Thursday, 17 May 2018

Understanding methane dynamics: working towards dual isotope analysis at the BGS…by Andi Smith

A recent collaborative venture between the stable isotope facility at the BGS and UK based mass spectrometer company Sercon Ltd has resulted in the development of the UK’s first automated system for the analysis of both hydrogen and carbon isotopes in methane. Here Andi Smith tells a bit more about the new instrument and potential applications…

Understanding subsurface methane dynamics is something that is going to become increasingly important to several areas of BGS, especially with ongoing developments with UKGEOs and groundwater monitoring projects in the Vale of Pickering, North Yorkshire and Fylde, Lancashire. One of the most promising tracers for understanding methane sources in groundwater is duel isotope analysis of the dissolved gas. Most surface methane is produced by methanogenic bacteria within the near subsurface, large isotope fractionations are associated with this process lead to very negative isotope values for both carbon and hydrogen (δ13C –70 to –110‰; δ2H –160 to –340‰).

Thermogenically produced methane on the other hand is formed by the thermal decomposition of kerogen, a process which is normally associated with isotope values of δ13C between –20 to –50‰ and δ2H between –110‰ to –250‰. These differences allow us to provenance where methane collected during monitoring projects was formed and start to understand potential migration pathways within the subsurface.

Whilst this dual isotope tracer technique has been undertaken many years, traditional systems require very labour intensive/ expensive sample clean up and preparation methods. This has meant that the number of samples that can be analysed has been very limited for most studies. To overcome this limitation staff at the stable isotope facility and Sercon Ltd embarked on a joint innovation project to develop a sample preparation and mass spectrometer system which is capable of running far greater numbers of samples at a reduced cost.

The developed instrument is now on site at the BGS and is being put through its paces. Once the system is fully functional it will be able to analyse large numbers of samples at very high precision. This will be ideal for baseline investigations at a number of BGS research sites and should help us identify if subsurface activities have any impact on methane release into aquifers.

There are many other potential applications for this instrument, if you think you may have an interesting application for this technique get in contact with me

Monday, 14 May 2018

Brazilian Bahia Clive Mitchell

Clive presenting at the Global Stone Congress
BGS Industrial minerals geologist Clive Mitchell ventured to Brazil for the Global Stone Congress where he made many new friends, saw some amazing geology and learnt approximately 12 words of Brazilian Portuguese… 

Ola! (there that’s the first word!) Towards the end of April I was lucky enough to travel the 6000 or so miles to Brazil to take part in the 6th Global Stone Congress in the coastal resort of Ilhéus in the north-eastern state of Bahia.

I was an invited speaker at a conference I had never heard of, in a place I’d never been and with people I didn’t know. Yes you may have picked up a little apprehension. It wasn’t the presentation I was worried about (I actually enjoy that bit) but the travelling to a big, new, slightly scary sounding place. Anyway I went, otherwise this would be a very short blog…

En route (Nottingham – Heathrow – Sao Paolo – Ilhéus) I met some other delegates who quickly became my new best friends and were pretty much in the same boat as me (in the sense they were new to this, not an actual boat). Thirty hours after leaving home I arrived at the conference venue, the Jardim Atlantico Beach Resort in Ilhéus, approx. 800 miles NE of Sao Paolo.

Over the next 4 days I got to know everyone at the conference, was made to feel very welcome and quickly became part of the natural stone family. We took over the resort for a week – the conference venue was a marquee set up in the grounds. A large rain cover was hastily set up when the rain proved too much for the marquee (yes it rained every day, typical!)

The beach at the Jardim Atlantico Beach Resort in Ilhéus
The Global Stone Congress has been held every few years since 2005, when it was first held in Brazil as the International Congress on Dimension Stone. The objective is to gather internationally renowned natural stone experts in order to share knowledge, promote technical cooperation and discuss the latest advances in the industry. Since 2005 it has travelled to Italy (2008), Spain (2010), Portugal (2012) and Turkey (2014).

The 2018 congress attracted 165 delegates from 11 countries – 70% from Brazil with the remainder mostly from Portugal, Italy and Spain, and a small representation from Chile, the Czech Republic, Finland, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sweden and one from the UK (me!). For my part, I gave a presentation on ‘Dimension stone in the United Arab Emirates’ – the UAE is an important market for natural stone in the Middle East and is one of the largest importers per capita in the world. It also has the potential to produce its own natural stone. It has mountains of limestone resources equal to that imported from neighbouring Oman.

After the conference, we spent a couple of days visiting dimension stone quarries, which turned out to be a very long way from Ilhéus! The state of Bahia it turns out is twice the size of the UK, with a quarter of the population.

The blue granite of Potiraguá is a sodalite-rich syenite worked as a dimension stone by Somibras and marketed as ‘Azul Bahia’. This is probably the most famous naturally blue stone from Brazil. I have come across it in use in the new terminal building at Dubai International Airport.

