Category Archives: Climate Changing

281,647 visitors: a ‘rubbish’ story

In the next in our series of blogs about The Rubbish Collection, Project Curator Sarah Harvey looks back at what we have collected and reflects on what Phase 1 of the exhibition has taught us about our relationship with waste.

Thirty days of sorting and documenting all the Science Museum‘s rubbish have come to a close. It’s been surprising, sometimes shocking and certainly thought-provoking, fun, hard work and, at times, a little bit smelly!

We’ve documented all the rubbish produced by the Museum’s 281,647 visitors, 500+ staff and contractors, five cafés, two building sites, three shops, two Science Nights, one Lates event and several storage cupboard clearances. We’re still waiting to see the figures but, it’s safe to say, it was a lot of rubbish.

Two pairs of shoes appear in Phase 1 of The Rubbish Collection © Science Museum

Two pairs of shoes appear in Phase 1 of The Rubbish Collection © Science Museum

Over the thirty days, artist Joshua Sofaer, his assistants and the Science Museum volunteers, along with hundreds of brave visitors eager to take up this unique opportunity to get up-close and personal with the trash, have rummaged tirelessly through approximately 250 bags of rubbish per day.

Along with the expected items like crisp packets, drinks cans and the remains of thousands of kids’ lunch boxes, we’ve also found some more unexpected objects hidden amongst the detritus of everyday Museum life. 16.5 pairs of shoes, two two-piece suits, a bra, three fridges, one dishwasher, a box of old floppy disks (visiting school children didn’t know what they were), piles of discarded over-the-counter medicines, three wheelchairs and a staggering volume of disposable cutlery.

Uneaten fruit in Phase 1 of The Rubbish Collection © Science Museum

Uneaten fruit in Phase 1 of The Rubbish Collection © Science Museum

So, what have we learnt from all this investigating and documenting? Aside from the revelation that kids don’t eat the fruit in their packed lunch (one day I’ll count the number of untouched apples we documented), the most obvious thing is that we don’t recycle as much as we could.

Over the last few months the Science Museum has been working hard to put new systems in place for separating our rubbish both in public spaces and offices. The addition of recycling bins in public areas is a long overdue step forward for the Museum but we found that almost all recycling bags in public areas were contaminated with non-recyclable rubbish, so we need to do more to encourage and help visitors to recycle while they are here.

The amount of recyclable material lost to incineration because we are not yet separating café waste is a lot more than we would like but there are plans in place to roll out new segregation systems to all the Museum’s cafés in the near future. Just separating out the café food waste could reduce the Museum’s general waste tonnage by around a third.

Food waste from the Phase 1 of The Rubbish Collection © Science Museum

Food waste from the Phase 1 of The Rubbish Collection © Science Museum

Whilst the documentation was taking place in the Museum, behind the scenes we’ve been doing some detective work to find out where and how those materials are processed and what they go on to become. These days, very little is lost to landfill so most of the rubbish that left the Museum has been transformed into some other physical form, either through recycling or through incineration.

That transformed rubbish is now travelling back to the Science Museum, to be reunited with some of the most interesting items we retained from the bins. Over the next 10 days, Joshua Sofaer will be creating an exhibition showcasing what is produced from our rubbish, examining the beauty and value of the materials but also looking at the sheer volume that was produced over one month. The exhibition will open on 25 July but if you want a sneak preview before then, make sure to watch this space…

The Rubbish Collection continues with Phase 2 from 25 July to 14 September 2014.

Managing our waste

In the next of our series of posts linked to The Rubbish Collection, Sarah Harvey, Project Curator, talks to Neil Grundon, Deputy Chairman of Grundon Waste Management.

Grundon is the Science Museum’s main waste contractor, handling all our general and recyclable waste – approximately 30 tonnes per month in total! The Museum’s waste either goes to their Colnbrook Materials Recovery Facility and transfer station, or if non-recyclable, to the Lakeside Energy from Waste plant. Lakeside produces around 37 Megawatts of electricity each year – enough to power 50,000 homes.

I spoke to Neil Grundon, the company’s Deputy Chairman, about the future of recycling and waste management, and what we can all do to help.

Sarah: What does Grundon do?

Neil: Grundon is one of the UK’s leading suppliers of waste management and environmental services. We partner with our customers to help them reduce the financial and environmental impacts of their waste.

