Friday, 20 May 2016

Reconstructing the pollution history of southeast Asian Stefan Engels

Stefan with field assistant Charlotte (a BSc student from
 Keele University)collecting plant samples.
How time flies! It has only been about 4 months since I started my new job as a research fellow with  Melanie Leng and Suzanne McGowan within the Centre for Environmental Geochemistry. The main aim of my research project is to reconstruct the pollution history of southeast Asian wetland systems, and one of the first locations that we selected as a study-site was Tasik Chini on the Malaysian peninsula, here I tell you about progress to date... 

Preliminary laboratory data obtained from short sediment cores that had been previously collected shows the first evidence of recent ecosystem change. To be able to study this in more detail, and to ensure that we have samples that predate the recent period of extensive human impact on the environment, we decided to revisit Tasik Chini this spring with the main goal of collecting longer sediment cores, hopefully dating back several thousands of years. I say ‘hopefully dating back’, as scientific data on this tropical wetland ecosystem is extremely sparse. We basically don’t know when or why it formed, nor did we know how long the sedimentary record goes back in time. Therefore, this project will yield a lot of surprises! 

Suzanne showing some of the core sediments we collected from Tasik Chini.
On the 18th April I flew to Kuala Lumpur where I am met with Suzanne McGowan and Ginnie Pannizo (both University of Nottingham). We participated in a local workshop in Kuala Lumper on projects across SE Asia, followed by a great evening lecture by Prof David Taylor (University of Singapore) on geostatistics, insect-borne diseases and climate change. A truly interdisciplinary topic! We then drove east to the more rural area of Pahang. On the 4-hr long drive I couldn’t help but marvel at the scale of impact that the Malaysian economy has had on the landscape: we basically don’t see anything but oil palm plantations. 

The core sediments have arrived
safely back in the UK!
Taking wetland core sediments in the tropics turns out not to be unlike coring in the subarctic, which is where I’ve done most of my previous fieldwork. One noticeable difference is the coring equipment: whereas the metal extension rods can freeze together in the subarctic, in Malaysia they get so hot that they left some of our field crew with some serious blisters! I was also kept awake by geckos that were “chatting” in my room all night (not something that happens in the subarctic). The trip was very successful though, we managed to collect long sediment cores from a number of locations across the wetland. I am now back in the UK and are subjecting these cores to a range of different laboratory-based analyses, ranging from classic measurements of the amount of carbon to modern molecular approaches where we can find out where the carbon came from (agriculture, mining, sewage). While the results of the project will take some time to become available, the memories of doing fieldwork in an area that is full of monkeys, monitor lizards and geckos will remain with me for quite a while.

Stefan Engels is a Research Fellow within the Centre for Environmental Geochemistry (University of Nottingham and British Geological Survey).  

Monday, 16 May 2016

Are land-use decisions by African elephants influenced by environmental geochemistry? Michael Watts, Lisa Yon and Stephen Cunningham


This is a unique, interdisciplinary project involving environmental geochemistry, plant science, and animal health between a range of partners, including BGS and the University of Nottingham (UoN) to address research questions which have important and practical implications for wildlife health and conservation. In the first phase of the project, mineral levels in a range of biological samples (serum, hair, nails) from elephants at five UK zoos will be measured to validate their use as possible biomarkers of mineral status in wild elephants. The mineral content of food, soil and water consumed by these elephants will be determined.

The second phase of this project will apply these validated methods to a study of wild African elephants. The multi–element capability of ICP–MS for measuring environmental/biomonitoring samples enables an estimation of mineral balance and potential metal uptake. The working hypothesis is that the elephants in this study group are deficient in phosphorus, owing to a deficiency in the (soil and) forage in a South African National Park. This drives the elephants to supplement their phosphorus from the water, soil and forage on land surrounding a phosphate mine in close proximity to the National Park. Elephant incursion into nearby human settlements has resulted in human–elephant conflict, causing risk of injury and lost income. This project may identify key locations in the elephants’ home range where mineral–supplemented forage, or mineral licks, may be placed to reduce the drive to seek additional sources of phosphorus; this could reduce human–elephant conflict. This project provides opportunities for varied work: fieldwork in UK Zoos and South Africa for environmental/biomonitoring analyses of wild elephants, specialist laboratory and data interpretation training at BGS and UoN and translation into advice to relevant stakeholders.


