Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Out of Africa into Arabia’s ‘Garden of Eden’... by Andrew Farrant

Andy Farrant
Following on from yesterday's post by Ash about Arabia's lush past, Dr Andrew Farrant, a Principal Geologist from the BGS, looks at how geological mapping has changed the way we view human evolution...

Think about Arabia, and normally an image of deserts, endless sand dunes and camels comes to mind, not verdant green pasture, rivers, lakes and herds of grazing animals. Yet at various periods during the last few hundred thousand years, this is exactly what Arabia has looked like. Changes in global climate have periodically transformed Arabia from an arid desert into a more welcoming savannah landscape, replete with wildlife. Understanding when these wet periods occurred is critical for understanding human evolution. This is because Arabia lay at a bottleneck for early humans migrating out of Africa into Asia. Too dry and early humans would have faced an impenetrable desert barrier. This has sparked a considerable amount of scientific debate as to how early humans crossed out of Africa into Eurasia.

The Al Sibetah quarry near Al Ain, a 42 m section in
stratified alluvial fan sediments spanning160,000 years.
Professor Adrian Parker and Dr Ash Parton (upper
figure) for scale. Photo (c) A R Farrant
Two hypotheses have emerged to explain how this was achieved. The first suggested human populations expanded rapidly from Africa to southern Asia via the coastlines of Arabia approximately 50,000 to 60,000 years ago, the interior being far too arid to support human settlement. An alternative hypothesis suggests that humans migrated much earlier, around 75,000 to 130,000 years ago, crossing into the Arabian interior several times when increased rainfall provided sufficient freshwater to support expanding populations. Key to solving this debate lies in understanding the climatic record; were there just a few sporadic wet interludes linked to northern hemisphere interglacials, or were there multiple wet periods allowing repeated dispersal?

Research just published by the British Geological Survey and Oxford Brookes University (Parton et al., 2015; Geology) has suggested that the latter scenario is most likely. By analysing river sediments near Al Ain in the United Arab Emirates, we unearthed a unique and sensitive record of landscape change in southeast Arabia spanning the past 160,000 years which provides evidence for several wet climatic interludes during both glacial and interglacial periods. These periodic wet phases allowed humans to migrate across the interior of Arabia several times during the past 160,000 years.
So how did we come to work on the climate of Arabia? The story began in 2002, when BGS was contracted by the UAE Ministry of Energy to undertake a comprehensive geological mapping project, covering the whole country. This included mapping the extensive alluvial fans emanating out from the Hajar Mountains and the dune sands of the Rub al Khali desert, popularly known as the ‘Empty Quarter’. During the mapping work, it soon became apparent that these Quaternary sediments were far more interesting than most people realise. Our mapping identified numerous quarries between Dubai and Al Ain which exposed thick alluvial fan and dune sediments. As alluvial fan systems only form during wet climatic periods, whilst dune sands accumulate during arid phases, these interbedded fan and dune sands had the potential to record a detailed palaeoclimate record spanning the last few hundred thousand years.

Working in the 'empty quarter'
However, understanding the palaeoclimate of Arabia was not something our Ministry clients were interested in. This is where colleagues at Oxford Brookes University stepped in. Professor Adrian Parker and Dr Ash Parton, then a PhD student had been working near Jebel Faya, an important rock-shelter with the earliest archaeological evidence for human dispersal out of Africa, located some 60 km east of Dubai. They were analysing alluvial fan sediments in order reconstruct the palaeoclimate of the region. Ash’s work at Jebal Faya had shown that the alluvial fans were active ~55-60,000 years ago – nicely in the middle of a glacial period, but this was just one site. The 40 m deep Al Sibetah quarry we had discovered near Al Ain offered considerably greater potential for unearthing Arabia’s climatic secrets.

So, in 2008, we were back mapping in the UAE. Logging the sections was not easy. Fieldwork in the UAE sounds glamorous, but the reality was working in a sun-scorched, smelly pit, strewn with rubbish and camel excrement with only flies for company and temperatures approaching 40°C. However, the hard work, dust and sweat paid off. Through painstaking sedimentological, geochemical and isotopic analyses, the latter with the help of Professor Melanie Leng of the NERC Isotope Geosciences Laboratory here at BGS, Ash constructed a detailed record of climatic and environmental change for this part of Arabia. Dating of the sediments was done by Dr Matt Telfer using a dating technique known as optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) dating.

