New Project: Agent Based Models & Ecosystem Tipping Points

Things continue to keep rapidly changing this year, and I’ve started on another new academic project!

Back in May I started a new Post-Doc Research Fellowship in the Global Environmental Change and Earth Observation group in the Geography and Environment dept. of the University of Southampton, working on the ReCoVER Network-funded pilot study project “Agent-based models for the analysis of early warning signals of ecosystem tipping points” with PI James G. Dyke. In this project we’re working on some new potential early warning signals for ecosystems near tipping points – in particular looking at the ecosystems’ compositional disorder and food web dynamics and replicating these using Agent Based Models (ABMs) – using lake eutrophication as a case study. We’re hoping this 6 month pilot study will lead to some new useful metrics for detecting potential tipping points in ecosystems (and socio-ecological systems) developed through a bigger project in future. Thanks again to the ReCoVER Network for funding this project! This means I’ll still be In Southampton for the rest of 2017, but beyond that who knows…

In other news, I’ll be giving a Winchester Café Scientifique talk on Monday 4th September about Climate Tipping Points (linked to my outreach project) – I’ll be talking about what climate tipping points are, how they might affect us, and whether we can predict them, as well as considering how they make climate change more of a “wicked problem” to deal with. Come along if you’re around!

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February Update: Climate Tipping Points and Current Research

My ReCoVER-funded outreach project on Climate Tipping Points has mostly come to an end now, and it’s gone really well. We’ve done some public events including a school science day and some public conversation sessions, and I’ve written a collection of articles over at and an article for The Science Room responding to their community question of “Why is Climate Change so Hard to Address?” (also posted over at my new Medium page where I’ll try to post my non-academic writing). We’ve also made an animated guide to Climate Tipping Points, with thanks going to Rachael for lending us her voice and Ciarán for animating:

There’ll also soon be a podcast chat with my friend Jess on the same material too, alas featuring my own voice instead of Rachael’s (and it turns out the only way to make my voice sound more posh is for me try and sound less posh…).

Since I last posted I’ve also moved on to a new Postdoc based at Geography at the University of Southampton with Prof. John Dearing, once again moving from ancient climate change to modern sustainability to study macroscale controls on how Ecosystem Services and Poverty Alleviation are interlinked. This position has been intense and led to some interesting outcomes (paper now in progress) but as another short contract is now nearly finished, so the hunt for a new position continues!

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ReCoVER Outreach Project on Climate Tipping Points

I’m pleased to announce that I’ve been giving funding by the ReCoVER network to do some Outreach linked to the end of my current Research Fellowship, and so we’re now launching the project: The Point of No Return? An Interactive Stall and Website Starting Conversations on Climate Tipping Points”.

title-pageIn this project we’ll be hosting conversations about climate tipping points at a series of stalls, public discussions, and online during October and November 2016, focusing on how they happen, why they’re important to our lives, and how researchers are trying to understand and predict them.

We’ll be running stalls at Southampton Sustainability Week (8th-16th October) – including at the Family Festival of Science at Thomas Hardye School on October 8th (tomorrow!) and at Researchers Café at Mettricks on October 14th – and at TEDx Southampton (5th November). We’ll upload materials from the stall on the website along with additional articles, blog posts, interactive discussions, integrated social media feeds, a podcast, and videos (in collaboration with local film-maker global documentary and a local animator) about climate tipping points.

So please pay a visit to, on twitter at @climatetippoint, and on facebook – we look forward to starting the conversation and invite you to join in!

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New paper published on methane hydrates and the PETM

Deep-sea worms living in methane hydrates in the Gulf of Mexico (that Eos used to illustrate its article on our paper) [credit: NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program, Gulf of Mexico 2012 Expedition,CC BY 2.0]

Earlier this week a paper I co-authored – in which we use geophysical models of methane hydrates to work out how quickly they may have dissociated and escaped into the ocean during the Palaeocene Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) ~56 million years ago – was published over at Geophysical Research Letters and featured as a Research Spotlight by AGU’s Eos.

The latter does a good job summarising it for those without access to the article (though if you’re on Researchgate you can find an Open Access version), but to summarise in my own words here our results suggest that while hydrates could rapidly dissociate during the rapid warming of PETM, it’s difficult to get that methane out as quickly as it gets trapped in sediment pores on the way up (where it can also get eaten by microbes). For lots of methane to make it to the ocean there either needs to have been a lot more hydrate deposits in the late Palaeocene than we thought (which may be unlikely in the warmer oceans of back then), or cracks and fissures may have played a key role in allowing the methane to seep out. Without either of these it becomes quite challenging to explain the big carbon cycle disruption seen in the palaeorecord at the PETM using methane hydrates as the primary driver alone.

