Why we investigate lake sediment archives: Some personal perspectives

Post by Dan Schillereff

Puzzled faces are often returned when people learn that my doctoral research involves analysing mud extracted from the bottom of a lake. Common questions include why? How? What does it look like? My interest in lake sediments was developed through my Undergraduate degree at Liverpool and addressing these queries is now an important part of my PhD. In this post I will briefly outline some answers from a personal perspective.

Why? Lake sediment records have contributed hugely to our understanding of past environmental changes around the globe. Where a lake is fed by a river which drains the local catchment, sediment is transported through the fluvial system and deposited at the lake bottom. These sediments can be characterised using numerous parameters measured in the field or using advanced laboratory techniques and fluctuations in these measurements may indicate a change in local climate, land-use or vegetation cover. My research focuses on recovering sediment sequences from lakes in the English Lake District (Bassenthwaite and Brotherswater) which should contain records of extreme flood events which have occurred in the catchment in the past. If the sedimentological signature of discrete flood layers within a long sediment sequence can be deciphered, counting the number of such layers can provide insight into flood frequency and a relationship between grain size and river discharge may provide data on flood magnitude. Our sediment cores cover many centuries and, in some cases, millennia. These datasets will therefore be invaluable to river managers and policy makers who need a better context in which to place the current spate of extreme flood disasters witnessed in recent years and to develop more effective mitigation scenarios of future flood risk.

Coring for lake sediment

How? Many techniques have been developed to extract the soft sediments lying at a lake bottom. Preserving the internal structure of the sediment sequence is crucial, however the high water content of the mud means methods must be used which recover the lake sediments with minimal disturbance. For extracting sequences potentially many meters thick, we use a Russian-style sediment corer, which consists of a semi-cylindrical metal case with a rotating cover plate, with an optional manual hammer system that can be employed. At Liverpool, we have constructed a raft which enables coring to take place on a solid, well-anchored platform. The corer is lowered through the water column, with metal support rods attached as required to reach the desired depth. If the sediment proves difficult to penetrate, the hammer system is attached to the vertical supporting rods and a weight is lifted and dropped to drive the corer further into the basal sediments. When the desired depth is reached, the support rods are rotated clockwise, the cover carves through the sediment column and an undisturbed sediment sequence is captured within the casing. The corer is lifted to the surface, lain flat and the rotating motion is reversed, revealing a lovely stratigraphic sequence upon the cover. Each core drive (which can be 0.5, 1.0 or 1.5 m in length) is encased in PVC drainpipe and transported to the lab here in Geography.

Lake sediment core

What does it look like? In my short academic career, I have observed numerous textures, colours and smells associated with mud extracted from different lake environments. Examining the factors which generate such characteristics is far beyond the scope of a blog post, but certainly these are subjects which feature prominently in the Physical Geography Undergraduate curriculum and the MSc Environment and Climate Change course.

Embodying the lifecourse workshop Durham 21st November 2012

Art work produced as part of an intergenerational bodies research session

Post by Dr Bethan Evans

Here are details of a forthcoming workshop I am involved in with colleagues in the Department of Geography at Durham University.

Embodying the Life Course: Relating Past, Present and Future Bodies Workshop

Wednesday, November 21st 2012, 10am-5pm Location: Collingwood College, Durham, UK

Organisers: Rachel Colls, Kathrin Hörschelmann (Department of Geography, University of Durham) and Bethan Evans (Geography, University of Liverpool)

Keynotes by:

Paper presentations by:

This is an interdisciplinary workshop that will consider how life courses can be understood as embodied and how bodies of different ages relate through intergenerational encounters. The workshop will explore new conceptual perspectives and methodological approaches to research on embodiment, age and wellbeing by considering how bodies are performed and experienced between generations and persons of different ages.

Specifically this will involve considering the benefits of bringing an intergenerational perspective to debates on relationality, embodiment, age and wellbeing across the social sciences (Hopkins and Pain 2007; Prout 2000; Vanderbeck, 2007).  The workshop will also explore the multiple ways in which embodied intergenerational encounters ‘matter’. This will include considering, for example: the ways in which genetic discourses are mobilised in intergenerational encounters; how remembered past bodies shape self-perception; how anticipated future bodies might mediate individuals’ sense of wellbeing; and the role of particular spaces and places in the facilitation of intergenerational encounters. Ethical and methodological issues of researching embodiment from an intergenerational perspective will also be discussed.

