Monday, 25 February 2013

BANDANA- 24th February 2013

If you missed Dan's latest radio show, you can listen 'On Demand' anytime you wish.

SHOW: 24th February 2013

Saturday, 23 February 2013

SATURDAY SUPPLEMENT: We can't ignore the thaw!

In the midst of a seemingly perpetual numbing winter, I applaud the efforts from scientists this week to try and introduce some toasty news into our lives. I'm referring to the news about a global temperature rise of 1.5 degrees C; if only the decimal place could be removed, and maybe localised to my village, I'd be a happy geographer! Unfortunately, the news they bring, however warming, is far from comforting. Indeed, the subsequent thawing processes that will inevitably take place will be disastrous for a large area of Siberia.

Ironically, when I type 'cold' into my online thesaurus, the first synonym is 'Siberian' and yet a report featured in the journal Science warns that in the instance of mass-scale thawing, up to a trillion tonnes of 'greenhouse gases' Carbon Dioxide and Methane will be released, only to induce future warming and thawing by a process known as Positive Feedback. (In my experience, it's a complicated process and rarely brings positive prospects.) It's difficult, nevertheless, to support the possibility of mass thawing with a predicted temperature increase, partly because there are a hundred of factors which collide with these parameters. Research into Siberian Caves, however, has shone light -if only torch light- onto a historic warming event. Moreover, by analysing the stalactites and stalagmites, researchers have pieced together about 500,000 years of permafrost history and records of another warm period show that a 1.5 degrees C increase is sufficient to "present substantial thawing."

Permafrost currently covers 24% of land in the Northern Hemisphere, but this figure could plummet significantly in the future if thawing takes place, though to many researchers, it's not a matter of 'if' but 'when'. Natural gas facilities in the Siberian region, including power lines, roads, railways and buildings are at great risk as a result, and no doubt Siberia will be facing future "economic implications".
It's amazing to delve into Siberia's construction history and the ways that Permafrost has been regarded, especially in the last fifty years. I turned back the clocks and dug into my collection of National Geographic and managed to track down an article into this very issue from March 1967. I have to admit it was refreshing to read some of the benefits that 'thawing' has for Siberia; in 1967, the thaw provided "a growing season to raise cabbages, potatoes, cucumber and tomatoes. They never get red, but they are tomatoes!" Siberia always was, and still is, one of the most austere landmasses on this very planet, and I'm not surprised that the population has utilised a seasonal thaw to their agricultural advantage. However, this week's projected global temperature rise could inspire a non-temporal melt- it could happen at anytime of the year- and peak thaw could be detrimental to the the area in a macro scale.

Construction, even back in 1967, was conscious of permafrost degradation; "when we put up a new building now, we put it on poles," the Mayor at the time reported to the National Geographic. Later on in the article, Vladimir Dynin, construction director of the Yakutsk Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, explained more of the process. "We use steam jets to thaw the permafrost and then, when the soil is mushy, we sink a [reinforced concrete] pile down 23 feet. When the soil refreezes, the pile becomes part of the frozen ground. The buildings to be supported by piles will be set six to eight feet above the ground, as if they were on stilts. The cold air will circulate under them and prevent their heat from melting the permafrost." (That annoys me, as permafrost does not melt, it thaws.) The elaborate and environmentally conscious techniques of the sixties haven't changed, but there's no doubt that building atop of perennially frozen ground will pose significant threats to its integrity. In the March 1990 edition of the National Geographic, Siberia is once again under the spotlight. "Development is hampered by...permafrost" it reports, though I would argue that development also threatens permafrost, and can therefore threaten future development. It seems slightly odd to say 'development prevents development' but in terms of Siberia, it's debatably true. "More and more Soviets decry the destruction of the fragile tundra, which can take a century to recover," the article goes on to state.

It's not as if Siberia hasn't felt the effects of permafrost thaw already. As the 1990 report goes on to add, "the BAM [Baykal-Amur Mainline Railroad] didn't have time to do their job right...The track was laid, the completion reports were written...And then track bed sank in the ice melt. Rails twisted, tunnel walls collapsed. Repairs and detours threw the BAM five years behind schedule."