This is not to say that we’re safe from methane hydrates now though*, as global warming today is proceeding far faster than at the PETM. During the PETM temperatures rose roughly 5 degrees celsius over 1000 to 10,000 years, whereas today we’ve already pushed up temperatures 1 degree over the last century and could hit 5 degrees in total in another  century-plus in a no-holds-barred scenario. More rapid warming could induce a different dissociation to release ratio this time round, and if pressure-induced cracks did play a role in letting methane escape during the PETM then this could be important in projecting how methane is released from hydrates in the coming centuries. Of course, these are good places for further research – just how much escaped in the past, and how might very rapid warming affect this?


*I noticed our research was picked up by – not known for accurate reporting on climate issues – presumably because it might look like we’re weakening a prehistorical example of carbon-induced climate change. Of course, there’s still a massive carbon release event recorded simultaneously with warming during the PETM which our work does nothing to weaken, and as explained above it’s not an ideal comparison for the future anyway due to differing warming rates.

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NEWS: New Post-Doc on Palaeo Early Warning Signals (funded by ReCoVER)

I’m pleased to announce that I’ve just started a new Post-Doc today at the University of Southampton, funded by the EPSRC/ReCoVER Network’s Early Career Researcher fund. I’ll be working for the next few months as a Research Fellow at Ocean and Earth Sciences in the National Oceanography Centre on a project entitled “Can early warning signals be reliably detected in the Cenozoic palaeoclimate record?” along with Co-Is Toby Tyrrell, James Dyke, and Tim Lenton. This will continue with research on the same topic that I started during my PhD, with the aim of extending the data and techniques used and write up some papers.

Some background: there are many points in Earth’s history where the Earth System is hypothesised to pass a ‘tipping point’ beyond which a rapid transition to a new and very different state occurs. These critical transitions are common in other complex dynamical systems and are often preceded in datasets by ‘early warning signals’ (EWS) such as critical slowing down (i.e. the system’s recovery time in response to perturbations slows down) and increasing variability (as the data gradually contains more extreme values). Dakos et al. [2008] and subsequent studies found that EWS can be detected prior to several past climate shifts, suggesting that critical transitions can successfully be detected in the palaeorecord and that palaeo tipping points can be identified. However, doubts have been raised about the reliability of EWS analysis on palaeoclimate records, the degree to which parameter selection can affect the results, and the risk of committing the ‘prosecutor’s fallacy’ when analysing suspected critical transitions. In my PhD I did a pilot study in which I analysed the highest-resolution palaeorecords currently available across a number of perturbations to the Cenozoic carbon-climate system, and found some promising results even when using a cautious approach to counter potential problems. In this Post-Doc I’ll focus on these most promising events with additional analytical techniques and data and publish the results in due course.

I’d like to thank the ReCoVER network and EPSRC for funding this research, and I look forward to sharing the results here in future!

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NEWS: New Website!

I’ve finally gotten round to setting up a new website, which will act as my online home for my academic work and other interests and where I’ll post news on my current projects. I’ve also brought across some older stuff from defunct blogs, some more of which I may upload in due course. Stay tuned for new updates on my next project starting in the near future!

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WildSoton: Summer’s a brewin’

With the sudden and patchy arrival of Summer, it seems that I’ve ended up making a variety of exciting boozes with the plentiful spring and into summer greens I wrote of recently.  Nettle beer has been on my list to try making for a while, and inspired by a particularly convenient and verdant nettle patch I went about making an experimental batch of nettle beer with my girlfriend Rachael a couple of weekends back.  Seeing as there’s so much nettle growth to be found even in urban areas, it seems like a novel way of using some of it’s bountiful harvest.

