The first was 'Depth of disturbance on macrotidal mixed beaches: case study from Birling Gap, East Sussex'. Mixed sediment (sand and gravel) beaches have been neglected and their dynamics are not well known. They used buried columns of painted pebbles to study the depth of disturbance i.e. depth of the mobile sediment layer. This was then followed by 'Rates and patterns of downwearing on cohesive shore platforms, UK' in which a number of sites e.g. Holderness (Yorkshire), were studied using a Traversing Erosion Beam. The range of downwearing rates were between 18-42mm/yr, but that the upper platform downwears faster than the lower platform. One quesioner from the floor asked how long this one go on for before the upper platform became altitudinal lower than the lower platform? This was tricky, but is likely to relate to cliff retreat (2m/yr at Holderness) and that the upper platform represents the 'stump' of the retreating cliff, which will erode quickly until it reaches a similar elevation to the lower platform.

Dave Higgitt (National University of Singapore) followed after coffee with a talk on catchment sediment delivery mainly in Asian rivers, which may contribute around 1 Pg/C per year to the oceans, making them a significant part of the carbon cycle. Indeed, he suggested that the Irrawaddy River system in Myanmar, was 2nd only to the Amazon as a carbon point source. However, there is little long-term data about Asian rivers and he identified a number of challenges to their study: constructing and integrating databases, the role of fieldwork i.e. rapid appraisal and longer term monitoring, and modeling sediment yield. He also discussed the human impact on the systems, such as the building of dams in China and the downstream effects they were having. Walter Bertoldi (Queen Mary's College, London) concluded the mornings session with his Wiley Lecture (awarded the prize for the best paper published in the journal Earth Surface Processes and Landforms) on 'Planform dynamics of braided streams'. It concerned the gravel dominated Tagliamento River where he and co-workers took sequential photographs over a year and observed significant dynamic changes. Fieldwork was complemented by flume work in the lab.

I attended the Higher Education Research Group (HERG) AGM over lunch chaired by Derek France (University of Chester) with the assistance of Jenny Hill (UWE). The group has been quite active over the last year and has 10 sessions at this years conference, so it's success is growing; also, funds have increased which has allowed guest speakers to be invited. Martin Haigh's (Oxford Brookes) Higher Education Academy (HEA) National Teaching Fellowship (NTF) was acknowledged as was Derek's, Mick Healey's (Glos), and others, successful HEA NTF Project bid for 'Personalised Learning Environments for Active Field Science Education' (PLEASE).

I was attracted to the 'Social and Cultural Geographies of the Coast' session where the following papers were presented:
  1. Preena Shah (Loughborough University) - 'Riding the crest of the regeneration wave and the uneven geographies of coastal societies: the case study of St. Leonards-on-Sea'. Gave a good overview of coastal town regeneration strategies.
  2. Julie Urquart (University of Greenwich) - 'Fishing cultures - marine fisheries and sense of place in coastal communities'. Reported on initial results from the Interreg CHARM Project.
  3. Darren Smith (Loughborough University) - 'Geographies of coastal housing and HMO' [houses with multiple occupation]. Examined the impact of HMOs on coastal town populations; increases population density and transcience.
  4. Jo Orchard Webb (University of Brighton) - 'Complex urban governance and constructing the "social" in social sustainability: a case study from the English coast'. Discussed urban regeneration in St. Leonards and Hastings.
  5. Stuart Oliver (St. Mary's University College) - 'Managed retreat in Essex: private feelings and public responses'. Reported on very initial work on managed retreat in the Blackwater Estuary.
Rita Gardner (RGS-IBG Director) then delivered the Frost Lecture 'Geomorphology, impact and influence'. Rita, introduced by Bob Allison (BSG Conference Chair), opened by talking about disciplinary stereotypes and framed her presentation in terms of necessity, timeliness (BSG 50th Anniversary), and opportunity. One of the main messages was that geomorphologists need to address government priorities, such as flooding, coastal erosion, land instability, climate change, carbon budgets, water quality and river restoration, and need to engage on the politicians terms. She deomonstrated a bit of a mis-match currently using keywords from papers published in Geomorphology and Earth Surface Processes and Landforms, and the small number of geomorphologists active within research council agencies and government. The discipline also doesn't seem to successfully engaging the public, especially younger students, and their parents, that represent the future. Lastly, she urged not to forget that geography is the route into geomorphology, and that more should be done on integration of the two.