Map showing location and photo of the study site (Sibetah) and extent of relict
alluvial fan system in SE Arabia. Jebel Faya and other study sites are shown.
Our findings, published in the journal Geology have shown that wet climatic periods in Arabia were not driven by global ice volume changes during interglacial conditions every ~100,000 years. Instead the quarries at Al Ain demonstrate that the vast alluvial fans along the western Hajar and Oman Mountains became active approximately every 23,000 years since at least ~160,000 years ago. These wet periods were triggered by periodic northward shifts in the position and strength of the Indian Ocean Monsoon, driven by subtle changes in the Earth’s orbit every ~23,000 years. During these times the vast Arabian deserts were transformed into landscapes littered with freshwater lakes and active river systems, providing ample opportunities for humans to disperse across the region en route to the rest of Eurasia.

Moreover, this is but one of the academic spinoffs from the UAE geological mapping project. Dating of the desert sand across the UAE have clarified the timing of dune formation, stabilisation and links to past climate, whilst mineralogical analysis of the sand has yielded insights into the provenance and formation of the dune systems. BGS colleagues have also been busy studying the evolution of the UAE-Oman ophiolite complex, exquisitely exposed in the Hajar Mountains, and understanding salt dome evolution in the Arabian Gulf.

In short, geological mapping not only underpins the economic well-being of a country, but can also deliver some fantastic science.


Working in the 'empty quarter'
To read more about Ash Parton's PhD and research for the Geology paper read his Geoblogy post here.


A. Parton, A. R. Farrant, M. J. Leng, M. W. Telfer, H. S. Groucutt, M. D. Petraglia, A. G. Parker. Alluvial fan records from southeast Arabia reveal multiple windows for human dispersal. Geology, 2015; DOI: 10.1130/G36401.1


Thanks to all the members of the BGS UAE mapping team, in particular Richard Ellison and Mike Styles, and to the UAE Ministry of Energy for funding the mapping in the first place.

Dr Andrew Farrant is a Principal Geologist at the British Geological Survey and led the geological mapping element of the UAE project from 2006-2012. He mapped the area around Al Ain including the Al Sibetah quarry. He continues to research climate change in Arabia.

Dr Ash Parton did his PhD research in the UAE whilst at Oxford Brookes University, part funded by the British Geological Survey. He is currently a member of the Palaeodeserts Project at the University of Oxford, which is seeking to better understand the relationship between environmental change in Arabia and the demography of early human populations.

Was Arabia once a lush paradise? Dr Ash Parton

Ash Parton
Ash Parton is on a mission to understand the relationship between environmental change in Arabia and the demography of early human populations. His PhD research, undertaken in collaboration with the BGS, has provided a unique climate record for southeast Arabia over the past ~160,000 years. This work has helped expand our understanding of early human dispersals out of Africa.

If you saw the recent BBC article "Arabia was once a lush paradise of grass and woodlands" you'll already be aware of his latest results, published in the prestigious academic journal GEOLOGY

To guide us through the research in full here's Ash, lead author of the paper and a member of the Palaeodeserts Project at the University of Oxford, and some of his amazing fieldwork photos...
I began my PhD at Oxford Brookes University under the supervision of Professor Adrian Parker with the rather ambitious aim of reconstructing the evolution of the Indian Ocean Monsoon system throughout the Pleistocene.

The Arabian Peninsula is a key region for research concerning both human evolution and climate studies, and so my initial idea was to develop a long transect of palaeoclimatic records running the entire length of the peninsula. This, Adrian informed me, was far beyond the scope of a self-funded PhD! Indeed, it is beyond the scope of most large, well-funded projects. Instead, he suggested that we attempt to investigate the evolution of the Arabian climate through more realistic means. It was agreed that I should accompany him on his field work to Arabia, which at the time involved working with a German archaeological team who were excavating a rockshelter site at Jebel Faya in the UAE. This site later contained evidence for the earliest human dispersal out of Africa, and while its actual age was unknown at the time, it was clearly a region for which a palaeoenvironmental framework was much needed to underpin how people were able to survive and move through this landscape.

