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The challenge of providing a rapid response to environmental disasters as varied as flooding, drought, illegal logging and oil spills is the focus of two new projects in which the University of Oxford is a key partner. Dr Steven Reece, data processing and machine learning lead at Oxford’s Department of Engineering Science explains how the project will work in action and the role that machine learning technology will play in it.

Preparing for a potential environmental threat is highly challenging and when it comes to identifying hazards, some data can be more useful than others.

Compared to other forms, satellite data, can quickly recognise small changes on the surface of the earth or sea that may be indicators of a larger problem in the making. For example, a new ‘hole’ appearing in a forest can provide evidence of illegal logging, or a slight colour change in crops may show the early effects of drought. Combining data from these images with other sources has the potential to create powerful information for governments and other actors.

Satellite imagery is very useful for quickly generating independent data from a wide variety of events on the earth as they unfold. The difficulty is how to organise and process this vast quantity of data and to combine it with other insights from the earth’s surface so that it can be used to inform decision-makers in the most effective way. There may also be gaps in the data, or some of it may be unreliable, and this is where machine learning technology can be really useful.

Machine learning is having a positive impact on many walks of life, supporting evidence-based decision making across a wide range of different application domains, and truly ground breaking  data-centred solutions to key societal problems.

The Oxford University Department of Engineering Science are world leaders in the field. Our machine learning solutions, include tools that are capable of automating and processing large quantities of data from satellite images. This specialist knowledge will be key to a new international collaboration that will use machine learning enabled satellite imagery to make a real difference to people’s lives; improving emergency response to environmental disasters in Malaysia, Ethiopia and Kenya.

UK Space Agency funded projects led by the Satellite Applications Catapult and Airbus Defence and Space will provide a more-timely, accurate and detailed understanding of an environmental crisis than is currently available. The data gathered will be used as a starting point to create information for key decision makers in countries affected by environmental disasters, so that they are able to intervene as early as possible to protect local people and the planet. 

Both projects: Earth and Sea Observation System (Malaysia) and Earth Observation for Flood and Drought Resilience in Ethiopia and Kenya, are supported through the UK Space Agency's International Partnership Programme and have attracted a total investment of £21 million.

The objectives of the work are directly relevant to many of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals:

In Malaysia we will be working with government agencies to tackle flooding, oil pollution and illegal logging, all of which pose serious social and economic threats to Malaysian people. Monsoon flooding is a major annual issue, and the project aims to enable evacuation plans and flood defences to be activated much faster. It will also generate data that will help the authorities to quickly identify and track oil leaks from shipping which are causing irreparable damage to Malaysia’s mangrove swamps, and to locate areas where illegal logging is taking place.

In Ethiopia and Kenya the focus will be on creating an improved understanding of flood and drought risk, thus helping to build local people’s resilience to these natural disasters and alleviate poverty. The intention is to use the same data to provide an emergency response where needed and to help develop longer-term strategies and solutions to drought and flood. In Kenya the project will also be generating tools to support the micro-insurance market, which is of key importance to farmers who have little or no access to insurance, by providing independent data about crop damage to verify farmers’ claims.
Our software can reconcile inconsistent data, filter out unreliable sources, and integrate information derived from other sources such as social media. It is even able to interpolate what may lie in the data ‘black spots’ between known observations, thus ‘filling in the gaps’ in the overall picture.

In collaboration with several other partners with different types of expertise, we will be bringing our specialist knowledge to bear on the real-world problems identified in Malaysia, Ethiopia and Kenya, and working out how they can be applied most effectively in these different contexts. In the drought-response work in Ethiopia and Kenya, for example, our engineers will be working with colleagues from the School of Geography and the Environment who specialise in hydrology. We will work together with partners from industry, to investigate how to use machine learning to integrate data from satellite imagery of crops with information of both surface and subterranean water resources. Combining views from above and below in this way is more powerful than looking at each one individually, and will create a much more accurate early warning of drought.

