Wednesday, 10 February 2016

First direct evidence of a deep-water cold-seep ecosystem within UK Heather Stewart

The 'Scotia Seep' Pirates offshore on board the Marine Scotland Science
Vessel M/V Scotia in July 2015 
In 2012 Marine Scotland Science discovered two new species of chemosynthetic bivalve (those that don't rely on sunlight as a source of energy but oxidation of molecules such as methane) and a polychaete (a type of segmented worm) during a biological survey of Rockall Bank located 500km west of Scotland. The discovery of these species suggested for the first time the presence of a deep-sea cold-seep (an area of the sea floor where the seepage of fluids such as hydrogen sulphide and methane occurs) within UK waters. However, the precise location and size of the seep remained unknown as these new species (amounting to a handful of shells) were collected in 1200m of water during a 3 mile long trawl. After two failed attempts to secure funding from Europe to go out and find the seep (“it can’t be done, you’ll never find it”), the BGS along with researchers from Marine Scotland Science, Oceanlab (University of Aberdeen), National Museum of Wales and the Scottish Association for Marine Science went out to Rockall last July with the aim of finding this ‘needle in a haystack’.

Frozen core packed in dry ice
waiting for transport to BGS
The search and discover expedition was a resounding success and the ‘Scotia Seep’ was located within a deep-sea furrow that forms an enclosed depression approximately 10km long and 3km wide in water depths between 1100m and 1200m. The first observational evidence revealed bacterial mats and extensive areas of remobilised sediment that form positive topographic features on the seafloor. Excitingly, evidence of active fluid expulsion at the seabed was also observed, recorded in all its glory in HD.

The surrounding seabed habitats include areas of burrowing animals and anemones in churned-up soft sediment, sponge aggregations on soft sediment and cold-water corals. Several chemosynthetic bivalves (those that feed on chemicals from the sea water) were also recovered and are being identified by collaborators at the National Museum of Wales.

Six megacore samples were recovered from the seep and were frozen offshore to preserve unusual layering observed within the sediment and overlying water. One of those cores was packed in dry ice and transported to BGS for analysis including scanning electron microscopy (SEM) and geochemical analyses.  Some of these analyses have already yielded some interesting results including a marked increase in concentration of base and heavy metals in particular copper, nickel, cobalt, arsenic and perhaps most interestingly uranium within sediments immediately below the sediment/water interface.

These analyses thus far indicate that upwelling, sulphurous and methane-rich fluids are being expelled at seabed on the western flank of Rockall Bank which supports a chemosynthetic community. This cold-seep is the first documented within the UK deep sea and the combination of unusual geochemistry and species suggests that it is quite different from the other cold-seep ecosystems in the north-east Atlantic such as those offshore Norway and Spain.

The exciting and unique results from this cruise are currently being written up for publication.

Photos a-i: a. remobilised sediment, b. bacterial mats, c. active fluid expulsion and soft-sediment remobilisation at seabed, d. burrowing animals and anemones in bioturbated soft sediment, e. sponge aggregations on soft sediment, f. cold water corals, g. gypsum/anhydrite crystals that crystallised following thawing of the core indicating sulphate-rich pore-waters near the sediment/water interface, h. vase-shaped coccosphere (a microscopic marine organism) with more typical round coccosphere on the right, and i. authigenic, magnesium-rich calcium carbonate precipitated on the surface of a foraminifera shell (photos g. to i. seen using a SEM). 
Scientific Team and Acknowledgements

The Offshore Science Party
Francis Neat (Marine Scotland Science (MSS)) led the offshore expedition to find the elusive seep with Alan Jamieson (Oceanlab), Heather Stewart (BGS), Jim Drewery (MSS), Neil Collie (MSS), Mike Stewart (MSS), Mike Robertson (MSS), Graham Oliver (National Museum of Wales), Dave Hughes (Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS)), Amy Scott-Murray (Oceanlab), Thom Linley (Oceanlab) and Chris Welch (SAMS).