To attend the workshop, please write to rachel.colls@durham.ac.uk or kathrin.horschelmann@durham.ac.uk by 12th October 2012.

Please note that places are limited. The workshop fee is £30 (waged) or £15 (unwaged/student). We would appreciate advance payment by cheque (payable to “Durham University”), but will be able to take payment by cheque or in cash on the day. Please send cheques to Rachel Colls, Department of Geography, University of Durham, Science Site, South Road, DH1 3LE, U.K.

Student Visit from our Partner

Taking samples from the tidal flats of Hilbre Island

Post by Dong Chenyin.

I’m a student from the State Key Laboratory for Estuary and Coastal Research at East China Normal University, which is a partner institution with the School of Environmental Sciences at Liverpool.  I recently received funding from East China Normal University to undertake some collaborative field and laboratory research with Prof. Andy Plater on the Dee Estuary.  My area of research is the examination of magnetic properties in sediments to investigate environmental processes and the source of sediment in the Dee. I also aim to see how these sediment sources have changed through time as a result of sea-level rise, catchment land-use and estuary geomorphology.  I’m just back from sampling the tidal flats near Hilbre Island – it was such a beautiful place and very windy (see photo)!  I hope to soon be collecting samples from the River Dee and Liverpool Bay to characterise the different source areas.  I am very much enjoying my stay at Liverpool – and have enjoyed meeting the students who came to my laboratory in April this year and in 2011. Jenny and Vicky even came to meet me at the airport with a home-made flag that had my name on it!

Critical geopolitics: looking at the world from a different angle

Posted by Dr Matt Benwell,

In my view one of the most enjoyable aspects of doing geographical research is the opportunity to explore an issue from another angle, from another vantage point. To listen to the perspectives of those that might not often be heard or broadcast when events unfold around the world. These voices may sometimes reinforce what we thought we already knew about an issue but also have the potential to surprise us and encourage further investigation and (self-) reflection.

My research has offered me the opportunity to do this in relation to understanding Argentine perspectives on the Falklands/Malvinas territorial dispute in the South West Atlantic. I have travelled to Argentina on a number of occasions to conduct interviews with young people, academics, politicians and veterans of the 1982 Falklands/Malvinas war.Image The one topic that most guidebooks tell you not to mention in Argentina is the war and the sovereignty question but I havve had extremely positive experiences learning about this geopolitical dispute from the other side of the Atlantic. Argentine citizens have been keen to share their views which have quite often surprised me and shattered my original assumptions.

And this ability to read geopolitical events critically, to look at world affairs from different angles, is no longer restricted to the privileged world of academic research. The internet has now made it easy to access the press of most nation-states around the world, not to mention the wonderful world of blogging and social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook. It’s now possible to follow political leaders such Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez as well as prominent NGOs/pressure groups through their social networking accounts. The ways in which diverse citizenries are interpreting international news stories can be gauged by watching YouTube videos or reading comments underneath news stories receiving coverage. It seems that the practices of diplomats and politicians are increasingly blurred with those of ‘everyday’ online citizens situated in different parts of the world. These all provide fantastic resources to understand geopolitical events from a host of different geographical locations and positions within those societies. I encourage all of my Geography undergraduate students to engage with different sources from around the world as part of learning how to think more critically about what they read.

Engaging with such rich and diverse online resources strikes me as extremely valuable if we are to understand, for instance, how the UK is perceived around the world.  In recent months, Argentina has looked to embarrass the UK on the international stage for not entering into peaceful negotiations relating to the Falklands/Malvinas sovereignty question. The release of a controversial advert ahead of the Olympics, as well as various high-profile meetings at the UN have provided global exposure for Argentina’s sovereignty claim and its wish to enter into negotiations with the UK. These have shaped the ways in which the UK and its foreign policies are perceived by Argentines and people more widely in Latin America. Indeed, the majority of Latin American states are supportive of Argentina’s territorial claim and have more recently lambasted the UK for threatening to enter the Ecuadorian embassy in London in order to extradite Julian Assange. In both cases, the UK has been perceived by Latin American states as acting in a ‘colonial and arrogant’ fashion.

