How academic data can inform organisational decision making – PODCAST
Clarasys meets Dr Rachel Smedley, Senior Lecturer of Geography and Planning at the University of Liverpool.
Clarasys’ Olivia Birch chats to Dr Rachel Smedley, Senior Lecturer of Geography and Planning at the University of Liverpool, expert in luminescence dating, a group of methods determining how long ago mineral grains were last exposed to sunlight or sufficient heating, and studier of past environmental change.
In episode eight of Simply sustainability, Olivia chats to Rachel about how the academic data she collects can predict future climate change patterns and be used to help inform organisational decision-making.
Welcome to our Simply sustainability podcast presented by Clarasys. In this series, we look at what can sometimes be the intimidating topic of sustainability and break it down into digestible bite-size chunks to help you on your way to a more sustainable future.
Olivia Birch: Hello, my name is Olivia Birch, a consultant here at Clarasys. In today's podcast. I am delighted to be learning from Dr. Rachel Smedley, a senior lecturer in Geography and Planning from the University of Liverpool on the important role that academic data can play in helping inform organisational decision-making. Rachel, do you want to just start us off by telling us who you are and what your research interests and specialities are?
Who is Dr Rachel Smedley and what are your research interests and specialities?
Dr Rachel Smedley: Okay, great. Hi, thanks for inviting me to do this. So I study past environmental change over the last few hundred thousand years. So from, recently, right, the way back to hundreds of thousands of years ago, and I'm an expert in a technique called luminescence dating, where I can basically dig up grains of sand, silt, or rocks from under the ground and tell you how long they've been buried for.
And I use this approach to reconstruct how the environment has changed over time. Mostly focusing on large-scale, long-term climate change. So at present, I'm involved in some research, that's determined what the environment was like when humans evolved from homo erectus into homo sapiens, so modern humans as we are today in Northern Africa.
So this is somewhere between some few hundred thousand years ago, but I also work over much shorter timeframes as well. So thinking about the last few centuries, one of my current PhD students and Natasha Penoza is using my sort of skills and techniques. Alongside, numerical modelling to understand what the impacts of storms, sea level rise and humans are on, on salt marshes in the UK.
And the thing that I've been trying to work on and develop recently is a new technique where we can drill into the surface of a rock and see how sunlight is penetrated into that rock. And we can use this data to determine erosion rates and rock surfaces, which completely blows my mind every time I do it, but it has incredible potential for monitoring things like building decay in response to climate change and pollution, for example.
Olivia Birch: Wow. This is really fascinating, Rachel. It's amazing to hear about the use case of luminescence dating and the data that can be produced from completing this technique. It would be really interesting to know how your research contributes towards the sustainability space and how it informs decision-making.
How does your research and academic data contribute to the sustainability space and inform decision-making?
Dr Rachel Smedley: So as you can probably imagine my research works on quite a high, sort of more global level when thinking about sustainability and decision making because I provide the wider context for climate change we are experiencing today and what we will continue to face in the coming century and beyond. So there is a wide range of scientists from across many disciplines that are all working together to provide this knowledge and reduce the uncertainties that still exist in climate science. So all these projections for the future, all the things that we use to manage and mitigate for future climate change, we're trying to reduce all the uncertainties and then make it a bit more certain.
And I'm very interested in how precipitation responds to climate change. And I've been recently working on new approaches to record how precipitation gradients have changed in the past to climate change so we can better understand how they may respond in the future. So we've already observed in recent years that the seasonality of rainfall in the UK has changed. So April showers are less noticeable than they used to be. And this is recorded in Met Office records as well.
In fact, today we are experiencing a heat wave, probably going to break the records so we can see how things are really changing. And obviously understanding precipitation change is really important for agriculture, drinking water, flooding, and even on a more practical basis for wastewater removal and the decay of our sort of built infrastructure.
So I want to provide those data sets that we can help to reduce the uncertainties and future predictions of the change in precipitation patterns.
Olivia Birch: This is incredibly interesting, Rachel. Now you speak about scientists providing this knowledge, but how do you present this information to the everyday person? So, do you think there's a way in which we present this data to make it more understandable? Cause I'm sure there are, you know, lots of associated challenges in sharing this context outside of the academic world, people can kind of understand that there's a heat wave going on today but maybe don't really understand why.
Dr Rachel Smedley: Yeah. I guess the greatest challenge really is effective sharing of knowledge. So being able to pitch things at the right sort of level. We often share things in terms of science, with outreach events, mainly targeting school children. But I think there's a real gap in terms of how we communicate beyond this and with the sort of commercial and society in general.
