The week we were away for three weeks, part I

  
A quick photo from Milan’s World Expo, where the theme is ‘Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life’. A place full of architecture, selfie sticks, tired feet and blatant avoidance of the complex issue of feeding the world sustainably in the future.

In the background, the Qatar pavillion. The foreground, the equally sized pavillion for that glorious country committed to healthy eating, McDonalds. Image taken at a juice and fruit cafe that was shunted to the back. All the buildings were cool though!

The week the paper was published

“Dear Dr Ashcroft,

I am pleased to inform you that your paper has been accepted for publication.”

Huzzah! Is there any sweeter sentence in the scientific world?! Maybe “the results are significant at the 99.9% confidence level (p<0.01)”.  But the opening line from this email I recently received is definitely up there.

The accepted paper is the last publication to come directly out of my PhD thesis, an adaptation of the final chapter that brought together several datasets I developed and tried to answer a big question using my historical instrumental data: how has the El Niño–Southern Oscillation influence on southeastern Australian rainfall varied since European settlement?

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The week of Renaixement

The first sign was the flags. Blue and yellow, red and white, on street corners all around the old quarter. Next, they were on the bridge, and the main street. After that, deep red velvet banners were drawn along the balconies of our little Carrer. The following morning we awoke to sails draped across plazas. Then red and yellow flags and banners appeared, hung from one end of town to the other. And on Thurdsay 100 market stalls, bars, taverns, and tressle tables sprouted overnight, along with several discreet islands of portaloos. When the portaloos come out, you know something big is happening.

With such anticipation-building decorations, Tortosa prepared itself for its biggest party of the year, and we steadied ourselves to go from one festival to another, very different party. This week Tortosa is celebrating its 20th Festa del Renaixament, a four day extravaganza of all things 16th century. The town has completely been transformed. The air is full of the smell of BBQ and the sound of drums, people are dressed up in 1700s garb (from peasants to lords), and performance groups, giants, eagles and gargoyles are roaming the streets. It is amazing. The old fortifications at the back of town are also included: for the rest of the year the old walls are pretty much abandoned, but at the moment they are playing hosts to all night taverns and concerts. Incredible.

As we are living in the old part of town, we’re right in the thick of it. Sleeping before 2am is not really an option, giving us plenty of opportunities to explore. Here are just some of the sights we’ve seen!

Opening
The festival opened with a bang
Tortosa flags
The Tortosa Abanderados (flag throwning troup)
Abanderadito
The smallest Abanderado
LordsnLadies
The lords and ladies in their finery
Gigantes
Tortosa’s giants parade past our house
Plaza
One of the crowded plazas
Caballos
One of the street performances
Gargoyles
Human gargoyles on the Cathedral
Devish
A whirling dervish (he span for 30 minutes!)
Ilikebirds
The Falconer
meat
One of the parrillas selling all sorts of BBQed treats
Before
A plaza on Thursday afternoon
The same plaza on Friday night
The same plaza on Friday night

The week of Benicàssim

Tuesday last week

Before we left Australia, a friend of a friend squealed when I told her we were moving to the south of Catalonia. ‘Oh, near Tarragona? You really should to go to Benicàssim!’ FIB, Festival Internacional de Benicàssim, is a music festival in the coastal town of, you guessed it, Benicàssim, about an hour south of Tortosa.

FIB has played host to a fantastic array of bands since its inception in the late 90s, including Oasis, The Chemical Brothers, Arcade Fire, Leonard Cohen, and millions of others. When I looked into the festival, I completely agreed with my friend’s friend. We SHOULD go to Benicàssim. And so in January we bought two early-bird tickets, 130€ for four days of camping, fun, sun and sound. FIB? Bring it on…

It is now only two sleeps before we set off to Benicàssim, and my excitement has turned to mild terror. The heatwave continues, and the thought of sleeping in our cheap tent for four nights has me imagining what it is like to live inside a plastic bag in an abandoned bin. The program has been released, and all of the headliners are starting at 1am or later. One AM! Surely I’m too old for that. My lack of festival fashion has me concerned that the youngsters will boo us out of the crowd. How are we going to get through this, let alone enjoy it??

