Watch the video of Claire Belcher’s talk at TEDxExeter 2014.
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Videos about Science
Live blogs about Science
Claire Belcher had to choose between her love of dance and her love of volcanoes. She chose to become a scientist. I approve.
Her job is to educate others, and to measure and quantfy things that help us understand our world better.
Typically our response to fire is about danger and devastation. But fire also does positive things for our planet, including regulating the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere.
Wild fires have been part of Earth’s history for over 400 million years. Claire studies rock layers to understand the incidence of fires. In the south west, there are coals around Bristol from swamplands, red rocks around Exeter from deserts, and the Jurassic coast around Lyme Regis. She has plotted amount of coals and red rocks over 400 million years, and this also indicates the state of the climate.
Red rocks are red because they contain iron oxide, rust. We can say that oxygen levels were lower during the formation of red rocks. What about coals? Photosynthesis releases oxygen into the atmosphere. (We eat plants, and breathe in oxygen, creating an overall balance.) Hence during times when there was lots of vegetation and lots of coal was formed, there was more oxygen in the atmosphere.
At the moment, oxygen forms 21% of the atmosphere. When coals were being formed, oxygen was 10 percentage points higher. 300 million years ago, earth’s system should have gone out of control. What regulated that, to keep oxygen within bounds? The hypothesis is that fire was the regulating force.
The more oxygen, the more fire, and vice versa. And more fires means less vegetation. Fewer fires means more vegetation.
The flammability of forests based on changes in atmospheric oxygen has changed throughout history. But is there any proof that fires have happened at the right times to suppress oxygen? The other by-product of fire is charcoal, which can be preserved for millions of years. So measuring charcoal in rocks can be used as evidence for fires. And the theory matches pretty well.
So fires can regulate oxygen, preventing it on geological timescales from getting too high or too low. What about the modern challenges? We have had a lot of wild fires across the globe, increasing in frequency and destructive power. So maybe ecosystems need to be managed in a way that recognises the relationship with fire.
Ann grew up in Bradford, went to a comprehensive, left school at 16, got a job, got married, had no aspirations… especially to having an idea that is worth spreading.
Having triplets changed all that. She realised that she could do anything! She saw an advert for ordinary women to go on a polar expedition. She had all the qualifications – she was an ordinary woman. She went on a weekend for applicants on Dartmoor, and was annihilated. But she then spent 9 months training, friends taught her how to read a map, and she went back to Dartmoor and got on the team, her biggest accomplishment!
She was on the first leg of a relay across the Arctic ocean. She spent 17 days walking in what she describes as a ‘crystal beast’, with blues and pinks, and booms of moving ice.
Coming back she and four other women hatched a plot to be the first British women team to reach the South Pole. They spent 61 days walking into the Antarctic winds, in incredibly low temperatures, but they made it.
She also realised that scientists actually work there, but before getting involved in science, she had another expedition to walk all the way to the North Pole. Temperatures were unprecedented: -70 degC with windchill, hauling 300lb sledges. And she realised why only 53 teams had managed to undertake the journey. Traversing the ice is harder than the Antarctic land. On day 37, they had gone only 69 of 500 miles. They suffered physical injuries, frostbite and gangrenous feet – unpleasant photo! One of the team had to leave on the next supply plane. They had to swim, in specially-designed orange suits. But again they made it, and set a world record for women reaching both poles.
Ann got to know Pen Hadow, who is an explorer and scientist. He chose her to lead a team on the Arctic ice while he and another collected ice samples and took photos. What’s the point if we don’t do anything with information we collect? The photos are a way of sharing with the world. Every night they drilled and measured with a tape measure. They appeared on the News at Ten.
On the next expedition, she learnt about ocean acidification, collecting samples of water. Since the Industrial revolution, the carbon dioxide we have emitted has been absorbed by the ocean. The oceans have been a buffer, but at a cost. The water is becoming a weak carbonic acid, which is affecting coral reefs, becoming bleached and eroded. Other marine life is suffering, and humans will too, as reef protects us from winds and tsunamis. Phytoplankton can’t produce as much – the bottom of our food chain is being eroded.
We can make small changes that make a difference – buy locally, buy green energy, use the car less, make your home energy efficient, encourage each other to go through glass ceilings and realise our dreams.
Here’s another bit of topical Twitter tennis with the Met Office, your friendly Exeter-based national meteorological service.
@TEDxExeter : Hi @metoffice we have @AnnDanielsGB polar explorer speaking at #TEDxExeter today, what is the current weather in the polar regions?
@metoffice : @TEDxExeter Greenland is forecasted light snow and temps between -1 and +1 C over next 5 days http://bit.ly/1maeG9x ^EC
@metoffice : @TEDxExeter Antarctica has light and heavy snow in the forecasts, temps between -5 and 0 C http://bit.ly/1jdrvjF ^ec
And now for our first performance, from world champion slam poet and maths student.
Harry’s starting with a love poem about prime numbers, called 59. In summary: 59 loved 60 from afar, but 60 thought 59 was… odd. And then 60 met 61, who was like 60, but a little bit more. Together, 59 and 61 combined to become twice what 60 could ever be. A prime example of love!
Through writing this his first poem, Harry discovered poetry slams. Poetry slams are a way of tricking people to attend poetry readings by putting an exciting word like ‘slam’ on the end. Being slam world champion means that his next poem is technically the best poem in the world, according to five French strangers: proper pop-up purple paper people. There’s no way I can blog it, so here’s a video.
Poetry is Harry’s way of investigating worlds without frontiers. His last poem today is about the Sunshine Kid, who had a sunny disposition and had a flare about him. But the shadow people made fun of his sunspots. He struggled at school – being too bright – and his judgment became clouded, and he let his light be eclipsed. And then came Little Miss Sunshine, who was hot stuff and told him we are all stars. Not all the darkness in the world can put out the light from a single candle. Astrophysics in motion!
…and Harry got the first (I may say well-deserved) standing ovation of the day, led by none other than fellow speaker Vinay Nair!
The TEDx team will staple-gun him if he goes outside the red dot on stage! It’s time to get away from entrenched positions in international negotiations on climate change, but think a bit laterally. He’s giving the conclusions to us already!
The climate is still changing, even though we have stopped talking about it. Global surface temperature has increased by 0.8 degC since 1980, and the 10 warmest years on record have occurred since 1997. Carbon dioxide has the largest ‘forcing’ effect on the warming of the climate system. The sun’s forcing is tiny in comparison. There are lots of other forcings, which at the moment are cancelling out, but have scary potential.
We can’t pretend the problem doesn’t exist; and we can’t just focus on adapting to climate change. We need to cut carbon emissions now, and by 60% by 2050, and keep cutting, to avoid ‘dangerous’ warming of over 2 degC. Emissions fell in 2009, but just due to economic shrinkage, and they rose again by the most ever in 2011. Geo-engineering, such as reflecting sunlight away from the planet, is thinking too far outside the box. Two wrongs don’t make a right.
If we control methane, we gain benefits for human and ecosystem health, and we have a better chance of controlling overall greenhouse gas emissions. It’s feasible, because we have a good idea of sources of human-caused methane emissions, which are much higher than natural sources. 40% reductions are feasible, by better management of landfill and fuel production and transport, and changes to diet. This is equivalent to over 10 years of carbon emissions, and will give us a bit of time to get our carbon house in order.