This work will be focussed on a PhD project from the NERC Envision Doctoral Training Programme, with additional support from the Hermes Trust and Royal Society International Exchange scheme. The project is based on a Centre for Environmental Geochemistry collaboration between the Inorganic Geochemistry (Dr Michael Watts) and Stable Isotopes teams (Professor Melanie Leng) at BGS and Schools of Veterinary (Dr Lisa Yon) and Biosciences (Professor Martin Broadley) at the University of Nottingham. The collaboration is further strengthened by partners in five UK zoos and with partners in South Africa who have been studying elephant populations there for the past two decades, tracking elephant movements using GPS and GMS to better understand their habitat use.

Sample collection 

Recently, in April, the first sample collection was undertaken at Knowsley Safari Park, whose keepers were extremely interested in the possibilities of the project.  The keepers enthusiastically shared their immense knowledge on the measures they undertake to ensure the welfare of their elephants, the individual elephant dietary intakes and idiosyncrasies of each elephant.  We initially started with an evaluation of food and water intake through sample collections; these samples will be measured for ‘essential’ mineral content (e.g. zinc, iron) to determine dietary intakes and possible seasonal changes in forage and hay over the next 12 months.  These data will be related to mineral measurements in the elephants’ toenails, plasma, tail hair and faeces to validate methodologies for use and comparison with wild elephants.

Images from L-R: Elephant toe nail trimmings; tail hair clipping; Knowsley elephant team (Front row L-R (green shirts):
 Stephen Cunningham, Alex Spooner, Andy Doyle, Libby Ward. Back row L-R: Aurelie Devez, Michael Watts,
Daniel Middleton, Lisa Yon)
We would like to thank Stephen Cunningham and his team at Knowsley Safari Park for their enthusiasm and collaboration, particularly as part of the launch of the project and helping us to improve our planned methodology for sample collection and interpretation of data as the project proceeds.

For further information: and

More information will follow at: 

Thursday, 12 May 2016

Bugs in soil prefer a good spread of Barry Rawlins

Barry and the synchrotron
On my way to work I cycle past a field of grazing cows which is next to a milking parlour. A while ago I stopped to ask the friendly farmer, "Can I have a bit of the soil from your field?”

"Yes”, he replied, “but what do you want it for?"

I almost sighed. I knew if I had to explain thoroughly why I wanted it, my answer would be long and complicated. "Well, I want to do an experiment where I take lumps of your soil to a lead-lined room in Oxfordshire and shine light onto it that is 10 billion times brighter than the sun."

He looked over at his colleague with a confused expression, as if to say, we've got a right one here. But he did let me take some of his soil.

So, why did I need these lumps of soil? I want to understand what might help or prevent bugs (bacteria) in the soil eating their source of food – carbon. When bugs eat the carbon it is released to the air as carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas. If we understand this process better, we might be able to store more carbon in the soil and slow down climate change.

 A slice through a soil aggregate showing the
position of organic matter, minerals and pores.
Bugs in soil live in the pore spaces – the air- and water-filled gaps between the solid bits. The food which bugs want to eat – the carbon – is unevenly spread throughout each lump, which we soil scientists call ‘aggregates’. Sometimes carbon occurs as big clumps in only a few places in an aggregate, whilst in other aggregates the carbon occurs more frequently as lots of small pieces. The question I wanted to answer in my experiment was: in which of these two cases do the bugs eat more carbon?

A novel way to answer this was to do three things: first, measure how well the bugs fed on carbon in many soil aggregates in the laboratory; second, stain the carbon in these aggregates using a chemical, and finally put the stained aggregates of soil into a bright light source called a synchrotron. The synchrotron shows us in three dimensions the location of the stained carbon inside the aggregates. It also shows us the location of the pore spaces.

