Where in the World? The dark side…

Have you seen Where in the World? Everybody knows the best part of an Earth Sciences PhD is the travel, be it to conferences, fieldwork or to use facilities in other geoscience departments, and so we set out to map the destinations of the current PhD cohort. As you’d expect, the biggest coverage is in continental Europe and the USA, but we’re a widely travelled bunch, and have visited such exotic and far-flung places as Mongolia, Bolivia, the Bahamas and Ethiopia.

All this got me thinking; what exactly is the impact of our travelling, and can it really be justified?

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Where in the world?

As a rudimentary estimate (what senior lecturers like to call a “back of the envelope calculation”*) of the environmental impact of our foreign adventures, I took the direct distance between the cities (or capital cities where specific locations were not stated) logged on the Where in the World map and London, and multiplied this distance by two for a return journey. Granted, this does not take into account multi-stop trips or the fact that more than one person might have been to the same location, but it should give an answer to a first order approximation.

The total air km accrued by the PhD cohort is a whopping 581,000 km. That’s 14 and a half times round the world, or almost a return journey to the Moon.

The average lunar distance is 384,000 km, but varies with the orbit of the Moon to between 356,700 and 406,300 km.
The average lunar distance is 384,000 km, but varies with the orbit of the Moon to between 356,700 and 406,300 km.

Using values from the Carbon Trust this figure can be converted to kgCO2e (that’s kilograms of CO2 equivalent); averaging per passenger for long and short haul flights1, our air travel has pumped about 58,000 kg of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. To put this in some context, it would take ~1,400 tree seedlings ten years to sequester that amount of CO2 2.

To some people, including myself, this might seem a little ironic. Much of the research carried out at in the School of Earth Sciences (and School of Geographical Sciences) at Bristol concerns climate change, both from a palaeo perspective and studying the modern-day effect of anthropogenic emissions. As scientists, we should be more aware than anybody of the impact of our globe-trotting, and yet we think nothing of flying halfway across the planet for a conference or fieldwork. Just as a very recent example, the last PAGES (Past Global Changes) meeting was held in Goa, India. The aim of the conference was to discuss what Earth’s history can tell us about the future climate change of our planet; in practical terms, ~360 presenting authors from around the globe hopped on long-haul flights. Isn’t this hypocritical, or at the very least short-sighted?

But then what are the alternatives? Video-calling can work effectively for small groups, and is certainly being used more frequently for interviews and PhD vivas. Moreover, some conferences are now live-streaming sessions on the internet (e.g. AGU 2012), and initiatives like WUN (Worldwide Universities Network) have been successful in promoting virtual collaboration. However, many academics feel that there is simply no substitute for attending big conferences, with the myriad opportunities for networking and sharing of ideas over a drink.

Fieldwork is an even more difficult aspect to tackle. Short of all becoming geophysicists sat at computers, it’s hard to envisage how we might reduce the amount of travelling we do without compromising research output. Certainly, one way is to work more effectively with institutions in the vicinity of the fieldwork location, training and involving local scientists to limit the need for overseas presence. And perhaps in the future, we will send Mars Curiosity Rovers to far-flung places on Earth (although, as a geologising junkie, where is the fun in that?!).

Mars Curiosity Rover. The next must-have item for geologists?
Mars Curiosity Rover. The next must-have item for Earth-based geologists? Copyright: NASA

Ultimately, the onus is on us as scientists to make the most of the incredible opportunities we get. Try to choose conferences by what we’re going to contribute or learn, rather than location. Though it’s tempting to get multiple trips out of one fieldwork location, see if there are pre-existing samples. If we already have samples, can we share our resources with other researchers? And above all, let’s make sure we effectively communicate our research to both the scientific community and the general public, so that all our outpourings of hot air (and CO2) are not in vain.


*I’ve never known any “back of the envelope calculation” that could actually have been performed on a piece of A5 paper…they nearly always require three months of Matlab-ing.

Whilst I’m banding about all these CO2-related figures, it’s worth making a comparison to the very thing a lot of us are travelling to study. Annual volcanic emissions total approximately 0.26 billion tonnes of CO2 a year3 ;that’s the equivalent of a petrol car driving to Neptune and back more than 130 times. Anybody for a road trip?

This picture of Neptune was produced from the last whole planet images taken through the green and orange filters on the Voyager 2 narrow angle camera. The images were taken at a range of 4.4 million miles from the planet, 4 days and 20 hours before closest approach
Neptune as viewed through green and orange filters on the Voyager 2 narrow angle camera. The images were taken at a range of 4.4 million miles from the planet. Copyright: NASA

[1] http://www.carbontrust.com/media/18223/ctl153_conversion_factors.pdf
[2] http://www.epa.gov/cleanenergy/energy-resources/calculator.html
[3]  http://volcanoes.usgs.gov/hazards/gas/climate.php – USGS highest preferred estimate

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About Charly Stamper

I’m an ex-experimental petrologist.
I used to make pretend volcanoes; now I work in renewable energy

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