1st Oxford Earth Surface Processes Research Day 2023

The inaugural Oxford Earth Surface Processes Research Day took place in the new East Lab of the School of Geography and the Environment (SoGE) on Friday, February 24th, 2023. The event brought together a diverse group of researchers who share a common theme but approaching it with a multitude of methods and perspectives. An engaging, fascinating, and stimulating exchange of ideas and expertise was made possible through this cross-departmental gathering. The event echoes SoGE’s former SEED event and we are hoping that a similar event will be repeated in the future.

Oxford Earth Surface Processes Day Agenda
1. John Boardman (Environmental Change Institute) The Pros and Cons of removing weirs from an English lowland river: the case of the River Rother, West Sussex.
2. Bob Hilton (Earth Sciences) RIV-ESCAPE – A project to quantify how CO2 and CH4 release from river surfaces respond to warming.
3. Jenny Richards (School of Geography and the Environment) Future resilience of sedum-based soft capping as a conservation approach for heritage sites in Britain and Ireland.
4. Simon Moulds (School of Geography and the Environment) Skillful decadal flood prediction.
5. Neill Marshall (Earth Sciences) Fingerprinting large earthquakes – Insights from geomorphic and paleoseismic investigations.
6. Tamarah King (Earth Sciences) A summary of active tectonics research in the Department of Earth Sciences.
7. Jack Matthews (Oxford University Museum of Natural History) International Geodiversity Day: A New Opportunity for Public and Policy Engagement.
8. Ian Hewitt (Mathematical Institute) Mathematical modelling in the cryosphere.
9. Tilly Woods (Mathematical Institute) Modelling melting, structure and microbial activity of an ice sheet surface.
10. Zakeria Shnizai (Earth Sciences) Active tectonics and geomorphology of Afghanistan using satellite imagery.
11. Martin Michette (School of Geography and the Environment) Dynamic Heritage Environments. Introduction to the Oxford Resilient Buildings and Landscapes Lab (OxRBL) /Sites at the Intersection of Natural and Cultural Heritage (SXNCH) /Research on ecosystem synergies in the historic environment
12. Marcus Buechel (School of Geography and the Environment) Quantifying the hydrological consequences of widespread afforestation in the UK.
13. Julie Durcan (School of Geography and the Environment) Holocene socio-environmental relationships in the Indus Valley.
14. Alex Lipp (Earth Sciences) Identifying tracer and pollutant sources in drainage networks from point observations using an efficient convex unmixing scheme.
15. Ella Walsh (Earth Sciences) Geochemical tracers of permafrost thaw in the Mackenzie River catchment.
16. Yinxue Liu (School of Geography and the Environment) Quantifying bankfull discharge globally.
17. Max Van Wyk de Vries (School of Geography and the Environment) Automated mapping of slow-moving landslides from space: hazard and geomorphic impact
18. Anya Leenman (School of Geography and the Environment) Quantifying geomorphologically effective floods using large-sample geomorphology.
19. Sam Woor (School of Geography and the Environment) The aggradation of alluvial fans in response to Late Quaternary monsoon variability over the last 300 ka in the central and eastern Hajar Mountains, northern Oman.
20. Rosie Huck (School of Geography and the Environment) Earth, Wind, and Fire: Impact of Fire on Aeolian Processes in Partially Vegetated Dune Landscapes.
21. Maike Nowatzki (School of Geography and the Environment) Fantastic dunes and how to map them (using deep learning and satellite remote sensing).
22. Kelsey Doerksen (Department of Computer Science) Precipitation-Triggered Landslide Prediction in Nepal using Machine Learning & Deep Learning.

Finally some stats of our attendants:


From ‘Toy to Tool’ – Smartphones for Science

Lab-In-Your-Pocket features at the Festival of Social Sciences October 2022

Can smartphones be more than a toy and device of distraction? Researchers at the School of Geography and the Environment have successfully used smartphones as Lab-In-Your-Pocket for research and teaching. We will be facilitating hands-on activities which will unlock the underused potential of smartphones involving pocket microscopes as well as collaboration with a machine learning app to diversify and explore your environment.

