Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Researcher Profile - Chris Skinner

Ok, here at GEESology we have decided to tell you all a bit about ourselves and to do this in the form of a ‘Researcher Profile’. For some reason I have drawn the short straw, to put it cynically, and have to go first. The flip side of the coin is that in going first I can set the benchmark for everyone else and have a fairly free hand in doing so. I guess it is really a chance for us all to share a little bit about ourselves and what is behind our research, in particular what motivates us and why we do it. Each of us will provide one of these posts to you over the coming weeks and months, so without any further ado, here’s me –

Who am I

I am Chris Skinner, currently working as a Research Assistant as part of the Dynamic Humber project at the University of Hull. My role is develop the CAESAR-Lisflood model for operation on the Humber Estuary with the aim of providing forecasts of changes in the estuary for the coming century.

Me before my remote sensing days

What I do and Why do I do it

Last year I completed my PhD research that looked into the effects of uncertainty in satellite rainfall estimates on hydrological models. These estimates are vital in Africa, where there is a real lack of raingauges and radar that we use in the UK to predict rainfall, but as they cannot directly record rainfall they are often a little bit wrong. This in turn affects the models that are used to forecast droughts and floods. This chance of being wrong is termed by scientists as ‘uncertainty’ and this has a major impact on the people who have to make decisions.

“There are known knowns; there are things we know we know.

We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know.

But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don't know.” 
Donald Rumsfeld perfectly, although unwittingly, describing the nature of uncertainty. 

Uncertainty leads to a lack of confidence and can mean that important decisions that influence millions of people can be delayed, sometimes at the cost of people’s lives. A recent example of this was the Horn of Africa drought in 2011, which was forecast several months before any aid began to be mobilised. My research interests are in looking at ways to either reduce the uncertainty, measure it better or just communicate better to people who have to make the difficult choices – I blogged about this on my (largely defunct) personal blog over two years ago in Why do we bother?

How do I do it

How I do this is by using a lot of statistics and numerical computer models that are far too complex (and not all that interesting enough) to be talked about in detail here, but the main method I use to show uncertainty is by using ensembles of forecasts – a set of possible futures, each equally likely yet different, within the bounds of what we don’t know. From this you can produce what is known as a probabilistic forecast. It’s the difference between Michael Fish telling you there is absolutely no chance of being hit by a hurricane, and him telling you there’s a 30% chance – subtle difference but results in different (and probably better) decisions.

How did I get here

Short answer, I walked. That’s very important, as my job before I started my PhD was as a Sustainable Transport Policy Assistant at a local authority in the Midlands, and a large part of my job was encouraging people to walk and cycle more. It was fun job on the frontline, getting to organise events such as bike rides, but I did not like the look of the career ladder ahead of me. I wanted to stretch my mind so in 2009 I decided to quit my job and focus on a career in Academia.

Sustainable Transport - It can be dangerous!

At this point I hadn’t chosen a discipline, I just wanted to do something that looked like it might help people and make a difference. In the end I got the perfect PhD back at Hull, which is where I got my undergraduate degree and close to where I grew up and my family live. I’m pleased to still be a part of such an excellent department but I know one day the Academic career will draw me away to pastures new.

Wow, 500 words isn’t a lot – I never got to tell you about the time I spent in the nappy factory, the garlic bread factory, painting student houses, data entering, on Job Seekers, as a Geotechnical Laboratory Technician or in the Planning Department...

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Localised Food Systems – What Role does Place Play?

by Kirstie O'Neill

My PhD research focused on what policy makers could do to help support localised food systems (LFS).  Although LFS are difficult to define, the number of LFS has grown over the last 15 years as producers and consumers seek alternatives from mainstream, globalised food systems.  A widely used definition is:

“rooted in particular places, [LFSs] aim to be economically viable for farmers and consumers, use ecologically sound production and distribution practises, and enhance social equity and democracy for all members of the community” (Feenstra 1997)

Local food is frequently seen as playing a role in rural development, as a way to overcome farming crises, revive lagging rural economies and restore consumer confidence.  Examples include farmers’ markets, farm shops, box schemes, community supported agriculture, community gardens and organic production.  LFS are often based on characteristics such as direct contact between consumers and producers, increased trust, and greater proximity. 