Field trip delegates at the Macarani pegmatite dimension stone quarry
The Precambrian Macarani pegmatite is hosted in a metavolcanosedimentary sequence of banded and strongly folded biotite paragneiss. The pegmatite is mostly coarsely crystalline feldspar and quartz often displaying graphic texture, with occasional crystals of aquamarine and beryl. Both the pegmatite and host rocks are worked as dimension stone by Ouro Campo.

An important phrase to learn for those tea drinkers out there: chá com leite frio, por favour or tea with cold milk please (not that you will get black tea of course, you’ll need to take that out with you I learnt!).

The congress social programme introduced me to the three C’s: Caipirinha (the Brazilian national drink), Capoeira (a form of mock-fight dancing) and Cerveja (beer of course, I knew that one as I am a geologist after all!).

The 6th Global Stone Congress took place from 27th to 29th April 2018, and was followed by two days of dimension stone quarry visits. Further information:

Obrigado e tchau!

Tuesday, 8 May 2018

My first paper about improving methodologies in ostracod research…by Lucy Roberts

Ostracods, small animals which live in all aquatic environments, build shells (see image) that reflect the temperature and salinity of the water in which they formed. When the shells fossilise they can be used to understand past conditions of the lake or climate at that time. The ratio of certain trace elements (magnesium and strontium) to calcium (Sr/Ca and Mg/Ca) and the oxygen and carbon isotopes (δ18O and δ13C) within the shell is used to relate to the water conditions. The magnesium, strontium and oxygen isotopes relate to the past temperature and salinity of the water; carbon isotopes relate to the productivity of the lake. Here PhD student Lucy Roberts from UCL tells about her research on improving cleaning methodologies…

To obtain the most accurate reconstructions of past conditions, the ostracod shells must be cleaned of mud and/or remaining parts of their internal limbs. There are, however, a range of methods used across different laboratories. All the methods used have been proven to effectively clean the shells, but until now it has not been clear if the methods are also removing parts of the shell surface and causing an alteration to the trace element and/or isotope signal that is preserved in the shell.

A valve of the species Cyprideis torosa. A carapace is formed
of two valves – left and right held together by hinge along the
top of the shell. The species was used in the study because
it is found in a range of habitats across Europe, Asia and
Africa and has been used extensively for trace element and
 isotope based reconstructions
Alongside the BGS stable isotope laboratories, we designed an experiment to test this using a range of cleaning methods. For isotopic work, cleaning was performed using chemical oxidation, vacuum roasting and plasma ashing; for trace element work we used sonication, chemical oxidation and reductive cleaning. These methods were compared to simple ‘manual’ cleaning using a paint brush to remove visible material. Cleaning methods were compared by undertaking analyses on a single ostracod carapace (two separate ‘valves’, similar to a mussel, which together form the ‘shell’); in modern ostracods, the two valves should have identical trace element and isotope ratios. One valve was cleaned using one of the methods above, and the other was manually cleaned using a paintbrush. Any difference between the two valves after cleaning could be assigned to the effect of the treatment method.

We found that some cleaning methods have the potential to cause alteration to the signal and can therefore affect the values obtained for climate reconstructions. For trace element reconstructions we calculated that reductive cleaning can alter the Mg/Ca temperature reconstruction up to −12°C and the Sr/Ca conductivity reconstruction up to +4.5 mS cm−1 by removing parts of the surface of the shell. Isotope-based reconstructions are less affected by the cleaning method. However, the concentration and length of exposure to chemicals was an important factor in the extent of alteration.

The naturally smooth surface of the shell after cleaning with a paintbrush and no
chemicals is pictured in A and C. After exposure to hydrogen peroxide for 30 minutes,
the smooth surface shows evidence of being removed (D) altering the trace element
and isotope signal of the shell. After 15 minutes, there is no evidence of the
treatment affecting the shell (B).
To establish a universal method which allows comparison between reconstructions, we recommend sonication for trace element analysis and oxidation by hydrogen peroxide for stable isotope analysis. We believe these methods are effective at cleaning the shells, but do not significantly alter the signal preserved in the shell.

For more information on the study and the recommended methods, the open access paper is reference is: Roberts, L.R., Holmes, J.A., Leng, M.J., Sloane, H.J., Horne, D.J. Effects of cleaning methods upon preservation of stable isotopes and trace elements in ostracod shells: Implications for palaeoenvironmental reconstruction. Quaternary Science Reviews, 189, 197-209. The paper can be download for free here.

Wednesday, 2 May 2018

A new Post Doctoral Research Associate in shale gas geochemistry at the BGS…by Joe Emmings

Joe Emmings presenting research at the European
Geosciences Union General Assembly
Joe Emmings is the new Post Doctoral Research Associate in shale gas geochemistry at the British Geological Survey’s Stable Isotope Facility and Centre for Environmental Geochemistry. Here, Joe tells us about his PhD at Leicester University and future research at the British Geological Survey…

The world is gradually turning to renewables, such as wind and solar, as the main source of energy. This is great news for the environment, particularly for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Yet all sources of energy, such as natural gas, nuclear energy, but even renewables, have pro’s and con’s. The expansion of renewables and batteries used to store this ‘green’ electricity is increasing the demand for metals, such as Co and Ni. These will need to be mined somewhere in the world.