Nettle beer at it’s simplest is basically a big batch of sugary nettle tea with a dash of lemon, which is then fermented with yeast in either a sealed or airlocked contained and then bottled for a wee bit.  As such, it’s not too hard to make, and we managed without all of the basic brewing kit we’d ideally have.  We roughly followed the recipe of self-sufficientish for a stronger beer (which in turn came from the Stonehead smallholding), but there’s plenty of variations on the same-ish recipe out there.  Here’s what we did:

1. Pick your nettles

Pop down the shops and get a bag of nettles…

We got about a carrier bag’s worth (which makes a couple to a few pints).  Ideally go for the top few layers of leaves as the freshest bits – conveniently the nettle easily regrows new tops and so can be re-harvested over the year.  I’d also make sure some are left to flower if there aren’t too many other nettles nearby, as they’re great for insects.  Washing them is reccomended but not necessary if you reckon they’re not contaminated by pollutants (they’ll be boiled up so anything lively will be OK in theory!).

2. Make a big batch of sugary, lemony nettle tea

The nettles are brewed up in a big pan for a while with about four pints of water (more for a weaker brew), before adding the juice and rind of a lemon, about half a pound of sugar (demerara according to the recipe with a little more white), and half an ounce of cream of tartar (which inverts the sugar and speeds up fermenting).  Incidentally, it turns out this makes a very nice summery tea in itself that was pretty tasty…

The biggest cup of nettle y’all ever saw

3. Cool the tea, tub it up and add some yeast

When the mix above is at about blood temperature (when you can only just feel its warm or thereabouts) we poured the tea into a demijohn (though any sealable container is good), sprinkled in some standard dried bread yeast and covered the opening with a wet cloth for about 24 hours.  The mix should start frothing quite a bit after not too long before dying down.

4. Seal and ferment for a few days

Well, I say sealed, we ended up knocking up a plastic bag and rubber band bodge that slowly puffed up and seemed to work OK!  We left it on for about 4 days to make sure the bubbling stopped and thr froth had gone to limit exploding-bottle-opening syndrome later…

Fermenting happily away

5. Bottle for at least a week

We scalded some jam jars, wine bottles and the like for ours and occassionally checked to make sure they weren’t exploding by slightly loosening lid to let gas out.

6. Drink up!

It’s hard to describe the flavour of it – definitely something beery and after the first confusing sip is definitely rather drinkable, but quite nutty and planty too with the lemon coming through nicely to compliment the flavour.  Ours was a strong brew, and could well work better a bit more diluted to make it smoother drinking.  God knows how strong it is, we’ll test that once we have a Friday evening in its company…

It’s certainly not a pint of stella…

In other booze-related foraging activities, I also helped Rachael knock up a batch of “noyou”, a french-inspired liquer made from young beech leaves steeped in gin before pouring off the liquid and dissolving lots of sugar.  It’s still in the works, but a 2-year old batch goes down very well…

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WildSoton: Eat yer (Spring) greens

As the blossom falls away and Spring steps away more defiantly from Winter, a tide of Spring greens is sweeping across the soil.  Fresh, leafy weed growth is bursting out after the weeds’ Winter slumber, and the time is now for enjoying the best of Springtime garden weed and hedgerow foraging.

I tend to find at this time of year that walks out and about (even in Town) turn into veritable saladfests without any preparation.  Not only does the fresh growth taste good (there’s a big variety out there than just bland lettuce-in-a-bag in the shops), they’re also very nutritious – plant breeding by Man has often bred out nutrition in place of higher yield and size, leaving our cultivated selections’ wild cousins beating many of them hands down in mineral and vitamin content.

As a brief guide for those of you not sure where to start, here’s some good’uns to look out for to pick.  As some extra tips, remember to not overharvest (difficult to do with spring greens but the rule in general is to not take more than a third of the original crop), pick away from the ground, roads or sprayed fields (to avoid soil bits, pollution and animal wee) and give it a wash (to avoid bird poo – though sometimes it’s hard to resist nibbling on the go if it looks fine…):


It may seem odd to some to celebrate the return of the infamous Stinging Nettle, but it really is an amazing plant that deserves respect and good use.  Near unmistakable to identify (except perhaps confusion with it’s similarly natured dead-nettle cousins), Nettles are great ‘soil miners’ who bring up and concentrate useful minerals like iron.  Along with this and their high vitamins A and C content they’re great as a spring green packed with a big nutrition-punch, or as a refreshing tea or even medicinal tonic.