Olive grove in Anversa degli Abruzzi, Abruzzo
(Photo: Kirstie O'Neill)
My PhD research with policy makers, local food businesses and consumers in East Yorkshire (UK - an area usually seen as industrial farming) and the Abruzzo (Italy - the Abruzzo is often seen as marginal farming) explores how local food is contingent on specific localised spaces.  Using evidence from two contrasting types of region, one so-called industrial agricultural region and the other a more marginal region, helps to probe why some regions develop strong LFS while others do not. 

Rapeseed field, East Yorkshire (Photo: Kirstie O'Neill)
Relating to food production, regions are frequently characterised as ‘marginal’ or ‘industrial’, but food production can be more complex.  Eastern England is often viewed as being devoid of LFS, as a homogeneous intensive agricultural region or a ‘placeless foodscape’ (Morgan et al., 2006).  Regions that have been marginal to the post World War II productivist agricultural regime are typically viewed as the stronghold for LFS, in the UK, for example, linked to areas like Devon, Cumbria and Wales.  Countries such as Italy and France are often viewed as favourable for LFS as a result of cultural attachment to local food (Montanari 1994).  Such stereotyped views may inhibit opportunities and developments in regions like East Yorkshire as well as in countries like Italy, by glossing over more detailed local variations. 

Such stereotypes of ‘conventional’ or ‘peripheral’ are problematic as these opposite ends of a spectrum are not clear-cut, with a more nuanced picture emerging.  Policy support is essential for the success of LFS, yet how policy makers interpret and understand local food varies by regional context.  ‘Local food’ means different things in specific contexts.

Contingent Local Food Systems and Regions

East Yorkshire (UK) and the Abruzzo (Italy) were my case study regions for investigating LFS (see Figure 1).  Although they are diverse in many respects, similarities include the ways in which space affects the actions and thinking of core actors involved in local food and rural development.  East Yorkshire is an intensive agricultural region embedded into global commodity networks yet with an emerging local food sector, whereas the Abruzzo is the type of area frequently associated with strong LFS.  Italy per se is associated with a strong food culture, assumed to have high levels of commitment to local food (‘prodotti tipici’) (Helstosky 2004; Montanari 1994). 

Figure 1. Map showing East Yorkshire (left) and Abruzzo (right) (Source: Wikimedia commons).

In East Yorkshire, people frequently linked areas like national parks with local food.  Many referred to places like the North York Moors and Yorkshire Dales (both national parks) as places where it would be ‘easier’ to run a local food business.  East Yorkshire was described as ‘flat and boring’ in contrast.  One respondent thought that in contrast to East Yorkshire ‘it’s good to go to a farmers’ market in Devon and Cornwall’.  While one policy maker suggested that ‘local food has the perception of being produced in the Dales or the hills, where you can see the animals’. 

In contrast, the Abruzzo region has one third of its land mass designated as protected land.  Despite this many people saw the region of Tuscany as better suited to local food.  Tuscany is a popular tourist destination, but is also firmly embedded in the Italian psyche – ‘non è la Toscana’ (‘well, this isn’t Tuscany’) was a common response.  This suggests that both areas, despite their differences, encounter similar problems in being recognised as a local foodscape. 

Can industrial foodscapes accommodate LFS?

East Yorkshire business selling locally landed
shellfish to local markets
(courtesy of
This idea of local food as being quite separate from places of intensive food production influences how policy makers think about local food in the context of East Yorkshire and the policies they subsequently develop.  Recent attempts to stimulate a LFS include a number of food festivals in the area, a Local Food Directory (here, including businesses like the one left here), dedicated local food workers and a not-for-profit company promoting local food.  All of these actions have challenged common perceptions of industrial farming regions, as one policy maker said ‘to everybody’s astonishment it was amazing just what is made in East Yorkshire, and is overlooked because the image and everybody’s thought process goes straight to North Yorkshire’.  Increasing the visibility of foods produced in the region has contrasted with previous perceptions; as one tourism business said ‘15 years ago I would have said “well we’re just corn barons really,” you know there wasn’t a lot of diversity’. 