Post-Cruise Work
Geological interpretation has been undertaken by Thomas Barlow, Aurelie Devez, Lorraine Field, Andrew Marriott, Antony Milodowski and Heather Stewart at the British Geological Survey.

Biological interpretation has been undertaken by Jim Drewery (MSS), Brodie Fischbacher (Oceanlab), Martin Foley (SAMS), Dave Hughes (SAMS), Alan Jamieson (Oceanlab), Bhavani Narayanaswamy (SAMS), Francis Neat (MSS), Graham Oliver (National Museum of Wales), and Matthew Snape (SAMS).

Thanks to the officers and crew of the MRV Scotia. Offshore data acquisition was supported by the Marine Alliance for Technology Scotland Deep-Sea Forum.

Monday, 8 February 2016

Chile: big mines, big data and big Mark Patton

Mark at Rio Blanco 
Following the trip to Alaska in August, the final residential for the 2015 Camborne School of Mines Mining Professional Programme began in Santiago, Chile, only 12 weeks after getting back from the previous one. Thankfully it was to the southern hemisphere, because as I touched down to 25° in Chile it was -25° in Fairbanks.

We spent the first 5 days in Santiago, visiting the Consejo Minero to discuss the current state of mining in Chile, the Sandvik factory to check out some of the machinery workshops and one of the local universities (so the Professor could make a few contacts). All of this interspersed with teaching sessions, presentations and the receipt of details of more presentations to be made during the course of the visit.

Early starts had been a feature of the Alaska trip but the 3am departure to the airport for an internal flight north trumped all of them. Santiago had been dry, but our new location Calama, located in the Atacama region, was more so. It was our base for some incredible mine visits.

First up was the Centinela Mine run by Antofagasta, an open pit copper operation about 40km south of Calama. You couldn’t quite call the equipment shiny, but it was relatively new and the operation was clearly streamlined. Everything was observed from a distance so we had a chance to get a good overview of the full mining process, from the pit, through to the processing mill.

Prepared for the plant at Chuquicamata
The second visit was to the biggest open pit copper mine in the world – Chuquicamata, operated by the Chilean national copper company CODELCO. It’s huge, as are the waste rock mountains that form much of the scenery on the drive in. Where Centinela was new and shiny, Chuquicamata has been on the go for a considerable time and the operation is sprawling. Here we got to see the pit and the processing plant in all its glory and the highlight was watching smelted copper get poured into moulds. It’s surprisingly runny. When cooled these lumps of copper are then used as the anode in the electrical process where the copper is purified to 99.99%.

Our mid residential day out was to the Atacama Desert itself. It was a long drive, mostly up on the way there. Previous experience of high altitude has always involved rugged Alpine style peaks so it was bizarre to find out we were at over 4700m and pretty much surrounded by flat desert. The scenery was spectacular though. Too much running about taking group photographs resulted in a spot of altitude sickness, but thankfully the pounding head and nausea eased on the drive back down to Calama.

The Atacama Desert
As a deviation from looking at big holes (and since we were learning about the whole mining life cycle not just the digging it out bit) we spent a pretty fascinating half day at the Anglo American tailings management facility for the Los Bronces mine. These structures are used to contain the residue left over (the tailings) from the mineral processing. Looking down at the tailings pond with its 80m high dam we were informed that by the time the mine closed, the spot we were standing on would be part of the facility and the dam would be 250m tall. This facility sits approximately 5km across a valley (which is filled with vines) from a similar tailings pond operated by CODELCO. Both of these are just 25km north of Santiago...

We returned to the superlatives theme for the trip with the next visit when we called on the biggest underground copper mine in the world. El Teniente is also operated by CODELCO and also relatively close to Santiago. Despite being close however we managed to be late, and as they thought we weren’t coming, the mine had cancelled the trip. Fortunately no one had gone too far and our guide was re-conjured, a spare bus acquired and we set off underground. But not before we had spent over an hour in the bus getting to the portal.