Of course, the extent to which people agree or disagree with such perspectives will vary and I’ve regularly found that topics such as the Falklands/Malvinas question can stimulate passionate and engaging discussion amongst Geography undergraduates when teaching at Liverpool. However, I think the most valuable part of looking at the world from a different angle is that it allows us, together with students, to interrogate and sometimes challenge what we think we already know about a subject. This can result in much deeper understandings of geographical issues from the vantage point of different actors and it can occasionally turn our preconceptions about an issue upside down, which is what I find especially exciting about geographical research.

Visiting the 2012 European Green Capital: Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain

Posted by Alex Nurse, Research Assistant, Low Carbon Liverpool project.

Last week, as part of the Low Carbon Liverpool research project, I visited Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain.  Vitoria is the capital of the Basque Country, located some 40km south of Bilbao and this year has the honour of hosting the European Green Capital award. Image  The Green Capital award is given to cities who have demonstrated an ability to lead on environmental issues whilst showing a commitment to continuing this development – the award has previously been held by Stockholm and Hamburg.

I attended an event entitled ‘Greening European Cities’: a collective of NGOs with an interest in the environmental issues who meet each year in the respective European Green Capital.  We heard from representatives of Vitoria-Gasteiz and had several opportunities to explore the city.

What shone through was that Vitoria-Gasteiz is a very well planned, compact city.  For 30 years planners have emphasised the need for good transport links, coupled with easy access to amenities.  By way of illustrating this, almost all of Vitoria-Gasteiz’s 240,000 residents live within 300m of key amenities (including shops, schools and hospitals). Image However the most striking point is the fact that a resident living on the very edge of Vitoria-Gasteiz has to travel only 3km to reach the city centre (a 40 minute walk, 10 minute cycle, or 5 minutes by one of Vitoria-Gasteiz’s trams or buses).  This would be the equivalent of the edge of Liverpool being located in Sefton Park.

However, after visiting the town centre, and speaking to residents it became evident that Vitoria-Gasteiz was a city that was struggling to reconcile the commitments that were made to the Green Capital year with the financial downturn which has enveloped Spain in recent times.  Although the reasons why the city won were evident, and logos in store fronts indicated a wealth of citizen support and pride, there was little by way of celebrating or engaging with the visiting public.  This could lead to Vitoria-Gasteiz being dubbed ‘The Austerity Green Capital’.

Nonetheless, I think Vitoria-Gasteiz has some key lessons to those who wish to study the city and to develop low carbon futures.  The central role of the citizen, effective multi-modal public transport and the ease of access to amenities could be held up as a model for how to develop future cities even if the financial downturn has prevented Vitoria-Gasteiz from celebrating its time in the spotlight as much as they might have liked.

Combining dissertation research and work experience

Canary Wharf, London

Post by Astrid Tooms – Year 3, BA Geography student

In my first few months back at University in second year it dawned on me that I had better think about what I wanted to do after University.  I started browsing various graduate job websites such as Target Jobs and Prospects (these were both useful – if you sign up and indicate your interests both will send you regular updates of relevant job vacancies for internships and graduate programmes).

I decided that I would love to work for a large company with the potential to travel. After making this decision I started applying to many different financial companies, to try and get a place on a summer internship programme for 2012 (as it seems pretty common knowledge that the best way to secure a place on a graduate scheme is to complete a internship first).  After online applications, online testing, telephone interviews and an assessment day I managed to get a seven-week programme with a leading international bank, the hard work had paid off!

Towards the end of second year the word dissertation starting creeping more and more frequently into our lectures and tutorials and we were all beginning to think about what sort of topics we could cover. From the outset it was made clear to us that studying Geography allowed for you to research a really broad range of things! I spent several weeks trying to think of ideas about what to look at, but nothing really stood out for me. It sounds like a total cliché, but one lunch I was having a coffee with a friend and she just simply suggested that I should try and combine my summer internship with my dissertation. This was perfect! Especially due to the fact we had to complete the majority of our research over the summer, and I knew that I would be busy with my internship programme. After enjoying my Social and Cultural Geographies module, taught in the second year, I decided that I wanted to incorporate this into my dissertation. Therefore I focussed my topic on gender in the banking sector. This is something that feminist geographers have researched and written about.