Suitable for everyone. This is a drop-in activity with elements of self-guiding – just turn up.

The event will be run by Dr Katrin Wilhelm, Dr Sterling Mackinnon, School of Geography and Environment, Website


Are We Headed for a Wasteland?

@MartinMichette representing http://@OxRBL research at this interesting panel hosted on 25th of October 2022at the Oxford University Natural History Museum http://@morethanadodo with http://@fawcett_tina & Labib Azzouz to discuss how innovations in building materials, transport, and domestic energy use might shape our futures.

Two women and two men are sitting at a table in front of microphones while one is talking.

Tina Fawcett, Martin Michette and Labib Azzouz during the panel discussion.

Sulphur is a byproduct of the tar sands extraction process, and though it has many industrial uses (most significantly in fertilizer production) the current market price is quite low, so Syncrude is storing it for future sale

OxRBL supports Lab-In-Your-Pocket project

Lab-In-Your-Pocket is an ongoing research project based at Oxford’s School of Geography and the Environment and is further supported by the Oxford Resilient Buildings and Landscapes Lab. It divides into two complementary strands; one which addresses the untapped potential for formalising research methods around mobile technologies in higher education, and another which looks towards developing Citizen Science tools for diversifying public heritage spaces through digital engagements.

The Lab-In-Your-Pocket is both interested in situating heritage sites and historic environments within the discourse of “smart” urban infrastructure, and how digital mediations of such spaces can encourage mobile-tech users to investigate and explore urban heritage environments both as active ecosystems and sites of diversity.

We define laboratories as spaces where participants (both scientists and the public) co-create, experience, investigate, experiment, and reflect. To put the lab “in the pocket”, then, is to enable users to create temporary and site-specific spaces of investigation through mobile digital tools.

Furthermore, our project utilises the latent digital literacy of the public to imagine new forums for science communication—both in the context of the academy and in the context of Citizen science—Across a range of potential fields and disciplines.

To watch our pre-recorded conference presentation at the Human-Machine-Collaboration Conference please go here, and to investigate our recent prototype please follow this link.


Dr Katrin Wilhelm, katrin.wilhelm@ouce.ox.ac.uk
Dr Sterling MacKinnon III, sterling.mackinnoniii@ouce.ox.ac.uk

Our project is funded by AWS Services and the Oxford University Social Science Division Teaching Development and Enhancement Project award.

SXNCH Sites at the Intersection of Cultural and Natural Heritage

The SXNCH online symposium took place on 7 & 8 December 2020, with participation from around the world and contributions on a wide variety of mixed heritage sites. SXNCH stands for Sites at the Intersection of Natural and Cultural Heritage. The symposium was part of a project funded by the German Foreign Office to develop conservation training strategies, together with stakeholders in Petra, Jordan. This is a collaborative project between the Fraunhofer Institutes for Building Physics (IBP) and International Management and Knowledge Economy (IMW), and the University of Oxford’s, Oxford Resilient Buildings and Landscape Laboratory (OxRBL). Due to Covid-19 travel restrictions, the initial knowledge exchange phase of this project, which would have seen the European project partners travel to Jordan to meet their counterparts, was moved online. The resulting online symposium was seen as an opportunity to broaden the discussion and include experts and sites from around the world.

The first day of the symposium included three keynote presentations on very different subjects, which nevertheless shared the common theme of highlighting challenges, and potential opportunities, at the intersection of natural and cultural heritage. Suleiman Farajat, Chief Commissioner for the Petra Development and Tourism Region Authority, shared experiences from Petra, an archetype for heritage sites at the intersection of nature and culture. Eugene Jo, from the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM), introduced the World Heritage Leadership Programme, an exciting initiative for building capacity in expertise on integrated heritage management. Johanna Leissner, Scientific Representative of the Fraunhofer Institutes, presented the Climate for Culture project, which begins to address the huge challenges in adapting heritage management policies to climate change. The keynote session ended with a panel discussion, moderated by Prof. Heather Viles from OxRBL. The discussion identified commonalities in the presented subjects, including a need to consider heritage places rather than heritage sites and think about multiple, intricately interlinked scales.