Underground crusher at El Teniente 
The part of El Teniente we visited is being mined by a process called block caving where underground blocks are undermined and allowed to collapse under its own weight, a method not many of us on the course had been exposed to before. One of the issues that can be encountered with this method, and an occurrence at El Teniente, is hang ups at the draw points. This is where a block of the ore gets stuck at the place where the trucks are supposed to access it for transporting to the crusher. Being underground when they carried out a secondary blast (a smaller explosion used to break up theses stuck blocks) was another first for me. We were just round the corner and I was in the process of rolling the second ear plug when the punch hit my chest at the same time as the boom hit my unprotected ear. Fortunately my vocal reaction was muffled.

The last trip of the residential was to another CODELCO operation, the Andina Copper mine, approximately 70km north east of Santiago. Before the mine itself, we stopped in at the operations control centre at Los Andes to see a cutting edge use of ‘big data’. The deputy director, Herman Aguirre, has set up a system where operations at the Andina mine can be monitored and graphically plotted in real time from any coffee shop in Santiago (or the world for that matter). The data he collects can be used to improve the productivity of the operation and the savings, on a scale that CODELCO operates at, can run to tens of millions of dollars, all using open source software.

Bid data in Andina Mine control room
Herman accompanied us to the mine proper, which was approached from the bottom up for a change (as opposed to arriving at the rim and looking down). We did eventually reach the top and from there, as well as looking down on Andina, we could look over the other side of the mountain to the Los Broncos mine which is also exploiting the Rio Blanco copper deposit. This was the final ‘biggest’ of the trip. The Rio Blanco was described by a CODELCO geologist as a planetary anomaly, it is so big. With two major copper mines working at it at once it would need to be.

The final event of the trip (all part of the assessment for the course) was a debate with the motion: This house believes that Chile will continue to lead global copper production over the next 25 years. Despite an emotional and powerful opening statement by those against, the motion carried, which was hardly surprising given every one in the room believed it to be true.

Chile is a fabulous country with stunning geology, better food that Alaska and airport security that is reminiscent of Europe in the 80s. I fully intend learning Spanish and going back for a more leisurely visit, maybe heading south next time.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Mapping Hidden Hunger in Edward Joy and Louise Ander

Edward Joy and Louise Ander describe how recently created maps of Malawi predict spatial variation in the dietary supply of seven essential elements (calcium, copper, iodine, iron, magnesium, selenium and zinc). These maps combine information on soil and crop properties, household dietary choices and socio-economic factors. This information can help to identify key controls on mineral micronutrient dietary deficiencies – also known as “hidden hunger” – and identify research priorities for the development of appropriate and feasible interventions to reduce population-wide hidden hunger.

Life in Malawi
Malawi is a land-locked country in south-east Africa. The majority of households rely on subsistence farming with typical land size ~2 ha. Average Gross National Income is just USD 308 capita-1 compared to USD 42,098 capita-1 in the UK. In this context, the quality of diets is affected by the ability of households to grow sufficient, nutritious food, and to supplement this with purchases. Typically, households devote most of their land to the staple crop maize which is a rational strategy when the primary objective is to satisfy energy requirements. If land and other resources such as labour permit, households may also grow legumes, vegetables, fruits etc. and some grow tobacco as a cash crop.

Hunger, or fear of hunger, is a common concern for most Malawian households. Yet hidden hunger, meaning inadequate vitamin or mineral intakes, is even more widespread. For example, zinc deficiency contributes to a very high stunting rate of 48% of children in rural areas. Food insecurity is one reason why life expectancy at birth is ~55 years, similar to that in the UK 100 years ago. Better data and an improved understanding of diets and nutrition is important to inform health and agriculture policies. We matched food consumption data recorded in a recent national household survey with crop composition data refined by soil type to quantify and map dietary mineral supplies and deficiencies across Malawi.

