Indonesia wildfire forecasting: a busy week in SE Asia

This week I’m struggling with jetlag after a busy time last week in Indonesia and Singapore.

Earlier on this blog, I introduced a project, ToFEWSI, that I’m working on that is developing an early-warning system for wildfires in Indonesia. The need for an operational warning systems can’t be understated. The loss of forest, the impact on the flora and fauna, and the disruption to people’s livelihoods can be devastating to the communities directly affected. There are also wider transboundary effects that need considering. In recent years we’ve seen haze from forest fires affecting not only Indonesia, but neighbouring countries like Malaysia and Singapore, especially during El Nino years like 2015. There is a great wealth of research going on looking at peat fires, haze and emissions – see Tom Smith’s blog for more details.

The challenge of forecasting wildfires is that they combine hydro-metrological factors (fire weather, peatland water tables) and human factors (i.e. ignition sources); this is something I always repeat to my students that wildfires are a socio-ecological issue. This project advances the field by combining both the physical and social sciences into one system.

So, what was I up to last week? Well it all started out with a very long journey from Vienna to Yogyakarta (via Zurich and Singapore). I lost track of the journey length with all the timezone jumps! Although ToFEWSI has been running for a year now, the meeting was the first time that all team members were in the same place. One of the challenges for getting together is that the project team is currently spread over four continents (Canada, UK, Austria, Greece, Indonesia, Australia) and multiple timezones, so meeting up has been incredibly valuable.

We were hosted by Dr Muhammad Ali Imron of Gadjah Mada University (UGM) and his team, and they were incredibly accommodating. The University is set in some magnificent grounds and they are one of the largest green spaces in Yogyakarta so it is not uncommon to see local residents using the space for their morning runs and exercise classes.


Grha Sabha Pramana, UGM Campus

Day 1 comprised a series of presentations from team members on their work to date. The project has many moving parts (hydrology modelling, climate modelling, remote sensing data, agent-based modelling, field data collection, socio-economic surveys) so it was very useful to get an overview of the different disciplinary activities. As someone who hasn’t dealt with these types of modelling or datasets before, I slowly understood how it all fits together. Apologies to my colleagues for asking what were probably obvious questions in those fields!

Day 2 kicked off with me leading the discussion about project impact and outputs. This project has been funded under the DIPI-RCUK Newton Fund South East Asia Call, which at its heart aims to straighten links between the UK and emerging knowledge economies. The funding is part of the UK’s Official Development Assistance (ODA) so requires projects to make long-lasting impact to sustainable development through improvements to local communities through social and economic means. Given the potential to make demonstrable improvements to fire forecasting and therefore local communities and regional transboundary pollution issues, we need to carefully plan how this work will lead to change. Lots of opportunities, but also plenty of challenges. Regardless, we’ll be keeping everyone up to date with a project website that will hopefully be live in the coming month or so, so watch this space!

The final night saw a traditional Javanese meal in the grounds of the Palace of Yogyakarta, an impressive estate and buildings! Unfortunately, I had to travel to Singapore on Day 3, but some of the team (Tadas, Symon, Imron) went to visit Mount Merapi. Next time I’m here I will make sure I’ve got time to escape the hubbub of the city.

The next two days were spend at a workshop at the National University of Singapore titled “Sustainable Transboundary Governance of the Environmental Commons in Southeast Asia”.  The meeting, part of the TECSEA project at NUS, was really interesting and focused on the idea of ‘the commons’ as a way of considering environmental governance issues in the region. There were two focal issues for the meeting: biomass burning and haze, and water governance in the Mekong River basin.


Now this wouldn’t normally be the sort of conference I’d attend – I’m much more at home with graphs, statistics and discussion of technical methods – however, the speakers were really engaging and I found myself wondering what sort of research questions we could ask using the framework of the Commons through the ToFEWSI project. It certainly provided food for thought on the long flight back to Vienna.

I managed to get a little bit of sightseeing done in Singapore, including visiting the famous Merlion on Marina Bay. I last saw this over 13 years ago on a five day layover on the way back from doing my undergraduate dissertation in New Zealand. Somehow it looked smaller this time around!


Over the coming weeks and months, I’ll be working on the project’s impact strategy, helping develop the project website, and exploring opportunities for citizen science projects in the communities near our experimental sites. Lots to do, but after last week, I’ve now got a better handle on where things are going.






Halfway through my time in Vienna

I’m now just over halfway through my time in Vienna and time really has flown! It doesn’t seem like 5 minutes ago that I arrived in the blistering heat of June and had to get to grips with living in another city. I’m currently writing this from the UK during a short visit home to attend a few meetings and to catch up with family and friends.