Following the panel discussion, participants were split into 7 virtual breakout rooms, which further explored topics relating to the general theme. These ranged from a room titled Jordanian Heritage Networking, in which the international, collaborative network for ongoing work at sites such as Petra was extended and strengthened, to rooms that investigated how specific concepts and approaches, such as cultural landscape, digital technologies, and local participation, could address challenges related to the theme. Breakout rooms on rock-hewn heritage and geo-heritage focussed more specifically on other case study mixed heritage sites around the world, whilst a room title Future of Heritage focussed on the dual challenges of education and climate change. Each breakout room included a series of impulse presentations followed by a general discussion, which directly informed activity on the second day.

On the second day, a group of volunteers from Wikimedia, led by Richard Nevell, guided participants through the creation and editing of relevant Wikipedia pages. Besides improving digital literacy skills, this enabled participants to record, disseminate, and develop the discussions of the previous day. An example can be found here. It provided a pathway to tangible output for this, and future, online symposiums and created a platform for building upon networking opportunities beyond the scope of the two-day event.

Dr Katrin Wilhelm, katrin.wilhelm@ouce.ox.ac.uk
Dr Martin Michette, martin.michette@ouce.ox.ac.uk

#TORCHGoesDigital and @OxRBL joins!

Science for heritage: developing resilience

This is the fifth of five blog posts for British Science Week in which we address who we are, what we do and some of the challenges we face in using science to help understand, manage and conserve heritage.

Today’s challenge is resilience. Resilience is a term for how well something can respond to a difficulty and return to normal. Although many heritage sites and objects require protection and conservation from further damage, others are able to deal with whatever is thrown at them. This makes them resilient. Although many heritage buildings and sites have survived well and been resilient for many decades or centuries, some face new threats due a changing climate, air pollution and increasing visitor numbers. The goal of heritage conservation is to manage the change of objects and sites to make them more resilient – slowing down deterioration so that their values can be shared with future generations. If conservation goes wrong, heritage sites and objects can become less resilient. But doing nothing is usually not an option. The challenge for scientists and conservators is how best to manage change and improve the resilience of fragile, valued objects and sites.

The graph above shows some different responses to this challenge using two axes. The horizontal axis depicts how much change is allowed (on the left-hand side the word ‘conservation’ implies very little change, whereas the word ‘adaptation’ on the right-hand side implies a lot of change. The vertical axis depicts what the end goal is – from ‘restoration’ at the bottom, which implies returning something to its former condition, to ‘renovation’ at the top, which implies creating something new but still valued. All these approaches can increase or decrease the resilience of heritage, depending on how they’re done. There is no right answer to what the best approach is – it depends on the characteristics of the specific object or site, what the people who value it want, and what is most possible. Although in OxRBL we are scientists and not practicing conservators, we have to think about these issues. Many of our projects focus on testing whether a conservation strategy will be successful in managing change and increasing the resilience of a particular site or object. But we also need to think about what people want the site or object to look like.

Conserving 1000-year-old walls: Martin at the Tower of London

Martin Michette
Doctoral student in OxRBL
Martin studied architecture at the University of Bath and building conservation at the Potsdam University of Applied Science before spending several years in practice.
He now works on how best to conserve fragile Reigate Stone walls at the Tower of London.

Martin is really lucky to be carrying out research at the Tower of London in collaboration with Historic Royal Palaces (the site manager). The medieval Reigate Stone at the Tower of London is often quite fragile, and decades of work has gone into trying various conservation methods to slow down the decay and increase its resilience. Most have only been partly successful at best. Martin’s project aims to explore new conservation approaches that might be more flexible and forward-looking while still conserving the important heritage values of the Tower.

Science for heritage: studying valuable things

This is the fourth of five blog posts for British Science Week in which we address who we are, what we do and some of the challenges we face in using science to help understand, manage and conserve heritage.

