A new view of our dynamic planet – why the launch of Sentinel-1 was so important.

[This post originally appeared here: http://seeleeds.wordpress.com/2014/04/03/a-new-view-of-our-dynamic-planet-why-todays-sentinel-1-launch-is-so-important/. The version below has been modified following the launch.]

At 21.02 (GMT) on 3 April, a new Era in our ability to monitor our planet’s earthquake faults and volcanoes began with the flawless launch of the Sentinel-1A radar satellite from French Guyana.


Copyright ESA/ATG medialab

Sentinel-1 will be looking at the earth with radar vision – it shines long-wavelength radar light down from the satellite and measures the energy that scatters back to the satellite. Radar satellites work in all weather, seeing right through clouds, and can operate day and night. We’ve had radar satellites before, but this one is different. It is the first truly operational radar system – designed to provide large volumes of data routinely and reliably. When 1A is joined by 1B next year, the satellite constellation will look at most points of the land surface every 3 days.

So, why is Sentinel-1 useful for earthquakes and volcanoes? The answer relies on a clever processing trick called radar interferometry or InSAR. InSAR works by comparing radar images of the ground surface with previous radar images. If the ground moves, even by as little as a millimetre, we can detect subtle changes in the signal and use these to measure the ground motion.

I lead the UK Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) Centre for the Observation and Modelling of Earthquakes, Volcanoes and Tectonics (COMET). COMET scientists have been funded by NERC to build a processing system for Sentinel-1 to map these small ground movements for all of our planet’s hazardous tectonic belts. We will use these data to map how the ground strains around earthquake faults, how volcanoes swell and how hazards are distributed in space and time.

Building a system to handle the data from the Sentinel-1 constellation will not be straightforward – the data volumes will be enormous (enough to fill up a typical laptop hard drive four times a day), and extracting the signals will require powerful computers to be operating continuously.

Nevertheless, the scientific and societal rewards will be huge. With 3-5 years of data, we will have the first high-resolution map of tectonic strain for the planet, which is a powerful predictor for the rate of earthquake activityWe’ll also be able to respond rapidly to every damaging earthquake , using the data to make rapid assessments of the severity and location of damage, and to forecast areas where future triggered earthquakes may occur.

Deformation observations are also a powerful diagnostic tool for forecasting volcanic activity. Furthermore, the deformation data will be useful for tracking the motion of glaciers, and for monitoring subsidence caused by water pumping or mining.

A group of us from COMET and the School of Earth and Environment at Leeds were nervously watching the video feed of the launch from ESA’s Mission Operation Centre in Darmstadt (sadly we didn’t get an invite to the real launch in French Guyana).

Now that the satellite is safely in orbit and the solar panels and radar antenna are unfurled – a process that took more than 10 hours in all – we can begin to relax. Sending any instrument into space is a gamble –Sentinel-1A was sitting on top of one of the more reliable launch vehicles (a Soyuz rocket), but things can still go wrong when you are essentially putting €280 million on a giant firework.

We are looking forward to receiving the first data from Sentinel-1 in the next few weeks – the hard work really begins now.

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Why Earth Science should be a key part of the Science curriculum

In a world of dwindling resources, where the climate is changing at an unprecedented pace, and where earthquakes and volcanoes pose an increasing threat to society, Earth and Environmental Sciences are vital for our future. Yet they are barely worthy of a mention in the new draft UK National Curriculum for Science (Key Stage 4, for 14-16 yr olds). How can we expect to inspire the next generation of Earth Scientists if all are not introduced to this wondrous subject? It’s too important to society and the economy to leave to Geography – an option only taken by about a quarter of pupils for KS4 [1].

I should declare a bias. I came to Geology late. Like 75% of students today [1], I gave up Geography aged 14. Physics was my real scientific passion, and at school this seemed totally disconnected from Geography. I was lucky enough to get a place at Cambridge to read Physics (so I thought), and this was going to be my future. However, unlike most UK universities, where people stick to the specialism they selected aged 18, Cambridge science undergraduates are forced to study a broad range of subjects in their first year. Scrambling around for a third choice, and having toyed with Material Sciences, I ended up choosing Geology.