Images from L-R: Fieldwork in Malawi; Cultivation and weeding are usually done by small-holder farmers using a
hand-held hoe; Locally grown leafy green vegetables being sold at a market in northern Malawi. 
Not only “hidden” hunger…
Most smallholder farmers rely on manual labour and hence have active lifestyles. As part of this study, we show that energy supplies are likely to be inadequate to support active lifestyles in >50% of households. This observation is supported by the finding that as incomes increase, there is no proportional decrease in spending on food. This suggests that those lowest income households are
short of essential food.

Dietary supply of selenium
in micrograms per adult
 male equivalent (AME)
 per day (d).
Seasonal intakes of vegetables cause fluctuation of dietary mineral supply…
Most of Malawi has one long growing (rainy) season from December to April. Subsistence farming results in a change in availability and consumption of pulses, fruits and vegetables (including the leaves of edible ‘weeds’), which are consumed more frequently at the end of the rainy season. This leads to seasonal variation in the dietary supply of essential trace elements.

River and lake fish improve dietary micronutrient supply…
The most commonly-consumed animal product is fish, mainly sourced from Lake Malawi and Lake Chilwa. Fish consumption is greater in households close to the major lakes and this leads to greater consumption of several micronutrients, particularly calcium, selenium and zinc.

Wealthier households have healthier diets, but soil type has the greatest control over selenium supplies…..
Household wealth was negatively associated with risk of deficiency for all nutrients studied. This is due to greater consumption of foods including micronutrient-rich animal-source foods. Previous research has shown that calcareous soils in Malawi result in higher crop selenium concentrations. Here we show that the effect of soil type is more important than household wealth in providing beneficial increases in dietary selenium supply.

What next?
Ensuring food security in Malawi remains a huge challenge but there are possible interventions to improve dietary mineral supplies. Interventions can be successful, e.g. the national salt iodisation programme which is responsible for the majority of the dietary supply of iodine in Malawi (as with many other countries globally). There are crop breeding programmes to increase micronutrient concentrations, particularly for zinc. Selenium could be increased in crops through enriched fertilisers, as shown in experimental trials in Malawi conducted on soils with low inherent selenium availability. Fertiliser fortification is being successfully used as a national approach to increasing dietary selenium supply in Finland.

Images from L-R: Different types of fish provide a good source of micronutrients, here for sale at a market in Malawi;
The clear colour difference betweel bulk soil samples collected over more acidic (red) soils, and calcareous (dark brown to black) vertisols. 
Further information
You can read our open access paper if you would like find out more, including the full set of maps we have generated for Malawi.

This work was one of the outputs of Edward’s PhD, as well as that of the ongoing PhD project of Diriba Kumssa. Dr Edward Joy was supervised by Prof. Martin Broadley, Dr Scott Young, the late Prof. Colin Black (School of Biosciences, University of Nottingham (UoN)), Dr Louise Ander, Dr Michael Watts (British Geological Survey (BGS)) and Dr Allan Chilimba (Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation, Malawi), with PhD funding from UoN and BGS.

Edward’s PhD research is part of an ongoing programme of research in the Centre for Environmental Geochemistry (Biosciences, UoN and Inorganic Geochemistry, BGS) alongside our fantastic wider network of research partners in Malawi, and beyond.

Our most recent activity is the initiation of the Royal Society – Department for International Development (RS-DFID) Africa Capacity Building project “Strengthening African capacity in soil geochemistry” in Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe. We have recently welcomed 5 new PhD students into this 5 year project, two of whom will directly build upon outputs from Edward’s PhD, with plans for more! Edward is now working at the LSHTM.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

From tiny seeds PhD student Leslie Bode

Me looking rather seed-crazed in the
Archaeobotany lab at Bar Ilan University 
Hi, my name is Leslie Bode, and I am exploring new applications of archaeobotanical isotopic research. I am currently a 3rd year PhD candidate at the University of Nottingham and am co-supervised between Archaeology (Dr Alexandra Livarda) and Geography (Dr Matthew Jones). I also receive a lot of extra isotope guidance from Dr Angela Lamb at the British Geological Survey.