This week's forecasted temperature rise is one contemporary issue; another is permafrost degradation. Siberia will have to think extremely carefully now. Sustainable Development will be a difficult process and will meet multitudinous obstacles. Suddenly, all of my tedious issues with British Winter are put into perspective.

Monday, 18 February 2013

Ivan Palfrey Cup

Tonight, I had the honour of being invited to be the after-dinner speaker at the North Walsham Rotary Club. Over the last month, I have made several visits to Rotary Clubs, not just in Norfolk, but in Cambridgeshire and last Friday, in Leeds and I never fail to be amazed at just how warm hearted the Rotarians are. Possibly in a mark of tradition, each club is composed of people from all leagues of life, which adds a certain spice to dinner conversation and ensures the experience for me, as a guest, is an enriching one.

I am humbled to have received the Ivan Palfrey Cup tonight, especially because Ivan demonstrated an incalculable extent of service to his local community. Ivan was a surveyor by profession, a model of Rotary values, and a quite remarkable man of very wide cultural and sporting interests. In his seventies, I am informed he continued his passions for skiing, sailing and riding his Harley Davison. Ivan was one of the driving forces behind the creation of the Norwich ski slope.

Dave Robertson, Club Secretary and Town Mayor for North Walsham, presented the award this evening for my "services to the college student community and the wider Geographical community. Ivan may have pursued his interests with a passion that sometimes ignored convention, but so, undoubtedly, have you." The cup will be on display in the Trophy Cabinet at Paston Sixth Form College for the remainder of the year.

Below, the Club President, John Watts, presents the award. (Photo courtesy of Mr Daniel Doyle.)

Sunday, 17 February 2013

BANDANA- 17th February 2013

If you missed Dan's live radio show, that takes place every Sunday Evening from 7:00pm till 10:00pm, here's how to catch up.

Saturday, 16 February 2013


As Kathy Sawyer wrote in her article standfirst (National Geographic: February 2001) appropriately named: A Mars Never Dreamed Of , "the more scientists see of Mars, the more mystified- and astonished- they are about the powerful forces that shape its terrain." This week, an enlightening snippet of extra-terrestial information has been exposed to Earth. Nasa's 'Curiosity Mars'- once again, an apt name- has drilled, collected and is at present ingesting the 'grey powder' to be later sent to two on-board labs. The collected sample will undergo a rich and thorough series of complex chemical scrutinisation, and the results should indicate whether life ever was (or is) present on the Red Planet. 

I say, "should indicate" but then I know that this hasn't been the first time this thought-provoking paradigm shift has been explored. This afternoon, I have dug deep through my National Geographic archives, and have supplemented my lunch with some fourty-year old articles, and enriched the hours with ploughing through more than four decades of overwhelming astronomical achievements. In the 1960s, a decade overshadowed possibly by Neil Armstrong's landing on the Moon, Mariner IV made an equally successful flypass around the Red Planet. The article I have before me now, from December 1967, is on first perusal, quite ambitious. After all, it estimates only a decade is needed before "we could be ready for interplanetary travel", and yet at the time of going to print, nothing of Earthly design had entered Martian territory. I have some reservations about whether "Exploration of the Earth's land surface is almost ended" as Carl Sagan believes, but the author concludes: "Mars moves through our skies in its stately dance, distant and enigmatic, a world awaiting exploration."

Six years after suggesting man could walk around on Mars with "comparative ease" to Earth- its gravitational pull is lower- assistant editor for the National Geographic writes that "Mars is a far more complicated body than we had thought." Mariner IX had found that about 50% of the planet was volcanic, ultraviolet spectrometry revealed a puzzling yet geologically fascinating profile, and there seemed to be an appearance of a riverbed.

The Mariner operations had been successful in terms of their original intention, but gathered data and fresh information were inspiring more questions; perplexing queries that only a landing on Mars could answer. And so, on July 20th and September 3rd 1976, Viking 1 and 2 touched down respectfully. As the National Geographic from January 1977 delves into some considerable detail, the mission was productive. The arms of Viking 2 could expose Martian soil, temperature sensors could transmit data back to Earth and seismometers kept a sensitive record of any Martian tremors. By the end of the year, 99% of all the detailed knowledge about Mars had been learned, and biologists chewed the caps of their pens as to how life could exist. Could small creatures "eat the permafrost" or the dust grains that carried water molecules? One scientist working on the Viking operation imagined much larger creatures, admitting "I almost expected to see camels". In defence, the images Viking collected, could have just as easily been taken in the Sahara or the Mojave.