At the moment I can’t get enough Nettle Tea (take the tip with 4 or 5ish leaves for a big cup and just pour on hot water), but it’s also good very lightly steamed to avoid stodginess or in something else like a frittata or spring soup.  It tastes fairly ‘planty’ in general, but to me has a great fresh flavour to it.  For nettle nuts like myself the odd raw leaf is also a fun snack – by screwing up the leaf into a ball it loses its direct sting but leaves and interesting numbness.  For the more sane though, light cooking removes all the sting (but some of the fun).

For harvesting, it *is* possible to do it without gloves and not get stung (it involves gripping the stem in the right direction, going with the needles), but lest people get stung and fume at me I’d suggest some gloves.  If you’ve got a supply you can return to locally then cut away – the world isn’t short of nettles, and if you only take the top few layers of leaves (3 or so) you’ll get the best, freshest bit regenerating through much of the season.

As an experiment for plentiful young nettle tops I’m considering trying nettle beer this Spring – I will report back on how it goes…

Wild Garlic in flower ((c) 2010 Ken Fern, Plants For A Future)

Wild Garlic in flower ((c) 2010 Ken Fern, Plants For A Future)

Wild Garlic

This is the classic Spring herb, which at the right time of year fills certain woodlands with drifting clouds of garlic smell as they cover the woodland floor.  They’re easy to ID by smell – there’s not much mistaking the pungent garlicyness when crushing the leaf, though there is a chance of mistaking it on sight for the poisonous lily of the valley at first.

The leaves and flowers are good in salads raw or slightly cooked if that’s too strong – the bulbs can be used too and are stronger, but for regeneration’s sake it’s best not to use the bulbs too much.  If you like them, try collecting some seeds later on from the dried flowers and sowing them in a garden or pot for a more convenient garlic salad source.

Tree leaves – Hawthorn, Beech and Lime

All of these trees produce good tasting leaves in the Spring which knock the socks of lettuce for satisfying salads (Beech tastes a bit like apple/grape peel, Hawthorn a tad nutty).  You can tell when they’re edible by their brighter green and non-waxy texture – when they get older they become darker, waxier and too full of cellulose to do humans much good.


Known better as the bane of lawns, I find Dandelion a good addition to salads at this time of year.  They have a fairly bitter taste, but the young leaves have just the right bitterness as a salad component to make it interesting.  Don’t have too much though (quantified as circa lots), there’s a reason why the French call it “Piss the Bed”…


Not the tastiest of greens, but certainly plentiful and regenerates – the young leaves slightly cooked are pretty nutritious, though the hairiness is a bit ‘different’.  Many people would chuck this straight on the compost, but along with the nettles and cleavers in some gardens it forms a pretty dense and edible ground cover, so is worth considering to eat!


The sticky weed of ones youth, the young tips of cleavers (also known as goosegrass or sticky willy) are good slightly fried, though as with most of these they’re best young and fresh rather than older, tougher and stickier.

Jack by the Hedge (Garlic Mustard)

Jack by the Hedge often occurs pathside with Nettles but is a bit less common in gardens – it has a garlicy/mustard taste (as suggested by the alternative name!) which gets stronger as it gets older.  At the moment they’re packing a fair punch compared to a month or two earlier, but would do well chopped finely in a salad or cooked into something.

All of these are plentiful and easy to identify and are in their prime now and for the next couple of weeks – I recommend getting out there and whipping up some wild spring-greens laced salads, soups and fry-ups!

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The Geopolitics of Climate Change – a summary of the Crisis Forum workshop on climate change and violence

I recently attended Crisis Forum’s 6th workshop on climate change and violence looking at the role of geopoltics and internation nation-state system around climate change ( I’ve summarised the day at, have a read if you’re interested in some of the deeper poltics around the issues of climate change.

For an even shorter summary, here’s a sample: climate change AND the policies designed to mitigate it are causing real and growing tensions over resources around the world, but the international nation-state system is poorly designed to deal with these issues as powerful countried bypass the ‘official’ negotiation routes in their own self-interest. We need an alternative way to deal with these issues, which I suggest should be rooted in Schumacherian small/appropriate solutions, but where to go from here is open for discussion…

I’d be keen to see some other people’s thoughts on the issues, feel free to contribute in the comments section!

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WildSoton: Bottling Summer sunshine

Autumn is here – colder nights, shortening days, crisp mornings and a chilled breeze in the air.  Now is the perfect time to bringing in some of the last of summer glut of hedgerow harvest to keep ourselves going with some bottled summer sunshine over the winter.

