Climate Change and the River Thames

This post was contributed by Colin Cafferty, an alumnus of the MSc Climate Change Management at Birkbeck.

Lifeblood of London

London is defined by its relationship to the physical landscape although it can sometimes be hard to see the wood for the trees in this urban jungle. Tower Bridge, the Houses of Parliament, the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf – none of these would form an iconic backdrop to the city without the mighty Thames flowing timelessly by. And so it was entirely fitting that Dr Becky Briant, Programme Director for the MSc in Climate Change Management at Birkbeck, decided to devote an entire lecture to the challenges to the future of the river and her citizens under future climate change.

Effects of climate change on the river

“We are living in what some analysts describe as a carbon military industrial complex”, she says rather ominously. Dr Briant makes liberal use of graphs to support her case including various emissions scenarios that model the predicted outcome in terms of changes to weather patterns. “The evidence is pretty strong that we are causing the changes we’re seeing”. We’re currently on track for a 4°C rise in global temperatures by the end of the century. “There’s a certain amount of climate change that’s going to happen no matter what we do”, Dr. Briant adds.

So what lies in store for us? We can expect wetter winters where peak flow in the river could increase by 40% by 2080. Between 3-24 billion litres of freshwater already flows over Teddington Weir, the upper limit of the tidal Thames. London is particularly vulnerable to flooding due to impermeable surfaces, whether that be concrete or the clay-rich impermeable soil beneath our feet. We can also expect drier summers and more intense rainfall events, which will in turn affect water quality in the river. And then there is the whole issue of surface water on our many paved streets that the Drain London Forum is seeking to address in a sustainable way.

So what does the future hold in store for the Thames?

Thames Barrier at night with Canary Wharf and O2 arena in the background

London is fortunate to have a vital piece of infrastructure in place that can protect the city from tidal flooding, the Thames Barrier. The lifetime of this key flood defence is predicted to expire in the 2070s due to sea-level rise at which point a new barrier further downstream at Long Reach (or Tilbury) has been proposed. But already the barrier is having to be closed more frequently due to tidal surges. Lest we forget, 307 people died in the UK due to the floods in 1953, which prompted the construction of the barrier in the first place.

Professor Gerald Roberts, Head of the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, remarked at the lecture’s end that he was “particularly struck by the image of London with so many rivers running through it”. So next time, you’re out and about, keep an eye open for all those small creeks, tributaries and hidden rivers that feed the mighty Thames and remember that they could yet rise up in response to climate change. And so, hopefully, will we, the citizens of this great city, to take action before the cost is too great.

Useful links:

UK Climate Projections from DEFRA
Thames Estuary 2100 Plan

London Draft Climate Change Adaptation Strategy

This post was contributed by Colin Cafferty. Colin is a documentary photographer who focuses on sustainability, energy and environmental themes. He graduated with distinction as part of the first MSc in Climate Change Management class at Birkbeck. Since then, he has set-up a website called Climate Change Café which features photo stories and blogs on a number of ongoing projects. He has shown five exhibitions of his work in the last year including one entitled, “Urban sustainability in London” which showed at an international conference at University College London (UCL) in November 2012. More info and images available at www.climatechangecafe.com and www.colincafferty.com

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The perils of swearing in a foreign language

This post was contributed by Matt Davis, a postgraduate student in Applied Linguistics at Birkbeck. He tweets about language at @word_jazz.

As every Birkbeck student knows, 6.30pm on Friday night is not the best time to listen to an academic lecture. But if there is any serious sociolinguistic discussion that’s going to keep members of the public from their weekends, it’s one about swearing.

Jean-Marc Dewaele is a Professor of Bilingualism at Birkbeck. A Belgian polyglot, he knows a thing or two about the subject. He has spoken academically about the experience of bringing up his daughter in north London to be trilingual (fluent in French, Flemish and English). He is also winner of an annual award for the rudest title of an academic article (unrepeatable here, but more soberly subtitled ‘Language preferences for swearing among maximally proficient multilinguals’).

Closing the School of Social Sciences, History and Philosophy’s series of events (‘To seek, to find, to live’) his lecture was about how speakers of a foreign language (what academics call ‘L2’) understand, experience and use taboo words in that language, and how it differs to how they swear in their first language (‘L1’).

Prof Dewaele described research, using lie detector technology, that shows we are uniformly less sensitive to the swear words we hear in our second language. He presented the results of his own survey of a number of proficient L2 speakers of English. In one question, they were asked to rank common English swear words according to what they thought was their relative level of power. This ranking was then compared to that by a group of native English speakers. Interestingly, L2 speakers of English tended to over-state the taboo of more benign words (like ‘idiot’), and under-state the taboo of some more powerful ones.

Prof Dewaele also introduced the idea of ‘sociopragmatic competence’ in a second language. This incorporates the idea that although it’s easy to learn a dictionary definition of a word – even taboo words – it takes experience to understand the various cultural values placed on that word by a society, and therefore where and when (if it all!) using it is appropriate.

Prof Dewaele is an engaging speaker and the talk was delivered with much humour as well as insight (sniggering among the audience was certainly not discouraged!) The talk was followed by a lively Q&A, where many people described their own experience in the subject. An American, now living in London, described how he had unwittingly caused great offence to a British family thanks to the greater emotional power of the expression ‘taking the piss’ in the UK. A lexicographer from the University of Portsmouth spoke about the nuances of writing taboo words into the dictionary.

So was it a better place to be than the pub? As a linguistics student, I certainly thought so but the test was whether my partner had found it interesting. A Canadian and native speaker of (North American) English, her mother tongue is actually Mandarin, but she has lived in UK for 6 years. She told me that she had enjoyed it too.

And did the findings of Prof Dewaele’s research fit her experience? I thought it through for a moment and realized I knew the answer: she never swears. As we had learned, when it comes to cursing in someone else’s language, it’s much safer that way.

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