Renewables cannot entirely replace the demand for hydrocarbons, either. For example, hydrocarbons are used as fertilisers and gas central heating in UK households, will be difficult to replace. So the transition to renewables must proceed now, but gradually – if it is done too quickly, the environmental and economic costs are large.

It is in this context that locally extracted natural gas is potentially a ‘bridge’ between coal, oil and gas and sustainable sources of energy. In a global context, locally extracted gas is preferable over imported gas, because in the UK we have strict regulations which protect the environment, and the fugitive emissions by long gas pipelines is significant. The method of extracting natural gas from shale, hydraulic fracturing, is contentious. Yet much of the science that informs our understanding of the pro’s and con’s of this technique has not been conducted.

I have been and will be continuing to work on the science that contributes to this debate, by shedding light on the composition of black shales in the UK that are of interest to exploration companies. On a microscopic scale, black shales are incredibly varied. No two shales are the same; the amount of gas stored in the rock varies substantially. This ultimately comes down to the environment of deposition – in other words – what did the environment look like millions of years ago?

Through my PhD research, we know Mississippian black shales in the UK were deposited in shallow seaways. By studying the geochemical composition of UK black shales, we know these were deposited in seawaters that lacked oxygen (termed ‘anoxic’), an environment that is similar to the modern Black Sea. Understanding when and how seawaters became oxygenated is important for understanding the amount of gas that is now trapped in the shale. The geochemical proxy record also shows that seawaters were also rich in hydrogen sulphide (H2S), a gas that is highly toxic to aerobic organisms. H2S is produced when other ‘electron acceptors’, such as oxygen, are absent. Anaerobes that live in the water instead respire using dissolved sulphate (SO4) and produce H2S as a product. This means UK black shales contain lots of pyrite (FeS2, ‘fools gold’) and are enriched in many ‘redox-sensitive’ metals, including Co and Ni. So black shales in the UK may represent an important resource of metals, which are used in renewable technologies, and this is something that I will be looking at.

Overall, Joe is interested in understanding ancient marine biogeochemical processes, by integration of sedimentology and organic and inorganic geochemistry. Please contact Joe if you are interested in his research field at

Friday, 27 April 2018

A trip to Vienna for the European Geosciences Union General Assembly ... by Dr Jack Lacey

Catch up with #EGU18 on Twitter
This month, over 15,000 scientists from more than 100 countries took part in the European Geosciences Union (EGU) General Assembly in Vienna, Austria.  The EGU programme was diverse with over 17,000 presentations that detailed novel and exciting geoscience research from around the world, and beyond!

Dr Jack Lacey from the British Geological Survey Stable Isotope Facility attended the conference to share new results from two projects that look at human impact on lakes. Here, Jack tell us about his week and the work presented…

Jack Lacey presenting research on human impact at Tasik Chini, Malaysia
The EGU General Assembly provides a fantastic opportunity for geoscientists to network and discuss their latest findings, as well as meet with representatives from industry and publishing. It was a very busy week indeed. The large number of scientific presentations were organised into 22 broad-scale topics, such as ‘Natural Hazards’ or ‘Atmospheric Sciences’, which were subdivided into 666 subject-specific sessions each consisting of talk, poster, and PICO sessions. This was in addition to the medal lectures, great debates, town hall meetings, short courses, and educational and outreach events. Thankfully, the timetable for the whole week is available online and through the EGU app, so you can plan your week in advance and make sure you get to all relevant sessions.

The two papers I presented look at the scale and timing of human impact on lake systems, specifically Rostherne Mere in the UK and Tasik Chini in Malaysia. Using sediment core records we are able to find out how these ecosystems behaved in the past before major human disturbance (e.g. deforestation, pollution, dams), which can then act a baseline for understanding when and in what way human activity has influenced the lake and its biota. This information is essential for putting in place conservation strategies to help manage and reduce our impact on natural environments.

Overall, the meeting was very successful and it was great to share this research with the wider scientific community. Find out more about the Tasik Chini project on GeoBlogy, and read about tracing human impact on Rostherne Mere (UK) in Anthropocene.

EGU is hosted at the Vienna International Centre, Austria
Contact Dr Jack Lacey or via Twitter @JackHLacey

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Announcing our new Core Scanning Facility ... by Dr Magret Damaschke

It has been an exciting start as we prepare to open the new Core Scanning Facility at the National Geological Repository (NGR) in Keyworth, Nottinghamshire, UK, for business in late-summer 2018.

Funded by the Natural Environmental Research Council (NERC), the UK Geoenergy Observatories (UKGEOS) allocated £1.4 million to create a state-of-the-art core scanning facility equipped with four high-resolution and automated core scanner systems for core imaging and non-destructive core analysis.