Tuesday, 31 August 2010

British Society for Geomorphology Conference

Panel debate on 'Tipping Points' Chaired by Prof Ken Gregory
This years British Society for Geomorphology (BSG) Conference is being held jointly with the Annual Conference of the Royal Geographical Society (RGS with IBG) at the RGS Headquarters at Kensington Gore, London. The RGS Conference starts tomorrow, but the BSG began today.

I was intending to arrive in time for Prof Antony Long's (Durham University) Keynote 'Separating fluctuations from trends: the behaviour of the Greenland ice sheet in the last millennium', but didn't turn up until half way through the subsequent talk by Mark Macklin et al. entitled 'Seeing things whole: database and meta-analysis of fluvial responses to Holocene environmental change'. He talked about river entrenchment events through the Holocene and I noted one event taking place between 1100-700 years ago, but there is not much data from southeast Wales, which is my area of interest here around those dates as an entrenchment event may have taken place there then.

Julian Murton then followed on with his talk 'Permafrost as a driver and record of environmental change'. He covered ice segregation, thermokarst evidence, thermal erosion, and the carbon freezer. He said that unfrozen water migrates towards colder temperatures within the soil, regolith or rock profile, resulting in bidirectional or unidirectional flow depending on the season (upward in the winter, downward in the summer, and up and down (bidirectional) in the autumn). Bidirectional freezing leads to fracturing along the top of the permafrost boundary, whilst unidirectional freezing (in the winter) leads to fracturing near the ground surface. Something that was a little counter-intuitive is that a lot of frost heave takes place in the summer as water migrates downward to feed ice lenses. He also discussed the formation of thermokarst lakes due to subsidence, and used examples from Kent Chalk and Glamorgan Mercia Mudstone in talking about solifluction in incised valley bottoms, which suffer more severe fracturing due to higher water content. He suggests that valley incision is more likely to have occurred during cold phases under good permafrost conditions into which rivers eroded thanduring warm phases. Regarding carbon sequestered, he stated that some 1672 Gt/C is stored in permafrost, which is a large amount, far more than in the atmosphere, so it would be worrying should the permafrost melt and the carbon released. He also talked about his work on the Yedoma silt in Siberia. It is a significant permafrost unit that covers some 1 million km2 of Russia and contains fossil roots and animal remains. Lastly, he mentioned that he thought the North American glacial Lake Agassiz drained perhaps not eastward through the Gulf of St Lawrence into the Atlantic, but northwest via the Mackenzie Delta system and into the Arctic Ocean.

Before tea, Varyl Thorndycraft et al. talked about the teams research of the rivers Erme in the southwest and Till in the northeast of the UK in 'Towards a quantification of flood response to long-term autogenic and allogenic drivers'. They looked at reconstructing palaeochannels and flood levels, which was interesting given the level of river discharge, such as 416 m/sec. After tea, David Thomas and his co-worker talked about 'Interpreting geoproxy records of late Quaternary climate change in the low latitudes: the challenge of incorporating geomorphological reality in palaeoenvironmental research'. It was an interesting presentation principally about reconstructing complex African Quaternary environments. Marine records are OK, but they don't give much information about terrestrial environments, so lake records are useful. But many of African lake basins lack sediment sequences, and so they argue landforms (geoproxies) are the only indicators available, such as lake shorelines and dunes. However, such geoproxies are difficult to interpret as wet or dry; for example, Nash and Endfield (2008) document extreme wet and dry conditions in the Kalahari region within the space of 60 years! There does seem to be some hope for geoproxy use however, as their sensitivity appears to change across climate gradients.

Prof Adrian Harvey (University of Liverpool) followed with his Linton Lecture on 'The coupling status of alluvial fans and debris cones', and considered the functional and preservational roles of coupling. Fans and streams can be coupled or not e.g. fans forming at the foot of scarp slopes may or may not have streams exiting them. Throughout his presentation, Prof Harvey dispelled some popular 'myths' regarding fans, such as the significance of fining-up or coarsening-up sediment sequences, which simply indicate primary or reworked sequences respectively. He also celebrated recent advances in the field, such as new dating methods, and the arrival of Google Earth as a freely available satellite image resource.