Elderberries stweing in background, plums waiting their turn in middle, some plum gin and edlerflower cordial on the left, finished jars elderberry syrups middle and hazelnuts to the right

Busy processing the harvest

One of my favourite things to make use of are crab apples, which look like small, colourful, slightly elongated apples.  They’re often maligned for their bitter taste and are certainly not likely to be found in a supermarket, but with only a bit of cooking you can get a really good sweet, appley taste.  I’m lucky enough to have access to a big example in a garden (where they have often been planted ornamentally and tend to be the orangey type like in the picture below), but I’ve also seen them from city parks to country hedgerows (often green and more similar to regular apples but smaller).

A simple bushcrafty way of using them is to simply roast them – this works well around a campfire as a good wild pudding – but with a kitchen available I like to make a fruit butter with them.  With six pounds of crab apples (enough for ~9 or 10 small jars) first stew them in a cup of water until very mushy, then pass through a fine sieve or muslin cloth before boiling up with a pound of sugar and spices (cinnamon, cloves and allspice go well) until the mixture ‘sheets’  off the spoon (i.e. stops dripping normally and drops merge bother falling) – bottle into small jars scalded with boiling water (the lids too) and seal as quick as you can.  Even without the sugar the mush is fairly sweet and pretty good, so without sugar this could make a good bushcraft pudding or sauce.

Plums are another great find this time of year with wild damsons abound in hedgerows.  They’re quite sharp to eat directly so need to be sweetened – we either boil them up with sugar (destone if you can be bothered!) for a delicious pudding with custard, or bung them in the into gin or vodka sloe-gin style (2 lb cut fruit to 2 pints gin/vodka and up tp 8 oz sugar to taste).  Occasionally you can find really good eating damsons in hedgerows too, which are always a treat to find.  My parents had some wild seed into our garden and I found those plums much tastier than the big ones in the shops!  Even in suburbia I’ve found 5 different varieties ranging from purple through red and yellow within the space of a couple of local roads, so you don’t even need to go to a hedgerow to find some good damsons.

Unfortunately, crab apples are surprisngly un-crab-like

Unfortunately, crab apples are surprisngly un-crab-like…

It’s difficult to be self-sufficient in staple foods (especially with a small urban garden and time), but for the things we don’t need much of we can be.  One thing I like to make this time of year is elderberry syrup – dark and sweet and stuffed full of vitamin C amongst other things.  Apart from being very tasty, it can also be useful over the winter for keeping the old immune system up, with a couple of teaspoons a day neat or made into a tea helping out when a cold is coming on.  Stew up your berries with a dash of water in a pan for about 25 minutes until mushy, before putting through a sieve or muslin and mixing in and boiling up with a pound of sugar for every pint of juice.  At this point you can also add things like cloves (up to 12 a pint) and ginger to taste, before simmering for about 5 minutes, re-sieving (unless nothing else was added) and bottling.  When I went out recently a good tubs worth of berries made about a pint of juice and from there 3 small jars of syrup – enough to help a few people out with the snuffles until next season.

Finally, it wouldn’t be the Autumn harvest without blackberries and blackberrying.  However, this year I’ve found the pickings to be a bit lean round where I’ve been staying the last few weeks, with not a huge amount of fruit out at the moment and many still waiting to ripen.  Hopefully there’ll be more to harvest soon as the last ones come through, but by mid-October they start to get a bit skeggy.  For the moment though some blackberry and apple mush has been made, which is made by stewing the blackberries with sliced cooking apples (you don’t need a huge amount of berries to make this work) and sugar to taste.  Very nice bottled, and later in the year it really does feel like tasting the Summer sunshine in the depths of winter.

One thing that I notice with these recipes is that sugar is pretty crucial to some of them, which makes me wonder how foraging and recipes have changed as sugar has become more cheaply available, and how they may change in future as sugar cane imports become more costly with rising fuel prices.  Perhaps in future in order to make use of the harvest we’ll have to make good friends with beekeepers or even dabble ourselves, but certainly more sugar beet growing in this country might be seen.  For the moment though us part-time peasants will have to import sugar seeing as how well it extends the harvest and taste of summer through the year.

Anyway, hopefully these recipes may be useful, and remember foraging etiquette in not over-harvesting any one area too hard and leaving some for other people and other-than-humans.  Enjoy!

P.s. look out for hazelnuts too – I found an unexpected amount untouched by squirrels where I am and have enough to snack on for quite a while!

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