With these new capabilities whole, split, or slabbed rock and sediment cores can be continuously scanned to provide initial information on the geophysical, mineralogical, and geochemical characteristics of the core, record core quality and fundamental variations downcore, and allow high-definition optical, near-infrared (NIR), ultraviolet (UV), and X-radiographic images to be taken. These techniques minimise the need for destructive sampling and will enable scientist to target specific areas of interest for effective sub-sampling procedures.

Once up and running, the NGR Core Scanning Facility will not only give UKGEOS the opportunity to facilitate world-leading research into UK’s sub-surface environment (read the science plan), but also will allow scientists, academics and commercial companies to add significantly to their general drill core data acquisition and exploration procedures. Compared with traditional analytical methods, these approaches greatly reduce the time, cost, and destructive nature of sampling.

Why slab it, when you can scan it!


BGS takes great pride in purchasing from two market-leading analytical equipment suppliers: Geotek Ltd and Cox Analytical Systems; both renowned for their cutting edge technologies that greatly contribute to scientific- and industrial-based applications.
  • Instruments that have been purchased for the NGR Core Scanning Facility include:
  • Geotek Multi-Sensor Core Logger (MSCL-S
  • Geotek Rotating X-Ray CT Scanner (MSCL-RXCT
  • Geotek XRF Core Workstation (MSCL-XYZ
  • COX  XRF Tray Scanner (newly designed instrument)
MSCL-S and RXCT delivery and installation by Geotek Ltd

Geotek Ltd. delivered the first two core scanners (MSCL-S and -RXCT) to the newly refurbished core scanning facility on 26th March 2018. Heavy instrument parts, weighting up to 1.3- ton, were carefully manoeuvred through the narrow corridors and installed by the experienced team. Afterwards, BGS staff members were trained to understand all the components and system parts, and on how to use the software to acquire, process and manage data.

Geotek Rotating X-ray CT Scanner (MSCL-RXCT)

We will be using the MSCL-RXCT to visualise and record internal structures present within the core to determine core quality, heterogeneity, and fracture network. The rotating source-detector assembly allows linear and rotational scans to be realised, which makes it a valuable tool to users who wish to extend from general 2D X-Ray radiographic core imaging to 3D X-Ray CT reconstructions. A digital rock software package (PerGeos) will help users to visualize, process, and rapidly interpret the digital core imagery.

The RXCT Scanner

Geotek Multi-Sensor Core Logger (MSCL-S)

Top: The MSCL-S
Bottom: Typical MSCL-S data display
The MSCL-S will be used for ultra-high definition core images and geophysical analyses, including gamma density, magnetic susceptibility, non-contact electrical resistivity, P-wave velocity, colour spectrophotometry (including NIR), and natural gamma activity.

These data will give scientist the opportunity to:
  • Generate bulk density, porosity, salinity, and/or P-wave velocity profiles
  • Map core quality, heterogeneity, and lithology variations downcore (e.g., grain-size, texture, colour)
  • Estimate water-content and permeability
  • Identify compositional changes (biogenic vs. terrigenous)
  • Recognise fundamental features (e.g., gassy soils, cemented horizons, erosion surfaces, clay-rich layers, radioactive material, turbidites, tephra, detritus, etc.)
  • Implement core-to-core and/or core-to-log correlations, and lateral correlation between core locations
  • Provide information on the stratigraphic framework when logging has failed during exploration 
  • Catalogue and archive
Looking ahead, the delivery and installation of the COX Tray Scanner and Geotek MSCL-XYZ will be expected to take place at the end of June 2018.


Special thanks goes to the BGS Facility Management Team who completed reconstruction and enhancement of the existing facility, as well as the BGS Systems and Network Support Team who managed network connection, data storage and any other organisation needs.

For more information please contact Dr Magret Damaschke at 

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Why we need a geological Prof Mike Stephenson

An automated weather station at Allt a Mharcaidh (Source:
A microscope is a device to help us see small things easily, but a macroscope is a network of sensing devices and detectors that allows us to see big things – and how they change and evolve. Macroscopes will become more and more important in helping us manage and sustain the planet we occupy. Their development is partly driven by the need to understand planetary processes, but also by the supply of ever cheaper and more sophisticated sensors, better telemetry and raw computing power.

Atmosphere and ocean macroscopes

Perhaps the most obvious macroscopes in use at the moment are those that sense the atmosphere and the oceans. The sensitivity of the meteorological macroscope – the network of sensors that keeps track of the changing atmosphere - and the powerful computing and models that crunch the data - provide us with more and more accurate weather forecasts. The UK’s Met Office produces forecasts using software known as the Unified Model run on one of the world’s most power computers. A 36 hour forecast for weather is produced for the UK and surroundings, a 48 hour forecast for Europe and the North Atlantic, and a 144 hour forecast for the globe.