I think overall it has gone well so far and at the moment I’m just getting ready for the start of teaching in a few weeks time (I’m writing another post about this so will update soon). It hasn’t all been plain sailing however. As I arrived in Vienna later than UoV had hoped (I arrived in June instead of a planned March start), my start coincided with the end of teaching and beginning of the summer vacation for many colleagues. So unfortunately the University has been a little quieter and as a consequence interaction with other research groups has been limited. I’m confident, however, than with the start of the new semester, that this will pick up!

It has been a busy few months with the Geoecology research group and in particular developing research ideas with my colleague Stephan Glatzel. Earlier in August, Stephan and I undertook a sampling campaign of Austrian peat bogs to investigate variations in their carbon oxidation state (see some of my previous entries for other work on Cox and OR: here, here and here). In total we visited over a dozen bogs and fens spanning the full range of altitude and climate. More about this in a subsequent post!

We are also currently working on a lab based mesocosm manipulation looking at root exudate priming effects in peat using labelled 13C. Cores have been collected and we are just waiting on the final bits and bobs before we can start the experiment. I’m really excited to see what we’ll find given the important contribution these priming effects could potentially have on organic rich soils. Watch this space!

Sabbatical reading

Whilst I’m in Vienna, I’m hoping to catch on my reading, both for work and for fun. I’ll try to keep an updated list here:


  • Burning Planet: The Story of Fire Through Time, by Andrew Scott.
    • Really nice book covering development of fire on Earth with a focus on charcoal in the geological record. This will be a recommended reading as part of my new Pyrogeography course in 2018/19.
  • The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, by Thomas Kuhn.
    • A classic text on the history of science. I’ve never really studied the history of science so will be interesting attempting this book.
  • An Introduction to Systematic Reviews, by David Gough, Sandy Oliver, and James Thomas
  • Introduction to Meta-Analysis, by Michael Borenstein, Larry Hedge, Julian Higgins, Hannah Rothstein
    • As I’m reading up on systematic reviews, I’d also like to learn more about quantitative analysis of the literature. I expect it’s not going to be an easy read!
  • Individual-based Modeling and Ecology, by Volker Grimm and Steven Railsback
    • As part of the Indonesia wildfire project I’m part of, colleagues at Universitas Gadjah Mada are developing agent-based models to help predict the complex interaction people and their environments in the context of wildfires.


  • The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde – one of my all time favourite books but its been far too long since reading it last.  Finished this one last week. I’ll be bringing the rest of the series back with my when I go back to the UK in mid-July.

Evening weisswein spritzer in local vineyard.

  • The Shortest History of Germany, by James Hawes.
    • Spotted this in Vienna airport bookshop the other week and thought I should swot up on Germanic history.
  • What We Owe to Each Other, by T. M. Scanlon
    • A potentially heavy book on moral philosophy might seem an odd choice for the ‘fun’ section, but this is heavily referenced in the very funny TV show ‘The Good Place‘, so I thought I’d see what all the fuss is about.
  • The Story of Ida Pfeiffer, by Anonymous
    • Well it would seem remiss if I didn’t at least read a few books on Ida Pfeiffer given the naming of my visiting professorship! Written about 20 years after her death by an anonymous author, this gives an overview of some of the great traveller’s journeys. Not much detail for each but a good overview.

First few weeks in Vienna…the everyday

I’ve now been in Vienna for two weeks (though it seems longer!) and I’m slowly settling into new rhythms. Over the coming months I’m going to be engaged in new research and teaching and will be blogging about these, but I thought the first of my entries in Vienna should be about the everyday things.

I’m living in an apartment of the 19th district of Vienna up near the Wienerwald (Vienna woods) and the Danube in a rather nice old building close to the Hueriger taverns and vineyards. Not a bad place to be! Its about 15 minutes by tram from home to the office. Its quite relaxing in the morning (assuming its not full of school kids!). Getting around town is amazingly easy and efficient via tram or U-Bahn. I’ve always loved the ease of the Vienna underground but I’m now building a love of the tram system, especially the older trams that rattle around some of the bends in the tracks!


Local vineyards close to home

I’ve been fairly busy during the weeks getting sorted at the University, including the international trouble of all new starters – getting their IT account set up! There is something slightly reassuring that every University I’ve ever been at has their own quirks when it comes to HR and IT.  I’m now all set up, including with my own Austrian social security number, which makes this all this very grown-up.

The evenings and weekends have been spent exploring the city or visiting the big touristy places such as the Natural History Museum (where I now have a year-long pass). I’m sure over time I’ll start to act as a local and start cursing at tourist parties gathering at road crossings and generally getting in the way!

