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Climate extremes: moving from physics to solutions

Professor Paul Whitehead joined over 35 scientists in the Swiss mountains to discuss how to assess and adapt to extreme climate events.

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Delegates at the climate extremes workshop, Riederalp, Switzerland

The most significant impacts of climate change are likely to be due to the increasing intensity and frequency of extreme weather events, such as droughts, floods, heat waves and wind storms. The costs of damage caused by these events could be extremely high.

The University of Geneva organised the workshop in Riederalp, Switzerland on 24-28 March 2015, bringing together a wide range of expertise on the science of climate extremes. The scope of the workshop also moved beyond physical science to consider impacts and adaptation policies for reducing climate-related risks and the costs of extreme events to vulnerable societies.

Paul Whitehead, Professor of Water Science at the School of Geography and the Environment, presented his research on modelling the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna river systems in India and Bangladesh, which together form one of the largest river basins in the world, providing water to over 650 million people.

The Oxford University research, which forms part of the ESPA Deltas project, assesses how future climate change and socio-economic change in the river basin will impact the flow of water and nutrients into the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Megha Delta. The results show that climate change could have significant impacts on river flows, both increasing wet season flows and leading to more frequent droughts. Socio-economic changes could impact flows during droughts, when irrigation will further reduce water availability. The modelling work also explores how management and policy interventions can reduce these impacts.

Participants at the workshop shared case studies of a variety of extreme events, from glacier lake dam bursts in the Himalayas, to heat waves in Moscow, wind gust events in Switzerland, and extreme snow storms in Austria.

An important outcome from the workshop will be a policy document for the 21st Conference of Parties (COP) in Paris in December 2015. The meeting’s discussions will also be presented to the EU Science Managers to inform them of this key area of research, which is largely missing in the major EU Horizon 2020 research programme.

Visit the climate extremes workshop webpage

Read more about the ESPA Deltas project

View Paul Whitehead’s powerpoint presentation on modelling climate change and socio-economic pathways in the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers

Academic publications on modelling the the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers, in the Journal Environmental Science: Processes and Impacts:

Researchers discuss natural hazards and uncertainty at Oxford workshop

A workshop on Decision Analysis for Natural Hazards was held at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford University on 10-11 March 2015.

Professor Jim Hall, Director of the Environmental Change Institute, chaired the two-day series of seminars, tutorials and discussion on decision support methods for natural hazards, including floods, droughts and earthquakes, and their consequences in the UK and globally.

Natural hazards decisions are typically made on the basis of data with significant uncertainty and much of the workshop explored decision techniques for unquantifiable or ‘deep’ uncertainty. Professor Yakov Ben-Haim of Technion – Israel Institute of Technology illustrated this concept with examples from other fields such as economics and biology, as well as from natural hazards such as the North Sea flood in 1953 and the 2011 Tohoku earthquake in Japan. Professor Ben-Haim demonstrated the Info-Gap methodology which identifies robust responses across possible future states.

Professor Hall gave examples of environmental challenges that have been practically addressed with decision analysis methods in infrastructure planning for flood prevention. A series of short presentations by participants outlined the broad range of cases in which decisions are made under uncertain conditions, such as landslide prediction, wind storm insurance and water resource management.

Professor Ben-Haim led the group with some practical exercises using Info-Gap to identify robust solutions in the context of uncertainty. Participants then developed their own analyses of relevant decision problems with help from Professors Hall and Ben-Haim, with several ideas for further research collaboration emerging.

The workshop was supported by the Natural Environment Research Council funded programme CREDIBLE (Consortium on Risk in the Environment: Diagnostics, Integration, Benchmarking, Learning and Elicitation), which researches new approaches to natural hazard modelling. Within the consortium, Oxford University researchers Jim Hall, Mike Simpson, Neil Massey and Edoardo Borgomeo focus on decision analysis, drought and water scarcity.

The Saïd Business School takes on water education

The Saïd Business School recognises water as a pressing global challenge, naming ‘Water Management and Markets’ a theme of its flagship Global Opportunities and Threats Oxford (GOTO) programme in 2015.