Benicassim

Yesterday

We survived! We are filthy, and exhausted, and will probably never drink tequila-flavoured beer again, but Benicàssim was a great weekend. Here are some highlights and lowlights, along with some of those obligatory stage photos that you take at festivals, even though they always turn out dreadful…

Highlights

  • The people! The crowd was 45% Spanish, 50% UK and 5% miscellaneous, and most of the people we met were lovely. Big shout out to the two 19 year-old Irish boys who had come straight from San Fermín in Pamplona, and still had the energy to be so polite that their mothers would have been proud.
  • The age distribution. Although the majority of the FIBers seemed to be between 18 and 24 (who can really tell these days) we saw some fabulous old rockers, and a number of families with little kids. You know it’s a good festival when people feel comfortable enough to bring the whole family, or keep coming back.
  • Cold showers. I’ve always hated a cold shower, but these open air, communal wash troughs were actually a delight to visit in the afternoon, to refresh yourself before an evening of music.
Cooldown
A cold shower with a cool view
  • Routine. Swim, Nap, Dance, Repeat. It was surprisingly easy to get into this gentle rhythm, once we were out of the tent. We would catch the bus down to the beach, have a swim, sleep a bit, maybe move into the shade of the glorious Nap Castle (actually a 16th century tower in the centre of Benicàssim) for a kip, then back to the campsite for some more relaxing, a shower, a tinto de verano, and then off to the festival (5 minutes walk from camp). This routine made it possible to make it to the 1am shows without too much trouble. The 4am DJs on the other hand…
NapCastle
The famous Nap Castle, where exhausted festival goers rest peacefully in the shade, protected from the unrelenting sun.
  • The number of bands with awesome female singers and musicians: Jamie T, Crystal Fighters, Clean Bandit, Hamsandwich, Portishead, Florence, MØ, Darwin Deez and plenty of others.
Crystal Fighters
Crystal Fighters
  • Watching Noel Gallagher from a hill at the back of the festival with all the locals because you can get to the hill for free.
Gallagher
Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds, from quite far away.
  • Damon Albans making a fan’s night by asking her onstage to sing Blur’s hit Parklife. She knew every word and was amazing.
  • Frank Turner’s adorable attempt at speaking Catalan to his audience, made up of 98% English people.
  • La M.O.D.A., A Spanish Twin Beasts/Cat Empire.
LaMODA
La Maravillosa Orquestra del Alcohol rocking the stage

Lowlights

  • The people. The majority were wonderful, but there’s always a few. Obnoxious (and sunburnt) English lads being gross, really loud drunken Spaniards yelling ‘DORMIR’ at 5am, and those guys, you know those Stone Men, in crowds, who never dance, even though that seems like more effort than actually dancing? Yeah, those guys.
  • The tattoo distribution. This isn’t really a lowlight, but it did make me feel very boring to not have any tattoos, when everyone else seemed to have at least five. Evil clowns, dream catchers, old churches, ornate ethnic designs, inspirational slogans in every language, you name it, they inked it.
  • Sleeping in a tent. Because I’m old.
TentLife
Tent life.
  • The food. It wasn’t terrible, but there was no green chicken curry roti wrap, chai van or dagwood dog!
  • Sound troubles on the last night, meaning one stage ran 15-20 minutes late. That is an indication of how well run the festival was, that people were getting annoyed about bands running to Spanish time.
  • No free drinking water. Well, there was “free” “water” but it tasted like a warm, dirty swimming pool.

But that’s it. Highlights definitely outweighed the lowlights, and we had a rocking time. Thanks for the tip Sarah! Would love to see you again next year FIB, although we might spring for a hotel with AC in 2016.

FIB
Gracias FIB!

 

The week it was still hot

Last week was hot. And this week…still hot. Our old bedroom is now the Bed Frame Room, as the mattress permanently lives in the living room under the fan. Use of the oven is forbidden. I’m on a four-day ice-cream streak. And our clothes are drying in about 90 minutes on the line.

So we take to the sea.

The beaches near Terres de L’Ebre are actually quite lovely and pretty close to Tortosa. A 30 minute bus or train trip will get you to a swimming spot, or if you have enough energy you can keep walking or riding until you find a beach all to yourself.