Mars exploration seemed to take a pause, or perhaps even a twenty year sabbatical, but as reported in an article from August 1998, Dan Goldin from NASA believed the next voyage to Mars should be "faster, better and cheaper." In 1998, Sojourner departed its mother ship Pathfinder and landed successfully to carry out yet more examination. It was "cheaper" (about a fourteenth cheaper than Viking) but only travelled 110 yards, and still no concrete statement on the possibility of life. What had been achieved were 16 APXS readings, which can ascertain the elemental chemistry or rocks and soils. The National Geographic provided readers with 3D glasses, to aid an espying of 3D Mars. (I seem to have an extra pair in my edition.)

Sojourner was continuing Martian scrutiny after a quiet couple of decades in the late 1990s, and President Bush proposed to send manned missions to the planet by 2019. (That's six years away, and I'm not sure we're ready.) I can remember going on TV in 2003 and on Xchange with me was a scientist who brought in a model of a Mars Rover; another robotic mechanism which would take to space in 2004, but never survived the landing and the possibility of sending a manned mission out looked more doubtful as a consequence. Less than a decade ago, however, in July 2005, the National Geographic reported on yet two more successful explorations of Mars; both Spirit and Opportunity landed in 2004 and found "direct and convincing evidence that water sloshed across Mars over 3 billion years ago." The probes also detected Goethite, a sure sign of water. Four years later, as the Phoenix mission took place, it's more of a case of not 'if' life existed, but 'when'. "Mars was a habitable world at some point early in its history. We don't know exactly when...Future missions will have to figure that out."

Five years later, as I am writing, Mars Curiosity is ingesting material which should bring us closer to determining the environmental conditions which could have supported microbial life many billions of years ago. From Viking and Pathfinder to Spirit and Opportunity, and now Curiosity, the names we pin upon the most successful of Space Missions capture our hope and wanderlust for Mars. "Space exploration is in the finest human tradition; many feel that it is a pre-requisite for our continued survival as a species" as Carl Sagan wrote. That sentence- that philosophy- was published over fourty years ago. We have drilled and dug, sieved and sampled, pondered and proposed so many theories of Life on Mars. Questions have yet to be answered. We shall never, I don't expect, name a ship "Success" because man will forever be drawing the question mark. The story of Mars has no fixed conclusion; at present, we haven't even found the beginning. We haven't even taken the book down from the shelf.

Monday, 11 February 2013


Daniel launched his new Sunday Night Radio Show 'Bandana' this evening! Listen again by clicking the link below.

BANDANA- 13th February 2013

Saturday, 9 February 2013

SATURDAY SUPPLEMENT: So how did these Dinosaurs really die?

News comes from Glasgow University this week that scientists have estimated the most accurate date yet regarding the extinction of the dinosaurs; some 66,038,000 years ago, give or take 11,000 years which might not appear that precise in the flesh, but then there are still some unanswered questions.

The date comes to us, the general public, after an intense debate regarding not exactly when the species died, but how. It's been suggested, furthermore, that a comet or asteroid crash-landed off the Yucaton Coast of Mexico and the crater produced was so large, (180km), that they've even named it: Chicxulub.

It seems that there's also a large crater in our understanding of this heated debate, and after ploughing through a couple of issues of the National Geographic from my collection, there's no wonder why. As the March 2003 issue states rightly, "the ultimate dinosaur behaviour was the act of going extinct. And the mystery of that event has hardly been solved." That was published exactly a decade ago, and despite developments this week, I don't think we've solved the puzzle yet. (I think we've only just took it out the box.)