Thanks to a NERC Isotope Geosciences Facility grant, I am using a combination of archaeobotanical and stable carbon isotope (δ13C) analysis of charred (carbonized) seed remains from Kharaneh IV (a ca. 20,000 year old archaeological site in the Azraq Basin in Eastern Jordan) to test whether the plants living during this period and, by extension, the hunter-gatherers using this ancient site experienced water stress. I’m especially interested in whether water stress increased leading up to the site’s abandonment almost 20,000 years ago: did a lack of water contribute to collapse?

One of the well organized boxes of
reference material at Bar Ilan University 
Identifying the ancient, charred seeds from Kharaneh IV to the species level is a real challenge due to the small number of seeds, how well preserved they are, and their small size (one seed would, literally, fit on the head of a pin). Adding to this, botanical reference collections are few and far between for this time period and region.  To help identify these mystery seeds, I have been traveling to reference collections around the UK, such as the ‘Hillman’ Near Eastern seed collection in the Department of Archaeology at the University College London, and the University of Sheffield’s Archeobotanical reference collection.  Along the way, I have been graciously helped by experts in this area (notably: Sue Colledge at UCL and Mark Nesbitt at Kew Gardens).  Despite these productive, knowledge building research visits, I was still left with a lot of unidentified material and needed to get closer to the source of these seeds.

So, in November 2015, I travelled to the archaeobotany labs at Bar Ilan University in Israel to have a look at their impressive collection of Levantine and Near Eastern seeds.   While visiting, I was fortunate to meet Prof. Ehud Weiss and Dr Yoel Melamed and the friendly and amazing team of archaeobotanists who work in their labs, who have excellent knowledge of the local and regional flora on top of an archaeobotanical perspective on the early time period I am interested in. I was blown away by the extent of the reference collection at Bar Ilan.  Every species and even various varieties I had hoped to see were there, waiting for me in well organised boxes of slides and capsules. I only managed a few days of browsing the reference collection, but plan to return during the final stages of identification for the material I am studying from Kharaneh IV.
Map of the location of Khareneh IV in Eastern Jordan

In the meantime, I’ve been back in the lab at BGS, working with Dr Angela Lamb to measure δ13C in my seeds and learning a lot about statistical analyses and some of the real challenges to using isotopic methods on such ancient seeds. The initial results have certainly given me lots to think about, but I won’t give any of them away here. Keep an eye out for the publication that will hopefully result from our findings.

Monday, 25 January 2016

Millions of years of lake sediment: looking at the links between climate change and human Jonathan Dean

Jonathan Dean is a Postdoctoral Research Assistant working at the Stable Isotope Facility at the British Geological Survey, and here he gives us an update on the research project he is involved with, investigating climate changes and human evolution.

I’ve just returned from Atlanta, where around 50 scientists from the US, Canada, UK, Europe and Africa came together to discuss progress on our project, the Hominin Sites and Paleolakes Drilling Project. In short, we are analysing the ancient sediments from five lakes in Ethiopia and Kenya, close to places where anthropologists have discovered the remains of ancient Homo sapiens (our species) or our ancestor species. Combined, the sediments from all the sites span the time from close to the present day to millions of years ago. By analysing the changes in the chemistry of the lake sediments, and how this changes back through time, we are trying to establish how climate change may have contributed to the biological evolution of humans and cultural changes such as migrations out of Africa.

Some of the scientists working on the five lakes
 As I discussed in a previous blog, the lake I’m working on – Chew Bahir – has sediments that probably span the last 500,000 years or so, and is close to the site where the oldest known Homo sapiens remains have been found. In the autumn, I started analysing these sediments, and so far have probably gone back from the present to about 100,000 years ago or so. I have found large changes in the ratio of one type of oxygen to another, which indicates that there have been big shifts from wetter times when the lake was fairly fresh, to drier times when the lake would have been salty. Our samples are stored in laboratories in Minneapolis and this week I received my latest samples from there, so it’s back to the lab in the Stable Isotope Facility to extend our record of changes between wet and dry further back into the past.

