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Image credit: Tamsin Mather

Professor Tamsin Mather, a volcanologist in Oxford's Department of Earth Sciences reflects on her many fieldwork experiences at Massaya volcano in Nicaragua, and what she has learned about how they effect the lives of the people who live around them. 

Over the years, fieldwork at Masaya volcano in Nicaragua, has revealed many secrets about how volcanic plumes work and impact the environment, both in the here and now and deep into the geological past of our planet.

Working in this environment has also generated many memories and stories for me personally. From watching colleagues descend into the crater, to meeting bandits at dawn, or driving soldiers and their rifles across the country, or losing a remotely controlled miniature airship in Nicaraguan airspace and becoming acquainted with Ron and Victoria (the local beverages), to name but a few.

I first went to Masaya volcano in Nicaragua in 2001. In fact, it was the first volcano that I worked on for my PhD. It is not a spectacular volcano. It does not have the iconic conical shape or indeed size of some of its neighbours in Nicaragua. Mighty Momotombo, just 35 km away, seems to define (well, to me) the capital Managua’s skyline. By comparison, Masaya is a relative footnote on the landscape, reaching just over 600 m in elevation. Nonetheless it is to Masaya that myself and other volcanologists flock to work, as it offers a rare natural laboratory to study volcanic processes. Everyday of the year Masaya pumps great quantities of volcanic gases (a noxious cocktail including acidic gases like sulphur dioxide and hydrogen chloride) from its magma interior into the Nicaraguan atmosphere. Furthermore, with the right permissions and safety equipment, you can drive a car directly into this gas plume easily bringing heavy equipment to make measurements. I have heard it described by colleagues as a ‘drive-through’ volcano and while this is not a term I like, as someone who once lugged heavy equipment up 5500 m high Lascar in Chile, I can certainly vouch for its appeal.

Returning for my fifth visit in December 2017 (six years since my last) was like meeting up with an old friend again. There were many familiar sights and sounds: the view of Mombacho volcano from Masaya’s crater rim, the sound of the parakeets returning to the crater at dusk, the pungent smell of the plume that clings to your clothes for days, my favourite view of Momotombo from the main Managua-Masaya road, Mi Viejo Ranchito restaurant – I could go on.

But, as with old friends, there were many changes too. Although in the past I could often hear the magma roaring as it moved under the surface, down the vents, since late 2015 a combination of rock falls and rising lava levels have created a small lava lake visibly churning inside the volcanic crater. This is spectacular in the daytime, but at night the menacing crater glow is mesmerising and the national park is now open to a stream of tourists visiting after dark. Previously, I would scour the ground around the crater for a few glassy fibres and beads of the fresh lava, forced out as bubbles burst from the lava lake (known as Pele’s hairs and tears after the Hawaiian goddess of the volcano – not the footballer) to bring back to analyse. Now the crater edge downwind of the active vent is carpeted with them, and you leave footprints as if it were snow. New instruments and a viewing platform with a webcam have been put in, in place of the crumbling concrete posts where I used to duct-tape up my equipment.

This time my mission at Masaya was also rather different. Before I had been accompanied solely by scientists but this time I was part of an interdisciplinary team including medics, anthropologists, historians, hazard experts and visual artists. All aligned in the shared aim of studying the impacts of the volcanic gases on the lives and livelihoods of the downwind communities and working with the local agencies to communicate these hazards. Masaya’s high and persistent gas flux, low altitude and ridges of higher ground, downwind of it, mean that these impacts are felt particularly acutely at this volcano. For example, at El Panama, just 3 km from the volcano, which is often noticeably fumigated by the plume, they cannot use nails to fix the roofs of their houses, as they rust too quickly in the volcanic gases.

The team was drawn from Nicaragua, the UK and also Iceland, sharing knowledge between volcano-affected nations. Other members of the team had been there over the previous 12 months, installing air quality monitoring networks, sampling rain and drinking water, interviewing the local people, making a short film telling the people’s stories and scouring the archives for records of the effects of previous volcanic degassing crises at Masaya. Although my expertise was deployed for several days installing new monitoring equipment (the El Crucero Canal 6 transmitter station became our rather unlikely office for part of the week), the main mission of this week was to discuss our results and future plans with the local officials and the communities affected by the plume.

Having worked at Masaya numerous times, mainly for more esoteric scientific reasons, spending time presenting the very human implications of our findings to the local agencies, charged with monitoring the Nicaraguan environment and hazards, as well managing disasters was a privilege. With their help we ran an information evening in El Panama. This involved squeezing 150 people into the tiny school class room in flickering electric light, rigging up the largest TV I have ever seen from the back of a pick-up and transporting 150 chicken dinners from the nearest fried chicken place! But it also meant watching the community see the film about their lives for the first time, meeting the local ‘stars’ of this film and presenting our work where we took their accounts of how the plume behaves and affects their lives and used our measurements to bring them the science behind their own knowledge.