Ocean monitoring is also well-established. Ocean-scanning satellites map ocean-surface topography caused by ocean currents, and ocean warming and cooling. Other satellite instruments measure the direction and magnitude of the effect of wind on the sea surface, surface water temperature, the distribution of chlorophyll, and precipitation over the ocean. Ocean research vessels and drifting and anchored buoys measure temperature, salinity and currents in the upper water layers. Tide gauges measure variations in monthly and shorter-period mean sea level. These measurements and observations help us to understand the changing oceans, for example variations in the Indian Ocean monsoon and droughts, connections between oceanic and atmospheric processes, and the ocean carbon cycle. They also help us to keep track of debris including the ever-increasing amounts of plastic in our oceans.

The internet of things

Macroscopes are also appearing in the built environment through the ever-increasing numbers of sensors in buildings and human infrastructure. The internet of things is a macroscope of physical ‘smart devices’ including buildings, vehicles and other items containing electronics, software, sensors, and network connectivity. These can collect and exchange data, and be controlled remotely across networks, so data about the physical world can be recorded without human intervention. In practice this means, for example, that smart electric power grids can manage themselves to adjust to power demand; similarly ‘smart homes’ can manage power use better.

The geological macroscope

The Cheshire Energy Research Field Site as part of UKGEOS
Geologists have been slower to take up the technology of sensors, telemetry and related computing, except in specific fields such as volcanology, seismology and hydrocarbon exploration. But geoscience is poised to develop more comprehensive macroscopes that could monitor groundwater supply, groundwater flooding, coastal salt groundwater intrusion, cliff falls and erosion around our coasts - as well as effects that climate change might have on the landscape or such built infrastructure as railway embankments. Geological macroscopes will help us build better models for subsurface developments in cities and rural areas, for example geothermal for heating and air conditioning, gas storage, compressed air energy storage, and carbon capture and storage. They may also help us
understand the ecologies that exist below the surface and the contributions that the subsurface biota make to the atmosphere, hydrosphere and biosphere.

The technology is getting better all the time: sensors better suited to the underground, better computer visualisation of the underground, and better telemetry. The BGS’ UK Geoenergy Observatories (UKGEOS) project is, at this very moment, establishing two sites with sophisticated subsurface equipment to keep track of groundwater, seismicity and ground motion amongst many other things.

Why is the geological macroscope so important?

Over the last few centuries, technology has lifted living standards and health, but has also placed humankind at odds with its environment, perhaps most notably with the large-scale adoption of fossil fuels. But it has also recently delivered the means to help us to adapt better through helping us monitor, measure and understand the environment. The ability to intervene in an intelligent way to reduce climate change, or better adapt, can only come from a greater understanding of Earth processes. Meteorological and oceanographic measuring help us understand only parts of the system. For example, understanding rainfall processes is critical, but understanding how rainfall becomes groundwater is just as important and how groundwater behaves is important too. As sea level rises with climate change, being able to measure and understand coastal salt groundwater intrusion will be vital for the millions of people that live along coasts. For those that may rely more heavily in the future on groundwater because of reduced surface flows due to climate change – for example in sub-Saharan Africa - this understanding may be a matter of survival. Climate change may also affect the integrity of human infrastructure such as embankments, cuttings and foundations. Stray gases from underground hydrocarbon extraction need to be monitored. If low temperature geothermal is extracted below our cities for heating homes, we will need to know how sustainable that heat is.

Coupled models

I think geoscientists and organisations like geological surveys will play an important part in establishing the geological macroscope. This will extend the concept of volcanological and seismological monitoring and critical zone observatories to a wider range of subsurface monitoring and observing and, critically, work towards coupling subsurface computer models with those of the atmosphere and oceans.

If you are interested in the wider geology – energy – climate nexus, including the geological macroscope, read my new book, available from Elsevier, Amazon and (shortly) online through Elsevier’s ScienceDirect.

Prof Mike Stephenson is the Director of Science and Technology at BGS.

Thursday, 29 March 2018

Commonwealth Professional Fellowship: placement at the Bwalya Kalunga and Munir Zia

Munir, Kalunga, Belinda (PhD student) at BGS
Our names are Bwalya Kalunga, a Research Technician in the Ministry of Agriculture under the Zambia Agriculture Research Institute (ZARI) Department, and based at Mount Makulu Central Research Station; and Munir Zia from Pakistan who is the Research and Development Coordinator at Fauji Fertilizer Company Limited. We undertook a Commonwealth Professional Fellowship (CSCUK 2018). The fellowship was attainable at the BGS hosted by the Inorganic Geochemistry (IG) team within the Centre for Environmental Geochemistry. The visit has acquainted us on very important aspects of lab work, i.e. health and safety, sample handling, sample preparation, sample dissolutions, modern methods of analysis, quality assurance, data management, staff coordination and relation which most organisations lack in developing countries. The fellowship will be very pivotal in lifting our home country’s laboratories to be on the next level and also in demonstrating confidence in data output and its publication.