(When I was explaining this to the friendly farmer to make it sound exciting I said, "No one has done this before!" He still didn't look convinced.)

After the experiment I compared the amount of carbon the bugs had eaten with how it was spread out inside each aggregate. I found that the bugs had eaten more of the carbon when it was distributed more frequently, more pieces throughout the aggregate. I need to analyse more aggregates to have greater confidence in this finding, so I will have to visit some more friendly farmers and hope I can convince them to give me some lumps of their soil. I am expecting to see more confused expressions.

The research I describe above was a collaboration of several BGS scientists and other colleagues at the Diamond Light Source campus in Harwell. We wrote this paper and there is a movie on the BGS YouTube channel that shows me talking about the experiment at the synchrotron.

Friday, 6 May 2016

Investigating Climate Change in Eastern Melanie Leng

Melanie Leng is the head of the Stable Isotope Facility
at the British Geological Survey
In the stable Isotope Facility at the British Geological survey we spend most of our time collaborating with UK universities and research institutes. However, every now and again we get an opportunity that’s too good to be true… One such opportunity came a few of years ago when an email popped into my inbox from Australia. Dr John Tibby and Dr Cameron Barr (from the University of Adelaide) explained that in Australia they have a particular problem in that there are relatively few geological archives of climate change, so researchers into past climate tend to rely on short timescale corals (which can be related to seawater salinity and temperatures) or tree rings (a proxy for rainfall amount). However, both corals and trees tend to only live for a few hundred years, so they were keen to develop new records of Australian climate… 

Cameron Barr sampling leaves from the
paperbark tree on Fraser Island, Queensland
John and Cam hypothesised that the broad-leaved paperbark tree (Melaleuca quinquenervia for those botanically minded) might contain a signal of the amount of rainfall as it’s long been known that the geochemistry (specifically the carbon isotope composition which could be measured within the Stable Isotope Facility at the BGS) of some leaves change in response to water stress. The drier the climate the less the leaves evapotranspirate (similar to sweating), meaning that the “pores” on a leaf are more closed and restrict the plant’s ability to use CO2 from the atmosphere. When conditions are wet, the pores open and the plants can use more CO2 from the atmopshere. This difference in the carbon utilised is ultimately recorded in the leaf carbon as the leaves grow under different climate conditions. With this relationship in mind, we sampled paperbark tree leaves, experimenting with leaves from different parts of the tree, as well as obtaining leaves that had been collected over an eleven year period. We sampled the leaves and compared the carbon to the amount of rainfall for each year, which on North Stradbroke Island SE Queensland, was directly related to water levels and therefore how wet the years were.
One of the lakes on North Stradbroke Island surrounded
by paperbark trees

Overall, we have shown that there is a significant relationship between the leaf carbon and rainfall (averaged over the life span of the leaf). This finding will now allow us to collect much longer records of climate in Australia because we looked in the lakes of Fraser and North Stradbroke Islands which have paperbark trees growing on their shores and found that their leaves were preserved in some of the lake sediments. The leaves we have collected go back thousands of years, and thus we now will be able to investigate aridity in Eastern Australia as well as other places where these trees grow, such as Papua New Guinea and New Caledonia, so there is more to come!

Our paper detailing these initial findings has recently been published, please see: Tibby, J., Barr, C., McInerney, F.A., Henderson, A.C.G., Leng, M.J., Greenway, M., Marshall, J.C., McGregor, G.B., Tyler, J.J., McNeil, V. 2016. Carbon isotope discrimination in leaves of the broad-leaved paperbark tree, Melaleuca quinquenervia, as a tool for quantifying past tropical and subtropical rainfall. Global Change Biology
A core of sediment from the lake showing a sand layer (white)
from an erosion event, and fragments of paperbark tree leaves
 within the lake sediment mud which has accumulated over
thousands of years

Thanks go to all our collaborators (co-authors), but special thanks go to Margaret Greenway from Griffith University who collected leaves every 28 days (even on Boxing Day!) for more than 12 years

Melanie Leng is the head of the Stable Isotope Facility at the British Geological Survey, Twitter @MelJLeng.