I had imagined Geology as a rather dusty old Victorian subject that held no interest for a proper scientist. The first year at Cambridge blew that image away. Here was a modern, vibrant subject, using the latest Physics, Chemistry, and Biology to understand how our planet works. Our minds were taken to the crest of the oceanic ridges by Tjeerd Van Andel  [2], who was the first to see ‘black smoker’ hydrothermal vents; We were shown how plate tectonics worked by Dan McKenzie, who had been one of the key figures who worked it all out; and James Jackson and David Pyle showed us how earthquakes and volcanoes were continuing to shape our dynamic planet. I was hooked. The sink or swim approach taken then by Cambridge Physics made specialising in Earth Sciences in my second and third years an easy choice.

Before advocating a change to the draft curriculum based solely on my own narrow experiences (the patented Michael Gove method), I wanted to know how unusual my experience was. Why did people end up studying for Earth Sciences degrees? To find out, I took the highly scientific approach of asking twitter:

This generated a fantastic set of responses from across the globe. You can check them out by searching for #WhyEarthSci, or by looking at my collection of initial responses on storify.

As I say in the preamble to the storify collection, “this is by no means a scientific or rigorous survey of all the reasons that people ended up studying Earth Sciences, notably because the geo-twitterati are by their very nature the most enthusiastic and evangelical about their subject, and also because my tweet has probably reached those who remained in academia preferentially to those that have careers in industry. Nevertheless, I think they make a pretty interesting collection.”

#WhyEarthSciThe first 76 responses to my tweet are summarised in this chart [3].  The largest group of respondents (32%) chose Earth Sciences because they were inspired by nature in some way. This included TV documentaries as well as the real thing. The next most popular category was those who had an unquenchable curiosity about how the planet works (18%). I suspect this category is higher than normal because I’m preferentially sampling academics, and that’s why most of us do what we do.

Coming in third, was the set of responses that I was most interested in (the one in which I sit) – those who had unexpectedly switched directions at University (~16%), nearly half of whom were graduates of the Natural Sciences course at Cambridge. This was about the same number who had been inspired by great teachers at school (~15%), nearly half of whom mention the Geology GCSE or A-level, which is not offered in most schools.

Another ~11% of respondents mentioned the fact that Geology is interdisciplinary and enabled them to combine their interest in multiple sciences. Only 2 people mentioned career opportunities – surprisingly low, but again probably because I’m not sampling people with “proper jobs” [4].

So, what should we take away from this unscientific sampling? For me, the thing that screams out is that people who are exposed to Earth Sciences at school (in the rare schools that have specialists) or at University (on the rare courses that allow students multiple options in their first year) are over represented in this informal poll. The logical conclusion is that there is a huge untapped resource of potential Earth Scientists out there who are never exposed to it as a modern interdisciplinary science.

What should we do about this? Well first, it seems to me vital that the parts of Earth Sciences that excite people and are vital for our future on the planet should be at the core of the Science curriculum at KS4, and not just taught to the 25% of pupils that take Geography. We must campaign to fix this. Why is there no mention of plate tectonics, volcanoes, or even climate in the draft document?

Secondly, we need to get out there more as Earth Scientists, promoting our subject, enthusing students, and opening their eyes to the exciting opportunities that are out there. We’ve got great material to work with – earthquakes, volcanoes, dinosaurs… But if we get invites to talk to Geography students, we should say we’ll only do it if the Physics/Chemistry/Biology students can join in. Likewise, we should get our University outreach teams to actively target students studying the “pure” sciences as well as Geographers for our courses.

The next generation of brilliant young Earth Scientists are out there, many not realising yet #WhyEarthSci. Let’s get out there and tell them.


[1] I think these stats are correct for 2012: 187,000 took GCSE Geography in 2012. Total number of entrants was around 700,000 (e.g. 676,000 Maths entries). 553,000 took combined science, but a significant number took single subject science GCSEs instead (e.g. Physics 157,000). Very few pupils take GCSE Geology – I couldn’t find individual statistics, but there were only 9,403 pupils listed under “Other sciences”, which I assume includes Geology. Source http://www.jcq.org.uk/Download/examination-results/gcses/gcse

[2] This was 15 years after he had “retired” from Stanford.

[3] Completely failed to get this infogr.am graphic properly embedded, so you’ll have to make do with a screen grab or clicking on the link. I chose the categories, and tried to match as best tweets as possible. Where a response fits into two categories, I counted it as 0.5 in each.

[4] My gran continued to ask if I’d got a “proper job”, long after I got a permanent University position.