During the fellowship we were exposed to the use of various laboratory equipment such as, TIM865 Titration Manager (pH/Alkaline), NPOC, IC, and ICP-MS. Due to the sensitivity of the equipment, we acquired knowledge on the need for good laboratory practices that require a clean environment. Additionally how the samples should be handled when running the equipment by use of a quality control regime to monitor the performance of equipment in the short and long-term within acceptable working limits. After a few briefings on lab protocols, Dr Zia focused more towards learning of QGIS skills for the development of soil fertility maps using 70,000 data points from soil samples collected at country scale with help from Dr Marieta Garcia-Bajo and Dr Louise Ander.  This effort goes back to 2012 when Dr Zia first visited and received advice on how to locate sample data from an annual soil sampling campaign of 25,000 collection points.  Dr Barry Rawlins was involved in providing advice at this point and continued help from IG to guide Dr Zia in collecting field data in the appropriate format to produce a digital output for soil chemistry on this visit which will be highly valuable for use by policymakers e.g. soil fertility, pH maps.

Kalunga on the ICP-MS in the Inorganic Geochemistry Laboratory
The overview of principles of QA, which includes documentation, Standard Operating Procedures (SOP's), Quality Control samples and monitoring processes will help us develop our own systems in Africa and understand the challenges to implement them and possibly even aim for appropriate accreditation. This is also applicable to Fauji Fertilizer Company (FFC) to which Dr Munir Zia represents since FFC is also going to set up a huge ammonia complex in Tanzania ($2B). For this purpose Dr Zia also had a placement at Rothamsted Research to learn more in depth about the Africa Soil Information System (AfSIS). Our collaboration with the BGS Inorganic Geochemistry laboratories will act as a bench mark to this monumental task. This can be achieved in a stepwise and staggered manner. Accreditation is possible for African laboratories.

Visits to Universities of Reading and Nottingham

While Dr Zia visited the Giants’ Causeway, Bwalya had an opportunity of attending an Annual Meeting of the Soil Research Centre at University of Reading. Basically it was a good experience to meet up with scientists from different disciplines on how best soil health could be sustained through the introduction of cost effective ways of managing soil nutrients and also coming up with a policy to remedy the farming practices that are contributing to nutrient depletion. Bwalya also had a tour of laboratories at Nottingham University with a view of trying to see different working culture.

Dundee Conference

Visiting Dundee, Scotland
We also attended a 2-day conference at Dundee in Scotland which was on 27-28 February, 2018. There we had a wonderful experience during and after the conference. This conference focused on the protection of the environment thus boosting agriculture growth. People from different places across Scotland, Ireland, and England, with vast experience and of course from various disciplines. The returning part was so great because we experienced the trains being cancelled due to the ”beast from the east”..

With the MP-AES equipment which was purchased by the Royal Society-DFID project for Bwalya’s lab at ZARI, it will actually enable was to work effectively in credible data generation through the skills and knowledge acquired during the fellowship.  Agilent’s 4210 MP-AES is the ideal instrument for our institutions looking at transition from Flame Atomic Absorption Spectroscopy (FAAS) to another technique. By using nitrogen as the source gas for the plasma, running costs are greatly reduced, and by removing the requirement for hazardous nitrous oxide and acetylene safety is greatly increased. Additionally the higher temperature nitrogen plasma atomization/ionization source improves detection limits, linear range, and long term stability, and allows the sample preparation process to be greatly simplified.

Geostatistical approaches learnt by Dr Zia at BGS, and UoN demonstrate the value of private sector farmer’s field data as a whole. Prediction modelling suggested a wider scale deficiency of zinc, phosphorus, and somewhat potassium across Pakistan. Dr Zia training also demonstrates the potential power of well-curated, georeferenced agronomy data from the private sector (or where public, or public-private, systems exist). These resources can have collective benefits reaching far beyond those to the individual farmer for whom field-specific advice is provided. The value of collecting location details and maintaining a consistent database of results and sampling information should be developed more widely, to allow such spatial assessments to be implemented more frequently. The outputs of these geostatistical modelling approaches made predictions on un-sampled grid locations, so have a further benefit that they do not reveal original (private) sample location or data information. Therefore, regional or national predictive modelling can deliver strategic information to support food security in terms of both yield and micronutrient concentrations, including in small-scale agriculture situations. The prediction maps from this work will be presented at the SEGH conference this July in Livingstone Zambia ( ), prior to publication.

The onus is on us to make sure that the skills acquired, should be able to help us in effectively implement and execute laboratory and geospatial techniques for running of laboratory instruments and handling of large datasets.