During second year we had a lecture from people at the careers centre about the possibility of competing a work-based dissertation, this seemed like a good idea for me, and I contacted the relevant people to discuss the prospect of completing a dissertation like this. However there were a few complications, so I decided to carry on with my initial idea and complete a ‘normal’ dissertation and use my experiences working at the bank as a means of collecting my research. I would definitely recommend this path, as it seemed like a great idea and the people involved are really supportive.

Prior to starting at the bank, I did a lot of reading and contacted individuals asking them to complete interviews for me, this was a great experience and highlighted many issues and key themes that would later become relevant in the workplace.

Starting my internship was really exciting, however I was extremely nervous. I had never worked in an environment like this before, and the majority of people in the office were extremely experienced in their fields. During my first few days many people asked me about my University degree, and when I said I was doing Geography I think many of them were quite shocked that I had decided to work at a bank instead of being a weather girl or geography teacher! However the graduate recruitment team at the bank had reassured all the interns that they wanted a diverse mix of people, and they had looked for transferrable skills and personal qualities as well as academic subjects during the recruitment process.

From the start I really enjoyed my time working in the commercial banking centre and built good relationships with many of my colleagues, I learnt new skills all the time and I was given real responsibility from day one. Throughout my seven weeks I completed some of my dissertation research, I asked about completing participant observation with my work colleagues (this was fine, however obviously there were strict confidentiality regulations in place). Whenever something happened that seemed relevant I would scribble it down on a piece of paper, then every night I would copy up my notes and explain my experiences. I quickly learnt that its very easy to forget things, and I tried to write down as much detail as possible as you never know what you may need in the future for my dissertation! Recording things in this way also helped me towards the end of my internship when I had to prepare for my performance review, as I had a detailed list of things that I had done, seen or been part of.

Throughout the internship experience, I also got to meet other interns, we kept in touch throughout the process and met up regulalry for work related events and socials. There were two other interns who were from the University of Liverpool.  Towards the end of the internship we also got to visit the bank’s head office at Canary Wharf, which was a great experience! Being part of this community for several weeks was fantastic and I believe it has really helped me with regards to my dissertation; it has given me a better understanding and has helped me view situations from different perspectives. When I completed my interviews I was able to relate to people better as I had witnessed the environment they were used to working in.

Overall I would recommend combining your dissertation with something you are really interested in, it takes up a lot of your time so you don’t want to be stuck doing something that doesn’t benefit you. For me, being able to complete my internship and gather research data was fantastic, I think otherwise I would have struggled to fit everything in or my data would not have been so good. Furthermore, the company was really interested in what I was doing and it showed that I had a genuine interest in the Banking sector. Everyone I spoke to was really friendly and willing to help, and I made some great contacts. Even people who I just spoke to on the phone for an hour offered to help me with my career and gave me great advice.

After the summer I feel that I am in a good position to carry on with writing up my findings, also the bank has offered me a graduate job which is a big relief going into third year.

And most importantly I don’t hate the word DISSERTATION… yet!

A newbie to the School

Post by Dr Chris Lloyd

As a new arrival in the School, I have been trying to adjust to how things work in the University. I spent my last academic year at Queen’s University Belfast on sabbatical (a year off teaching and admin responsibilities to pursue research). During this time I have been working on three book projects (not to be recommended at one go!) – an introductory text on Geographical Information Systems, a research-level book on exploring spatial scale in geography, and an edited book on segregation. Spatial scale is at the heart of my research interests; the relationships between population variables (for example, employment status and housing tenure) change as the spatial scale of measurement is adapted – the relationship will be different if we use small Census areas or large Census areas. Scale also links directly to my interest in segregation – a group may appear segregated (separated from members of other groups) if we use small Census areas, and mixed if we use large Census areas. So, we must understand scale effects if we are to characterise segregation, in the same way that we need to know something about the scale of variation in deprivation if we are to characterise deprivation.

Modelling travel time: the local time cost of travelling 100m in Belfast Urban Area.

Another interest of mine is in how we can model interactions between people using quantitative data. The places that we visit on a day-to-day basis are selected for a variety of reasons – because we work there, we have friends or family who live there, there are shops or other facilities, or we just travel through the area to get to somewhere else. Most spatial statistical methods use very simple definitions of neighbourhoods, and they are usually based on the assumption that the likelihood of travel decreases in proportion to distance from the place of residence. Part of my research explores ways to more realistically model the potential movement of people and the degree to which they interact with others – a link back to the theme of segregation.