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Sampling the Tidal Thames by boat! Debbie White

Les, Charlie, Claire and the Thames Guardian.
Our plan during FY 15/16 was to take samples along the whole length of the River Thames to look at the micro organic pollutants such as pharmaceuticals, veterinary drugs and personal care products in the river. Little did I know this would lead to such an adventure.

The Wallingford BGS office is very close to the Thames so we are very used to sampling the river, therefore sampling the source to about Teddington Lock wasn’t a problem. The biggest problem was the tidal part of the Thames, not just because the river is very wide and difficult to access due to the tides but also because it flows through the centre of London and out to the sea. So we turned to our friends in the Environment Agency (EA) for help and advice.

Many months ago in an EA office in Wallingford I had a meeting with representatives from the EA about the possibility of sampling the tidal part of the River Thames with help from their Estuarine and Coastal Monitoring and Assessment Service (ECMAS). They were very interested in our project and the data we would produce and I was put in touch with Paul Smith and Clare Miller from the ECMAS. Paul and Clare were also interested in our work as our data could be an interesting addition to their database. ECMAS collect monthly samples from the Tidal Thames for chemical and ecological monitoring under the Water Framework Directive (WFD) and Environmental Quality Standards Directive (EQSD) using the Briggs Marine Vessel Thames Guardian.

Serving up homemade fruit cake, the universal currency (L) and titrating and filtering samples in the floating lab. 
I was able to satisfy the criteria to be allowed to board Thames Guardian but not to work on the back deck as I ‘unfortunately’ didn’t have time to undergo sea safety certificate training (apparently you are chucked into the water fully clothed and have to get into a life raft). Clare was going to collect the samples for me.

After discussions about dates, times, tides, risk assessments and equipment I was told to report to Chatham Docks for a 5 am ‘lock-out’ on 4th February. Clare and I loaded my equipment the afternoon before and met Paul, who was also in the area, on the Wednesday evening for a chat and a meal before retiring to our hotels for the early start.

We were all on the boat and going through the lock at 5 am the next morning. Yes, 5 am is very early (and very dark) but for Clare and the crew (Charlie and Les) this is a usual feature of their month. To make the most of the tide the plan was to go down the Medway and up to the furthest point on the Thames before turning around and taking the samples on the ebb tide. This left us with a couple of hours of darkness before we picked up the local river pilot (so a quick snooze) then a few more hours to sort out equipment and see the sights of London from the River! It was fantastic privilege to see London from the river, and the knowledgeable and friendly crew and local pilot made the trip by pointing out the best spots to take pictures of St Paul's and the history of all the buildings and areas along the way. It was difficult to tear myself away from the knowledge these guys had but work had to be done!

It was challenging getting used to working on board the ship as I hadn’t expected how choppy it would be at times. Some titrations had to wait when we were in busy parts of the river as the wake of passing ferries made it difficult to measure an accurate volume of sample. I could imagine it was making filling a bottle a little difficult for Clare too!

River water was sampled from 1m below the surface using a peristaltic pump and the ingenuity of Les’ sample tube-on-a-stick, on which he had also marked the 1m point for ease of deployment.

The peristaltic pump before use (R) and in use by Clare (L)
Hydrochemical parameters such as pH, salinity and temperature were measured by the Idronaut Ocean Seven muliparameter probe deployed over the side of the vessel while we stopped to sample and the co-ordinates of the sample sites were fixed by the on-board GPS system. We settled into a routine on the way back down the river and collected 15 samples along the tidal stretch of the Thames and got back into Chatham dock at about 5 pm.

My thanks go to the team as without the help and good humour Clare Miller from the EA, Charlie and Les from Briggs Marine this sampling would not have been possible.