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  1. On Friday afternoon (8 February 2013) I posted a question on twitter, prompted by the lack of exciting Earth Science in the new UK Key Stage 4 national science curriculum (for pupils aged 14-16 years).
  2. Why did you do an Earth Science Degree? Pls RT or answer with #WhyEarthSci
  3. I really wanted to know whether people were inspired by science teachers at school, geography classes, TV documentaries, or just by a desire to learn more about our incredible planet. And I also wanted to know how many people came to Earth Sciences late (like me), having their heads turned away from the subject they intended to study whilst at University.

    The response to my tweet has already been fantastic… #WhyEarthSci had racked up about 100 uses on twitter by the time I started to collate the results here on Saturday evening.
    So here are all the responses to date. I’ve tried to organise them…. some responses fit in multiple categories.
    Obviously this is by no means a scientific or rigorous survey of all the reasons that people ended up studying Earth Sciences, notably because the geo-twitterati are by their very nature the most enthusiastic and evangelical about their subject, and also because my tweet has probably reached those who remained in academia preferentially to those that had careers in industry. Nevertheless, I think they make a pretty interesting collection. 
    Also bear in mind this caution from Sara Mynott:
  4. @timwright_leeds ahem… too many reasons for one little tweet – Earth Science is amazing! #WhyEarthSci
  5. Anyway, here you go:
  6. 1. Love of the great outdoors / inspired by nature (or dinosaurs, volcanoes, earthquakes…)
  7. . @timwright_leeds I visited Mt St Helens at the age of 5 and like to think I have been studying volcanoes for over 20 years… #WhyEarthSci
  8. @timwright_leeds Climbing at the age of 16 at the walls of Las Cañadas Caldera (Tenerife). Looking at Teide volcano. WOW! #WhyEarthSci
  9. @timwright_leeds Discovered volcanoes at the age of 7, accumulated a rock, fossil mineral collection and wanted to know more #WhyEarthSci
  10. @timwright_leeds I fell in love with tectonics, glaciers and coasts! Reminds me the strength of the worlds natural processes #WhyEarthSci
  11. Because I got to play in the mountains and travel all over RT @timwright_leeds: Why did you do an Earth Science Degree? #WhyEarthSci
  12. @timwright_leeds #WhyEarthSci sailing since I was 8, surfing since 12 – water just makes you want to keep learning more! #oceanography
  13. #WhyEarthSci My dad always used to bring home rock samples when I was younger and I grew up fascinated by rocks, minerals and volcanoes
  14. #WhyEarthSci – 1. it was an excuse to be outside & call it work 2. it appealed to my broad interest in natural sciences 3. biology was full.
  15. Fascinated by great California landscape! Hiking, backpacking…. #WhyEarthSci
  16. Also, knowing about the rocks you are climbing on is nice. #WhyEarthSci
  17. #WhyEarthSci Loved volcanoes;wanted to save the planet. Had to start by understanding it, got stuck doing that bit. @timwright_leeds
  18. @VolcanoJenni @timwright_leeds Exact same story with me! Except that I started with rock’n’roll first (worked in music biz) before volcanoes
  19. Three reasons; dinosaurs, earthquakes and volcanoes RT “@timwright_leeds: Why did you do an Earth Science Degree? #WhyEarthSci#Geology
  20. #WhyEarthSci I lived close to where Antrim basalts overlie chalk overlying Lias clay – zeolites,belemnites and Devils Toenails – blame them
  21. “@timwright_leeds: Why did you do an Earth Science Degree? #WhyEarthSci
    Because the subject just fascinated me!
  22. #WhyEarthSci because I love science and the environment so put it together and bam!
  23. Went to Yellowstone, saw geysers erupt and rocks form before my eyes; was hooked. The Earth is beautiful. #WhyEarthSci ..oh and field trips.
  24. @timwright_leeds Earth science was mix of grubby & clean science plus great outdoors is the lab #geologyrocks
  25. Watched walking with dinosaurs religiously as a child and decided I wanted a degree that rocks! #WhyEarthSci
  26. Wild scottish childhood outdoors: Lairig Ghru, Cairngorms. Inspiring: Chalmers Clapperton, Colin Ballantyne #WhyEarthSci #PhysicalGeography
  27. In St. Andrews & Aberdeen in the 1990s Geog had volcanoes & glaciers, not Geol. Scottish geomorph stunning #WhyEarthSci #PhysicalGeography
  28. 2. Great school teachers
  29. @timwright_leeds Mr. Pothecary, geology enthusiast and geography teacher, taught geology A-level at my school #inspired #WhyEarthSci
  30. @timwright_leeds Because of brilliant A-level geol teachers. I already loved geology, they showed it could be more than a hobby #WhyEarthSci
  31. @timwright_leeds I’ve always loved rocks, but it was my 2ndry schl geog teacher, MrsBakers class on Etna and MtStHelens #hooked #WhyEarthSci
  32. #WhyEarthSci I also had a brilliant A level teacher who made Geology my favourite subject
  33. Because our school had a rock cutting/polishing machine and A level students got to use it. #whyearthsci @oldarmachians
  34. @timwright_leeds #WhyEarthSci Enjoyed ES bits of geography and physics at GCSE/Al-vl – volcanoes earthquakes minerals floods fossils etc
  35. #WhyEarthSci Great A level teacher, fossils & the fact that there were lots of field trips. I look at 3 screens every day & yearn for rocks.
  36. #WhyEarthSci A lot of good fortune … choice of A-levels; general interest; always going to Edinburgh and geophysics was on offer.