GOTO is an action-oriented problem-solving community geared towards addressing some of the most complex issues that the world faces today. It has been running at the Saïd Business School since 2012 and is an integral part of the curriculum, with all MBA and EMBA students participating.

At the core of the GOTO programme is a multimedia platform which connects students, alumni and faculty to discuss, debate and drive new business ideas that address global challenges. The platform features contributions from experts and practitioners, debating forums, research from Saïd Business School’s students and faculty, as well infographics, images and videos.

In 2015 the Business School is taking on Water Management and Markets as a key theme, reflecting the growing concern about global water risks such as water scarcity, pollution and floods. The World Economic Forum’s 2015 Global Risks Report recently ranked water crises as the risk with highest impact on society in a survey of 900 leaders from politics, business and NGOs.

The Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment is partnering with the Saïd Business School to design the curriculum for a course on Water Management and Markets, to be delivered as part of the GOTO programme in the Spring Term of 2015.

The Water Management and Markets course will engage students and stimulate thinking around private sector risks, challenges, and opportunities related to water. Leading academics, industry experts, international organisations and growing enterprises will give presentations on a range of topics, including: the science of water management, water supply services and systems, corporate water risk and return, and entrepreneurial opportunities in the water sector.

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Learning to live with floods and droughts

A panel discussion on Living with Floods and Droughts: Adapting to Hydro-Climatic Extremes was held at the School of Geography and the Environment on 1 December 2014, and brought together a number of water and climate experts in the field.

Dr Simon Dadson, School of Geography and the Environment, chaired the event and highlighted the huge impacts that floods and droughts can have in both developed and developing countries. Examples include the 2013/14 floods in the UK and the 2011 floods in Thailand which caused an estimated $43 billion in economic losses.

At the other end of the hydrological spectrum, a severe drought in 2008 led the city of Barcelona to import water in tankers from France. East African droughts in 2010/11 brought about a devastating humanitarian crisis which counted 260,000 deaths and 1 million refugees.

Dr Dadson invited the panel to reflect on how flood and drought risks might change under future scenarios of climate change, and what actions could be taken to adapt to these changes.

Professor Jim Hall, Director of the Environmental Change Institute, said that we have tended to cope with floods and droughts reactively in the past, with extreme events triggering policy action only after they have occurred.

However, he said that a transition is underway to a risk-based approach which bases decision making on a much broader range of possible events and consequences that might occur in the future. This “quiet revolution of thinking and methodology” in risk analysis means that we are better than ever equipped to live with floods and droughts, he said.

“The single most important asset we have to manage present and future risks from extreme floods and droughts is the long-term observational record” said Professor Rob Wilby from Loughborough University. He stressed the value of using historic records and information from climate models to understand the processes driving extreme events and how risks change through time.

Climate models can be used to predict future risks. However as Dr Richard Betts, Head of Climate Impacts at the Met Office pointed out, different models can produce widely varying results and it is impossible to test their accuracy. There is work to be done both in improving the science, and in improving the communication of uncertainties, he said.

Drawing on expertise in climate change adaptation in developing countries, Professor Declan Conway from the London School of Economics and Political Science reminded the audience that the adaptation process has many steps and the production of climate scenarios is just one step.

Professor Conway reflected on what lessons from climate change adaptation in the UK might be relevant for developing countries. In this country, legislation has played an important role in forcing institutions to assess and act on risks facing society. He also mentioned the importance of monitoring – of changes that are occurring now, the consequences of those changes, and the effect of adaptation policies.

Professor Mike Acreman of the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology said that natural ecosystems are completely adapted to floods and droughts as these events are all part of the natural cycle. Floods or droughts can only been seen as ‘good or ‘bad’ when considering how they impact human uses of the environment.

The natural environment can play a role in influencing the hydrological cycle, Professor Acreman said, but only on a small scale and to a limited degree. For example, restoring wetlands can help store floodwater and release it slowly during drier periods. Payments for ecosystem services may provide a mechanism to fund conservation and restoration of the natural environment to help combat future floods.

Stopping floods on the cheap: A success story from Yorkshire

A team of researchers led by Professor Sarah Whatmore at the School of Geography and the Environment ran a pilot project in Pickering, North Yorkshire to study the effectiveness of a new methodology for flood management decision making.