However, for some the image of East Yorkshire as industrial foodscape is enduring and represents a potential barrier for developing LFS in the region.  Although there is increasing diversity of local foods in places like East Yorkshire, many still associate such regions with intensive agriculture, as emphasised by a policy maker:

‘’s easy to see how you would promote lamb from the North Yorkshire Moors isn’t it?  Promoting wheat from Holderness is…just doesn’t work in the same way...[it’s] not...something that’s sold directly to the end consumer’.

Thus, industrial farming regions are still viewed by some as agriculturally homogeneous, leaving little room for the diverse range of products made in East Yorkshire, including goats’ cheeses, organic salads, smoked fish as well as lamb.  Many of the views I encountered during my research can be understood in the context of large-scale and financially profitable agriculture being seen as the norm locally.  This frames how other farming activities are understood and perceived, so that practices not fitting into this image of ‘proper’ farming are devalued. 

Contrasting evidence from the Abruzzo region

Despite the Abruzzo being geographically different to East Yorkshire, and arguably a region with an ‘attractive’ landscape, many businesses and policy-makers reported similar issues.  Many respondents stated that Tuscany represented a better, stronger LFS; popular images of Tuscany were how local food producing regions were imagined.  Interviewees suggested that although the remote and wild landscapes of the Abruzzo region offered similar potential, they were not (yet) able to compete with places like Tuscany.  Italy is a varied country and respondents illustrated the difficulties that they faced in Abruzzo, such as a low external profile, relative geographical remoteness and a lack of potential customers.  For instance, one regional policy maker stated that ‘no-one knows where the Abruzzo region is, not even in Italy’.

Mountain scene, Gran Sasso National Park
(Photo: Kirstie O'Neill)
Organic agriculture was more common in Abruzzo, as the mountainous parts of the region were not suitable for industrialised agriculture.  This ‘unspoilt’ aspect of agriculture was seen as strengthening local food production, for many ‘l’agricoltura industriale non è pensabile’ (industrial agriculture would be unimaginable here).  Organic production was accepted as a ‘good thing’ in Abruzzo, whereas in East Yorkshire organic food was viewed with suspicion, as being for ‘hippies’ and critical of conventional agriculture.

The Italian producers were aware of their fragile position in a remote part of Italy which is not the Italy that most people imagine.  Policy makers in the region referred to an increasing distance between consumers and producers, despite the vision of Italy as a nation of food lovers.  Paradoxically, despite bemoaning the increasing distance between producers and consumers, LFS businesses in Abruzzo actively promote their produce to people outside the region, for example by targeting tourists or selling to buying groups (‘gruppi di acquisto sociale’) within Italy, or international sales using the Internet.


In depth discussions in both places revealed geographically-specific interpretations of what local food is, dependent upon local contexts.  Previous conceptualisations of LFS rarely take industrial agricultural regions into account.  However, East Yorkshire is one such region successfully developing local food, thus challenging common perceptions of such places.  Similarly, regions like Abruzzo, which are generalised as having the ‘right’ conditions for successful LFS, also require support and determination to take advantage of the opportunities presented by LFS.  Despite such regions being associated with strong LFS, they do not automatically establish them, particularly as they are often sparsely populated and may be distant from consumer demand. 

My research suggest that policy makers need to address the future role of such places in food production – the development of local food in both locations is something that has to be worked at and in both cases this has been achieved through policy makers trying to create a local food network/culture.  It cannot be assumed that certain regions will develop LFS while others will not – the success of LFS are not tied to particular characteristics, but can succeed with the appropriate support, promotion and determination.

A longer version of this paper has been accepted for Regional Studies, Regional Science, forthcoming.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Christmas is a time for...conferences.