We hope that the lessons learned from this work will be used to better understand environmental threats in other areas of the world, and prevent their impact in the future.

Recording the history of malaria in Africa

The largest repository of any parasitic disease in the world - a collection of malaria survey data in Africa – has been unveiled by researchers at the Kenya Medical Research Institute and the Wellcome Trust. The collection covers more than 50,000 surveys spanning 115 years since 1900, each documented by date, geolocation, number of people, and the proportion positive for Plasmodium falciparum infection.

The researchers analysed the data to estimate malaria infection prevalence for each of 520 administrative units of Sub-Saharan African Countries and Madagascar for 16 time periods since 1900 through to 2010-2015.

The biggest historical drops in malaria followed the Second World War with the discovery of DDT and chloroquine, and later in 2005 with the rolling out of insecticide treated bed nets and new drugs to treat malaria.

Malaria prevalence was low during the late 1960s, through the 1970s and early 1980s. This was a period when, despite the international community abandoning investment in malaria control in Africa, chloroquine use was widespread with repeated dosing available to the general population. Together with drought across the Sahel, this produced the perfect lull in malaria transmission.

‘People often focus on recent history in tracking malaria in Africa, to inform donors and control programmes on recent actions,’ says the study’s lead author Professor Bob Snow of Oxford’s Centre for Tropical Medicine and Global health. ‘The longer history of malaria in Africa allows us to put into context the recent decline.’

Chloroquine resistance expanded across Africa in the 1980s, and in the late 1990s unprecedented rainfall led to flooding and major malaria epidemics. Ministries of Health across the continent woke up to the perfect storm without any significant mosquito vector control in place. Malaria prevalence returned to the levels seen before the Second World War.

It took a further five years for the international community to provide free insecticide treated bed nets and effective malaria treatments. The financial response by the Global Fund and the technical revisions to policy by the World Health Organisation after 2005 led to one of the largest drops in malaria infection prevalence witnessed since 1900.

Co-author, Abdisalan Noor of the Kenya Medical Research Institute/Wellcome Trust Research Programme (KEMRI-WTRP), adds: ‘Shown in context, the cycles and trend over the past 115 years are inconsistent with explanations in terms of climate or deliberate intervention alone. The role of socio-economic development, for example, remains poorly understood.’

The current prevalence of infection, 24%, is at its lowest in 115 years but gains have stalled since 2010 and 240 million infected individuals remains a substantial burden. Little has changed in the high transmission belt across West and Central Africa. Emerging insecticide and drug resistance remain a threat, along with growing international ambivalence to funding control.

‘The history of malaria risk in Africa is complex, there have been perfect lulls when drugs worked and droughts prevented mosquito’s transmission infection; there have been perfect storms when drugs stopped working and flooding affected large parts of Africa,’ adds Snow. ‘It has been a history of long term cycles and predicting the future of malaria in Africa based on climate or intervention coverage alone is difficult.’

Clouded leopard

A new study led by Oxford scientists has produced the first robust estimate of the number of Sunda clouded leopards remaining in the state of Sabah, Malaysian Borneo.

The research also explores how changes to Sabah's forest landscape may be affecting these threatened wild cats.

The study, led by researchers from Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU) in collaboration with partners from the Universiti Malaysia Sabah, Danau Girang Field Centre (DGFC), Sabah Wildlife Department and Panthera, provides the first evidence that the population density of the Sunda clouded leopard is negatively affected by hunting pressure and forest fragmentation.

The research, published in the journal Oryx, also had some positive news, showing that clouded leopards can persist after a forest is logged and that their numbers may increase over time as the forest begins to recover.

Dr Andrew Hearn from WildCRU, first author of the paper, said: 'For six years, we conducted intensive camera-trap surveys of eight protected areas in Sabah. We used the cloud-shaped markings on the coat of the animal and morphology to identify and sex individual animals and used sophisticated statistical methods to estimate their population density in different forest areas across Sabah. We also analysed our camera-trap data to provide an estimate of poaching pressure for each study area.