The outcome was much more than academic, and the town is safer for it.

The research was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, the Natural Environmental Research Council and the Biotechnology and Biosciences Research Council.

Oxford flood experts contribute to government report on innovation and risk

Professor Edmund Penning-Rowsell and Paul Sayers co-authored a flooding case study in the Annual Report of the Government Chief Scientific Adviser 2014 ‘Innovation: Managing Risk, Not Avoiding It’.

The report of the Government Chief Scientific Adviser Mark Walport considers different perspectives on risk and innovation by the public, business and policy-makers. It aims to understand the bases upon which decisions are made about when and how to innovate.

The report states that “coastal and inland flooding remain high on the UK’s National Risk Register, with significant concerns around the three main sources of flooding: rivers, surface water and especially the sea”.

The high-level case study on flooding was written by Professor Edmund Penning-Rowsell (School of Geography and the Environment), Paul Sayers (Environmental Change Institute) and Andrew Watkinson (University of East Anglia). They discuss flood risk from three angles: the social perspective, the analysts’ perspective and the infrastructure planners’ perspective.

The report is available online and the flooding case study starts on page 101.

Oxford researchers bridge the gap between flood risk science and management

Paul Sayers and Professor Jim Hall at the Environmental Change Institute have been awarded a grant from the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) to capture current knowledge of methods for assessing flood risk and determining future infrastructure investments.

The past decade has seen significant developments in the approaches to assessing and managing flood risk, with both research and industry-led innovations. This has, however, led to a great number of methods that are difficult for practitioners and researchers to access and build upon. It is not always clear what best practice is, or how credible results are from different approaches.

The project ‘Flood risk: Building Infrastructure Resilience through better Understanding and Management choices ‘ (FoRUM) which is funded by NERC’s Environmental Risks to Infrastructure Innovation Projects call, will gather the current state-of-the-art knowledge on flood risk assessment and long-term investment planning.

The researchers will develop a common understanding of alternative methods and the uncertainties associated with each. This knowledge will be then be shared with stakeholders in the research, private and public sectors. Through the dialogue between researchers and stakeholders, FoRUM will establish the foundation for future advances in this field and collaboration between business and academia, ensuring that scientific developments have relevance to real-world needs.

The research team is led by Professor Jim Hall and Paul Sayers in the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford University with support from Professor Rob Nicholls (Southampton University) and Professor Edmund Penning-Rowsell (Oxford University). They are working closely with leading practitioners with an interest in flood risk and ability to make use of innovative science, including from the Environment Agency, Network Rail, Thames Water, JBA, CHM2HILL, AIR and HR Wallingford.

For further information, contact paul.sayers@ouce.ox.ac.uk

Developing a model for coastal cliff erosion

Risk of coastal cliff erosion in the next century is mostly driven by feedbacks between different components of the coastal system – the atmosphere, land and ocean – rather than from the threat from climate change and sea-level rise, according to a new study.

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The research, led by Dr Andres Payo and colleagues at the Environmental Change Institute presents a new methodology for modelling and assessing the role of different feedbacks and processes that affect coastal change.

Coastal managers have significant experience in planning and managing the ever-changing cliff shoreline. However, the need for more resilient coastal systems means that it is necessary to anticipate and plan for future change at timescales as large as 50 to 100 years, posing new challenges for coastal managers and modellers.

To help coastal system modellers address this challenge, this study develops a framework of how different processes interact with each other and the role of a given feedback in the overall cliff system.

A feedback is a change to a component of the coastal system that causes a knock-on effect which further alters the original change. A positive feedback increases the rate of cliff erosion. For example as waves erode the cliff, abrasive material such as sand and gravel will become loose, and the incoming waves will carry these materials, resulting in even more cliff erosion. Negative feedbacks have the opposite effect and decrease the rate of cliff erosion.

The study contributes to the ongoing effort of scientists to identify potential feedbacks, determine their direction of influence, and assess their relative importance. By understanding how the individual and overall feedback strengths are influenced by different future environmental and human intervention scenarios, it will be possible to provide better assessment at the time scales needed for coastal management.