So I know that I can find things out of my skills and techniques that I've got at my disposal, but it's difficult to know how this translates really into the different contexts outside of the academic world. So ‘how can this be useful for people in society?’. I know many of my colleagues in the Geography and Planning department in Liverpool are very good at actually working with civic and commercial sector to share knowledge and practice and provide very productive solutions that emerge from those partnerships. And so it's about creating a shared goal to work towards that everybody is interested in and everybody will benefit from, and for me, especially the challenges of communication, really.
So you know, it mostly because what I do is consider to be quite blue skies research that tries to understand the fundamentals about how the earth works, so trying to distill that into how that works in terms of society and different areas is more challenging, I think.
Olivia Birch: Yeah. I completely agree with you there.
And it’s interesting to hear how your research is considered blue skies research. I mean, at Clarasys we sometimes use blue sky thinking to help our clients develop, you know, creative ideas, regardless of practical constraints. So I guess what context is important for companies who at present do not prioritise sustainable transition?
What context is important for companies that do not prioritise sustainable transition?
Dr Rachel Smedley: Well, I guess my perspective here is more so from a personal perspective, 'cause I don't think anyone can really ignore the big shift that we've seen to more sustainable environmentally friendly practices in recent years. So there are more and more electric car charging points being installed, there are at least two now on my street. And there are lots of more companies that are popping up that are delivering more sustainable products and approaches. So one of my dissertation students this year is even looking into this sort of appetite for sustainable fashion products among consumers. So it's a really big agenda.
Presumably has a market that's especially important amongst the younger generation who are not long ago missing their schools to attend climate protests. And so obviously the reason for all this shift in society has been the push behind what's been going on in terms of science. And the science shows us that the planet is warming at unprecedented rates and my generation of scientists are now observing the effects of climate warming that the previous generation had predicted. So we're essentially like a natural laboratory now. And so we've known about human-induced climate change for many, many decades, but very little was done about it. And I think there's now a move towards doing something about it. And the temperature warming we've experienced over the last few decades has caused a plethora of impacts across the planet systems. Our storm tracks at the mid-latitudes have shifted towards the poles and are redistributing precipitation.
We have even more climate extremes now such as wildfires, droughts, and heavy rains that can increase soil erosion. The ice is melting and contributing to sea level rise and coastal flooding. I could really go on and on and on. I mean, you see most of it in the news these days now. And all of this climate change may sound like lots of numbers and very abstract to think about, but it actually has lots of impacts upon our lives, upon our livelihoods and society and it's all going to have monetary and sort of moral value really.
Olivia Birch: Now I completely agree. And I think, you know, when people start understanding monetary and moral value, that's when you know, they start understanding the real impact of climate change. And I know this might sound like a big question to you, but as you know, scientists of your generation, what's kind of the consensus or opinion on how we might close the gap between academia and corporate/society.
How might we close the gap between academia and corporate/society?
Dr Rachel Smedley: Well, that really is a big question. I know that recently there's been a real push from UK government agencies to fund science, which basically is funding science and innovation between academic and industrial partners. So getting academic and industrial partners to work together with a collective goal to sort of strengthen innovation in terms of science, but doing it within an applied environment. So there's been a real push for that.
And there are lots of funds across the UK government agencies and funding that you can access to do that sort of thing. And as academic institutions, we often work quite closely with public sector and, and inform practices there, but the corporate world does seem to provide a more difficult challenge really. But I think communication is the key, you know, taking time to speak to one another about the challenges faced and the potential solutions that can be provided and having effective avenues through which communication can pass.
Olivia Birch: Absolutely communication is key as well as ensuring people trust the research behind the evidence produced. In relation to this, what does your research and knowledge teach us about the world at present to kind of develop and maintain this level of trust?
What does your research, knowledge and academic data teach us about the world at present?
Dr Rachel Smedley: Well, I do all sorts of different things, but I think I'll illustrate, I guess, through two specific examples.
So firstly, I've looked at how quickly ice sheets can retreat or melt in response to climate change. So thinking about in path, so thinking about whether the topography that they retreat over can accelerate retreat rates that are independent of climate. So we've got climate changes happening, but we can also accelerate that by what is inherent to the actual ice sheet itself. So this is really important because Marine terminating components of the Greenland and Antarctica ice sheet today are experiencing retreat in response to human-induced climate change. And their topography is not flat, you know, in uniform it's highly variable.