  37. #WhyEarthSci Great teacher at school (GCSE & A Level) and just wanting to know more – what’s more interesting than the whole planet?
  38. 3. Interdisciplinarity – combination of multiple subjects
  39. @timwright_leeds An unbeatable combo; physics maths outdoors! Applicable wherever you’re stood on our beautiful planet! #WhyEarthSci
  40. @timwright_leeds #whyEarthsci Because I wanted to do science and geology has it all! Never regretted it!
  41. @timwright_leeds the combination of science subjects (I could never choose my favourite) fieldtrips practical/tangible #WhyEarthSci
  42. Fields trips, learning a bit of all sciences, working at all scales and timescales, studying beautiful things, beards #whyearthsci
  43. Eureka moment realising I could study all my faves (maths, physics, chemistry, phys geog) in applied context @timwright_leeds #WhyEarthSci
  44. @TB_OToole @timwright_leeds exactly! A truly integrated science. Field work (outdoors), laboratory, ethereal, conceptual, visual.. And beer.
  45. @timwright_leeds …also it’s the history of the planet though physics, chemistry, biology all in one big tasty subject 🙂
  46. 4. Desire to know how the world works
  47. #WhyEarthSci: it’s the most fundamental knowledge of how the world works after physics. And I’m not good at physics.
  48. @timwright_leeds Explosions, oceans, answers to puzzles, fieldwork, fossils, sparkles, ties to the environment.. #allthethings #WhyEarthSci
  49. @timwright_leeds I did Env Geol at Plymouth because wanted to understand fundamental mechanisms of how our planet works #WhyEarthSci
  50. @timwright_leeds explored caves so I know how they form, still fascinated with science; need to know how and why things happen #WhyEarthSci
  51. I did Geology as a degree because there’s so much more to it than just rocks. What’s cooler than trying to figure out Earth?? #WhyEarthSci
  52. #WhyEarthSci Lastly, there is nothing more incredible than learning about how our Earth came to be the way it is and the huge driving forces
  53. Because ever since I was little and started camping, I wondered how it all worked #whyearthsci
  54. #WhyEarthSci? Why would you not want to look at utterly dizzying timescales, amazing people and make car trips infinitely more interesting?
  55. Studied Biology & Geology because what’s more interesting than understanding the history of life? #whyEarthSci
  56. #whyearthsci I just wanted to know why the white cliffs where white and we didnt have active volcanoes in UK @timwright_leeds
  57. @timwright_leeds bc I like how when u piece together all the evidence it tells a story about the past 🙂 #WhyEarthSci
  58. 5. Switched at University
  59. .@timwright_leeds @profiainstewart Went to do ChemEng. Geol as option, it put chem phys bio into big picture had fieldtrips #WhyEarthSci
  60. @timwright_leeds went to uni to do physics. Did a module of ES on the side. End of 1st yr flunked phys, aced ES, so switched. #WhyEarthSci
  61. I’m a lapsed physicist who likes real world examples and the chance to get to the cutting edge much sooner. #WhyEarthSci @timwright_leeds
  62. @timwright_leeds Undergrad. I did Natural Sciences, took geology to fill my timetable and caught the bug…so many cool problems! #WhyEarthSci
  63. #WhyEarthSci was phys science undeclared, first sci class I had was Geology, & major got changed by registration dept. on accident.
  64. @timwright_leeds #WhyEarthSci to prove that I could do science as all my quals previously Arts based. Plus Geology fascinates me.
  65. @timwright_leeds Yes, started off with technology, then environmental science, chemistry, then concentrated on Geology for rest of degree
  66. #WhyEarthSci as I had to do electives during a music degree and I preferred the geology so I switched…!
  67. @volcan01010 @profiainstewart started with physics but inspiring volcano teaching from @davidmpyle & fab arran fieldtrip=hooked #WhyEarthSci
  68. @Profiainstewart Too few schools do geology though. I had no idea how brilliant it is till I got drawn in at Uni by inspiring lecturers.
  69. Started out in paleo. Not my cup of tea, but took a course in applied Geology & never looked back! #WhyEarthSci @timwright_leeds
  70. @timwright_leeds #whyearthsci I started BSc geography in Belfast but switched to geology after year 1
  71. @timwright_leeds #whyearthsci inspirational lecturers, field work, I just got it and hated Hgeog.
  72. US Army, then to college as a History Major. Took GEO100 and switched. 1st rock hammer and hand lens from an uncle in grade 4. #WhyEarthSci
  73. 6. Job prospects in industry (defined loosely to include asteroid mining!)
  74. @timwright_leeds I like the outdoors and oil exploration is big in my country.
  75. @timwright_leeds Because I can’t wrap my head around physics and I want to join the space frontier. Hello asteroid mining! #WhyEarthSci
  76. 7. Other
  77. @timwright_leeds Going 2 do physics but my old man found a geophys course at Imp that I liked the look of! Cheers @RichWilks55 #WhyEarthSci
  78. Teaches you to analyze, think, visualize, appreciate life and our place in this world. And develop a keen palate for beer. #WhyEarthSci
  79. Finally, for some, 140 characters was not enough…
  80. I’ll leave the final word (for now) to Chris Rowan, as it draws back to the motivation for this quick polling – what happens in school. 
  81. @timwright_leeds …IMHO, geo should be central theme in school science – all disciplines & important for non-scientists to know! #WhyEarthSci
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Advisors, mentors, role models