Our next step is to have a joined training programme in Lusaka (lab scientists from Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Kenya) resulting from a network of 8 institutes supported by the Royal Society-DFID project, and also trying to see the progress of the laboratories after acquiring knowledge from the British Geological Survey. Additionally, discuss the long term goals on how they can be met to engender trust and confidence in data produced from African labs. Analytical exercises using our own in-house produced reference materials (learnt at BGS as part of Innovation funding) will provide a measure of performance for analytical data will also be part of the training in developing quality assurance/management programmes. After that the lab scientists will procced to Livingstone for a 34th International Conference under Society for Environmental Geochemistry and Health (SEGH), where we as Laboratory Scientists will have an opportunity of seeing how data generated from labs are used in scientific presentations. We will also have the opportunity to present a joint poster presentation to discuss the challenges that African labs face and potential solutions to overcome these challenges to produce confidence and trust in their data output.

Monday, 26 March 2018

Geoscience and climate change: the African groundwater Prof Mike Stephenson

Part of what I call the ‘geology – energy – climate nexus’, the intimate relationship between geoscience, energy supply and climate change, concerns groundwater and its importance to climate change adaptation. The question is: just how important will groundwater be in helping people to adapt to climate change? The answer is likely to contain a lot of geology.

Importance of groundwater

A recent World Bank report  states that the impacts of climate change will be channelled primarily through the water cycle in that systems of food, energy, and urban and rural life will mainly feel the effects of climate change through water. In many parts of the world, groundwater is the chief source of water for domestic, agricultural and industrial use. It also has a crucial role in providing a natural buffer against seasonal variability – and will likely be important to adapt to climate variability.

Many countries, abstract water from aquifers. Around 96% of global available freshwater resides in aquifers. About 70% of drinking water in the European Union, 80% of rural water supply in sub-Saharan Africa and 60% of agricultural irrigation in India depend on groundwater. Many countries, therefore, have large groundwater-dependent economies. Groundwater also provides baseflow to many rivers and sustains ecosystems by supporting wetlands and other aquatic ecosystems.

A few assertions can be made about the effects of climate change on groundwater. It is likely that recharge patterns will change. (Recharge is the process of water entering an aquifer mainly from the surface of the Earth). There is also likely to be increased demand, especially from irrigation, which today takes 70% of global groundwater withdrawals. Groundwater resources are most likely to reduce in areas of long term declining precipitation, but new research suggests that increasing intensity of rainfall with climate change may actually increase rates of groundwater recharge. Climate change may affect the quality of water in aquifers: with increasing temperature, groundwater salinity may increase as more water evaporates before it can reach deeper levels. Rising sea levels will also force seawater inland, changing recharge patterns.

Groundwater in Africa

Groundwater’s role in cushioning against climate change is perhaps most important in Africa. In Africa as a whole, groundwater is the major source of drinking water and its use for irrigation is forecast to increase as Africa’s economy and population grow. Despite its importance, there is a dearth of detailed local quantitative information on groundwater in Africa. A compilation of data by BGS’ Alan MacDonald and colleagues allowed continent-wide estimates of the amount of groundwater and potential borehole yields resulting in a figure for total groundwater storage in Africa of 0.66 million cubic kilometres . Not all of this groundwater would be available from wells, but this figure of two-thirds of a cubic kilometre is one hundred times larger than some estimates of annual renewable freshwater resources in Africa. This groundwater resource is not evenly distributed: most is present in north Africa (Libya, Algeria, Egypt and Sudan). The same study indicates that in many areas, well sited and constructed boreholes could yield useful amounts of water for low intensity rural activities and the aquifers they penetrate will have enough water to sustain abstraction through seasonal variations.

For industry and irrigation, the potential for higher yielding boreholes, for example those that could deliver more than 5 litres per second, is much more limited. With climate change and population increase this is likely to pose a problem.

In East Africa alone, population is forecast to grow from about 300 million today to 800 million by 2060 and 1150 million by 2090. Many of the countries in East Africa are already water stressed based on per capita annual water availability, but by 2100 this will increase to nearly all. A review by a team lead by Umesh Adhikari of the effect of climate change on runoff , shows huge uncertainty in studies of river catchments. An example is the upper Nile catchment which is predicted to have a change by 2075 of between 25% less, or 32% more, runoff. Clearly a prediction involving less runoff has serious implications for the population that depend on water. How much of the deficit can be compensated for by, for example, groundwater? Are the aquifers large enough in the area and will water wells deliver the deficit? Much of the research needed to answer these questions locally has still to be done. This is an example of how climate change adaptation can come down to very geological questions.

Another aspect of groundwater change in relation to climate change is saltwater intrusion. This is the movement of saline water into freshwater aquifers, which happens naturally in most coastal aquifers, because both kinds of groundwater are in close proximity. Coastal aquifers provide groundwater for the more than a billion people. Saline groundwater is denser that fresh groundwater and so it tends to form wedge shaped intrusions under freshwater. Intense abstraction from freshwater wells can draw saline water levels up and allow saline groundwater to penetrate further inland, below ground. How far this saline water moves inland is closely controlled by the geology.

Saline groundwater is not just a direct problem for domestic water and irrigation. Soils can also be affected. In Bangladesh, for example, increase in soil salinity may lead to decline in yield of staple crops like rice and reduce the income of farmers significantly.