Monday, 25 April 2016

Week 3: Confessions of a Newbie Drill Dr Jez Everest

21 April 2016 

A happy Jez!
Well, that's it, I'm off. I did my last shift yesterday, or at least the first hour or so, and then handed over to Connor, my replacement who had just arrived from the UK at 3am. I did feel a wee bit sorry for him. He looked shattered, jet-lagged and a bit over-awed, and was definitely landing in the deep end. When I think back to how I felt arriving on the Myrtle for the first time, when nothing was actually happening, I realise just how nervous I was about messing stuff up. Connor took over my shift just as we were starting to trip pipe in to start collecting rock cores for the first time... This is the tricky bit, and the real reason we are here.

The last few days have been pretty tough for everyone. For various reasons progress hasn't been as fast as we hoped, hence only starting to core yesterday. The drillers have put in superhuman efforts of stamina and Chris D in particular has dedicated all his time to making sure things are working properly.... Hence the photos of very tired and mucky people. 

Drilling is mucky and tiring work. Some of the drillers from L-R: Rich, Mike, Chris D and Will. 
View of the L/B Myrtle.
As my first experience of an offshore drilling expedition, this has been awesome. Seeing a team gel around each other, seeing the encouragement everyone gives, and the combined will to make it all work has been inspiring. It's a massive operation in terms of logistics, equipment, people management and objectives. Hats off to all have been involved.

My memories will be of the people, and the fun I've had with them. I hope you've been able to get a glimpse of all that through my tired and heat-addled ramblings here. You can follow progress through the ESO-Outreach Facebook page here or on the ESO blog page here 

Meanwhile I have my first beer in 3 weeks waiting for me at the hotel bar.

You can read Jez's first two blogs about his experience aboard the Myrtle here (Week 1 & Week 2). 

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Reconnecting the City: Historic Urban Landscape and the role of geology…by Deodato Tapete

In 2011 UNESCO issued the Recommendation on the Historic Urban Landscape (HUL), an approach to the management of heritage resources in dynamic and constantly changing urban environments. The book 'Reconnecting the City' edited by F. Bandarin & R. van Oers offers the opportunity to understand how HUL can be put into practice.  In his book review, Deodato Tapete, Applied Urban Geologist at the British Geological Survey, examines the current challenges and opportunities for HUL in future cities …

With more people moving to live in cities, urban environments are under increasing pressure as new houses and infrastructure are built and the cityscape is transformed. If the transition to the future city does not include measures to integrate harmoniously historic urban heritage with new developments, loss of local distinctiveness and spatial fragmentation are among the risks that historic cities can face.

Effective use of the local bedrock in ancient Pafos to place housing utilities (Photo credit: D. Tapete)
Seeing and interpreting cities as continuum in time and space may help to find viable solutions. In practice, along horizontal directions, design of future cities should prevent isolation and abrupt separation of historic centres from new quarters and modern fabric.

Interactions between the ancient city, local geology and modern
development in Pafos (Photo credit: D. Tapete)
Along the city verticality building construction should account more for the local ground conditions, but also for the wealth of resources which are preserved in the subsurface including the archaeological layers of the city, underground space used in the past and the artificial ground as a result of the human impact on geological materials and local bedrock.

Geology has always played a central role in how cities take shape and interact with the natural environment as they develop. Several examples can be found across the world. The most recent I have visited is Pafos in Cyprus which, in 2017, will be European Capital of Culture.

The Greek and Roman settlements adapted to the local limestone geology and exploited the rock outcrops to set the building foundations, design and place the housing utilities (Figure 1), dug burial chambers and erect the most monumental public spaces such as the theatre and the Odeon.
Since then Pafos has seen phases of redevelopment and urban sprawl. The modern city still interacts with the vestiges of its history. Geological influence on city form and geological local distinctiveness are visible everywhere (Figure 2). But, in HUL perspective, what could it be done more to improve the physical connectivity between these two souls of the city?

This is the type of the questions that the book by Bandarin & van Oers attempts to answer and I believe that geology can help with that!