Grundon Waste Management Facility, Colnbrook © Science Museum

Grundon Waste Management Facility, Colnbrook © Science Museum

Sarah: What are the strangest or most difficult things to deal with that people throw away?

Neil: The strangest thing I’ve seen is a stuffed European Bear holding a lampstand. We’ve also taken a variety of wooden spacecraft used on film sets.

With regards to the most difficult things to deal with, my personal dislikes are garden hoses, inflatable rubber dinghies and beach balls. They always come in as one-offs and are impossible to segregate and recycle. I am sure that somebody will correct me on this, but by the time they reach us the only thing that we can do is to incinerate them for energy. Oh, I would also add those fluorescent glow necklaces that people wear at festivals – I dislike those too.

Sarah: What do you see as being the main challenges that the industry faces?

Neil: The main challenge for the industry is one of perception. Believe it or not, it is the leaders of waste management companies who lay awake at night wondering how to recycle composite plastics, not the manufacturers, the pressure groups or the public.

Grundon Waste Management Facility, Colnbrook © Science Museum

Grundon Waste Management Facility, Colnbrook © Science Museum

Sarah: What can consumers and organisations do better?

Neil: All consumers and organisations can do better – companies like Grundon only take away waste and treat it. We trust you to do the right things – and put it in the right bin!

My top 3 things that people could do differently would be:

1.       Where possible to separate food waste. It contaminates recyclables and it is heavy and too expensive to dispose of in landfill.

2.       Choose what you buy wisely, as ‘recycled’ does not always mean recyclable.

3.       Simply – use recycling bins.

Sarah: How can we encourage the public to recycle more?

Neil: The public need incentives to recycle. People see no benefit from separating their waste and are often conflicted when they hear various scare stories in the media.

Grundon have invested in a company called Greenredeem to correct this disconnect between us and the consumer. Greenredeem combines ‘reverse vending’ kiosk technology with a web-based membership and reward scheme. It aims to encourage people to recycle at home and ‘on the go’ and to help cut the vast number of cans and bottles which end up in landfill from litter bins or simply thrown away on the street.

Sarah: What do you think the industry will be like in 50 years’ time? What are the new innovations and technologies that you are exploring at the moment?

Neil: If the industry changes as much in the next 50 years as it has in the last 20 years it will be unrecognisable. At present we have two initiatives that we are very excited about. The first uses carbon dioxide to fix heavy metals within incinerator fly ash (a by-product of the Energy from Waste process) to create a carbon negative aggregate, which is used to create building blocks.

‘Carbon Buster’ breeze block, www.c8s.co.uk

‘Carbon Buster’ breeze block, www.c8s.co.uk

The second is a large facility that has been designed to extract the propellant gases and liquid content from aerosols and capture it for reuse. The added bonus is that we can then also recycle the aluminium and steel cans.

Grundon Waste Management new Hazpak 600 creates recycled aerosol blocks

Grundon Waste Management new Hazpak 600 creates recycled aerosol blocks

I am very excited about 3D printing, as I think it will revolutionise the supply chain and hopefully eliminate much of our packaging. However, there is a question mark over what we do with redundant printed material. One of the greatest challenges for the industry will be what to do with the recycled products of today when they become the waste products of tomorrow.

Many of these materials will happily go round time and time again, however that garden hose… …well who knows!

Sarah: What did you think when you first heard about Joshua Sofaer’s ‘The Rubbish Collection’ project?

Neil: What did I think? Well, it’s great that Joshua and the exhibition is raising awareness of the value of waste. Thank you Joshua, we need all the help we can get!

Visitors can take part in Phase 1 of The Rubbish Collection until 15 July 2014. Phase 2 is open from 25 July to 14 September 2014.

A sustainable future

In the next of our series of posts linked to The Rubbish Collection, Matt Moore, Head of Sustainable Development for the Science Museum Group, looks at how we measure and minimise the environmental impact of our exhibitions and galleries.

The Science Museum Group places sustainability at the heart of its work. In 2010 we created a sustainability policy that would sit at the heart of all our official work practices, but well before that we were developing ideas and projects that would pave the way for the innovative work we do today.