A great walk mentioned by this excellent book is a section of the GR (Gran Recorrido) 92, which snakes from the top of Catalonia all the way to the bottom of the Spanish Mediterranean coast, hugging the sea all the way. One morning a few weeks ago we set out to conquer 17km of this 583km pilgrimage, from L’Ametlla del Mar to L’Ampolla.

The walk was long, and hot, and took us the best part of 6 hours (including swimming stops), but we saw some beautiful water and amazing Catalan coastline. Hiking really is a group activity here, and so we passed, and were passed by, many packs of flour-wearing, pole-wielding walking groups. We were even lucky enough to spot a g-string-wearing abuela trudging along with her backpack. Quite the sight! It’s a bit different from Australia, where people hike to enjoy the serenity.

beach2
beach3
beach4
Beach

Some hidden and not so hidden beaches we’ve come across.

We’ve marked our favourite beaches (and the ones with promising camping hideaways) to get us through the rest of the summer.

Another cooling activity this weekend was the XV Piraguada Popular en Defense de L’Ebre, or a paddle down the river in protest of the plans to divert much of the Ebro River into irrigation, threatening the ecosystem of the river and its important delta. The trip was also part of Big Jump, a European-wide day of river celebration. We have been keen to see the river from water height since we arrived, and jumped at the chance to paddle the 10km from Xerta to Tortosa yesterday.

After a short bus trip to Xerta, we found the kayaks waiting for us. More than 150 people took part, as well as a few adorable and brave dogs. The event was launched with a few fireworks (at 9:30am, of course), and included a considerate morning-tea stop after about an hour for bacon sandwiches and beer.

We cruised down the river, ogling the birds, the estuarine ecosystems and the sadly regular piles of rubbish. The Ebro River is the longest river in Spain, and the fourth largest river that feeds into the Mediterranean, although it was very shallow in parts today. In fact we were told that the dam managers up river had to let extra water out so that we could paddle.

We eventually reached Tortosa in about 3.5 hours, including a couple of water fights and swimming stops. After nearly eight months walking along the Ebro every day, it was lovely to finally be in it! Although I am not sure how healthy the water really is – we have been warned against eating any fish we may catch due to high levels of mercury. The motley crew of demonstrators then banded together and paddled through the town en masse, before wading into the water to show just how low the water levels are.

Lo riu és vida!

The week it was hot

And continued to be hot. And still is hot.

Wearing bathers around the house, sleeping in the living room under the fan, covering windows with wet towels, giving up on the balcony plants, staying at work until late because that’s where the AC is, eating watermelon for dinner kind of hot.

A heatwave is currently gripping Europe with its sweaty paws, breaking records all over the place and driving people to the beach in massive numbers. Helpful timing for the Our Common Future Under Climate Change conference happening in Paris right now.

The temperature in Tortosa has not dropped below 20º since the 26th of June, and maximum temperatures are ranging between 30 and 39ºC. It’s these high minimum temperatures that can be the real killer, particularly for the elderly and vulnerable who do not have access to AC.

I was going to try and write about the science of this crazy heat, but a) my computer (and myself) do not work well in high temperatures and b) this article from The Conversation explains what is going on, with neat pictures too.

Essentially a high-pressure system has parked itself over western Europe, suppressing clouds and diverting any low pressure system that might want to meander this way. It is also being fed warm air from the south thanks to high pressure in the upper parts of the atmosphere. Just read the article, they explain it much better.

In Australia, heatwaves occur in a similar way, when the jet stream and a surface high pressure system push warm air down from the middle of the country. However in Europe, the warm air comes up from Africa, instead of down from the red centre.

One interesting part of that article that I was not aware of is the Spanish Plume. The warm air travels up from Africa, over the Iberian Peninsula where it gets even hotter and drier. From there it ends up near the UK, where it meets cooler air coming down from the north. This results in some terrific thunderstorms.

We were lucky enough to experience both the middle and the edge of the giant pillow of hot air this week. For the first half of the week we melted in our non-air-conditioned apartment, eating ice cream and trying to think of cold things.

Tortosa_forecast
The Tortosa forecast. It has not changed much since this photo was taken.