By Rebecca Williams (@volcanologist)

Christmas for academics is a time for family, eating a bit too much and relaxing before the inevitable marking chaos starts during the January exam period. Some use the time away from teaching to go on field trips or to write a paper that’s been neglected during a semester. For many, it’s also conference season.  Many of the Geological Society of London’s specialist groups hold their conferences during the Christmas ‘vacation’. This year for me was a double whammy, kicking off the holidays with the British Sedimentological Research Group (BSRG) meeting here at the University of Hull, and then heading up to Edinburgh to start the New Year at the Volcanic and Magmatics Study Group (VMSG) meeting.
Left: The BSRG field trip to Flamboro Head (photo credit to Dan Parsons @bedform)
Right: The BSRG conference dinner at The Deep, Hull (photo credit to Rob Thomas)
It was quite poignant to have BSRG here at Hull. In 1989, the Annual General Meeting (AGM) was planned at Hull, but the Geology department fell foul of the Government’s Earth Science Review and was closed. BSRG instead went to Leeds. This year, Geology is back in Hull. 2013 saw the start of BSc Geology with Physical Geography and 2014 will see the start of single honours BSc Geology. The conference kicked off with an excellent keynote speech from Dan Bosence who summarised a lifetime’s work on Carbonate Depositional Systems and our latest knowledge on these systems. That started a session of plenary lectures on novel advances in Sedimentology. This was my first BSRG conference and so it was great to listen to the latest cutting-edge research on such a wide range of sedimentological settings: from submarine channels to microbial biofilms to mass extinctions related to Chinese volcanism via drones (sorry, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles). The plenary set the tone for the rest of the conference. Given that I was still teaching during this week and that I was swamped in marking, I missed the apparently brilliant ice breaker in the Brewery Wharf microbrewery on Wednesday night and the conference dinner in the The Deep Aquarium, Hull’s premier tourist attraction. I was able to present some of my work on pyroclastic density currents (essentially, a summary of my latest paper – blog coming soon!) in the “Turbidites, Debrites and Mass Flows – dynamics and deposits” session. It was the first time I’d presented this work to sedimentologists, which was a bit nerve wracking. I got some great feedback though so it was worth the nerves! I also missed out on the field trip to the spectacular exposures along the Yorkshire Coast between Bridlington and Scarborough, led with help from the Hull Geological Society.
Top left: One of the groups on the VMSG field trip at Holyrood Park, on their way to Salisbury Crags
Top right: Hutton's section at Salisbury Crags, note the broken sedimentary 'bridge'.
Bottom left: The winning University of Hull duck - see this Storify/Twitter summary of the Volcanic Duck Race
Bottom right: VMSG conferences (and geologists in general?) now go hand in hand with a good Ceilidh.
This year is VMSG’s 50th Birthday and the anniversary year started off with a bumper conference in Edinburgh. This year saw 5 days of volcanology and magmatic conferencing, starting off with a trip to blustery Arthur’s Seat. We got to see some classic geology including Salisbury Crags and Hutton’s section where he demonstrated that intrusions were once liquid magma that had forced their way into surrounding sediments and then crystallised, leading in part to his 1788 book Theory of the Earth and his recognition as the Father of Geology. The conference itself was opened with the Hallimond Lecture given by Sally Gibson on ‘Continental rifting and mantle exotica’ as part of a session on Intraplate and Continental rifting dedicated to the late Barry Dawson. The theme of the conference was 50 years of VMSG and so the sessions followed those at the very first VMSG conference (then VSG) with some modern sessions such as Planetary Volcanism and Volcanic Hazards and Risks, reflecting some of the new directions the science is now going in. I presented my on-going work on the Louisville Seamounts, drilled during IODP Expedition 330 (some of which I’ve blogged about before). Highlights of the conference included the VMSG Award Lecture from Jon Davidson on ‘Interrogating crystals to understand magma systems’ with a plea for people to not forget and abandon fundamental petrology, and the VMSG Lifetime Achievement Award Lecture from Steve Sparks on a lifetime’s work of ‘Integrating disciplines, models, experiments and observations to understand volcanic processes’ with a special shout-out to all the young researchers who will be the future of VMSG research. The ice breaker saw the official launch of Volcano Top Trumps with the excellent Volcanic Duck Race which was won by our University of Hull duck! We were also treated to a dinner and ceilidh at Our Dynamic Earth, Edinburgh’s excellent interactive exhibit about the planet we live on. To finish up the conference, the microanalysis facilities at the University of Edinburgh opened their doors to us and delivered an excellent workshop on techniques such as the Ion Microprobe (SIMS) and the Electron Microprobe.