In 2005 we became the first national museum to install solar panels on the roof – awarded for innovation by the Department for Trade and Industry – which have so far produced over half-a-million kW of energy for the museum. It’s amazing how quickly technology is developing; those original panels produced 80W, our soon-to-be-installed new panels generate 280W and newer designs will be even more energy efficient.

While it’s easy to get carried away with whizz-bang new kit, we need to be conscious that our buildings, subject to changing building techniques over the last 100 or so years, are complicated to heat, light and make suitable for our visitors and irreplaceable objects.

The hempcrete store at Wroughton © Science Museum

The Hempcrete store at Wroughton © Science Museum

We increasingly look at the ‘fabric-first’ approach to sustainability as we develop new projects and structures. By being intelligent with the building structures we can use the materials they are made from to help passively maintain good conditions for the objects they contain. The Hempcrete Museum Store at our Wroughton site is a fantastic example of this. It uses a hemp and lime construction medium to balance the humidity within the building according to temperature, decreasing the amount of air-conditioning that is required.

This work is not all big innovation though, there are many small, practical steps that have been taken to make the museum more energy efficient; from reprogramming the building management systems and lighting controllers to turning kit on only when it’s needed and changing our light bulbs to ever more efficient versions. This is important work for buildings of this scale and achieves impressive results – the lighting alone at our sister museum, the National Railway Museum, accounted for 44% of the energy used!

It is important when we develop new exhibitions and galleries that we plan and collaborate on the impacts and benefits that materials, electronic equipment and staff activity all have on a project. When the Atmosphere gallery was conceived, considerable effort was spent on understanding the environmental footprint, from the procurement chain to end of life disposal. This has become a core element of exhibitions being developed today; none more so than the Rubbish Collection!

The Rubbish Collection © Science Museum

The Rubbish Collection © Science Museum

Waste is an inevitable by-product of the Museum’s operation, and we are becoming more agile at dealing and developing new ways to divert this resource away from pointless burial. Our current system ensures that almost no waste is sent to landfill. What can’t be recycled is sent to Grundon’s highly efficient energy from waste plant, where with the increasing value of some of the raw materials means that our waste can become products that have a second, third or even fourth life after leaving the museum. Keeping waste to a minimum is an important part of the story, and through procurement we encourage suppliers to minimise both the travel distances for their products and the packaging associated with them.

Across our group of Museums, sustainability initiatives over the last year have seen many successes: at Wroughton, biodiversity actions have brought two poor-condition County Wildlife Sites into a land management plan. The cafés at all our sites achieved high levels of recognition from the Sustainable Restaurants Association for sourcing food from local and ethical suppliers, along with good practice within the cafés to minimise food waste and energy use. Café development at the Science Museum over the last few months has included innovatively planted walls and herb gardens in the new terrace area. Our procurement team is working hard to ensure that our suppliers and contractors have a good record and work with us to improve sourcing and energy efficiency.

The terrace at the Science Museum © Science Museum

Plants adorn the new terrace at the Science Museum © Science Museum

So, what does the future hold for sustainability in the Science Museum Group? An ever-increasing need to be efficient in energy use will see developments in building fabric performance, energy efficiency technology and energy generation at our sites and when we develop our visitor spaces, new materials, efficient interactives and intelligent systems will add to the Museum experience. We’ll also be trying to put more energy back into the national grid than we take out with a 40MW solar project at our Wroughton site – that’s about four times the electricity that the Science Museum Group consumes!

Phase 1 of The Rubbish Collection runs until 15 July 2014. Phase 2 is open from 25 July to 14 September 2014.

Every receipt, every teabag, every half-eaten potato – getting hands-on at the Science Museum

In this week’s blog from The Rubbish Collection, Corrinne Burns, Content Developer at our Antenna Gallery gets a volunteer’s view on the exhibition.

‘Do people just get naked in the Science Museum?’ Katyanna Quach asks me, with a suspicious look in her eyes. Before I have time to give that mental image the thorough probing that it deserves, I’m given a bit of context. “We’ve found a bra, some shoes…”

‘And an entire suit. And money. And a television,’ adds her colleague Hannah Burke. We’re standing in the basement of the Museum, surrounded by the bagged detritus of the previous day – waste from galleries, cafés, offices and kitchens. But they’re here for a good reason: this, friends, is art. Katyanna and Hannah are two of the many volunteers helping artist Joshua Sofaer in his quest to document an entire month’s Museum waste.