'We found evidence of poaching activity in all forest areas, with the lowest detection rates being in Danum and the highest in Kinabatangan. We finally estimated the size of the population of the Sunda clouded leopard to be around 750 individuals in Sabah.'

Clouded leopardClouded leopard (image credit: DGFC)

DGFC director Dr Benoit Goossens, a co-author of the study, said he hoped the results of the study, together with the action plan for the Sunda clouded leopard being launched next year, will help to manage the species in Sabah's forests. He added: 'The fact that selectively logged forests provide an important resource for Sunda clouded leopards suggests that appropriate management of these commercial forests could further enhance their conservation value. But the overriding priority for our wildlife managers is to reduce poaching pressure, both on these felids and their prey, by reducing access to the forest interior along logging roads and by increasing enforcement patrols at strategic areas.'

Professor David Macdonald, Director of WildCRU, said: 'Clouded leopards are stunningly beautiful, and as denizens of some of the most threatened forests in the world they have the potential to be iconic symbols for conservation: our findings are a big step on that road.'

Luke Hunter, President and Chief Conservation Officer at Panthera, said: 'The clouded leopard is the top cat of Sabah, playing a similar role as tigers or leopards in continental Asia. Sadly, just as for tigers and leopards elsewhere, clouded leopards are targeted by poachers. Our work emphasises yet again how saving big cats and their prey relies on strong protection and robust anti-poaching measures.'

The research was primarily funded by the Darwin Initiative, the Recanati-Kaplan Foundation, the Robertson Foundation and the Sime Darby Foundation.

Image credit: Shutterstock

What do scientists, philosophers and religious leaders all have in common? The answer may surprise you, but collectively at least, they have the power to fight climate change. 

At a recent special event during the 2017 European Capacity Building Initiative (ecbi) Oxford Seminar, leading voices from these three fields came together to discuss one of society’s most challenging questions: ‘what can we do to support the fight against global warming in the current political climate?’

Held at the University of Oxford, Museum of Natural History, the ‘We Meet Again!’ event was reminiscent of the renowned ‘Oxford Evolution Debate’ of 1860, and was intentionally named to draw comparison to that historic event.

Key speakers from the day share highlights and their thoughts on on how the problem can be best managed:

The Rt. Revd. Dr. Steven Croft, Bishop of Oxford, on the important position that faith-based communities can play in preventing climate change:

There is a myth that religious groups do not care about or believe in climate change - but the reality could not be further from the truth. Climate deniers exist in all walks of life and religious influencers such as myself, put a lot of effort into both educating their sects about the reality of environmental change and encouraging those involved in creating solutions to consider these communities.

It is vital that all involved in climate change negotiations understand and take seriously the different faith-based communities in the world, who are natural allies in carbon emission reduction and a more sustainable future.

Faith communities know how to take action for change and how to mobilise others to achieve common goals.

These groups are places where small groups of thoughtful and committed citizens are found. They have significant influence, a natural compassion for the earth and a sense of being part of a global community. They are not perfect, or uniform. But they are communities of hope whose values lead us to work for change, not against the findings of science, but in tandem, to bring about a more sustainable world.

Professor Sir Brian Hoskins, Director of the Grantham Institute for Climate Change at Imperial College London, discusses why scientists must not be intimidated:

The ferocity of Hurricane Harvey and Irma has many in the media and elsewhere saying that this is because of climate change, while others are saying they are nothing to do with climate change. Most scientists tend to be sitting somewhere in the middle, trying to stay true to their scientific, observational, evidence, theory and their projections for the future. Their message is ‘well neither of you are quite right’, instead giving a more nuanced message; that’s exactly what we have to do - and what we have to keep doing.