In the second half we were in Ireland for the wedding of some lovely friends. I’ve never been so happy to wear a scarf! Western Ireland was brisk and showery, which may be characteristic of the Atlantic climate, and on our return to Dublin we saw some ripper cumulonimbus clouds which I now realise may have been the edge of the warm air. We even went through a town that had completely lost power thanks to the storms.

Dingle_Peninsula
In contrast, the grey and lush Dingle Peninsula in County Kerry.

Now we are back in the heat, daydreaming about green fields and trying to keep cool. There is no respite in sight, with the Spanish Meteorological Agency predicting similar temperatures for at least the next week. Please look after yourself Tortosins, and your neighbours. See you at the beach.

The week of Sant Joan

This week brought with it a delightful mid-week fiesta, the day of Sant Joan. The Catalan holiday combines a celebration for the summer solstice with a day commemorating the birth of Saint John the Baptist.

If you are a boy lucky enough to be called Joan, then June 24 is your name day — like a second birthday, complete with gifts, family celebrations and maybe even cake. In fact, most Catalans that are named after saints have name days as well as their birthday, how great is that! I am yet to find a Saint Linden…

The 24th might be great for Joans, but it is the night of the 23rd that is the big verbena. Fireworks, bonfires and all-night parties happen on this ‘Nit de Foc’ (night of fire), welcoming the Spanish summer and symbolically burning the old to make way for the new. People get together to share cava and an oval-shaped traditional cake, the Coca de Sant Joan. In this region it is also common to snails, a local delicacy.

Apparently the number of fires has decreased over the years, presumably in response to safety concerns. I have to admit I stifled a gasp at a celebration that promotes fire during the summer! This would never fly in Australia. Nonetheless, the firework stores in Tortosa had queues coming of out their doors for several days leading up to Tuesday night, and children of all ages (seriously, I saw a two-year-old have a go) have been throwing noisy crackers in the street for a week or more.

But when the big night came, the fires in town were overshadowed by natural entertainment in the form of a huge thunderstorm that flashed and rumbled and drenched poor Tortosa for over an hour. The lightning was very spectacular, but it put a dampener on many of the parties in the surrounding suburbs. In the end we had to set off our meagre collection of crackers next to a supermarket car park that had become a temporary lake.

Fireworks
Our firework stash and subsequent display.

Wednesday, the public holiday, is a day for the beach. Rest and recovery after a big night. We had left the abuelos to their dancing at 2am on Tuesday, and so were up relatively early, ready for a fun day celebrating Sant Joan in Tarragona.

Verbena
Couples dancing to a band by the river at about 2am on the night of Sant Joan. Notice the drenched paper tablecloths…

Tarragona is a moderate city about an hour from Tortosa, rich with Roman history and a wonderful place to explore. We wandered around the old city walls before joining the throngs of families celebrating with paella by the sea. Later on we slept off the paella on the beach, as instructed, and then rounded out the day watching some castellers build their best human towers in Tarragona’s central square.

Paella marisco and a castell in Tarragona
Paella marisco and a castell in Tarragona.

I am now writing this in 36 ºC heat, with nothing but sunshine in the forecast, so it seems we have welcomed summer correctly.

The week I wrote about science instead

One of the reasons I started this blog was to share my experiences of living and working in Spain, hoping to fill the gap that I discovered when frantically Googling ‘how to live in Spain as an Australian’ before we left home. I enjoy sharing what we see, what we eat, and where we discover in this largely unknown region of southern Catalonia. It might be useful for others to know how we survived the administration process, and what to expect. I write for my friends, my family, for Past Me, and hopefully for future visitors.

One of the other reasons I started this blog was to tell stories and snippets from my research, which (until I got here) was mainly about historical weather observations in Australia. This topic is an amazing combination of history and science, of characters and statistics, and throughout my PhD I was determined to tell those stories to more people than my patient friends and obliging parents.

And so this website is a combination. Una mezcla. Part professional, and part…not. Sometimes I feel bad about this. I want to say sorry to those who have arrived here looking for info on Australia’s climate history, and are instead bombarded with pictures of Catalan booze. Equally, I want to apologise to my mates who want to keep up to date with our adventures here, but have to wade through the science stuff that they may find boring. I worry too, that when it comes time for me to find another job, this quasi-professional approach might bite me in the backside, as I have shared too much of my personal life.