The full book review is accessible at

Monday, 18 April 2016

Week 2: Confessions of a Newbie Drill Coordinator by Dr Jez Everest

Will and the drill

14 April 2016

Every night a little more busy. Every morning a little more knackered.

Anyway, how are we doing? Weeeell…. It was all going beautifully. The drill was doing its thing, and everything was running along like a canoe on wet grass, and then boom, we hit a bit of a snag at 70m. There’s a hole, or some cracks in the rock, or some mud-eating ‘Tremors-style’ worm that is sucking all the drilling mud away. All stop, big conflab, then a decision to fill the hole in the hope that whatever it is will be sealed up, and then we can drill again, and carry on our merry way. It’s worked before, so….

In the meantime, and I digress because too much drill chat makes Jez a dull boy, so far I’ve seen sharks, birds, a sunspot, lots of fish, and a turtle. A big one. Though no one else saw it, and I didn’t have my camera, so I’m not sure if anyone else believes me. Tough. I saw it. It was there.

A moth the size of a child's hand
What else? The food is great. I don’t think I’ve ever had so many prawns (shrimp… hah! They’re big boys!), Tim occasionally springs barbequed ribs or steak on us, but so far he’s made sure that it’s on my shift, not Graham’s, so he’s feeling really miffed. Though my earlier comments stand - everything has sugar in it. Three dinners a day seemed overly indulgent (lunch, tea and off-shift at midnight), so I’m restricting myself to as much salad as I can find at lunchtime, a proper tea, and a glass of milk at midnight. The lack of alcohol may be doing me good, though the giant spiders and talking frogs keep telling me it’s not, and a glass of Rioja would sort me out.

The drill floor
Anyway. Drilling. The 24 hour cure seemed to work. We started drilling again 2 days ago (or was it just one? I can’t work it out) and last night at 10pm we hit our target depth for open hole drilling of 500m. Pretty rapid progress, all things considered. Now the scientists have arrived this morning by boat, and the more complicated work of drilling for cores begins.

Looks like I need to learn everything again. Just when I was getting used to it.

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Rocks, rivers and the shaping of the Clyde and Avon Katie Whitbread

Corra Linn, a 27m high waterfall in Devonian
sandstone in the gorge of the Falls of Clyde. 
The Clyde and Avon Valleys lie just a few kilometres outside Glasgow. Their fertile slopes have long supported orchards and fruit farms, their stone once built palaces, and their coal and ironstone fed the industry of Scotland’s largest city.

Last Autumn, I was commissioned by the Heritage Lottery Fund supported Clyde and Avon Valley Landscape Partnership to assess potential sites for a geological trail. I laced up my boots, grabbed my camera, and took to the field, rooting out the grand, the powerful, and the downright puzzling from the wealth of geological features in this rich landscape.

From the high point of Blackhill, a ridge of resistant igneous rock fortified during the Iron Age, to the depths of the River Nethan Gorge, etched deep into Carboniferous sedimentary rocks, where miners once burrowed for coal, the Clyde and Avon Valleys highlights the intimate links between people and the geological past.

Perhaps the most powerful of the many geological stories that unfolded as I explored, was the testimony of these valleys to the power of rivers to shape our land. Devonian sandstones bear witness to ancient braided streams, whilst the coal-bearing Carboniferous rocks are the remains of meandering rivers that once snaked through vast swampy flood plains.

But, it has been the interaction of glaciers and rivers in the more recent geological past that has really left its mark on the land. This region of Scotland was blanketed by glaciers some twenty thousand years ago and as the glaciers retreated, water and sediment ponded up in front of the ice margins. Catastrophic drainage of these lakes, and the powerful flows of young postglacial streams, excavated dramatic gorges up to 80 m deep that form characteristic features of the Clyde and Avon Valleys.