Both of these conferences have the same ethos at their heart: they showcase outstanding UK research on an increasingly international stage, are supportive of the student members with significant proportions of oral presentations given by students, and they are always full of social occasions in which to meet with old and new colleagues. Whilst they seem to cover completely different specialisms, for a volcanologist who looks at volcaniclastic deposits, there is a strong cross over...perhaps in the future there is potential for a joint session at one or the other of these conferences? I certainly hope so.

This is a fantastic video of the Volcanic Duck Race filmed by Thermal Vision Research Ltd.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

New Year's resolutions for GEESologists

It's that time of year again, the time when magazines and the internet bombard their readers with "New Year New You" messages, gyms are crowded with people in squeaky-new trainers and expensive workout outfits who will have lost their gym passes by February, and the low-calorie meals section in your local supermarket is three times its usual size.  For the first post of 2014, therefore, I thought I'd share a few resolutions related to the GEESologist parts of my life.

Naturally, my list needs to include something virtuous and worthy.  Resolution number one, therefore, is to include more philosophical roughage in my mental diet and put more thought into the philosophical underpinnings of my research.  As GEESologists, I think we are all sometimes guilty of running around applying our favourite method to interesting places or problems, like a kid let loose with a hammer in a world full of shiny, inviting sticking-up nails, and our approach to the history of our discipline tends to be in the form of stories about exciting discoveries and strenuous expeditions rather than considering the underlying conceptual frameworks.  Physical Geographers may be particularly prone to seeing that sort of approach as a Human Geography issue.  Therefore I resolve to make a start by reading two books, Inkpen and Wilson's Science, Philosophy and Physical Geography and Ford's Scientific Methods for Ecological Research, and to blog about them later in the year.

Resolution number two is to go to twelve places I've never been before.  Even someone who is fascinated by landscape and has a lot of professional opportunities to travel can fall into a bit of a rut - revisiting favourite places to hike or holiday, finding that conference venues are in the same locations etc.  I will allow myself to define 'place I've never been before' quite broadly - places within a day's travel of Hull that I've not visited like, say, Harlow Carr RHS gardens in Harrogate, will be allowed to count as well as more exotic possibilities.

Resolution number three is the one concerned with becoming a more serene and balanced person. I resolve to do more fossicking.  I found out when researching this post that the original meaning of fossicking is searching through abandoned mine workings in search of little fragments of precious materials, but I've always understood it as taking the time to go slowly and look and poke around in the natural world - fossicking along a hedgerow or a green lane can mean taking an hour to go half a mile, but involves finding nests and spiders-webs, spotting snails, identifying the early leaves of flowering plants in the hedge-bank, taking pictures of pebbles or admiring the bark of a tree.  If you find that difficult to do as a focused adult, borrow a small child and take them outdoors for an hour or so - they are natural experts at fossicking!
Path into North Cliffe Wood, Yorkshire - an excellent fossicking habitat (photo: me)

No list of resolutions would be complete without something which is easy and pleasurable, to increase the chances of keeping at least ONE of them.  Therefore Resolution number four is to bake a selection of recipes from the FSC cake chart and try them out on members of the Department's Writing Group.  The Field Studies Council are well known for their excellent field guides which help everyone from young children to professional scientists improve their identification skills and learn about the natural world, and as part of their 70th anniversary celebrations last year they produced this handy guide to fieldwork sustenance, which also helps raise money for a good cause.  It's even laminated - well adapted for use by messy home bakers like me.
Any other GEESology New Year's Resolutions to share?  Let's chat about them in the comments!