In my short time in the School of Environmental Sciences, it has already proved to be a collegial and stimulating place to work, and I am very pleased to be moving into such a great working environment!

What do Geographers do in their summer holidays?

Post by Dr Andy Davies

When term time is over, a lot of students think that the University shuts down and that we academics get really long summer holidays. Of course, we do have some time off, but work carries on around the University, even if it is significantly quieter with most students away for the summer.

The summer is a great time to do fieldwork, but one of the things that most academics do in the summer is spend time at conferences and workshops to discuss the latest ideas and talk about their research. For Human Geographers, one of the biggest conferences is the Annual Conference of the Royal Geographical Society (with Institute of British Geographers) (RGS), which was at the University of Edinburgh in July this year. I, together with other members of the Department, was involved in presenting papers at this conference. However, this wasn’t all that went on during my time in Scotland.

When in Scotland, you have to have an Irn Bru on the train!

Geography obviously has lots of topics to study within it, from more ‘physical’ topics like glaciation and climate change to more ‘human’ ones like health and development. One of my roles as an academic is as a Committee Member of the Geographies of Justice Research Group (GJRG) of the RGS-IBG. The RGS-IBG has many research groups, where researchers on specific topics within Geography meet and discuss the latest developments within their own sub-field, but also to ensure that the work we do continues to be relevant and important to the wider world. The GJRG is, as it’s name suggests, interested in issues of justice and equality, and at its heart is a commitment to doing research that is socially ‘just’.

So, before the RGS-IBG conference, I spent a day in the University of Dundee, attending a pre-Conference event on ‘Shaping Agendas in Justice Research’. Having never been to ‘the sunniest place in Scotland’ before, it was unsurprisingly raining on the day I arrived. However, there were seals basking in shoals of the River Tay, and the train journey from Edinburgh to Dundee was beautiful and a real surprise. The day itself was spent with a variety of papers which took the quite broad theme of ‘justice’ and thought about issues such as social in/exclusion in the regeneration of Dundee’s waterfront, participatory research with street Children in Accra, Ghana and student activism in Chile. The variety of presentations and topics within them showed how vibrant Human Geography research is, but also how Human Geographers are committed to doing work that is explicitly socially just – i.e. that it produces outcomes that are beneficial to humanity, and do not act in ways that serve to increase inequality within the world.

The River Tay in Dundee – sadly, no seals visible!

These are very real challenges which many of us in Geography at Liverpool are committed to working on – using Geography to do work that struggles against injustice. That’s why I’m a member of the GJRG, and also one of the main reasons why I work as a geographer – because as a subject, its commitment to understanding how the world around us functions allows us to (hopefully) create a better world for future generations. It also proves that, despite what students may think, we also do work in the summer holidays!

A tale of two (northern) cities

View of Liverpool’s famous waterfront

Post by Dr. Gemma Catney

I moved from Queen’s University Belfast to the SoES during the first week of September, to work on my Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellowship, ‘Geographies of ethnic and social segregation in England and Wales, 1991-2011’. I’m very excited about the project – so do feel free to come and talk to me about it! I’m really looking forward to being part of the School of Environmental Sciences at University of Liverpool, which has already given off great vibes as being a dynamic, productive and friendly place to work. I’m also eager to start to explore the city of Liverpool as a new resident.

My first brush with the Liverpool was as a PhD student back in 2006, when I presented at the postgraduate conference PopFest, and the 3rd International Conference of Population Geographies. I was back again in 2008, whilst working as RA at CCSR (University of Manchester), to participate in the innovative Intercultural Cities conference at St George’s Hall. On both occasions I was struck by how friendly and open Liverpool was, with a keen sense of its own identity. It was also somewhere which was clearly going places – the entire city seemed like a building site during my visits! Being back now it’s clear that all the scaffolding and cement has paid off, and Liverpool city centre is certainly rather polished, with its new buildings and clean streets.