It was during this trip that the central premise for my PhD became clear. This question has stayed with me since and still remains to be fully answered;
“how has the changing environment of this vast desert landscape shaped the fortunes of our earliest ancestors?”

From the moment I first set foot among the sands of the Rub’ al-Khali, I was amazed to think how dramatically different it had once been. A number of palaeoclimatic records had already shown that while now arid/hyper-arid, at times the landscape of Arabia was littered with rivers, lakes and extensive grasslands. It was clear that such changes would have had a profound effect on any early populations, and that by better understanding the timing and nature of these changes we might better understand our own demographic trajectory.

Previous studies had suggested that the occurrence of humid periods in Arabia were predominantly driven by global ice volume changes. In particular, the development of interglacial conditions every ~100,000 years was seen as the principal driver of increased rainfall across the peninsula. As the major ice sheets contracted, monsoonal rainfall shifted much further north, bringing with them large volumes of summer rainfall and transforming the arid environment. Conversely, during global glacial periods these systems were pushed further south and Arabia returned to the harsh, dry conditions we see today.

As I began to explore the full range of climatic records, however, it became clear that some records told a rather different story. Marine records seemed to show that the monsoon experienced these phases of intensification and northward displacement every ~23,000, in line with periods of maximum solar radiation. Why then, I wondered, do we not see the same evidence in the terrestrial records? Confirming the presence of additional wet phases in Arabia then became a key aim of my work, as the occurrence of such periods would have provided further ‘windows’ for human populations to expand out of Africa.

Fig. 1 from Parton et al.: Map showing location of the study site and
extent of bajada system in southeast Arabia, including other identified
sections of the Al Ain fan (UAE—United Arab Emirates).
Image from GEOLOGY press release (c) GSA
In order to answer this question a greater range of climatic records was required. Previous climatic reconstructions had relied predominantly on speleothems, which require a lot of rainfall to form and as such, a significant range of rainfall remained undetectable from these records. In the first instance I had managed to locate an ancient lake deposit near the rockshelter site at Jebel Faya. Initial optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) dates indicated that the lake formed ~55-60,000 years ago – nicely in the middle of a glacial period – suggesting that the patterns of rainfall I had seen in the marine records did have an expression on the land. This was just one relatively small palaeolake site, however, and I needed more proof that glacial-age humid phases were more than just climatic ‘blips’.
After a brief worrying period in which no further sites were found, I was fortunate enough to begin a collaboration with the BGS. Adrian had started working with a BGS team who were mapping the geology of the UAE and in 2008 one of the team, Dr Andy Farrant, introduced me to the site that would vastly improve our understanding of the Arabian palaeoclimate. Situated near the town of Al Ain, recent quarrying had exposed a deep ~42 m sequence of alluvial fan deposits at the site of Al Sibetah. These ancient river channel and soil sediments comprised the biggest record of major climate changes from anywhere in the peninsula, and provided evidence of multiple periods of increased rainfall. 

Over the following year, successful collaborations with Andy Farrant and with Professor Melanie Leng of the BGS Isotope Geosciences Laboratory, and Dr Matt Telfer then from the University of Oxford, led to the development of a unique record of climate change for southeast Arabia that has had important implications for our understanding of early human demography. OSL dating of the sequence indicated that the activation of rivers within a vast bajada along the western Hajar and Oman Mountains had occurred approximately every 23,000 years since at least ~160,000 years ago, confirming that monsoon incursions into Arabia did in fact occur in line with insolation maxima. During these periods, expansive river systems surrounded by verdant savannah grasslands and trees, connected the mountains and the coast, potentially acting as vast green corridors through which early human populations could move. Importantly, the findings suggest that there were numerous windows for the dispersal of human populations out of Africa, and that demographic mobility was not restricted to interglacial periods every ~100,000 years.

