In climate science, I’ve always worked with the big picture. First, global warming – how much we’d get if we doubled carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – and then global sea level rise. Whether this has been by luck or design, I’ve loved the challenge and necessity and, to be honest, the buzz, of working with international scientists on problems that affect the whole world.
But at a workshop in July 2016 about new funding aiming to help build resilience in developing countries, I had a hankering to get local. At this academic networking event, I met more engineers, architects, agricultural managers, social scientists – even historians and artists – working with communities in developing countries to improve their resilience to floods and other natural hazards than I had throughout the previous year. My research on computer model predictions of global sea level rise, so much further back the causal chain that leads to flooding, seemed remote from their real world, practical work. I wanted to better join up my work with the people on the ground who will face the effects of sea level rise this century.
Happily for me, these connections have grown in three significant ways: and, more recently, ‘staying local’ has taken on a new meaning for me personally…
Firstly, I applied for the opportunity to write about UK coastal flood risk for the Government Office for Science for their Foresight ‘Future of the Sea’ project. Foresight are tasked with looking to the future to help the UK Government with planning. I was honoured to write this important and wide-ranging report on how flooding affects people, infrastructure, businesses, and natural capital in the UK and further around the world, and I am very grateful to all those who contributed their suggestions and advice. I’m particularly grateful to Paul Sayers, the consultant in coastal flood risk management who led a large research project commissioned for the UK Climate Change Risk Assessment 2017, who provided me with his raw data to present separate coastal flood risk estimates and projections.
Here is the report – intended to be understandable by a general audience (I even designed an infographic):
Future of the sea: impacts of sea level rise on the UK – commissioned by the UK Government Office for Science
Second, I’ve made new collaborations with scientists working on regional sea level change and coastal flood protection. I was lucky enough to contribute to papers in 2017 exploring the impact of our 2015 projections for Antarctica on regional sea level rise, led by two excellent scientists I haven’t worked with before.
Impact of asymmetric uncertainties in ice sheet dynamics on regional sea level projections by Renske de Winter and others.
The Impact of Uncertainties in Ice Sheet Dynamics on Sea-Level Allowances at Tide Gauge Locations by Aimée Slangen and others.
Our 2015 projections for Antarctica had found a fairly low value for the ‘most likely’ sea level rise this century, but showed significant possibility of much higher values of sea level rise. Broadly speaking, these two papers found that this asymmetry gave a much larger probability of high local sea level rise, and a much larger design height for coastal flood defences, than implied by previous, symmetric projections for Antarctica.
Finally, in the resilience workshop I had met Ilan Kelman of the UCL Institute for Risk & Disaster Reduction, who explores (among many other things) the impacts of floods on people and places, such as small islands, and the resulting responses – social and political. He asked me to join the institute with an honorary position, and has just started co-supervising a new PhD project with me about future sea level projections that will also consider local impacts and policy implications. I couldn’t have added this component without him. (With important contributions too from palaeoclimate and ice sheet experts Lauren Gregoire, the external supervisor, and Prof Tina van de Flierdt, project partner).
I now find a new significance in staying local. I’ve been very ill since Christmas, so haven’t travelled or even walked far since then. On the 12th January I was diagnosed as having bowel cancer, with a tumour completely blocking my colon. I had emergency surgery the next day, and was discharged two weeks ago. Very luckily, it had spread to only 1 local lymph node – for very many, bowel cancer is diagnosed far later, particularly for those under 50. I’ll start chemotherapy in a few weeks, for 6 months.
In fact, I am unbelievably lucky in almost every respect. I’ve always been prone to seeing – in fact, inventing – silver linings. But for this Cancer, this dread word that many people hate to say out loud, it has been genuinely easy. I have been elated at no longer being in constant pain, unable to keep food down, with the uncertainty of no diagnosis, as I was in the weeks before being admitted. My closest hospital is, funnily enough given my UCL position, the excellent University College Hospital; the NHS staff there and at my local practice are among the kindest and most hardworking people I’ve ever met. My partner is the most wonderful, the most supportive, the most cheering and caring company one could have. My flat is overflowing with flowers, cards, chocolates, and unexpected, generous presents, and my time is so filled with visits, messages and calls from friends and family I can hardly keep up. I have had a lifetime of good health and reasonable fitness, which I have always been grateful for, that is helping me recover quickly. I am young (particularly for bowel cancer, at 38), I have a job I love and that is flexible, I am better off than almost the whole world, and I have the education and academic access to research the best ways to get better. (I’ve enjoyed learning new medical terms and equipment, and am particularly excited about the bionic-style port that will be implanted into my chest soon for receiving the chemo). In fact, my world does not feel as if it has shrunk…because I can reach out to it so easily.
I send my hugest gratitude to King’s colleagues who had to step in and take over my work almost as soon as I had begun my new job, and to other colleagues similarly putting themselves out for me. I should be able to work part-time during the chemotherapy. As well as wanting to support my two PhD students, and working on a big paper currently in review, there are some far-too-exciting-to-miss new things in the pipeline – particularly in bringing climate science to the public and to policy makers. So, as ever, watch this space…