Risk and Uncertainty in Natural Hazards Summer School

Written by Dr Jen Roberts is a ClimateXChange postdoc based at the University of Strathclyde, working on the perception and communication of risk and uncertainty.

With the help of a UKCCSRC travel bursary, I was able to attend a ‘risk and uncertainty in natural hazards’ summer school at Bristol University in July this year.

I wanted to attend the summer school as soon as I learnt of it – I had a hunch that I would learn a lot – and there were several indicators to reassure me that it would be a good investment:

  1. Topic: ‘Risk and uncertainty in natural hazards’. Surely now you all want to go? How could the summer school by anything but brilliant?!
  2. Timing: The summer school was held a few weeks after I started my new postdoc position at the University of Strathclyde, where my research is now about the perception and communication of risk and uncertainty. Perfect.
  3. Organisers: The summer school is organised by the Cabot Institute, CREDIBLE consortium and endorsed by NERC. The Cabot Institute is well known for its research excellence on risk and uncertainty in a changing environment, including climate change, natural hazards, and resilience and governance. CREDIBLE is a NERC funded consortium which stands for Consortium on Risk in the Environment: Diagnostics, Integration, Benchmarking, Learning and Elicitation (CREDIBLE).
  4. Location: Bristol. Never actually been there before. Meant to be nice. Plenty of family and friends are locations en route between Glasgow and Bristol. Fab.

My hunch was right.

Each day we had a mixture of talks, practicals, and breaks and lectures and sunshine. A wide range of people from a wide range of backgrounds were attending the course, including researchers at different stages of their career and delegates from the insurance sector, government and environmental consultancy. They were a great bunch. The venue, Engineers House in the lovely upmarket Clifton area, had lovely stretching lawns on which we could lounge in the breaks, accompanied by good conversations, good food and probably too much sunshine (the South is sweltering it seems – plus it was the hottest week in however many years).

Between them the fantastic and enthusiastic course organisers Thorsten Wagener and Tamsin Edwards and contributing speakers Willy Aspinall, Jeff Neil and Tom Wilson covered an incredible range of topics. These include the different types of uncertainty, how to deal with these types of uncertainty when analysing data (including limited data), sensitivity analysis (including with complex dataset like climate models), dealing with uncertainty in decision making e.g. flood defence heights, evacuations decisions around active volcanic areas, and we had a whole revealing and entertaining day on expert elicitation.

We had fantastic guest lectures at the end of the day from world famous volcanologist Steve Sparks, Dr Jonty Rougier (who I think could make any one understand and love applied statistics), Sir Prof John Beddington (until recently John was the UK government’s chief scientist) and Dr Ken Mylne (who leads the Weather Impacts Science team at the Met Office). We could, if we wished, nurture useful conversations and discussions with these speakers in a nearby cider garden complete with evening sun and views of the Clifton Suspension Bridge. In fact, talking amongst each other (either in the breaks or in a beer garden) about how the course content applied to our work really helped to keep the course content very real, which is quite important when you are learning quickly about such a wide and sometimes abstract topic.

I built on my knowledge a great deal during the week. I have become more familiar and confident with methods of recognizing and treating uncertainty, and therefore describing risk in a more meaningful way. I spawned many ideas for my future postdoc, and I was also reassured that I had in fact dealt with uncertainty in my PhD data correctly (phew).

A £500 travel bursary from UKCCSRC for my contribution to the RAPID impact report covered the cost of travel and accommodation while attending the summerschool. The course fees were covered by the QICS consortium who were funding my previous post.