Today’s challenge is value. By definition, heritage objects and sites are things of great value to the people who identify them as part of their cultural heritage. The more valued an object or site, the less likely scientists are able to touch it, take samples or interfere with it in any way. This poses a real challenge for scientists who are used to collecting samples from objects to find out more about them. For example, geologists usually use hammers to chip off parts of a cliff face to identify what the rocks are – this would be completely unacceptable at somewhere like Stonehenge, where taking even the tiniest of samples is challenging and requires high-level permission. Luckily, there are several ways we can study valuable things without damaging them as we illustrate below.

At the top of the triangle we can, in some cases, get permission to take very small samples from heritage objects and sites. Even very tiny flakes of a deteriorating surface can be used to identify what is causing the deterioration. But such small samples can usually only be analysed with high-tech, expensive scientific equipment in specialised labs. These can only tell us certain things about the heritage site or building we are interested in as a whole. In the middle of the triangle are non-contact methods that we can use on heritage objects or sites to diagnose problems or monitor change over time. These non-contact methods are usually relatively inexpensive and easy to use but give less precise and accurate information than the high-tech sample-based methods. Access to the heritage object or site can a limiting factor for this type of research. At the bottom of the triangle are some of the most commonly used approaches, involving replica or analogue samples. Essentially, this means making our own objects that are as similar to the real heritage object as possible. As you can imagine, there are lots of challenges to making realistic replicas of many heritage objects (especially very large, complex and old ones!).

Studying without touching: Scott and his wet walls

Dr Scott Orr
Lecturer in Heritage Data Science, University College London and Honorary Research Associate, OxRBL.
Scott studied chemical and environmental engineering at the University of Toronto.
He works on climatic impacts on heritage buildings.

Scott is interested in why walls in historic buildings get wet and what damage that wetness can cause to the buildings, their contents and inhabitants. Faced with the challenge of not being able to drill holes into historic walls, Scott has worked with many non-destructive testing methods which can be used to ‘see inside walls’ without damaging them at all. One of his preferred methods is a hand-held system that measures microwave reflections by simply placing a sensor on the surface. This allows him to investigate how wet walls are at different depths.

Making minerals: Kathryn and museum collections

Kathryn Royce
Doctoral student in OxRBL
Kathryn did an undergraduate degree in conservation science at Cardiff University.
She now studies the deterioration and conservation of mineral collections in association with the National Museum of Wales.

To cope with the challenge of not being able to take samples of valuable minerals stored in museums, Kathryn has decided to ‘grow her own’. Using the right chemicals under controlled conditions, it is possible to grow crystals of some minerals that look much like the ones on display in museums. The benefits of ‘growing your own’ are that you can make many replicas and then carry out many experiments on them. But how realistic are these ‘home grown’ minerals to the valuable ones on display (which might have been collected years ago from faraway places)?

Growing Chalcanthanite crystals in the lab

Science for heritage: how to be innovative

This is the third of five blog posts for British Science Week in which we address who we are, what we do and some of the challenges we face in using science to help understand, manage and conserve heritage.

Today’s challenge is innovation. All scientific researchers aim to do something innovative, whether that’s by making some hugely important discovery or by developing a new way of making observations (or perhaps combining the two). Often when you are actually in the lab, in the field, or staring into your computer, it feels as though you are a long way from doing anything innovative at all. It’s easy to get disheartened. In OxRBL, we have found the illustration below a useful way of picturing the sources of innovation and how they are interrelated within the ‘cycle of innovation’.

Innovation can come from the scientific techniques we deploy (on the left-hand side of the diagram) or from the challenges that a heritage site or object might throw at us (on the right-hand side of the diagram). The black arrows illustrate the ways in which such innovations inform conventional approaches and which can often lead to new developments, adaptations and further innovations. Different sciences fit in different places on the diagram. For example, much engineering is challenge-led, while many parts of ‘pure’ sciences – like chemistry and physics – are technique-led. The science we do for heritage is really in the middle of the diagram.

Technique-led innovation: Dáire in the lab with lasers

Dáire Browne
Doctoral student in OxRBL
She studied chemistry in Oxford as an undergraduate and now works with OxRBL and the Ritchie Group in the Physical and Theoretical Chemistry Lab.