Sampson's Slingstane, a 4m diameter boulder perched
on the rim of the gorge above the Fiddler Burn.
At the Falls of Clyde, the rolling ‘kame and kettle’ topography of ice-marginal sand and gravel masks the buried former valley of the River Clyde, now infilled with glacial sediment; whilst nearby, the modern River Clyde thunders over picturesque waterfalls in a deep gorge excavated into Devonian sandstone during the outburst flood of a large pro-glacial lake. Some of the regions’ more enigmatic features may also owe their existence to the interaction of glaciers and rivers. The dry valley of Auchenglen may once have carried the waters of the now diverted Mouse Water, whilst the precariously perched boulder of Sampson’s Slingstane, tumbled, perhaps, from the margin of a glacier or rolled in a huge flood of meltwater, clings to the gorge rim above the Fiddler Burn.

The gorges of the Clyde and Avon Valleys are havens for ancient woodland, and their scenic landscapes have attracted tourists and inspired poets and artists for generations. It was a privilege to investigate geological sites that once inspired William Wordsworth and Sir Walter Scott. The Shaping Our Landscape Geological Trail will help many more generations to be inspired by the beautiful landscape and rich geological heritage of the Clyde and Avon Valleys.

For more information see the article in Earth Heritage Magazine

Report on the geological sites for the Clyde and Avon Valley Landscape Partnership can be read here

The hunting lodge of Chatelherault is all that now remains of the grand Hamilton Palace. Sandstone from quarries in the
Clyde and Avon Valleys was used in the palace construction. The low ground to the right is the remains of a former sand and
gravel pit into the deposits of a delta that formed in a pro-glacial lake that occupied the Clyde Valley. 
With thanks to Kirsten Robb and Sarah o’Sulliven – Clyde and Avon Valley Landscape Partnership

Monday, 11 April 2016

Week 1: Confessions of a Newbie Drill Coordinator ... by Jez Everest

Dr Jeremy Everest in the cold.

02 April 2016

Right. Let's get this straight from the off. I've never done anything like this before. I've worked for BGS for 13 years, and pretty much the entire time I've been cold. In cold countries, doing cold fieldwork, walking up cold mountains and glaciers in the rain, wind and snow. The one time I've been offshore in Antarctica, it was to take me to cold mountains and glaciers to work in the cold.


You get the idea? I do 'cold' stuff. So where I'm going now is something of a change.

Next up, in the 21 years since I graduated, I've only ever really done 'icy research'. Mostly walking around aforementioned cold mountains and glaciers, drawing maps, installing instruments, and coming up with daft ideas about how glaciers work.


So not much experience of drilling holes in the seabed, 20 miles off the coast of Mexico. In the heat.

No. None of that.

So here I am, sat in a hotel in Houston, waiting for my connecting flight to Merida in Mexico this afternoon, thinking "what the hell am I doing?". This is going to be my first proper job within my new home in the BGS Marine Team, and I have a feeling it's in at the deep end. My job is to be a Drilling Coordinator, from what I can gather a liaison between the team of drillers and the scientists onboard our little drilling rig... Which is actually a boat... On legs.

And what are we doing? Well drilling into the Chicxulub Impact Crater of course, the one that killed the dinosaurs and changed life on this planet. It's got a lot of media attention already, and the boat isn't even in position yet. It's high profile, well funded, and staffed with some of the best scientists in their fields on Earth.

So no pressure then.

05 April 2016

Dr Jeremy Everest on the Myrtle boat, not so cold.
So Merida in Yucatan, Mexico was awesome. Hot, but awesome. I got to spend an extra day there, as the L/B Myrtle, our self-lifting platform was delayed due to choppy seas- more anon. Over the 36 hours we were in Merida the whole team arrived at the hotel on the outskirts of town, and you could tell as the hours ticked by, the restlessness to get on with the job was growing.

The time wasn't wasted. Last minute coordination meant Dave Smith, head of ESO (Science Operators) on the project and Chris Delahunty, head of DES/ DOSECC (the drillers) spent most of their time in contact with Mexican Customs, Port Authority and the boat. Probably for the last time I was able to go to the gym (big cycle sportive ride the week I get home), and explore the town a wee bit. Lots of prawns, the odd cold drink and a bit of sightseeing.