Issues concerning the spatial and temporal variability of the Arabian climate continue to be the main focus of my research, and that of the Palaeodeserts Project. The findings from the Al Sibetah fan demonstrated that hidden beneath the sand seas of Arabia lies evidence for a complex and incredible climatic history. Despite many years of study, we are still just scratching the surface, quite literally, when it comes to understanding the evolution of the Arabian environment. And yet, the unfolding archaeological record continues to prove that the region played a critical role in the development of our species.
The findings from the Al Sibetah alluvial fan were recently published in the journal GEOLOGY, and reported by media outlets such as the BBC, Science Daily and the Daily Mail. Its been a very exciting week!

By Ash Parton

PhD supervision at BGS by Dr Andy Farrant (fieldwork and sedimentology) and Prof Melanie Leng (stable isotope geochemistry).

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Prehistoric eating habits... by Niklas Hausmann

Niklas Hausmann is working on shells from archaeological sites in Saudi Arabia to reconstruct prehistoric eating habits and environmental change. As part of his PhD he is working within the Stable Isotope Facility at the BGS to analyse his shells for their geochemistry and to get away from the boiling heat of the Red Sea…

In the last 3 years, as part of my PhD in the DISPERSE Project at the University of York, I have worked extensively on the Farasan Islands (Google Maps link) in the southern Red Sea, which definitely has its upsides. You are surrounded by crystal clear water and, more importantly, you are able to eat extremely tasty fish every night.

Living specimen of Conomurex fasciatus.
Sichel-shaped operculum (a kind of trap door hatch)
can be used as a pick to eat the animal after it is cooked.
My supervisor Professor Geoff Bailey surveyed Farasan in 2003 and found a massive amount of shells heaped up by past inhabitants of the islands dating around the mid-Holocene (5,000 years ago). It was probably the archaeology that drove him to apply for funding for an excavation, but I want to believe that it also was the food. Either way, together with Geoffrey King from the Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris (IPGP), he came up with the DISPERSE research project which looks at human dispersal across the Red Sea during prehistory. The Farasan Islands are an important part of this dispersal as they are the only place where we find well preserved sites on the Arabian coastline, and they can be used as a reference for marine exploitation for the wider area of the southern Red Sea.

Shell mound at Janaba Bay. Cars to indicate scale
While Geoff started above-water and underwater excavations in 2006, 2008, and 2009, I only started my PhD on the project in 2012. My research is especially focused on the shell mounds themselves. I look at how the shells accumulated (were eaten by people) and what kind of environmental information I could get out of the shells themselves. It can’t have always been this hot!

Luckily, there were not many shell species that I needed to analyse, because 95% of the shell mounds consisted of the species Conomurex fasciatus (or Strombus fasciatus, the common name is the lined conch). Unfortunately, there is not much published on this species,  however, we know that the shells are generally between 2 and 5 cm, they are found almost exclusively in the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf, and are very pretty!

Artisanal fishers invited the team on a cruise
(Photo © C. Beresford)
It is assumed that the conch prefer shallow water in sandy and calm areas. But when we went out to look for it, it was almost never to be found in those areas. I spent many hours diving at all kinds of beaches (and enjoying myself despite the occasional stingray encounter). The result was a red hot sunburn and only two areas where I found the shellfish. Both places experienced heavy wave action and instead of sand I only found rough coral bedrock. I am not sure what the molluscs prefer in the end, but I liked the smooth beaches better.

Typical amount from 30 min of fishing (Photo © C. Beresford)
To find out about depositional patterns and the prehistoric environment, I am using geochemistry. Oxygen ratios in the shell can tell us about temperature and the saltiness of the water. I would have to figure out how both factors interact or if one of them is dominant.

For once, the incredibly hot conditions and aridity of the desert landscape had an advantage! If there is no rain, and there are no rivers or generally no freshwater bodies whatsoever (so the shells live in normal saltiness sea water), then they cannot mess up my geochemistry. Good news for me! It did rain once while I was on the Farasan Islands, it was over soon and flowed off the island within minutes.

Me, visually analysing erosional processes after
a very rare rain shower at Janaba Bay (Photo © R. Inglis)
After we collected modern shells from different seasons and compared their geochemistry to the temperature throughout the year, we had a baseline to show how we could reconstruct past sea water temperatures from the archaeological shells. I am now sampling the archaeological shells to find out at what time of the year people were gathering shellfish and how hot the ocean was. Combined with the archaeological context this can tell me a lot about their food preferences, how much they collected at a time, and if they used the sites continuously or only came a few times.