Watching the film it was also striking to us that for so many of this community it was the first time they had seen the lava lake whose effects they feel daily. Outside the school house there were Pele’s hair on the ground in the playground and whiffs of volcanic gas as the sun set – the volcano was certainly present.  However, particularly watching the film back now sitting at home in the UK, I feel that with this trip, unlike my others before, it is the people of El Panama that get the last word rather than the volcano.

Should flu symptoms be treated with antiviral drugs in primary care?

Professor Chris Butler of the University of Oxford’s Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences, and GP in the Cwm Taf University Health Board in Wales, is the lead investigator in the world’s largest clinical trial in the community of the controversial flu drug oseltamivir (Tamiflu). He explains the background to the trial and what the team are looking to achieve.

There is widespread uncertainty over whether people with flu symptoms should routinely be treated with antiviral drugs like oseltamivir – also known as Tamiflu - in the community, with a debate raging in the media about the drug’s use each winter. To help us get some answers about whether to treat, and if so, who might benefit most, we’ve so far recruited 2,000 people into a clinical trial to test the clinical and cost effectiveness of oseltamivir in primary care and provide some much-needed real world evidence about this treatment.

Led in the UK by our team in Oxford University’s Primary Care Clinical Trials Unit, and coming together with colleagues across Europe, the ALIC4E trial investigates whether oseltamivir is cost effective and beneficial to patients consulting their general practitioner with flu symptoms. In particular, it will understand if older people, infants, people with other health conditions, those treated early, or those with particularly severe flu can benefit from the treatment.

ALIC4E is the first publically funded randomised controlled trial of its kind to assess antiviral treatment for influenza in primary care and is a collaboration between researchers in the UK, The Netherlands and Belgium. Overall we aim to recruit at least 2,500 participants across 16 countries and, like most of our clinical studies in primary care, we do this by working closely with GP practices.

Since launching in 2015, 324 participants have been recruited across England and Wales - 138 in Oxford, 86 in Southampton and 100 in Cardiff, with the trial as a whole reaching the milestone of 2,000 participants this week.

The trial is an initiative of the Platform for European Preparedness Against (Re-) emerging Epidemics (PREPARE) consortium. Funded by the European Commission’s FP7 Programme, PREPARE was set up to support research organisations to respond rapidly to pandemics with clinical studies that can provide real-time evidence to inform the public health response.

The antiviral oseltamivir is a member of a class of drugs called neuraminidase inhibitors. These drugs are stockpiled and recommended by public health agencies worldwide for treating and preventing severe outbreaks of seasonal and pandemic influenza, yet some experts suggest the evidence supporting their use is lacking. The drug was widely used during the ‘swine ‘flu’ pandemic, for example, but no trial was done of its clinical and cost effectiveness.

Having reached the milestone of recruiting 2,000 patients into the critically important ALIC4E study is an incredible international achievement that is worth celebrating. Especially when there seems to be a particularly widespread flu outbreak, it’s a real shame that we don’t confidently know which people with symptoms of the flu should be prescribed antiviral drugs, and the cost-effectiveness of this treatment in terms of helping people return to their usual activities.

The resource implications for the health service and implications for patient well-being are considerable, especially given the debate around the effectiveness of antiviral treatment for influenza. By providing evidence through a study of this scale, the results will be of great interest to governments, policy makers, companies, practitioners, and members of the public.

We urgently need studies like ALIC4E embedded in everyday general practice to guide care for common and potential serious conditions, and address the questions that matter most to patients. We are working towards making it possible for people to participate in clinical trials within two weeks of a pandemic emerging, so evidence from these trials can then inform care during the pandemic itself, rather than those much needed answers coming along once the pandemic is over.

Saiga antelope mother and calf

The sudden death of over 200,000 saiga antelopes in Kazakhstan in May 2015, which affected more than 80% of the local population and more than 60% of the global population of this species, baffled the world. In just three weeks, entire herds of tens of thousands of healthy animals, died of haemorrhagic septicaemia across a landscape equivalent to the area of the British Isles in the Betpak-Dala region of Kazakhstan. These deaths were caused by Pasteurella multocida bacteria.

But this pathogen most probably was living harmlessly in the saigas’ tonsils up to this point, so what caused this sudden dramatic Mass Mortality Event (MME)?