There are few detailed local answers to the many questions about run off, inland groundwater and coastal groundwater. The detailed study, when it comes, should be directed where population will likely concentrate in the future. In the rapidly changing continent of Africa, this needs an understanding of the way that large-scale development might occur, which in turn relates to the distribution of resources and already-established infrastructure.

Development corridors and geoscience

One way to look at this could be through studying areas where future infrastructure development and population growth will take place. What will East Africa look like in 2060 or 2090? Where will the new people, the new industries, the new towns and cities be?

A good guide might be the pattern of potential resources like land, water and minerals, as well as existing infrastructure and transport routes. These items are linked into arcs or strips of land known as development corridors. It is in these development corridors where Integrated water resource management (and other environmental management) will be most critically needed.

Whatever the resources that the development corridor might link, their growth will ultimately be driven by economics. A development corridor might start as a basic transport route and the addition of other types of transport produces a transport corridor. Efficient corridor operations encourage further economic activity that leads to further investment and, ultimately, the corridor evolves into an ‘economic corridor’.

It is worth looking at a couple of development corridors in Africa to illustrate the point. The so called ‘Northern Corridor’ already links the land locked countries of Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi with Kenya’s port of Mombasa. The Northern Corridor could, with more development, serve the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Southern Sudan and northern Tanzania. The Nacala Corridor to the south, is less developed. There is considerable governmental and commercial interest because its future purpose would be to unlock the development potential of the hinterland of the Nacala Port and less economically developed parts of Mozambique, Malawi and Zambia. New resources will be accessible economically and the development of business and commerce will contribute to the reduction of poverty. But the environment – including groundwater – will have to be managed. The likelihood is that the pattern of development corridors either planned or already in existence is a good guide to the concentration of population and industry which is the key to understanding the food – water – energy nexus, and the geological aspects of the nexus, whether it be well managed groundwater inland or at the coast.

So it’s clear that long term geological studies will be important in understanding the potential for groundwater as a mitigation for reduced surface water, in the developing – and developed – world. It will mean geological mapping and modelling and the kind of long term concerted effort that only geological surveys can supply.

If you are interested in the wider geology – energy – climate nexus, read my new book, available from Elsevier, Amazon and (shortly) online through Elsevier’s ScienceDirect.

(Acknowledgement: Alan MacDonald and Rob Ward)

Prof Mike Stephenson is the Director of Science and Technology at BGS.

Friday, 23 March 2018

Tropical palaeoclimate progress meeting in a Siberian blast…by guest blogger Heather Moorhouse

The DeepCHALLA UK group plus Principal Lead Investigator Dirk
Verschuren (University of Ghent) in cool Cambridge.
Scientists braved the “beast from the east” to attend the DeepCHALLA progress meeting of the UK NERC-funded collaborators at the University of Cambridge, UK. DeepCHALLA is an International Continental scientific Drilling Program project, involving researchers from across the globe who are investigating ~250,000 years of climate and environmental change in equatorial east Africa. This work is centered on investigating different biological, chemical and physical properties of sediments retrieved from the depths of Lake Challa, located on the Kenyan/Tanzanian border, on the lower eastern flanks of the iconic Mount Kilamanjaro.

Lucky to have avoided many of the travel disruptions, we huddled in the warmth of the University of Cambridge School of Geography to discuss our preliminary findings on the sediment samples taken last July as part of the subsampling party at the University of Ghent (see previous blog). Excellent progress is being made in using tephra (volcanic ash), palaeomagnetic signals and carbon-dating which will help produce a well-resolved chronology of the sediment record. This is often one of the main constraints when interpreting environmental history over long timescales, so it is great to have confidence in when key changes in the record occurred. There was also exciting findings on historical volcanic activity, influences of climate on biological communities in the lake and the role of humans vs. climate on fire regimes, which can be an important driver of terrestrial biodiversity change.

SEM image of diatoms from the sediments of Lake Challa.
These are diatoms of the species Nitzschia.
At Lancaster University, we have been working alongside colleagues at BGS to investigate the sources and nature of carbon in the organic matter of the sediments, as well as the oxygen and carbon isotopes used and stored in the silica cell walls of diatoms, a dominant group of algae in Lake Challa (see previous blog). We are particularly interested in how carbon cycling and lake primary productivity was modified by the severe aridity of the megadroughts, which occurred around 130 to 90 thousand years ago.   This work is still very much a work in progress, but we have exciting preliminary findings in reference to the megadrought period. As we collect more data, we look forward to working with others on the project in order to develop unique insights into the environmental history of equatorial east Africa.

The next stages for me involve more laboratory preparation of diatom samples, a return to Ghent to collect more sediment to analyse and organizing outreach activities in Kenya and Tanzania. But more pressing is keeping warm, and thinking of tropical climes amidst the icy blast which continues to wreak havoc on much of the UK.

Heather is a post doctoral research assistant on the NERC funded grant (between Lancaster, BGS, Cambridge, Belfast, SUERC) based at Lancaster University.