In the bigger perspective, we can apply these results to the rest of the southern Red Sea and have an idea of how rich the marine wildlife was and how important it was as food source in comparison to the desert landscape of Arabia.


Niklas Hausmann is a PhD student in the Department of Archaeology at the University of York. He is supervised at the BGS by Melanie Leng in the Stable Isotope Facility.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

The historic role of women scientists at BGS and a look at what is happening today ... by Catherine Pennington

Dr Emily Dix of the University of Wales and her assistant Miss Elsie White.  Pioneering women geologists: a rarity of their time.
Dr Emily Dix of the University of Wales and her assistant Miss Elsie White. 
Pioneering women geologists: a rarity of their time.
This may surprise you if you know the BGS today but from its inception in 1835, and for over 100 years thereafter, the British Geological Survey was an exclusively male preserve.  Women just weren’t allowed in, especially if they wanted to be a scientist, involved in any fieldwork or, dare I say it, marry.

A man's world...

It was the same for much of Britain at the time.  In 1900, most jobs for women were in the domestic service industry or other ‘semi-skilled’ activities1.  The two world wars changed the situation dramatically as women took on the roles previously occupied by the now absent men.  This was, in the most part, only ever supposed to be temporary; the men would return and the aspiring women would go back to … what?  As a result, many women objected to being evicted from the jobs they were doing and this was seen across the professions in Great Britain.

Dr Dorothy Hodgkin, exceptional biochemist of both Oxford and Cambridge
Universities and mother of three.  She was awarded the Nobel Prize in
Chemistry in 1964 and is credited with the development of protein
crystallography. She remains the only British woman to have ever received
a science Nobel and her portrait hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.
Photograph from
The Sex Disqualification Act of 1919 was designed to remove barriers to women in particular professions but still the majority of female roles were administrative or supportive; it was very difficult, if not impossible, for a woman to gain a senior role in any organisation.  This act was also supposed to prevent discrimination against married women but the assumption that a mother could not devote time to both a job and a family prevailed.  The Civil Service (including BGS), councils and the teaching profession managed to retain a clause of the 1919 Act that meant that women who wanted to marry had to leave their jobs. 

It was not until the Sex Discrimination and Equal Pay Acts of 1975 came into force that BGS, and the rest of working Britain, could not force women to resign should they marry.

Women scientists

The early female scientists had a number of common characteristics2:  They were often born into influential families with an elevated position in society meaning they had access to the privilege of education and could work voluntarily.  They were able to work for no or reduced pay and usually no status as they often had a private income or were supported by a man.  It was common for male scientists to have women assistants, and male geologists of the time encouraged women to do some of the more time-consuming work of writing and illustrating.  These women received little academic credit for their research that was frequently incorporated into the publications of the men for whom they worked.  It was common for women to publish their own scientific work anonymously or under the name of a male relation.

The Geological Society of London, established in 1807 to cater for the needs of professional geologists, did not permit female membership until it was forced to in 1919; the Royal Society did not allow women in until 1945.  The exception to this is the Geologists’ Association where women and men had equal member rights from its inception in 1858.  This society, however, devoted itself to the amateur geologist so would have been considered a suitable place for women to ‘play scientist’.
All these attitudes seem very archaic now, ludicrous even.  For the hundred years after BGS began, a range of women struggled against this discrimination, married or not.  Survey archives suggest that no women were recruited until the 1920s when an advertisement for geologists included the statement that women candidates:
“…must be unmarried or widows and will be required to resign their appointment upon marriage
These women had to prove themselves to be so extraordinarily brilliant, standing head-and-shoulders above all others, to even be considered a likely candidate for a scientific job at BGS.  One such female geologist was Eileen Hendriks who, despite having a PhD and a great deal of experience and enthusiasm, failed to secure a permanent scientific position at BGS in 1930.

The first female scientists employed at BGS

Eileen Guppy – the first female geology graduate to be appointed to the scientific staff at BGS.
Eileen Guppy – the first female geology graduate to be
appointed to the scientific staff at BGS
Before the Second World War the only women to be permanently employed by the Survey with degrees in geology were recruited as technical assistants: Miss Odell (Palaeontology) and Miss Eileen Guppy (Petrology).