New research by an interdisciplinary, international research team has shown that many separate (and independently harmless) factors contributed to this extraordinary phenomenon. In particular, climatic factors such as increased humidity and raised air temperatures in the days before the deaths apparently triggered opportunistic bacterial invasion of the blood stream, causing septicaemia (blood poisoning).
By studying previous die-offs in saiga antelope populations, the researchers were able to uncover patterns and show that the probability of sudden die-offs increases when the weather is humid and warm, as was the case in 2015.

The research also shows that these very large mass mortalities, which have been observed in saiga antelopes before (including in 2015 and twice during the 1980s), are unprecedented in other large mammal species and tend to occur during calving. This species invests a lot in reproduction, so that it can persist in such an extreme continental environment where temperatures plummet to below -40 celsius in winter or rise to above 40 celsius in summer, with food scarce and wolves prowling. In fact, it bears the largest calves of any ungulate species; this allows the calves to develop quickly and follow their mothers on their migrations, but also means that females are physiologically stressed during calving.

With this strategy, high levels of mortality are to be expected, but the species’ recent history suggests that die-offs are occurring more frequently, potentially making the species more vulnerable to extinction. This includes, most recently, losses of 60% of the unique, endemic Mongolian saiga sub-species in 2017 from a virus infection spilling over from livestock. High levels of poaching since the 1990s have also been a major factor in depleting the species, while increasing levels of infrastructure development (from railways, roads and fences) threaten to fragment their habitat and interfere with their migrations. With all these threats, it is possible that another mass die-off from disease could reduce numbers to a level where recovery is no longer possible. This needs to be countered by an integrated approach to tackling the threats facing the species, which is ongoing under the Convention on Migratory Species’ action plan for the species.

This research was conducted as part of a wide international collaboration, adopting a ‘One Health’ approach – looking at the wildlife, livestock, environmental and human impacts that have driven disease emergence in saiga populations.

Adopting such a holistic approach has enabled the research team to understand the wider significance of die-offs in saiga populations, beyond simply the proximate causes of the 2015 epidemic.

Professor Richard Kock, Professor in Emerging Diseases lead researcher at the Royal Veterinary College, said: 'The recent die-offs among saiga populations are unprecedented in large terrestrial mammals. The 2015 Mass Mortality Event provided the first opportunity for in-depth study, and a multidisciplinary approach has enabled great advances to be made. The use of data from vets, biologists, botanists, ecologists and laboratory scientists is helping improve our understanding of the risk factors leading to MMEs – which was beneficial when another MME occurred, this time in Mongolia in 2017. Improved knowledge of disease in saigas, in the context of climate change, livestock interactions and landscape changes, is vital to planning conservation measures for the species’ long-term survival.'

Professor EJ Milner-Gulland, Tasso Leventis Professor of Biodiversity at Oxford University, said: 'This important research was possible due to a strong partnership between European universities, governmental and non-governmental Institutions in Kazakhstan, and international bodies such as the Food and Agriculture Organisation and Convention on Migratory Species, as well as generous funding from the UK government and conservation charities worldwide. During the more recent saiga disease outbreak in Mongolia, this international partnership was useful for supporting in-country colleagues, for example by providing emergency response protocols. It’s excellent to see the real-world value of research partnerships of this kind, and the great advances we have made in understanding disease in saigas thanks to such a productive collaboration.'

Mr Steffen Zuther, Project manager for Kazakhstan at the Frankfurt Zoological Society/Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan, said: 'This research is not only the first of its kind through its complexity and interdisciplinary approach, it also helps in capacity building inside Kazakhstan and shaping the public opinion towards a more evidence based thinking. MMEs are a major threat for the saiga antelope and can wipe out many years of conservation work and saiga population growth in just a few days. Therefore, understanding these MMEs, what triggers them and what can be done to combat them is extremely important to develop effective saiga conservation strategies. The triggering of such MMEs in saiga through weather conditions shows that not much can be done to prevent them occurring, and therefore how important it is to maintain saiga populations of sufficient size for the species to survive such catastrophes.'

Professor Mukhit Orynbayev, Senior Researcher at the Research Institute for Biological Safety Problems, Kazakhstan, said: 'Kazakhstan plays a crucial role for the conservation of saiga, and its government takes this very seriously. This research is an important component of the government's strategy for the conservation of the species, and we as researchers are grateful for the support we have received during our work. Through several years of work on this subject, the team of the RIBPS has gained experience in fieldwork and laboratory tests. This allows us to react quickly to any disease outbreak and get a diagnosis for it.'

Developing tools for climate-conscious investment

Professor Sir John Beddington of the Oxford Martin School explains the Oxford Martin Principles for Climate-Conscious Investment

The 2015 Paris Agreement was the culmination of 21 years of negotiations about how the world could deal with climate change. The outcome is a challenge for the world’s countries to limit temperature rise to below 1.5°C, if at all possible, and below 2°C, if absolutely necessary. But, nearly 3 years on, how we get from here to there remains unclear, and the private sector in particular is woefully far behind.