Dáire’s research is firmly based on technological innovation. She is currently developing a new instrument based on laser absorption spectroscopy to measure water and pollutant gases coming in and out of limestone. This instrument should provide a novel and accurate way of monitoring how some of the key agents of deterioration interact with the surfaces of heritage buildings. Dáire will spend most of her time in the lab, but we hope that one day she will be able to apply her technique to a number of different heritage challenges.

Dáire’s cavity ring-down laser spectroscopy system ready to start work in the lab (Ritchie group in the Physical and Theoretical Chemistry Laboratory, 2020)

Challenge-led innovation: Richard and the mechanical foot

Richard Grove
Doctoral student in OxRBL
Richard studied archaeology and landscape studies at the University of Worcester and historic conservation at Birmingham. He ran his own business before coming to Oxford.

Richard’s research aims to develop a ‘best practice’ method to test whether conservation treatments on crumbling historic sandstone surfaces have been successful. His challenge has been to find the best techniques available that can be used in the field or in the lab. He is particularly interested in the impact of visitors walking on vulnerable surfaces. Thanks to a chance conversation at a party, he found a company that tests footwear (Satra) who have been able to run some experiments for him using their Pedatron tester – a challenge-led, novel application of a technique usually deployed to assess the lifespan of walking boots.

Science for heritage: dealing with uniqueness

This is the second of five blog posts for British Science Week in which we address who we are, what we do and some of the challenges we face in using science to help  understand, manage and conserve heritage.

Today’s challenge is uniqueness. Every heritage object or site is unique and has its own particular history, characteristics and meanings for the people who value it. For example, the rock-hewn churches at Lalibela in Ethiopia that Blen Taye Gemeda studies vary hugely in architectural style, size and location. This causes some challenges for scientists who are used to developing general explanations and theories that might apply everywhere else. Sciences such as physics are based on numerous laws like the laws of thermodynamics or the law of gravity. But how can general scientific theories be applied to address the problems facing unique heritage objects or sites? As shown below, we visualise the situation as a spectrum with general scientific theories at one end and unique heritage sites at the other. Both learn from each other in different ways, and good scientific research with excellent practical applications can be carried out at many points along the spectrum.

Confronting uniqueness: Blen Taye Gemeda

Blen Taye Gemeda
Doctoral student in OxRBL
She trained in architecture, urban planning, archaeology and conservation in Ethiopia, Portugal and Italy.
She now works at Lalibela in Ethiopia and in OxRBL’s lab.

Blen’s research aims to better understand the deterioration of the amazing rock-hewn churches at Lalibela to help conserve them for current and future worshippers who use the site. While each church is distinctive, Blen’s fieldwork on monitoring the environmental conditions at different churches is helping her understand what causes the deterioration and why some churches are experiencing more serious problems than others. Her research sits towards the ‘unique heritage site’ end of the spectrum. She has made several visits to Lalibela and collected a vast array of data there.

Lalibela (marked), Ethiopia

Bet Giyorgis, Lalibela, Ethiopa (CC BY-SA 2.5 2011)


Modelling environmental interactions: Jenny and her cellular automata

Jenny Richards
Doctoral student in OxRBL
She studied geography as an undergraduate in Oxford and then carried out an internship at the University of Adelaide, Australia, focusing on water quality monitoring.
She now works on modelling the deterioration of earthen heritage sites in NW China.

Jenny’s research sits towards the ‘general science theory’ end of the spectrum. She spends a lot of time on her computer, developing, testing and running a model which simulates the interactions between sand, wind, vegetation and earthen heritage sites. In the desert environments Jenny works on plant growth is highly influenced by wind-blown sand and, in turn, plants affect sand transport by wind. Plants growing in front of walls can protect them from wind and sand. Using her model (ViSTA-HD), Jenny is able to run lots of simulations that allow her to test various hypotheses about whether plants could help conserve earthen heritage sites such as Suoyang in NW China. Although she has visited Suoyang and done some fieldwork there, the bulk of her work is model-based.