In March 2003, there is a notion that the dinosaurs weren't necessarily the victim to an instantaneous outer-space collision such as a comet or asteroid, but to an extensively varied and accumulating range of "triggers", suggesting that any "big impact may have been the final blow". The article does lean towards the 'pathogen theory' remarking that at the end of the Cretaceous period, as "lands that were formerly separated by water were now species arrived, perhaps carrying deadly microbes". So was the greatest dying out spectacle of Earth induced by pathogens or by a deadly extra-terrestial blast? Both ideas have been seriously considered, and only ten years divide these schools of thoughts.

This week's report hints at a crater formation triggering the sudden decline of this empire, but this is no fresh theory. In the January 1993 National Geographic the article explains how "some scientists believed that a huge impact crater" (this time in Canada, not Mexico) "called Manicouagan explained the extinction". And still, even twenty years ago, this theory was argued. "Radiometric dating indicates the Manicouagan crater was formed several million years before the mass dying". "Some scientists argue that the extinction was probably the result of gradual climate change." (Is there anything that isn't blamed on climate change?)

Within twenty years, ideas have been floated, but nothing concrete has been set. Twenty years ago, hints at a Canadian Crater were passed off as chronologically inaccurate and in favour, the culprits were a number of differing climatic conditions. In 2003, this theory has flourished detailing possible micro-bacterial triggers. Yet, this week, ten years later, we've took the U Turn, and we're back to drawing crater holes and analysing asteroid geology. It's fantastic news that the most accurate date for extinction has been set. That will do for the gravestone. But what about the Coroner's report? Will we ever know what exactly killed the dinosaurs?

Daniel's Official Welcome Back Ceremony- 8th February 2013

This evening, I got the honour to be officially welcomed back, and delivered a speech to those who have supported me through the years. Here are my closing remarks:

Saturday, 2 February 2013


I've never been one to smother my sandwiches with honey, or any other flavoured spread for that matter, but I get a kind of 'buzz' when it comes to this nation's bee populations. (Pun very much intended!) Once upon a time, you wouldn't catch me within a hundred yards of one- possibly as a result of getting stung many years ago by a wasp in the eye- but having lived for a decade without a repeat interference, I have bee-come quite fond of them. (OK, enough with the literary fun.)

This week, the BBC released a report which detailed how the European Commission is advising member states to restrict the use of certain pesticides that are possibly harmful to bees. Earlier this month, the European Food Safety Authority unleashed findings into just how toxic the chemicals are to the insect, and the results conclusively reveal that the residue from spray has been found in pollen and nectar, especially on Oil Seed Rape and Sunflowers. "Swift, decisive action" will now be taken and it is hoped that a national set of regulations will come into place from the 1st July this year. Already, though, some UK retailers have started to withdraw some chemicals from sale, despite manufacturers such as 'Bayer CropScience' stressing the sprays can be safe if applied effectively.

But this is no new story, as I found out, when I read an article from the February 1980 National Geographic Magazine. I quote from this article, released to the public domain more than thirty years ago, that "Pesticides annually destroy or damage more than 400,000 colonies [of bees]...and some bee experts worry about a future pollination crisis". Three decades later and it is more of a population crisis than anything; the U.K especially has witnessed a bee decline and this week it has been suggested that a contributory factor 'could' be the usage of pesticides.

The article I have before me now, from 1980, almost categorically names pesticides as the culprit to so many bee deaths. Brian Ferguson, from California, tells the National Geographic Magazine that his "bees gathered pesticide-laden pollen, returned to the colony, and died." The report states that the sprays annually claim 10% of the nation's bee, so you can understand why I'm a little surprised why it has taken thirty-three years for the E.U to draft up these new regulations. There is no doubt that pesticides are essential; as my 1980 report says "the world must use pesticides to maintain high crop yields and affordable food. At the moment, there is simply no other way to farm on the scale required." Since 1980, the world population has increased by some 2 and a half billion people; surely, pesticides are required more than ever before to ensure sustainable food supply.

This week's BBC News article regards an issue that is hardly a breaking headline. Thirty years ago, the very issue on the integrity of the bee population was raised. My 1980 article here leaves readers with a rather optimistic comment: "It won't be like this forever; in fifty years, if we use our heads, our understanding will be greater and we'll be able to act more intelligently." 60% of that time has since elapsed, and still the issue is under proposal. Do I feel more sympathetic towards bees now? Possibly. Will I start using honey in my breakfast? Certainly not.