Drinks containers in The Rubbish Collection. Image credit: Corinne Burns

Drinks containers in The Rubbish Collection. Image credit: Corrinne Burns

Joshua’s Rubbish Collection is an unusual art installation – over the next few weeks, every single item that goes into a Museum bin will be taken out again and publicly documented. Joshua is building a photographic archive of 21st century Museum waste – every receipt, every teabag, every half-eaten potato (and, it would appear, every bra and every television). For the last few months I’ve been watching my colleagues work with Joshua to draw this idea, this ‘contemporary archaeology’ project, out of Joshua’s head and onto the Museum floor. Today, I’ve come to see the result – and to meet the Museum volunteers at the centre of this unique archive.

Joshua hopes that the Rubbish Collection will make us “… consider what we choose to keep, what we discard, and why.” It’s certainly making the volunteers think.

Hannah Tran at work. Image credit: Corinne Burns

Hannah Tran at work. Image credit: Corrinne Burns

‘I’ve seen whole uneaten lunches from Waitrose. Not touched at all. You just think, “Why didn’t you take it home?”’ says Hannah Tran. ‘Even Museum cafés create food waste – obviously they can’t keep sandwiches forever, but on the night shift we get a lot of completely unopened paninis.’

Katyanna shares Hannah Tran’s unease at the sheer volume of waste we produce. ‘You see how much of it there is and think, “I shouldn’t waste so much. I should recycle more.” Some stuff that could be recycled is just put in with general waste, and then it’s contaminated so you can’t recycle it.’ Katyanna, like many of the volunteers here, was driven to get involved with The Rubbish Collection because she feels that we need to make ourselves think about waste. ‘So much media attention is devoted to wildlife at risk, to species going extinct … but still, some people don’t really care. So this project is an interesting way to talk to the public and get them to think about rubbish, and recycling, differently.’

So what do visitors make of the whole experience?

‘Well, it looks really factory-like in here. Because we’re dressed in boiler suits, I think people come over and think, “Oh, these guys are working!”’ says Katyanna. ‘So I go, “Hi! Do you want to sort rubbish?”, and explain what we’re doing. Some people do really enjoy it and try their hardest to make something pretty out of it. Some people are disgusted by it, but do it anyway.’

Katyanna  Quach and Hannah Tran in The Rubbish Collection. Image credit: Corinne Burns

Katyanna Quach and Hannah Tran in The Rubbish Collection. Image credit: Corrinne Burns

Visitors don’t have to get too close for comfort , of course. They’re just as welcome to come and observe the documentation process, and to talk to Joshua and his friendly team of assistants and volunteers. It’s certainly not the sort of gallery you see often. Or, indeed, ever.

‘I don’t think visitors to the Science Museum expect to find an art installation here. Especially this one, because it’s not “done” yet. It’s quite conceptual,’ says Hannah Tran. ‘It’s very different from the other stuff in the Museum. But people are really curious – kids are more interested in the rubbish itself, and older people often want to talk about the kind of stuff we find, but also about just how much waste there is.’

Tempted to take part? Let Hannah Burke convince you. ‘Although it may sound crazy, many of the rubbish bags have their own interesting stories to tell, and that can really make the job of sorting through rubbish worthwhile. It is always exciting to see enthusiastic members of the public become immersed at the task in hand. I can’t wait to see what interesting items the next three weeks have to offer!’

Phase 1 of The Rubbish Collection runs until 15 July 2014. Phase 2 is open from 25 July to 14 September 2014.

The art of rubbish

Project Curator of The Rubbish Collection, Sarah Harvey, considers how art can inspire us to question our everyday relationships with ‘rubbish’.

The newly opened Rubbish Collection exhibition is the latest, and arguably the most ambitious, of the Science Museum’s art commissions. Artist Joshua Sofaer’s exploration of what we throw away, both as an institution and as individuals.

The Rubbish Collection continues our series of thought provoking exhibitions, installations and events relating to the Atmosphere gallery and Climate Changing… programme. Art has had a strong presence throughout this programme, for instance within the Climate Changing Stories (2011-May 2014), David Shrigley’s House of cards (2010) and Tony White’s downloadable novel Shackleton’s Man Goes South (2013).