The next presentation was the first 30th International Geographical Congress (IGC) Lecture given by Prof Will Graf (University of South Carolina) on 'Science, policy and politics for the Florida Everglades'. Prof Graf told a story of the Everglades, particularly from a cultural standpoint. The restoration of the Everglades is costing US$17 Billion and is one of a number of river restoration projects in the US each costing over $10 Billion. There are three eras of environmental history: pre-development era up to 1880, development era 1880-1980, and the restoration era post-1980. He romped through Everglade history, mentioning Audubon's ornithology, the Seminole and Miccosukee Tribes, the paintings of George Herbert McCord, Hamilton Disston, Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, Snail Kites, Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow, Wood Storks, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, and Arthur R. Marshall.
  1. Pre-development era (pre-1880): Everglades comprise a 23,000 km2 drainage basin with broad flows up to 50km across but less than 1m deep (i.e. sheet flow), and relief less than 20m on the Florida peninsula. Documented in 1773 on the first map of Florida as the 'Riverglades', but then changed through a transcription error by 1856 to the Everglades. Audubon in 1838 and McCord in 1878 depict a wildlife-rich (c. 1100 plant species) and idyllic landscape of sawgrass, ridge and slough (shallow channels and low ridges on a bed of peat), and tree islands (occupying bedrock highs).
  2. Development Era (1880-1980): Disston (1844-1896) started draining the Everglades, which was continued by Broward (1857-1910). Agriculture developed but set back by hurricanes in 1926 and 1928, the latter killing around 3000 Flordians. In 1934, Lake Okeechobee was dredged and levees constructed around its margins, and the number of tree islands later declined dramatically. In 1948, the Central and Southern Florida Project was set up and the reduction of the Everglades contined down to 6,000 km2. The Everglades Agricultural Area established between 1954-1959, and the Tamiami Trail (levee and canal) in 1960, and by the end of the era there were 1300 water control stations and 2017 miles of canals and levees. Bird life also declines through this period e.g. Snail Kites decline to around 1000 individuals, mis-managment of Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow strongholds, and the migration of Wood Storks to water storage areas rather than natural habitats. If development continued to 2060 then almost all of Flordia will be urbanised and over 36 million people would live there.
  3. Restoration era (post-1980): 1990 Preservation 2000 Act allocated $3 Billion to buy land, 1994 Consent Decree, 2000 Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP), expected to take 60 years and cost $17 Billion comprising 62 projects to help restore natural flows.
Prof Graf concluded his story by stating that the Everglades is 'a place to go to ask really important questions' and I'd agree.

The evening concluded with a BSG and RGS-IBG Joint Debate 'Fragile environments: are we at a tipping point'? The debate was introduced by Catherine Souch of the RGS, and Chaired with opening remarks by Prof Ken Gregory. The first speaker was Prof Stuart Lane (Durham University) who equated rapid change with the notion of 'tipping points'. He cited the work of Gladwell and bifurcation theory, the John Humphries effect, and that big catastrophes have big causes, and that people need to better cope with catastrophes when they happen. Prof Sue Smith (Cambridge University) followed and discussed how society deals with collapse and also about the 'ethic of care'. Prof Alan Thorpe (NERC) talked about climate as being quite stable and suggests that tipping points occur when climate flips from one state to another and drew some (later contested) examples from the palaeoclimate record. He then discussed tipping points in the context of future climate change with regard to the melting of the Greenland ice sheet (requiring a temperature rise of 3 degrees C locally), the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (requiring 8 degree C local warming plus sea-level rise), thermohaline circulation, El Nino-Southern Oscillation and its link to Amazon drought, and the Asian monsoon (current Pakistan floods may not be climate related). Lastly, Prof Chris Whitty (DfID) discussed tipping points at different scales, suggesting they are very common on the small scale e.g. extinction of species restricted to isolated hill tops, but that resilience of populations, particularly in developing countries was an important factor in determining the local impact of a disaster. There were some interesting questions from the floor before Prof Gregory summed up and we all made for the wine reception.