But you know, most of the time I do not want to apologise. To take that young person’s phrase that I don’t completely understand, I’m sorrynotsorry. Just like any profession, scientists don’t do science all the time. Sure, we may appreciate the world in a different way, but we are still living in that world, and occasionally doing non-sciencey things, just as accountants do non-accountanty things, and waitresses do non-waitressy things.

And maybe one day a potential young scientist might come across this blog and realise that he can be passionate about clinical psychology AND about his random love of baking dog-shaped cakes, or that her love of physics with her goal of visiting every football stadium in the world can co-exist happily. Or perhaps a skeptic might stumble here looking for details about historical Victorian weather and find that the scientists who study this stuff are real, complex people too, and may think twice before publishing something hateful on her blog.

Who knows. But either way, this week I finally put together a small tale about Melbourne’s meteorological history. Light on graphs, but effective at making me homesick, this is a summary of some key sights to see in Melbourne if you are on a nerdy science tour. Enjoy! Or don’t.

The week of the flies

The amount of aerial wildlife is one of the lovely things about living in Tortosa, a regional town so close to the Delta Ebro wildlife reserve. I’m not saying I’m a twitcher, but in the immortal words of The Eels, I like…birds.

Pigeon house.
Classic pigeon house in Tortosa (pigeons MIA)

Pigeons, sparrows and swallows are ubiquitous of course, occupying the nooks and crannies in the old and abandoned buildings here. We’ve even started calling old, derelict structures ‘pigeon houses’, because they seem so at home. At sunset, swarms of swallows practise their flying acrobatics over the river, catching bugs, pulling shapes and generally having a wonderful time.

EvilSeagulls
Evil seagulls surrounded by the feathers of their latest victim

Additionally, we have regular visits from water birds that travel up the Ebro from the Delta region. There is a white egret that greets me most days on my walk to work, as well as the occasional purple heron (I think), and tern. H even saw a kingfisher once! Two giant yellow-legged seagulls rule over a broken jetty near the university. These guys seem to be pure evil – I have seen them with the bloody corpses of at least four pigeons, and last week I watched one of them eat a whole snake! Maybe not ideal neighbours but they certainly make me walk faster.

Apart from feather friends, occasionally I also spy tiny microbats flitting about near dusk, looking for dinner bugs. They are magical little mammals, about the same size as swallows, and are apparently crucial for keeping insect numbers down. Butterflies and flies also buzz about, as you would expect, and yesterday I saw my first Catalonian dragonfly.

But not all flying things are fun, and not all wildlife is welcome. This week we met another member of the flying Tortosa family: the mosca negra, or black fly. These tiny little beasties have been around since about the mid 1990s, and have been ruining vueltas and sleeping with the window open ever since.

This article has a great quote comparing the mosca negra with a mosquito:

“If the mosquito is a neurosurgeon that bites with a probe, the black fly is a butcher that scratches the skin and makes you bleed,” said Raul Escosa, member of an Ebro river environmental board.

They love hanging around the river at dusk during the warm summer months, which is a real shame because going to the river at dusk is an official pastime here. Their bites are nasty and can cause very serious reactions in some people: swelling, days and days of itching, and general annoyance. Just writing about it makes me itch!

Recently there have been some chemicals dropped over the river to reduce the number of black flies, but I don’t know what effect it will have on the population (or the water quality for that matter).

The past week has seen record temperatures in the Tortosa region (subject to data verification of course, this is a science blog). As our apartment has no air conditioning and limited circulation, we are facing a nightly decision to sleep in suffocating heat with the windows closed, or sleep in constant fear of black fly attack with the windows open.

Fortunately, we have been let in on the secret solution to these nasty little flying hatchets. Natural Honey. Yep, this unassuming moisturiser contains traces of citronella, and keeps the black flies at bay while leaving your skin supple. This combined with some citronella candles at home have kept us relatively bite-free so far, which means more sunset bird-watching for me!

Natural Honey
Natural Honey – the unassuming hero in our war on mosca negra.