After the sudden death of Seymour Laxon yesterday, I found the 140 characters of twitter to be somewhat limiting. I was extremely lucky to have had Seymour as an advisor on my MSc project at UCL back in 1997, and to have counted him as a friend and colleague more recently within the National Centre for Earth Observation. So here are a few words about Seymour and about the role we play more generally as academics as mentors and role models.

My first interaction with Seymour was having lectures from him as part of my MSc in Remote Sensing. I don’t remember much about his lecturing style, but I do remember them feeling like a breath of fresh air – here was someone using remote sensing in a quantitative way, using clever signal processing to making real physical measurements, and using these to say important things about the cryosphere and solid earth. It was inspiring – this was the type of satellite earth observation I wanted to be doing.

I remember being disappointed that there were no pre-defined MSc projects listed with Seymour, but he responded very quickly and positively to a request to devise a project that I could take on. I don’t have the e-mails, but I’m sure he stressed that I needed to be not scared of maths, coding, and hard work.

I was soon thrown into the deep end, in a basement lab re-tracking ERS-1 and ERS-2 altimetry data to try to recover the coastal marine gravity field – at the time, the gravity signals near the coast were lost because the satellite algorithms were only tuned to the signals from open ocean water. The work was cutting edge, and the gravity field model we got out (with the help of Dave McAdoo at NOAA) was demonstrably superior to the existing model.

I’m still annoyed I didn’t take the time to write the thesis up, but I gained much more from the experience. From Seymour, I started the ongoing process of learning how to code, how to handle large data sets, how to make beautiful figures with GMT, how to write, how to make successful collaborations work, and how to think. I know that the project and the reference letter (one of many) that Seymour wrote were instrumental in getting a PhD place at Oxford to work on earthquake deformation using InSAR.

As academics, we have all benefited enormously from thesis advisors, mentors and other role models at all stages of our careers. I’ve been incredibly lucky to have a wonderful set of advisors, who have supported me continuously as my career has developed, and who I continue to work with.

As a research student, I don’t think I fully appreciated the time and effort that my advisors had put into supporting me. Having kids makes you reevaluate your own parents. Likewise, as soon as you have your own research students, you start to fully appreciate what you have been given by your advisors and how much work that involves to do it properly.

I should also say that, for me, advising and mentoring young colleagues is one of the most enjoyable parts of my time as an academic. I’ve been lucky enough to have had some great research students, and all of them (I think) still talk to me.

Seymour will be greatly missed by everyone, but of course his influence on a huge number of people will live on for a long time.

For more on some of Seymour’s important scientific (and other) contributions, see this thoughtful blog by Mark Brandon.

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