The effective mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions on a global scale will involve the reshaping of an economic system that in many respects, and for many generations, has been an efficient creator of human wealth and capital. For the commercial and investment communities, taking action on climate change will often be painful, particularly for short-term returns. And faced with uncertainty, inaction often feels like the natural choice. Inaction will, however, without a doubt, be more painful. This is most acutely the case for corporations who do not react nimbly and pre-emptively to the low carbon transition. If those corporations fail to thrive, their shareholders, suppliers and customers are equally implicated: shareholders via falling returns, suppliers by falling revenues and margins, and customers via diminishing choices.

The risk from inaction on the part of corporations comes both in the form of ill-preparedness for new policy and regulation, and in the longer-term, from physical risks from climate change on a company’s core activity and its supply chains. Listed corporations have fiduciary duties to their shareholders to anticipate and adapt to these risks. Yet companies are not alone in feeling unable to react to the current tangled skeins of guidance over assessing, disclosing and acting on climate-change related business risk.

The Oxford Martin School has funded a group of researchers, Dr Richard Millar, Professor Cameron Hepburn, and Professor Myles Allen, to develop a simple, scientifically-grounded set of principles that provide clarity for investors and for company strategists in analysing a business in the light of what we know about climate change and the likely path of mitigation. We have named them the Oxford Martin Principles for Climate-Conscious Investment.

The Oxford Martin School funded this work with the Sullivan Principles in mind. These were used in the 1970s by investors, customers and suppliers of corporations doing business under the South African apartheid regime. The challenge of doing business under climate change presents a similar moral conundrum. Like the Sullivan Principles, the Oxford Martin Principles are designed to have a material impact on corporate decision-making. Like the Sullivan Principles they provide a more sophisticated alternative to simple divestment for the investment community to use. And like the Sullivan Principles, they help, by setting out clear guidelines of what is expected of companies as they navigate a contemporary moral maze.

The principles, published last week in Nature Climate Change, are as follows:
1. Commit to reaching net zero emissions from their business activities
2. Develop a plausible and profitable net zero business model
3. Set out quantitative mid-term targets compatible with their net zero goals

The Oxford Martin Principles should be seen both as a code of conduct and a set of tools for existing and potential investors. They prompt three deceptively simple questions: first, is this company committed to moving to net zero emissions for its own activities? Second, under current plans, will this business be profitable in a net zero economy? And third, can the company provide quantitative mid-term targets that are consistent with its net zero goal? In the paper, these questions are applied to three companies with very different business models: BHP Billiton, Unilever and Statkraft. The case studies reflect that whilst most companies would not be able to claim compliance with all three principles today, to do so is not unachievable in the future.

Simply put, these Principles are a call for companies to commit to net zero; to remain profitable; and to be verifiable. Deceptively minimal, they provide a framework through which to interrogate a company’s future plans, on timeframes that are relevant to both investment horizons and to climate change mitigation.

Image credit: Shutterstock

The Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) has awarded 2018 Winton Capital prizes, which recognise the outstanding work of young researchers, to Oxford University scientists Dr Rebecca Bowler and Dr Kerri Donaldson Hanna.

Dr Kerri Donaldson Hanna, UKSA Aurora Research Fellow in the Department of Physics, is honoured for her contribution to her field of geophysics. Specialising in the study of the surface compositions of rocky, airless bodies through infrared remote sensing, Dr Donaldson Hanna is currently playing a key role on NASA’s OSIRIS-Rex mission to return a sample of the asteroid Bennu to Earth in 2022. 

Her research record includes leading on projects combining datasets across multiple wavelength ranges and work in the field of thermal infrared spectroscopy. Alongside her research goals, Dr Donaldson Hanna also makes contributions to the wider planetary science community, organising RAS specialist discussion meetings and acting as a committed mentor for budding planetary scientists.

Dr Donaldson Hanna said: 'I feel quite honoured to be recognised for my early career achievements through such a prestigious award and genuinely appreciate those that nominated me for the award.'

Dr Rebecca Bowler, Hintze Fellow in the Department of Physics at Oxford University, receives the prize for astronomy. Through her work demonstrating that highly luminous objects do exist into the epoch of re-ionisation, and understanding star-forming galaxies at ultra-high redshifts, she has helped to shape our knowledge of the world above us.

Although still in the early stages of her career, Dr Bowler has already served as principal investigator on Hubble Space Telescope, ALMA and VLT projects. She was also awarded the 2016 Block Prize for ‘promising young physicist.’

Dr Bowler said she was ‘delighted and honoured’ to receive the RAS award.