As scientists, we must continue to search for evidence-based answers and share the results of our work with a wide, diverse audience - not just our peers, opinion formers or politicians but ordinary people, without either exaggeration or understatement. We have to recognise that how these messages are received is directly influenced by the values and beliefs of the audience. For example, when confronted, some climate deniers approach the subject from a vested personal interest or political creed. Often the science is secondary to them and muddies the waters of what they want to believe.

As scientists, we must recognise that we are also influenced by our values and beliefs. We need to find common ground and a starting point for conversation. Then we must position the best science and research-led evidence at the fore-front of this climate change conversation.

Professor Benito Müller, Director of the ecbi, and a member of the Oxford University Philosophy Faculty, on what philosophers can do:

Philosophers have played a role in shaping popular opinion and challenging the status quo since time immemorial. John Alexander Smith, Waynflete Professor of Moral and Metaphysical Philosophy at Oxford University, opened his 1914 undergraduate lectures with the following caveat: ‘Apart from the few who go on to become teachers or dons, nothing that you will learn in the course of your studies will be of the slightest possible use to you in life, save only this, that if you work hard and intelligently you should be able to detect when a man is talking rot..’

Philosophers have an important role to play in separating truth from nonsense. 'Alternative facts' only work if one removes objective truth from what we mean by 'fact'. Yet, "2+2 = 5" is not an 'alternative fact' of mathematics. It is simply wrong, and anyone claiming the contrary is, to quote Professor Smith: 'talking rot'.

And the same applies to climate science, where assertions are objectively true or false, and not mere subjective opinions without objectively falsifiable content. To reply: “this is your opinion” when challenged about a statement in this context, and to leave it at that, is simply not good enough.

Stressing this unequivocally is one thing philosophers can do to support the fight against global warming in today’s fragile political climate. Academic thinkers and philosophers have a duty to stand up for critical thought and the truth, to counter the current tide of ‘alternative facts’ and ‘post-truth’ politics.

Professor Paul Smith, Director of the Natural History Museum and an esteemed Arctic Scientist, concludes:

As an Arctic scientist I have been travelling to the Northern Hemisphere for more than thirty years, and have seen polar melting with my own eyes. I can say with confidence that climate change is not a myth. It is very real. It is happening and it shows no signs of slowing down.

In today’s society, Arctic research is more valuable than ever. The reasons for this will vary from field to field, but climate change is currently at its most exaggerated in polar areas. For glaciologists and those interested in climate change, the Poles are therefore a rich environment to witness climate change first hand. Where as, for geologists and people in my discipline, the exposed rock is the real attraction. In the Arctic we are not hindered by vegetation. There are of course areas covered with glacial deposits, but other than that, there is just the expanse of exposed rock that you just don’t get at lower latitudes. The far north has perfect “outcrop”, as we call it.

We live in a time where the value of science is constantly being questioned and undercut, it has never been more important for us as scientists to perform our jobs well, deliver accurate research and clearly communicating the findings. The consequences of not doing so are catastrophic.

Quantum rainbows

What are quantum rainbows?

Stuart Gillespie | 5 Oct 2017

In the latest animation from Oxford Sparks, Dr Benjamin Brecht from Oxford's Department of Physics explores the 'miraculous' world of quantum physics, focusing on remarkable pieces of light known as photons.

Dr Brecht says: 'Quantum physics opens a window to a miraculous world, where extraordinary things happen that cannot be explained by our everyday experience. Things like quantum teleportation sound like science fiction, but they are being realised today in quantum laboratories. If we can harness these exciting phenomena, we can build new technologies that outperform their existing, classical counterparts. This vision of the future fascinates me and makes we want to add my small contribution to the pool of outstanding ideas.'

Oxford Sparks is a great place to explore and discover science research from the University of Oxford. Oxford Sparks aims to share the University's amazing science, support teachers to enrich their science lessons, and support researchers to get their stories out there. Follow Oxford Sparks on Twitter @OxfordSparks and on Facebook @OxSparks.