Natural History Museum

I’ve also started to search out some smaller prizes around town and one of my favourites so far is Shakespeare and Company booksellers in the 1st district. Though not related to the Shakespeare and Co in Paris, it is a lovely rabbit warren of rooms with books in both German and English. This is where I was able to pick up a copy of one of my all time favourite books – The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde.

Shakespeare and Company bookshop, Sterngasse 2

Managed to put this book to good use in a local vineyard last weekend!


Evening weisswein spritzer in local vineyard.

The latest foray into Viennese culture has been coffee. Now I’m not normally a coffee drinker and others will attest that I’m a big tea drinker, so coffee is not a normal part of my everyday. Maybe it is something about different water, lack of decent tea bags (though I did brings a store of Twinnings Everyday) or more likely how milk is different on the continent, that I only really touch coffee when overseas. Its more reliable than a potentially disappointing cup of tea! So I’m embracing my inner coffee fiend and exploring some of the Viennese coffee houses to find the perfect place to work and drink/eat. Today I’m writing this entry in The Coffee Pirates near to the main University of Vienna campus. Working in a coffee shop may be a familiar activity to some of my Geography colleagues back in Manchester, but its a new things for me. But a change of scenery can be a good thing. Today I’ve manged to shift a paper review I’ve had for a while and I’m going to move onto paper revisions for a colleague. Maybe this is a vision of things to come?


Coffee house working


Indonesian fire forecasting

Sometimes an email pops into your inbox that looks relevant but you don’t necessarily think much of it, but it later becomes the starting point for a journey. Well this happened to me back in July 2016.

A colleague of mine dropped me a note saying would I like to discuss ideas with a colleague of a colleague about wildfire research in Indonesia. So I thought to myself “why not?”. Well conversations developed and brought in more people, and before I knew it I was helping to pull together an ambitious programme of work forecasting wildfire occurrence in Indonesia. Not something I’d really thought about before, but as it developed, the more I enjoyed writing the work, especially the section on impact and ensuring the work met ODA requirements.

Ideally we’d all like a long lead-in time to draft project proposals, but like many before (and I’m sure after) it was a busy few weeks drafting the proposal. This was complicated by the number of different time zones the team were in – I think we had at least 5 time zones at any one point, but it did mean we potentially had at least one person working on it non-stop!

It was submitted by the deadline in August 2016. I left thinking ‘that was fun, but tiring’ and given the competition on research grants, didn’t think much more about it after that. The following February (after a slight delay on the funder’s end) we got the news that the project had been funded!

So in October 2017, Towards a Fire Early Warning System for Indonesia (ToFEWSI) officially started. Led by Allan Spessa (University of Swansea) and Muhammad Ali Imron (University of Gadjah Mada) this is a multi-disciplinary, multi-sector project that develop and deliver an operational early warning system for fire risk in peatlands. It will be developed and tested in Riau province, where many peat fires occur and led to transboundary haze and pollution issue with neighbouring countries (e.g. Malaysia, Singapore). Details of the project team and funding can be found on UKRI website –

There has been a lot of activity so far on the project including development of modelling tools and extracting suitable Earth Observation datasets. At EGU 2018 myself and George Petropoulus presented a poster giving an overview of the project.


Gareth Clay and George Petropoulus presenting ToFEWSI poster at EGU 2018


Poster in more detail (please ignore any typos!)

So that’s it for now for the update on this project. More to come over the coming years including fieldwork in Indonesia!

Ida Pfeiffer Visiting Professor at the University of Vienna

Yet again, I’ve managed to leave the blog for far too long. I’m going to try and sort out some updates for my various projects I’ve mentioned previously (St Helena, Hong Kong) over the coming weeks, as well as some new projects I’ve been working on over the past 6 months or so.

However, the biggest research news is that I’m off on research leave for 6 months from June – in Vienna! I’m taking up a visiting position at the University of Vienna from the 1st June in the Faculty of Earth Sciences, Geography and Astronomy to develop new collaborations, conduct some exciting teaching and meet loads of new people. I’ll be hosted in the Department of Geography and Regional Research with my colleague Prof Stephan Glatzel where I hope to be learning a great deal from him and his Geoecology research group, and meeting many others from across the Department and Faculty.

Portrayal of travel author Ida Pfeiffer (1797–1858), published 1861 (Source: Wikipedia,, Library of Congress, Public Domain)

The position, Ida Pfeiffer Professorship, is named after the inspirational 19th century female explorer Ida Pfeiffer. At a time when she was unable to undertake academic positions (she was not permitted to join the Royal Geographical Society in London due to her gender), she was boldly travelling the world making important geographical observations. I will be reading up more on her travels and exploits over the coming months, but already I have an image of a tenacious explorer.