The week of translation

This past week C3 had the honour of being published in the local newspaper. A half-page spread on who we are and what we do. It’s the start of a regular column for researchers at the university and for our group it was a great, if complicated opportunity for some science communication.

Why complicated? Well, the people who were most excited about the opportunity included myself and a PhD student from Hungary. We both speak and write in English but only un poco Castillano and no Catalan, the language of the publication.

It was a shame then that the instructions for submitting the article were also in Catalan. In our excitement to get started, we naturally assumed that 2.500 caràcters meant that the newspaper wanted 2,500 of our finest WORDS about regional climate change research.

The group met, and brainstormed, and my Hungarian colleague (who is a scicomm superstar in her own country BTW) got to work. It was only 5 days before the deadline (when 2000 words were ready to go) that we realised only 2,500 CHARACTERS were required! Obviously.

So the detailed, friendly essay about our centre was reduced to a neat 600 English words without too much ‘discusión‘. Great work team.

Next, the translation. This was one of the most interesting communication experiences I have been involved in. An English article written by one person whose native language is Hungarian, translated by another whose mother tongue is actually a dialect of Catalan from her home town, with special comments from an extra helper (this guy) about how to translate some English words into other English words that would make more sense in Tortosa’s own unique form of Catalan.

For example, ‘outreach’. How do you describe this simply in English? I tried for ‘public communication of science’ and we settled on the Catalan word for communication (comunicació). That was until our translating extraordinare hit upon ‘divulgació‘, which means communicating out among the community, in programs at schools and with the public. Which is outreach! I felt like I had stepped out of a science department and into a linguistics boardgame.

‘Instrumental research’ was another doozy. Now normally this would mean ‘super important research’, but in our case, we actually mean research about meteorological instruments. Google Translate did not take kindly to that.

In the end I think we are all fairly happy with the results, and no one has called us with any skeptic rants yet, so that’s good. Let’s see what happens next month.

Here is the article in all its scanned glory:

Article
The opinion page of Setmanari Ebre, a weekly local newspaper, featuring us!

It roughly translates to…

The third floor of the campus

International climate research at Terres de l’Ebre

The Centre for Climate Change (C3) (www.c3.urv.cat) is a young research institute at the Campus Terres de l’Ebre of URV. Although it is a rather small scientific community (currently with 15 members), a group of enthusiastic and committed senior and junior climate researchers work together here.

The institute is based in the Terres de L’Ebre region not only because of the stunning natural environment and landscapes, but also in order to facilitate the synergy between C3, and the nearby Observatori de l’Ebre and IRTA (El Instituto de Investigación y Tecnología Agroalimentarias).

C3 is focused on researching, outreaching and sharing knowledge in the fields of climate reconstruction and assessment of climate variability and climate change.

The centre is well-known internationally due to its high-quality research on recovering climate information in different countries. The data rescue and database building tasks are implemented by working in international collaborations within projects supported by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).

Besides the main research line of the centre we add year by year new and interesting fields of climate science to our research profile, such as analysing extreme events (e.g. heat and cold waves or drought), paleoclimatology (i.e. reading climate information from non-direct sources from the past such as tree rings or ice cores) and instrumental research (e.g. calibrating and improving the meteorological measuring devices). We will introduce these activities in more detailed in our upcoming articles.

A couple of months ago a sky blue banner stretched over the main street of Tortosa advertising an event called International Symposium Climate-ES 2015. Well, what was that exactly for and why is it important to organise such events?

First of all it was a unique opportunity for climate scientists, experts from the industry and also from the media to gather, share their results, their experience, their expectations and even their doubts as well as to initiate collaborative solutions to tackle the regional challenges of climate change.

Secondly, the purpose of this international ‘meetup’ was also to discover the latest scientific achievements regarding the Iberian Peninsula since the last comprehensive report on global climate by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was published last year.

There were almost 100 attendees giving a talk, presenting a poster or participating in the round-table conversations during the three day symposium. The sessions covered all the hot topics of recent climate change discussions.

C3 is active in the Terres de l’Ebre. If you want to know more about our activities, our Climate studies and the Climate Change, we invite you to read our next article.