So, why has art played such an important role in the Science Museum’s exploration of climate science and sustainability? The ability of artists to offer a unique and creative perspective on this challenging subject and to make visible the forgotten or intangible aspects of the world around us is the key.

The Rubbish Collection © Science Museum

The Rubbish Collection © Science Museum

The Rubbish Collection is an excellent example of this. Sofaer’s concept is deceptively simple: get people to look at what they throw away and consider what happens to it next. It’s certainly not the way a curator would have tackled this topic; it has taken an artist to think the unthinkable and invite Science Museum visitors to help sort piles of rubbish.

Sofaer is cleverly utilising and playing with the recognisable role of the Museum, in collecting, sorting and displaying precious objects, and using them to tell stories. Rather than looking outward, to examine the material production of the world around us, we will be looking at what the Science Museum itself produces in the form of waste and exposing the value of these overlooked materials, both in aesthetic and monetary terms.

Grundon Waste Management Facility, Colnbrook © Science Museum

Grundon Waste Management Facility, Colnbrook © Science Museum

The concept is surprising – and in some ways utterly absurd – yet the outcome has the potential to shock as Sofaer brings us face to face with the reality of our daily consumption and waste of resources.

The Climate Changing… programme’s aim was to be thought provoking and The Rubbish Collection certainly fulfils this brief. In the run up to the exhibition it has already stimulated conversations within the Science Museum and it is exciting to know this self-reflection will have an impact on the future decisions the institution makes in relation to sustainability and climate change.  As Project Curator of The Rubbish Collection, the project has certainly made me think about rubbish in a very different light. I hope it will inspire all those who take part too.

Phase 1 of The Rubbish Collection runs until 15 July 2014. Phase 2 is open from 25 July until 14 September 2014.

Introducing The Rubbish Collection

This summer the Science Museum is doing something crazy. It is allowing members of the public to rummage through its bins, writes artist Joshua Sofaer.

The Rubbish Collection is a two-part art installation, which will see every single thing thrown out by the Science Museum staff and visitors for 30 days, photographed in a purpose-built temporary archive in the basement of the Wellcome wing. Members of the public will be invited to open the bags of rubbish and layout the contents on an archive table, photograph their arrangement, before repacking the contents in the bag and sending it on its route towards recycling or incineration.

Grundon Waste Management Facility, Colnbrook © Science Museum

Grundon Waste Management Facility, Colnbrook © Science Museum

We will then follow the journey that the rubbish takes and will recall it to the Science Museum at various stages in its transformation, for the second part of the project: an exhibition of waste materials. Visitors will be able to see the elements and quantity of stuff thrown out by one institution.

Humans are avid collectors. We are also nosy. We enjoy investigating the things around us and seeing material culture collated, labelled and exhibited. It was this impulse that was the incentive for the first museums. The Rubbish Collection, which will soon fill the exhibition space below, inverts the idea of the museum preserving what is sacred or unique, asking us to consider what we choose to keep, what we discard, and why.

By handling the waste themselves, I hope the public will notice how recycling bins are often contaminated and also how perfectly good resources are sent off needlessly for incineration when they could be reused or recycled.

Mirroring the conventional museum displays that are adjacent, The Rubbish Collection exhibition will confront visitors with a literal representation of one institution’s waste, while focusing attention on the urgent need for waste reduction.

It’s a step into uncharted territory and a courageous thing for the Science Museum to do; allowing the public to rummage through its bins. It shows that their commitment to tackling issues connected to climate change, sustainability and carbon efficiency, starts with themselves.

Rubbish bags are also repositories for stories of our lives. Opening one and laying out the contents is a kind of contemporary archaeology that stimulates the imagination, as we deduce or invent the histories of the materials before us.

Seeing the towers of paper, above, or mountains of glass sand, is similarly not only about recognising the need for more sustainable living, it is also about acknowledging the aesthetic properties and the wonder of the everyday stuff that surrounds us.

The Rubbish Collection runs from 16 June to 14 September 2014. For more information, click here.

In Conversation with James Lovelock

By Laura Singleton, Press Officer

To celebrate the opening of Unlocking Lovelock, our new exhibition on James Lovelock, 94, we were treated to a special audience with the great man himself (listen below to the full conversation), as he joined Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs, to discuss his career and  his new book, A Rough Ride to the Future (Allen Lane).