More to come over the coming months, but need to start packing…

Hong Kong mangroves

At the end of July, Emma Shuttleworth and I set out on a fieldwork visit to colleagues, Prof Derrick Lai and PhD student Susan Li, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) to explore new research opportunities between our two Universities. The trip was supported by a grant from the Hong Kong Foundation to allow researchers from CUHK and University of Manchester (UoM) to visit each other to develop new and innovative research agendas. The focus for our visit was to look at the how some of my work on carbon cycling (i.e. oxidative ratio) could be applied to sub-tropical mangroves in Hong Kong.

Coastal mangrove wetlands have a higher rate of carbon (C) sequestration than tropical rainforests, making them a vital ecosystem in efforts to reduce anthropogenic COemissions to the atmosphere. Together with salt marshes and seagrass beds, these coastal ecosystems are collectively termed ‘blue carbon’ sinks. Despite their global significance, there are still many unknowns in these systems (e.g. rate of C loss, organic matter properties), and in many areas of the world, they are at risk of degradation from land-use change and other disturbances.

In order to better plan the research project, Derrick and Susan took us on a tour of their research sites in the Mai Po marshes. The Mai Po marshes nature reserve, a stopping off point for many migratory birds, is a truly spectacular location that has many different ecosystems present, including: mud flats, mangrove forest, tidal shrimp ponds, wet and dry reed beds.  It is also a Ramsar site and protected site of scientific interest.


Images of the Mai Po marshes. Top left: dense mangrove forests; Top right: open water shrimp pond; Bottom left: floating boardwalk; Bottom right: Eddy covariance tower

The plan is to sample the different carbon pools (e.g. leaves, litter, soil) in the different ecosystems present at Mai Po, to analyse them, using the Geography laboratory facilities at UoM, for their elemental concentrations of C, H, N, O (we’ll also get S at the same time). We will then be able to calculate the carbon oxidation state (Cox) of the organic matter pools, and link to estimates of oxidative ratio (OR) of the different ecosystems. OR reflects the ratio of O2 and CO2 from photosynthesis and respiration in an ecosystem, and it is an important parameter in determining the magnitude of terrestrial C sink of the global biosphere. Recent studies have reported considerable variations in OR among ecosystems such as forests, shrublands, grasslands, and croplands, yet no attempt has been made to quantify OR in mangroves.

The proposed research will not only report on OR variation within mangroves, but we hope to link to ongoing research at CUHK in estimating the complete carbon budget for a mangrove ecosystem. As yet, there are few studies that look at the contemporary carbon budget of mangroves, and fewer still that look at both gaseous and fluvial carbon flux pathways. By linking carbon budgets and Cox/OR properties, we hope to be able to better understand organic matter cycling in these fragile ecosystems. To date only one study (Worrall et al., 2017) has been able to combine a well constrained carbon budget with estimates of Cox/OR, and this was in a blanket peatland catchment in northern England. We hope that the work in the mangroves of Hong Kong will be able to demonstrate the usefulness of Cox/OR as a novel way of looking at organic matter. 

We also discussed the potential to look at how much pollution is stored in the mangroves and whether this storage is long-term, or transitory. Using sediment-source fingerprinting techniques, we may also be able to trace the sources of the pollutants – are they sourced from Hong Kong rivers, or from the larger Pearl river to the northwest?

The trip wasn’t all about work, and we managed to have a few days exploring the city and all it has to offer, including Victoria Peak, the Big Buddha and Temple Street Night Market. Derrick and Susan did a great job hosting us whilst we were there, taking us to a number of really great restaurants and generally showing us around.


Research Group Meal. Gareth Clay and Emma Shuttleworth (far left), Derrick Lai (centre purple shirt), Susan Li (far right)


  • Autumn 2017: Derrick and Susan will collect samples from the mangroves and ship them to the UK for analysis. 
  • Winter 2017/18: Lab analysis in Geography labs at UoM
  • Spring – Summer 2018: Visit to UK by CUHK team, write up of work in peer-reviewed journal and development of future grant applications.

Upper North Grain weather record

Finally the Upper North Grain weather record has been published in the journal WeatherIn the paper, we outline the challenges of keeping a long-term meteorological record in often challenging upland conditions. By gap-filling from nearby stations we were able to fill in the blanks and complete the record for Jan 2004 – Dec 2013.

In addition to presenting the record, we were able to look at seasonal extremes at the site. Four seasons stand out for this site: summer 2006, winter 09/10, summer 2012, and spring 2013.


Seasonal temperature and precipitation deviations. Top panel: (a) spring, (b) summer. Bottom panel: (c) autumn, (d) winter.