Almost certainly because of her gender, and despite her qualifications, Eileen Guppy spent many years working in roles subordinate to senior male staff.  However, in 1943 she was promoted to the rank of assistant geologist becoming the first female geology graduate to be appointed to the scientific staff of the Survey.  Despite becoming known for her thoroughness and attention to detail, and contributing to several publications, she was demoted once the war had finished.  She continued, however, working in a unique position as a personal scientific assistant at Senior Experimental Officer grade to the Directors Sir William Pugh and Sir James Stubblefield.  Latterly she worked as Secretary for the new Atomic Energy Division and during 1963-5 she worked with Inspectors from the Public Record Office evaluating the older records from the Geological Survey and Museum.  When she retired in 1966 she was awarded the MBE for her loyal service.

In other areas women were being employed to meet the added demands of the war.  Helen Pocock and Sheila Warner joined the Drawing Office as the first female draughtswomen.  Water supply during the war was vital, particularly in the London area, and several women graduates known as "Water Babies" carried out an inventory of water bores and wells.  This was done mainly on bicycle and was the only opportunity for women to carry out fieldwork.

Dr Dianne Knill, the first woman to be appointed as a geologist at BGS
Dr Dianne Knill, the first
woman to be appointed
as a geologist at BGS
From the 1950s onwards more women were being employed.  In 1957 Dr Dianne Knill, with a PhD from Imperial College, joined the Survey to carry out optical mineralogy.  Unaware of the breakthrough she had achieved, she was the first woman to actually be appointed as a geologist.

Another woman to break through an even more difficult barrier was Sue Arnold who became the first to conduct research at sea.  In 1967 she joined an all-male crew on the MV Moray Firth IV in the Irish Sea.  Sue carried out work at sea for the next ten years. 

Audrey Jackson, first field geologist at BGS
Audrey Jackson,
first field geologist at BGS
Geological mapping had always been considered unsuitable for women and it wasn’t until 1972 that Audrey Jackson, a Trinity College Dublin graduate with previous field experience, was employed at BGS.  She was the first female geologist to spend extended periods of time, over several years, in the field as a geological mapper.

When the 1975 Sex Discrimination and Equal Pay legislation came in, more pioneering women were employed at BGS. A particular example is the Environmental Protection Unit (EPNU; later the Fluid Processes Unit) which was set up at Harwell in the late 1970s. In the early 1980s the Unit had eight female scientists employed out of the thirty staff. There was an ethos of gender equality amongst the staff which included the previously contentious issue of women doing fieldwork.  The Unit was viewed as unusual at the time and several of these women went on to more senior positions including Dr Jean Alexander and Professor Julia West.  The rest of BGS was still a very much male dominated environment but ENPU certainly helped change the culture so that more female staff were employed across the organisation over the following thirty years.

Equality still on the agenda today

Somewhat remarkably, this issue is still on the political agenda today as the country recently asked itself: why are there such few women in senior jobs?  Indeed, this is reflected in such public-facing positions as government and the question as to why women are under-represented in the public sector has been repeatedly asked.  Phrases such as “old boys network” and “women being shut out” are banded around Parliament.  David Cameron has recently tried to address this stating he wanted one third of his ministers to be female and that organisations not filling half the senior posts with women are missing out on “more than 50 per cent of the talent”.  Still there are only five female cabinet ministers out of the 22.  It is the same in the Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematical and Medicine industries (STEMM) as Edwina Dunn (Women in Business Series) explains:
It is well acknowledged within STEMM industries that women are heavily underrepresented in the workplace.  Excluding medicine, approximately 17% of STEMM professionals are women, despite women making up 46% of the UK’s workforce; within the engineering sector, this figure stands shockingly at just 8%”.

So how do the figures measure up at BGS today?

From the 1970s onwards, BGS has seen a vast number of talented and experienced women employed across the board and ultimately strives for a 50/50 gender balance in their staff across all grades.  However, when you look at the figures of male/female scientific staffing (see graph), things still appear to be male dominated BUT the gap is closing and there are various reasons for it.