So from looking at past ice sheets, we can see where we might expect the ice sheets to speed up or slow down, depending on what's going on underneath the water, essentially. And obviously, when we're thinking about ice sheets today, you know, more ice that melts at the poles converts into relative sea level rise, which can cause greater coastal flooding during storms like in the UK, or can have detrimental impacts upon the low line island nations as well, where seawater can flood their drinking water as well as many other impacts upon society. So that's thinking about, you know, ice melt and sea level rise.
Another example of what I'm looking at in some of my research and currently on a big project working with a big team where we're trying to understand change in aridity in Northern Africa, principally in Tunisia, where we've got records from stalagmites, from caves that grow during wet periods and dust that accumulates during dryer periods and we're trying to understand. Whether they're in phase or outta phase with one another, or whether a more complex, atmospheric interaction's going on. So this is important because it provides us with a baseline sort of understanding of how aridity and precipitation in Northern Africa can respond to climate change.
And we're gonna use this data set to sort of generate and improve the climate models so that we're better at projecting future moisture change over Northern Africa, which obviously is, is a really important part of the world to, to understand.
Olivia Birch: Your current project sounds fascinating Rachel, I would love to hear more about it, particularly how the data set is informing climate models that will better project future moisture change in North Africa. I guess my question is, how do you use this information that's very specific to North Africa to inform global policy?
How do your academic data sets inform global policy?
Dr Rachel Smedley: So, I mean, in terms of Northern Africa, it's part of the big climate systems that then impact upon the other climate systems around the world. So what happens in Africa can have implications for things going on much further afield. And so that's why this sort of has impacts upon global policymakers. And the reason that we can have this sort of impact is because members of our team set on the sort of big international advisory bodies and panels that liaise with policymakers, with countries all, all around the world. But we also work, you know, with local stakeholders as well and governments to share our findings more on a local basis so that they can implement things regionally or nationally, should it be useful to them. So they might be able to improve how they manage water resources in the future for example.
Olivia Birch: Wow. That's really fascinating to hear Rachel. I mean, you speak about your generation of scientists. What is one thing you wish everyone knew within society?
What is one thing you wish everyone knew within society?
Dr Rachel Smedley: So, I guess one of the things that would be useful for everybody to know is that the climate is changing on such fast rates now that the worlds scientists and the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessment report, so basically where all of the best knowledge of our climate system is put together - in that report where they've been modelling and predicting the future, they can't actually rule out the possibility of these things referred to as low likelihood, high impact outcomes before the end of 2100 because they're no longer certain that they're beyond the realms of possibility and it's not to say that they're going to happen exactly but it's saying that they're not beyond the realms of possibility. So we're talking about those unthinkable events that can occur as we've seen in the record of the past, during large scale, long term climate change, where the earth crosses thresholds in its system. So things like ice sheet collapse or weakening of our ocean circulation currents that transfers heat and, and nutrients around the world.
I'm sure you've all heard of or even seen the day after the tomorrow film, which is very dramatic, but the principle of the earth systems changing on such a dramatic rate because of the ocean circulation patterns shutting down isn't so crazy because we have seen it happen in the past. And I was quite amazed when I read this in the recent report that these low likelihood high impact outcomes are now part of the consciousness of the worlds decision-makers, and they are a possibility. Not to say that they're high likelihood, they are low likelihood but we can't rule out the possibility of these things happening. And it gives us an indication that the climate is dramatically changing over our lifetimes and the next generation's lifetimes as well.
Olivia Birch: I've never heard of low likelihood, high impact outcomes and I'm a geographer myself. So I definitely think there needs to be more awareness and it needs to be more widely understood by everyone.
Really fascinating Rachel for talking through all of that. I thought we could end on a more fun question or a lighter note. I've been trying to look into more sustainable products and household items around my house. It would be good to know what your favourite sustainable brand or habit is if you have one. I'm sure you do.
What is your favourite sustainable brand?
Dr Rachel Smedley: Yeah. So I have a company that I use called Splosh which sells household cleaning products and toiletries that are more sustainable. So they reduce plastic by using refill bottles and containers, and they use all plant-based ingredients. So they're really great and they smell great too.
Olivia Birch: They certainly sound great. I'll need to check them out after I've spoken to you. Well, brilliant. Thank you Rachel so much for taking the time to speak to me today about your incredible research. As a geographer myself, it's been amazing to hear the work that has been going on within the discipline. Do you have anything in terms of if people want to get in touch with more information, or if anyone wants to learn more about your work or sustainability in general?