Lovelock began by talking about his early visits to the Science Museum at the age of 6 and how his passion for science was inspired by his childhood love of steam engines, notably the one developed by the blacksmith Thomas Newcomen and the Flying Scotsman. He said that learning about science at the Science Museum was far more useful than learning in the classroom.

The conversation moved onto his early career at the National Institute for Medical Research in Mill Hill as he talked about his work on developing cures for burns during World War II, and how he preferred to carry out painful experiments on himself rather than rabbits.

He talked about how this work brought him into contact with Stephen Hawking’s father Frank, and the moment he held the infant Hawking in his arms.

Lovelock discussed his next career move to work in Houston for NASA, which provided the perfect opportunity for his inventive skills – creating instruments,‘exceedingly small, simple bits of hardware’ to go on NASA’s rockets. After three years, this paved his way to setting up his own laboratory back in the UK.

When asked whether he sees any scope for anyone succeeding as a lone scientist, he explained how much easier it was to work as an independent scientist years ago when there was less competition due to an overall lack of scientists in the UK at the time. He remains suspicious of committee and consensus led science.

Describing himself as ‘half a scientist, half an inventor’ he explained to the audience that invention is driven by necessity.

This process is ‘largely intuitive’, he said, and ‘the main advances in the world have not been driven by science, but by invention.’

The conversation moved from his work ‘re-animating’ frozen hamsters in a microwave to the importance of his electron capture detector, ECD, a remarkably sensitive instrument to detect trace amounts of chemicals, and gas chromatography equipment (featured in the exhibition). He talked about his home laboratory at Clovers Cottage where a lot of his experiments took place. The laboratory had a “Danger Radioactivity!” sign used to deter burglars.

The ECD helped hone his thinking about Gaia, a holistic view of the world, where all life on Earth interacts with the physical environment to form a complex system that can be thought of as a single super-organism.

Roger Highfield and Jim Lovelock then looked at the origins of his Gaia hypothesis, how his friend, novelist William Golding came up with the catchy title, his work on the theory with the American biologist Lynn Margulis, the opposition Gaia faced in the early days, notably from Richard Dawkins, and his Daisyworld computer model.

Later, when asked by an audience member to defend the theory against the opposing view by someone like David Attenborough, Lovelock replied that ‘To fight for Gaia is worth it’.

You can discover more about the Unlocking Lovelock exhibition in Nature, the Guardian or by watching our exhibition trailer.

Where’s that huge iceberg headed?

Corrinne Burns blogs on ADIOS, a GPS enabled javelin which helps tracks icebergs. You can see ADIOS on display in the Museum’s contemporary science gallery.    

Why would you put a GPS tracker onto a glacier? These positioning devices are more commonly associated with cars. It’s not like glaciers are in any danger of getting lost – or of ending up in a field of bemused cows, for that matter.

Actually, there’s good reason why scientists track the movement of ice. The Antarctic Ice Sheet is the biggest unknown when it comes to predicting sea level change.

An iceberg breaking away. Credit: NASA

An iceberg breaking away. Credit: NASA

Glaciers move – we all know that. It’s natural. But as the ocean temperature rises, glaciers move at an increased rate. That’s because melting, triggered by the warming sea, causes the ice streams within the glacier to flow faster and faster.

And of course, as glaciers melt, the global sea level rises.

So this “flow velocity”, as glaciologists call is, can be used as a way to track rising sea levels. That’s why it’s so important to track the movement of glacial ice streams.

Hilmar Gudmundsson works at the British Antarctic Survey, keeping an eye on ice dynamics. He’s been putting GPS trackers onto glaciers for a while now. Traditionally, a helicopter lands a crew onto the glacial surface, and then they walk across the frostbitten landscape, implanting trackers as they go.

But Hilmar knows how dangerous walking on ice can be – deep crevasses await the unwary. So he helped to invent a rather unusual way to deploy such trackers, so that no human need even set foot on the ice.

The solution was ADIOS – the Aircraft-Deployable Ice Observation System. ADIOS is, essentially, a GPS tracker embedded within a 2.5-metre long javelin, designed to be dropped from an aircraft flying a few hundred metres above the ice. One such ADIOS device is currently on display in the Museum’s Antenna gallery.