The balance of scientific staff at BGS by gender in 2007, 2010 and 2013 as published in the Athena Swan Application
The balance of scientific staff at BGS by gender in 2007, 2010 and 2013 as published in the Athena Swan Application

The first reason is that there are simply fewer women in the physical sciences field, which includes geology.  In fact, the Higher Education Statistics Agency data shows that only 37.3% of PhD researchers in physical science areas are female.  This figure is comparable to the 34% figure for female scientists employed by BGS.  As a comparison, the gender balance in other closely-related scientific fields such as biological or environmental sciences has a percentage of female PhD researchers at 61%.  The Geological Society of London reports that less than 20% of their fellows are female.  All this goes some way to explaining that, in terms of early-career recruitment at BGS, there are double the number of male applicants compared to female. 

The second reason is that many of the scientific staff near retirement age are male and were employed in the 1970s when female staff were a rarity.  Once these male scientists retire, the gender balance will equalise further. 

The issue still remains, however, that there are few women in senior positions.

How is BGS working to improve the situation? 

Athena Swan Bronze Award
BGS is the first NERC institute to have recently received the Athena Swan accreditation.  Athena Swan aims to improve the career opportunities for both men and women equally in the STEMM subjects and this provides a specific action plan to tackle gender issues.  This accreditation process is not just a box-ticking exercise.  It is continuous and requires BGS to establish a multi-disciplinary team to oversee the action plan, gauge the current situation and demonstrate progress.

In fact, BGS has been actively addressing gender issues since the 1990s because, to achieve its scientific aims, it is important to attract and retain excellent scientists.  In April 2013, a Diversity and Equality Group was established to provide a more focused effort in identifying priorities and actions, and further the progress already made.  Career progression has been a main focus encouraged by workshops, drop-in sessions, mentoring, training courses and fellowships.  A range of measures such as flexible working, career breaks and maternity/paternity/parental leave are in place to support career progression and further enhance the inclusive culture at BGS.  BGS is now working towards Silver with Athena Swan and you can read the details of the BGS application here.

A look to the future…

Writing as a female geologist at BGS today, I can tell you that the opportunities for women are, thankfully, a far cry from the world where it would be unthinkable for a woman to be considered a scientist.  The idea that a woman had to choose her career over her marriage or family life seems nonsensical in today’s context.  In fact, the working conditions at BGS could not be more supportive of this and BGS is actively striving to ensure that women are no longer discriminated against in science.

It is a complex issue and will, of course, take a number of years to create an equal gender balance at BGS hence the need to continue the progress already made and to have a strong programme within the Athena Swan initiative.  Professor John Ludden, executive Director of the British Geological Survey, says:

"BGS is very pleased to have been awarded with the Athena Swan Bronze award.  This will provide an added impetus to BGS to enhance its programmes in diversity in employment in working towards a silver award in the future”.
1Women in the Workforce

Catherine Pennington

Filming for a BBC Scotland documentary on Oil Shales by Carol Cotterill

In April of this year, BBC Scotland will air a programme presenting the debate around shale gas and fracking. The Scottish Government currently has a moratorium in place (as of January 2015) preventing the granting of planning consents related to unconventional oil and gas developments, including fracking, in Scotland. The moratorium will stay in place for an unknown length of time, until evidence gathering and a consultation process has been concluded.
BBC Scotland film crew debate a wide angle shot
Bob gets fitted with a microphone
Shale gas and fracking is a contentious issue in many countries. Avoiding the political discussions surrounding this issue in Scotland, BGS’ Bob Gatliff, Director of Energy and Marine Geoscience, met with a film crew from BBC Scotland on a windy and cold beach in South Queensferry to go back to geological basics about what shales actually are. I went along to take some photos and to quiz Bob about shale formation and quality.
Weathered West Lothian Oil Shales at surface
Shales are fine grained sedimentary rocks, composed of silt and clay-sized mineral particles (<1/16 mm) which typically accumulate at the bottom of large bodies of water, such as oceans, shallow seas and lakes. Marine organisms such as algae and plankton die and settle-out along with these inorganic silts and muds, giving the accumulating sediment an organic content.  In general, the more organic material the shale contains, the darker the colour. It is this organic content that is important for the generation of hydrocarbons. However, organic content isn’t the only important factor – maturity of the shales is also a prime factor to consider. Maturity of the shales is determined by the depth of burial, length of burial time and the temperature to which the shales are exposed. Bob described this process as being a bit like a pressure cooker heating the shales to just the right temperature and pressure. Oil is the first product generated at lower pressures and temperatures (~110°C at 4-5 km depth), with higher temperatures resulting in the creation of natural gas (~180°C at 6-9 km depth).