This research was funded by UK Natural Environmental Research Council with support from the Environment Agency as part of the project: iCOASST Integrating Coastal Sediment Systems.

Reference

Payo, A., Hall, J.W., Dickson, M.E. and Walkden, M.J.A. (2014) Feedback structure of cliff and shore platform morphodynamics. Journal of Coastal Conservation. DOI 10.1007/s11852-014-0342-z

Coping with the curse of freshwater variability

Oxford scientists say that institutions, infrastructure and information are the key ingredients for coping with freshwater variability and enabling economic growth, in an article published in Science.

The authors, which include Prof Jim Hall, Prof David Grey and Dr Simon Dadson, say that a key challenge to achieving water security is managing the risks posed by variable and unpredictable freshwater resources. Building resilience to these risks requires a transformation in the way investments are made.

Extreme events such as floods and droughts are hard to predict and future changes in variability are highly uncertain. The article highlights three dimensions of freshwater variability: change within the year (seasonal and monthly), year-to-year, and the unpredictable timing and intensity of extremes. When these three dimensions combine the situation is “most challenging – a wicked combination of hydrology that confronts the world’s poorest people,” say the authors.

The article warns that the inability to cope with variability can place serious burdens on society and the economy. Extreme events such as droughts and floods have ripple effects through the economy. For example, floods in Thailand in 2011 caused $43 billion in losses. Meanwhile in Ethiopia economic growth is 38% less that what would be expected based on average rainfall, due to the country’s complex hydrology.

Countries can do very little about their natural endowment of water: when and where it rains and how much water evaporates, infiltrates into the ground, and runs into rivers and lakes. However for those countries burdened with highly variable hydrology, investment in water management can help buy their way out of water insecurity.

The study’s analysis shows that countries that have achieved economic growth, despite high variability in freshwater resources, have invested heavily to reduce risk. In river basins with complex hydrology where there has been low investment, the economy suffers.

Countries along river basins with less variability are more wealthy, even though investments have sometimes been quite modest. Where the hydrology is highly variable, additional investment is needed to transition from water-insecure to secure, but this is least affordable and hardest to deliver in the poorest countries. Climate change may increase variability further, making water security an even more distant goal for countries already underequipped to cope.

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The authors highlight “the three ‘I’s” as essential for adapting to freshwater variability: institutions and good governance (such as river basin organisations, legal systems, and water pricing), infrastructure (such as water storage, wastewater treatment, groundwater wells) and information (including monitoring, forecast and warning systems, and modelling tools).

Crucially, coping with variability involves a combination of institutions, infrastructure and information – rarely will they generate their full benefits alone.

The article calls for a new approach to investing in water security. A broader and longer-term vision is needed that looks beyond individual projects to the sequence of investments that can create a pathway to water security. Context also matters when it comes to what combination and sequence of investments are needed.

This new approach will focus on risks, trade-offs and uncertainties to enable decision-makers to choose between alternative investment pathways and build a more water secure future.

This research stems from the work of a global Task Force on Water Security and Sustainable Growth, an initiative of the Global Water Partnership and OECD, co-chaired by Oxford University’s Professor Jim Hall and Professor David Grey.

Reference

Hall, J.W., Grey, D., Garrick, D., Fung, F., Brown, C., Dadson, S.J. and Sadoff, C.W. (2014) Coping with the curse of freshwater variability. Science, 346(6208): 429-430.

Weighing water risks

Dr Alex Money says that companies need to do more than just reduce consumption to address water risk, in a CurrentCast interview, broadcast to 20+ radio stations throughout the United States.

Alex MoneyWhen water risk first appeared in corporate reports, the focus was on reducing consumption. But Alex Money, a Research Fellow at the Smith School for Enterprise and the Environment, says this is a relative concept. “Using a litre of water in Canada is very different from using a litre of water in the Sahara”, he said.

Money believes that companies – especially those expanding into new markets – need to analyse water risk differently. “Getting water from where it is to where people are is the big challenge in terms of water security.”

Money suggests companies focus on their supply chains and local infrastructure. By looking at how to deliver water to new markets in a way that is equitable with other competing uses, companies can better analyse risk and help address global water access.

Listen to the 1 minute CurrentCast podcast

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