ADIOS – the Aircraft-Deployable Ice Observation System. Credit: British Antarctic Survey

ADIOS – the Aircraft-Deployable Ice Observation System. Credit: British Antarctic Survey

ADIOS takes inspiration from technology originating from World War Two – the sonobuoy. These were floating sonar transducers, deployed by aircraft into the ocean to listen out for warships. Hilmar and colleagues adapted this wartime concept for the 21st century Antarctic – but glaciers do present some challenges that water does not.

For one, the electronics needed to survive the impact on hard ice – a polyethylene cushion and a spring help to protect them from impact forces of up to 1200G, and a parachute slows and stabilises ADIOS’ descent. You also need to consider the effects of snowfall – anything placed on the surface is likely to be covered in snowdrifts pretty quickly.

Those considerations led to the long, aerodynamic javelin-like design.

The GPS tracker itself is positioned towards the sharp nosecone-end of ADIOS, and, after landing, sits below the surface of the ice. It transmits through an antenna situated at the opposite end of the javelin – which, thanks to four “snow brakes”, remains above the snow surface. It is so long that it can remain uncovered even following thick snowfall, transmitting for up to two years.

Hilmar’s interested in part of Antarctica called the Pine Island Glacier, or PIG. His team deployed 37 ADIOS sensors onto the glacier in January of last year. PIG is significant because of all the icy regions on Earth, this glacier is showing the biggest changes in ice movement and thickness, so we need to keep an eye on it. “We can already see that the rate of ice flow is increasing, since we deployed those units,” says Hilmar.

Even more dramatically, a few months ago a 700 square km bit of PIG broke off, forming a massive rogue iceberg that is now further fragmenting and drifting towards shipping lanes. Two ADIOS’ sit on that rogue berg – not by coincidence. “We knew that this ice was breaking away from PIG – that’s why we put two ADIOS units on it,” says Hilmar. As the rogue iceberg has broken apart further, those units now sit on two different fragments – and are still sending back live data about position.

So, as well as telling us about glacial melt, ADIOS units can be used to track the movements of icebergs heading for shipping lanes. Will we see more air-deployed GPS trackers on icebergs around the world, then? “This is now tried-and-tested technology. There’s a lot of interested from other researchers, and we’ll let them use the design,” says Hilmar. “And for me – I’m relieved that it works!”

You can find out more about ADIOS, in the Science Museum’s contemporary science gallery from now until April 10, 2014. 

World must adapt to climate change, says IPCC

By Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs

The world is ill prepared for an unknown climate future and must adapt to meet the challenges, according to a report issued today by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in Yokohama, Japan. You can read the press summary of the UN agency’s report here and the full report here, written by 309 authors and editors drawn from 70 countries.

Today’s report, which focuses on how there will be sweeping consequences to life and livelihood, and how to adapt to them, is the second of three in the IPCC’s fifth assessment of climate change.

The first instalment, released last year, covered the physical science of climate change.  The third, on how to cut emissions that drive climate change, comes out in April.

At the Science Museum, you can keep up to date with the issues surrounding climate change through a series of exhibitions, artworks and educational activities. Our interactive Atmosphere gallery, encourages visitors to learn about the work of early pioneers such as John Tyndall, uncover the secrets of ice cores and stalagmites, and wonder at the latest ideas for a low-carbon life. You can also play a climate themed computer game called Rizk.

To see how fiction has been inspired by climate change, download the Museum’s first novel, Shackleton’s Man Goes South, by Tony White. You can also discover the beauty, value and volume of ‘rubbish’ we produce in an upcoming exhibition, The Rubbish Collection – which will trace the journey of waste generated by staff and visitors to the Museum over a 30 day period.

James Lovelock in his laboratory.

James Lovelock in his laboratory.

Next week we will celebrate the life and 70 year career of James Lovelock – one of Britain’s most important living scientists, with an exhibition, Unlocking Lovelock: Scientist, Inventor, Maverick. The exhibition will feature highlights from a remarkable archive of images, manuscripts and audio-visual material acquired by the Museum in 2012 – providing visitors with a glimpse into life in Lovelock’s laboratory and his creative mind and charismatic personality.

The House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee will publish a report on the public understanding of climate change later this week after holding a hearing in the Museum last year.

Reflections on the latest climate change report

Howard Covington and Prof. Chris Rapley reflect on the latest climate change report.