Historically, “conventional” oil and gas reservoirs have been exploited by drilling. Conventional reservoirs form when shales have reached maturity under the right temperature and pressure, and the resultant oil or gas has migrated out of the shale into overlying rocks that are more porous (e.g. sandstones). Where these sandstones are covered by a cap or sealing unit, such as a mudstone, further upward migration of the oil or gas is prevented, forming a reservoir. The larger pore spaces of the sandstone make the oil and gas more accessible for extraction as the fluids flow more easily out of the rock. Recently, new technology developed in the USA now means that “unconventional” reservoirs can be accessed and drilled, extracting oil and gas directly from the shales through artificial fracturing, thereby unlocking some of the largest natural gas reserves in the world.

Bob describes the West Lothian Oil Shales to the BBC presenter
So what link does that have to a chilly spot on a beach in South Queensferry? Bob took us along the beach a short way to where the West Lothian Oil Shales outcrop at the surface to explain how it formed, and the general principles behind oil and gas formation in shales.

The Midland Valley is a basin that lies between two faults, the Highland Boundary and the Southern Upland faults, both of which span Scotland from east to west, encompassing Glasgow and Edinburgh. 
Midland Valley location

During the Carboniferous Period (~358.9 ± 0.4 to 298.9 ± 0.15 million years ago), Scotland was located just south of the Equator, with a hot, humid climate, seasonal rains and a large organic source from vegetation. Sediments and organic matter slowly filled the Midland Valley basin, depositing the West Lothian Oil Shales in a perennial lake with adjoining rivers and a shallow marine delta environment. Over the course of time, these sediments were buried at depth and heated, forming shales and providing the perfect conditions for the development of natural oil and gas.
Pumpherston Oil Works, commercial postcard, c.1922. Copyright Almond Valley Heritage Trust.
 Pumpherston is a small village situated about one mile north of Mid Calder in West Lothian. 220 houses were built, starting in 1885, by the Pumpherston Oil Company to house the workers for the Pumpherston Oil Works – a refinery established in 1882 to exploit the West Lothian Oil Shales. The Pumpherston Oil Works was one of about 120 refineries which operated up until 1964, extracting oil from the various shale seams within the West Lothian Oil Shale Formation. The presence of these prolific oil shales in Scotland formed the basis for the oil industry in Europe. Bathgate Chemical Works, established in 1851, is believed to be the first site in the world where mineral oils were processed on an industrial scale. James Young, a Scottish chemist, held a patent from 1851 – 1864 that created a monopoly for production of oils from cannel coal.

Bob Gatliff in front of the West Lothian Oil Shale outcrop
The shales which form the West Lothian Oil Shale Formation now lie at a maximum depth of ~3,500m beneath sea level in the Firth of Forth, reaching a maximum thickness of ~1.1km. However, for a shale to be effective as an “unconventional” source, it also needs to have the right physical properties to allow the rock to deform in a brittle manner. This ensures that when a shale is cracked open through hydraulic pressure, the shale does not behave plastically, sealing the crack up again and so preventing flow. Tests undertaken on some of the Midland Valley samples show that these shales are more clay-mineral rich and carbonate poor than other unconventional source rocks in the UK, and so might behave in a more plastic manner.
One final question was asked by the BBC team
 Are we reacting before we have got the scientific answers to accurately address this issue?”
I think only time will tell us the answer to that one. But to see the documentary in its entirety, please keep a look out on the BGS website where we will post the date and time that it will be shown once it has been scheduled.

For more detailed information on The Carboniferous Shales of the Midland Valley please see Monaghan, A.A. 2014. The Carboniferous shales of the Midland Valley of Scotland: geology and resource estimation. British Geological Survey for Department of Energy and Climate Change, London, UK.

Thanks also to the Museum of the Scottish Shale Oil Industry (
By Carol Cotterill