All this urban development and regeneration reminds me of my hometown, Belfast. Like Liverpool, Belfast is also well-known for its warmth to both visitors and locals, its friendly atmosphere, and its great ‘craic’. It has also undergone substantial changes in the last ten years. Aside from the welcome fact that its infamous socio-political climate is ever-calming, the city has been at the receiving end of substantial infrastructural investment; the city centre is now virtually unrecognisable in places. It’s a very positive thing to see Belfast growing as a tourist and immigration destination – a place where people want to visit and to move to.

In reflecting on the similarities of the two cities, I was struck by the fact that urban regeneration schemes in both Liverpool and Belfast stand the risk of succumbing to the same pitfall: all the fancy glass buildings, the chain high street shops and eateries/drinking holes, and the branding of sections of the city to make them more marketable (Belfast now has a ‘Cathedral Quarter’, a ‘Queen’s Quarter’, a ‘Titanic Quarter’; Liverpool has a ‘Knowledge Quarter’, a ‘Cultural Quarter’, a ‘Georgian Quarter’ and so on) risks emphasising commerce over other forms of interaction and can lead to a ‘could be anywhere’ feel to some parts of both of these characterful northern cities. These are things that urban geographers study and write about. A challenge to planners and developers is how to respond to the importance that cities retain their uniqueness, protecting places like Bold Street in Liverpool that have independent shops and restaurants and that economic sustainability is not seen as achievable only through a shameful ‘McDonaldisation’ of the city. Both Liverpool and Belfast have truly outstanding landmark buildings, and the sense of a significant and important industrial history is obvious in their urban fabrics. Hopefully the appearance of glitzy department stores and snazzy chain restaurants won’t cloud (or rather gleam) over their fascinating pasts. In getting to know my new city I look forward to embracing the ‘real’ Liverpool and finding the city’s hidden gems (suggestions on a postcard!).


Universities in a time of austerity: participatory geographies

Students take part in a ‘Silent Seminar’

Post by Dr Pete North

We all know that the current economic conditions in which universities have to function are very difficult for all involved.  We don’t yet know what the changes to funding and fees will mean for the students who are paying, or for universities.  But these challenges also present a possibility to think differently about the ways in which we, as academics, engage with our students and the communities that we research with. Participatory geography is one example of new ways of researching and teaching being explored in geography.

I am Chair of the Participatory Geography Research Group of the Royal Geographical Society and Institute of British Geographers. The group has two aims:

First, we think that the people geographers work with are not ‘objects’, like specimens on a Petri dish, to be prodded and studied by academics who are seen to have a privileged view.  We argue instead that better research will come if academics work with the communities they are researching to identify questions, ways of answering them, and work out what the data mean together. That way, we will get better answers, and the process will help everyone involved to better understand the world, so we can change things for the better.

Secondly, we argue that research should be about making the real world a better place.  Universities are civic institutions – The University of Liverpool was founded to advance knowledge and enrich the human experience. To be true to these roots, we need to remember that despite the changes in funding, universities are not private sector companies, but part of that rich civil society tradition of organisations like the press, voluntary and community groups, churches, trade unions and professional societies that are vital for an inclusive democratic society.

The Participatory Geography Research Group has recently been discussing what the new world of university funding means, not just for research but also for teaching, and has been thinking about how we can make sure that this leads to a better university experience for all concerned.  To do so, we suggest that it’s important in the new funding regime to make sure that students are not seen as  customers, as purchasers of our products and services, but as part of the team of knowledge producers – people who we respect, nurture and support and who can also teach us things.  We should remember to co-operate with, not compete against each other, and review each others’, and students’ work in a positive, constructive and supportive light.  We should bring the best out of each other, not try to get ahead at any cost. We should use teaching and learning methods that enrich the learning experience, and help students grow to be people in control of their destiny, committed to using their geographical knowledge to help solve some of humanity’s pressing problems

The participatory geographies research group ‘Communifesto for ‘Fuller Geographies’ can be found here

It’s inspired by Duncan Fuller who worked at Northumbria University.  Duncan died at a tragically young age, but he was always someone who was alive with the missions of giving the most to his students to inspire them to get out there and make the world a better place both at university and in their later careers.  What can be a more fulfilling job than having the opportunity to teach and inspire, and later learn from, future generations of problem solvers? The Participatory Geography Research Group’s mission is to advance that way of thinking about what universities are about, and developing new, engaged ways of making the experience of life at university more fulfilling.

The challenge is to make this vision of university life a reality.