In 2010, the Science Museum opened atmosphere, a gallery exploring climate science. Three years on and the Museum is a partner in a commercial venture to build the UK’s largest solar farm on a disused airfield it owns near Swindon. The project will eventually generate 40mw of electricity, enough for 12,000 homes.

Atmosphere gallery at the Science Museum.

The Atmosphere gallery at the Science Museum.

Here in microcosm is what is taking place in countries around the world as our understanding of the threat of climate change deepens and slowly prompts action to transform the energy infrastructure on which we rely. Are the many piecemeal actions of this kind enough to leave us feeling confident?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has recently confirmed the likely consequences of continuing to pump greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. As a global community, we are about as well informed on climate science as we might hope to be. But the uncertainties that surround climate change still leave us guessing where things are likely to come out.

There are three big uncertainties. The first is how fast humanity will cut carbon emissions. For the moment, we are on track to double atmospheric carbon dioxide by some point in the second half of the century. The second is how the climate will respond. A widely used indicator is the change in global average surface temperature when carbon dioxide concentration doubles. The best estimate is in the range 1.5 to 4.5 degrees centigrade. The third uncertainty is the impact of such a change on future human wellbeing and the material damages it might cause.

In the absence of stronger action than is currently evident there is a finite risk that we could hit 4 degrees of warming in the second half of the century, with the possibility of amplifying feedbacks locking in further temperature increasing processes over which we would have no control. The resulting climate changes would play out over centuries and millennia, producing permanent climate instabilities and shifts not experienced over human history.

Risk could be reduced by policy changes among the principal emitters. By far the simplest action would be an agreed price for carbon emissions to accelerate the piecemeal transformation of energy infrastructure already underway. We might also get lucky if it turns out that the response of the climate to emissions lies at the lower end of the range. We should know where we stand in the next few decades. Meanwhile we might reasonably spend a moment on the implications of a 4 degree world.

Here we are again beset with uncertainty. We don’t know with precision how fast polar ice sheets will disintegrate and sea level will rise. Nor do we know how climatic zones may shift or how higher average temperatures and rainfall will combine with more frequent weather extremes and changing weather patterns to disrupt water supplies and agriculture.

The pattern of cereal production could be significantly affected. Cereal demand may double by 2050 in response to population increases and changes in food preferences. This demand might be met by improved technology and waste elimination. Weather extremes and instability at 4 degrees may cut crop yields significantly, creating a further gap to be filled, perhaps by genetically improved robustness and the cultivation of newly productive northern lands.

Geo-engineering might provide a temporary window of opportunity for a crash programme to decarbonise economies and sequester atmospheric carbon dioxide, although with a substantial risk of unintended and unwelcome consequences. On the other hand we might have to cope with disruption triggered by populations seeking to move from areas rendered inhospitable by inundations, floods, drought, extreme temperatures, fires and local shortages of food and water.

How all of this will play out is clearly impossible to say. Optimists believe that with luck, free markets and technological ingenuity we could rise to a 4 degree challenge if we can’t avoid it altogether. Pessimists argue that 4 degrees is beyond adaptation and may lead to a period of dislocation. Either way our lives are likely to be transformed in the next few decades as we thoughtfully re-engineer food and energy production and relocate climate migrants or rather more chaotically seek to respond to the multiple pressures of population growth, energy needs and climate disruption.

The UK is relatively small, open and unprotected and may not do well in the face of climate disruption. On the other hand it is highly creative and nurtures much scientific and technological talent. Its leading universities are rich in individuals and teams who understand the technologies of a low carbon future. It has an opportunity to lead an industrial revolution that is poised to happen. The case for maximising long-term value and reducing risk by seizing this opportunity is powerful.

Preventing dangerous climate change is principally a matter for the world’s largest emitters. The UK, however, has set an example by adopting tough emissions targets and by using its international influence and scientific strength for the good. It should continue to advance policies that spur a new industrial revolution from which it could benefit greatly, while heading off a climate transition that it may struggle to cope with.

The Science Museum is one of the world’s finest institutions in which to explore the history of science and technology. It is greatly to its credit that it is not only informing its visitors about the climate challenges ahead but also playing its part in dealing with them.

Howard Covington is a trustee of the Science Museum. Chris Rapley is Professor of Climate Science at University College London and a former director of the Science Museum.