Yesterday (I think it was Tuesday) we finally got the ‘go’ to board the boat, as she drew up alongside the 7km long pier at Progreso at lunchtime. A few hours in the afternoon spent starting the long process of mobilisation- unpacking stuff, connecting stuff, shifting stuff, wondering where some stuff was.. basically getting started, and then dinner- lots and tasty thanks to Tim the cook- then more shifting, sorting and connecting.
Machinery on the boat

The Myrtle is probably the weirdest looking boat I’ve ever seen. She’s roughly square, covered in ESO shipping containers, pipes, core barrels, a drill rig… plus she’s got three mahussive legs sticking up. And I do mean huge. You look at her and think “there is no way that boat can stay upright”. Apparently she does (everything is crossed right now by the way), though she’s not quick (6kts) and has about a metre of freeboard, so anything over what I would call ‘fun’ waves for windsurfing, and she’s swamped. Hence if the weather gets even a bit rough, she pops her legs on the bottom, and sits tight till everything calms down.

This afternoon we’re finally underway. I’m writing this halfway to the site where the Myrtle drops her 245 foot long legs to the sea bed and starts to jack the boat up out of the water, to form our stable drilling platform. I’m guessing once we get there, I won’t have much time to write, so I’m getting it done now.

Oh. And did I mention it’s hot?

Yes. It’s hot.

Real hot.

09 April 2016

Wrrrrrrrrrrrrr…. And I’m awake. Just. Fortunately I don’t sleep much anyway, but neither do I normally work until midnight, so my normal waking up time of 4am (which has thankfully shifted to 5-6am) may prove a bit early as I get used to shift work.

I'm doing the ‘Day Shift’, starting at midday and finishing at midnight. Graham is my opposite number on the Night Shift (cue The Commodores…), and so we have a half hour chat at the end of each. Mainly boils down to me explaining all the mistakes I've made, that he needs to be aware of. 

Actually so far (hah!) there’s only been one bit of confusion. Both I and the drillers had the same numbers, it was just I couldn't quite work out how I’d got to mine. All fine, just too much for my small brain to cope with.

So Science news- we've started drilling! Yay! Currently we've only got to 15m, as we need to case the hole (line it with a steel tube) and fit an inner tube and cement that in. This is to guide the rest of the drill string (see? I’m getting the lingo!) hopefully all the way down to our target depth of 1500m. Getting the casing in was an immense task. If you can imagine the boat is 10m above the water, the waves are about 1-2m high, and the casing is being lowered down to the sea bed by crane. So it’s wobbly at the top. As soon as the case hits the water, it becomes very wobbly at the bottom too. So your case in the water is being wobbled one way, and the one you want to attach to the top is wobbling another way. In the middle there are 2 huge blokes, Will and Rich, who are lining the two casings up, each weighing several tons by the way (the casings, not the blokes... though they're not far off), and then threading them on using enormous chain wrenches, the biggest spanners I have ever seen and quite a lot of effort. Funnily enough Will reckons he eats about 10,000 calories a day. I’ve seen his dinners (3 every day). His estimate is about right. 

So that’s all done, and we look set to start drilling again this afternoon at about 3pm. This is when I actually do my job. As an ESO representative my role is to talk to the drillers, see what depth they’re at, how fast they’re drilling, how much pipe is going down the hole; then talk to the ‘mud guys’ who produce the drilling mud to lubricate the drill, find out the mix, the viscosity, if that needs changing; sample the cuttings coming up from the drill and sieve and bottle them to hand over to the Core Curators; communicate all of this back to the ESO team, making sure everyone is happy with progress, or if changes need to be made; and talk to the scientists, keeping everyone in the loop as to what is going on at any time. 

As it’s all new to me I’m running round chasing my own tail at the moment- thankfully there are understanding ears out there, who clearly take pity on a poor numpty glacial scientist who’s pretending to know what he’s doing in the middle of the ocean on a drilling rig.

Let’s see if I survive my shift, and I’ll let you know.