A bit of sight-seeing in Atlanta
Martin Luther King's House
Other scientists in the UK, Germany and Ethiopia will be using other methods to help in the climate reconstruction, such as looking at changes in what species of diatoms (algae formed of silica) are present and using x-rays to look at what types of sediment were washed into the lake. In combination, our different methods will hopefully allow us to accurately reconstruct the past climate changes in this part of Africa. In particular, we’re interested in what the climate of the area was like when Homo sapiens evolved, around 200,000 years ago, and later on when some started to migrate out of Africa. We want to establish whether climate changes occurred around these times, and so to understand if these could account for the timing of our evolution and migrations.

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

A new PhD researching the effects of variation in the orbit of the Earth around the Savannah Worne

Hello, my name is Savannah and I have just started my PhD within the Centre for Environmental Geochemistry, between the University of Nottingham School of Geography and the BGS.  I recently graduated from the university with a BSc Geography, completing my dissertation research using the sediments to investigate environmental change over the last hundred years in Maloe More, Lake Baikal, Siberia. From my studies, I became very interested in palaeoenvironmental change and was keen to pursue a career in research, leading me to apply for this PhD.

The topic of my PhD is to investigate the role of Bering Sea oceanographic controls on the shift in Milankovitch orbital cycle dominance, during the Mid-Pleistocene Transition (MPT), which occurred between 1.2 and 0.7 million years ago. The Milankovitch orbital cycles occur due to gravitational interactions which cause variations in the Earth’s orbit of the Sun, and hence produce changes in the amount of solar energy the Earth receives and impacting on the climate. There are three dominant cycles called precession, obliquity and eccentricity, which cause changes on timescales of 26,000, 41,000 and 100,000 years, respectively (see here for further details). During the MPT there was a shift in the dominance of these cycles, switching from the formerly prevailing obliquity orbital cycle, to the lower frequency eccentricity cycle. However there was no significant change in the external orbital forcing; this implies that there must have been an internal forcing within the Earth’s climate system, which caused this system response instead.

To investigate this, I will be looking at sediments collected during an Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP) cruise, taken from the continental shelf in the Bering Sea. I aim to use the microfossil assemblages of siliceous algae called diatoms, which sink to the ocean floor forming a preserved fossil record in the sediment, which can then inform us about the type of environment at the time of deposition. I will also be undertaking geochemical analysis to measure the chemical structure of a preserved micro-organism called foraminifera, as well as assessing the composition of the sediment itself (e.g. carbon and nitrogen content), to aid my diatom analysis in better understanding the changing environment through the MPT. One final proxy I plan to utilise is the ice-rafted debris (IRD) record; IRD is sediment derived from the land or seabed which is transported in a matrix of ice (e.g. sea-ice or icebergs), which then floats away from the adjacent land mass or ice sheet, melts, and is subsequently deposited in the sediment at the ocean floor. As my sediment core has been taken from near the historic coastline and the maximum winter sea ice extent, this record should prove useful to assess the magnitude of sea ice formation and hence infer climatic conditions such as temperature and wind strength.  Through these proxies, I hope to uncover the history of Bering Sea sea-ice, sea surface temperature, productivity and salinity through the middle Pleistocene, as well as assessing potential teleconnections with North Atlantic Ice Sheet growth and instability, through this period.

Currently, I am spending my time becoming familiar with the previous body of work completed in the Bering Sea and more broadly through this time period, to better understand how my PhD research will fit into this. I have also started to undertake my first batch of laboratory work, processing samples to pick out benthic (sea-floor dwelling) foraminifera which will later be used for isotopic analysis, to create a robust age model for my sediment core, U1343.

My supervisors for this project are Dr Sev Kender, Dr George Swann, Professor Sarah Metcalfe (all  (University of Nottingham), Dr James Riding (BGS) and Dr Zuzia Stroynowski (IPMA).

Thursday, 17 December 2015

Jedi geology or Sith science: the Force was Kirstin Lemon

Unless you have been living in a bubble for the past few months, you won't have failed to notice that the greatly anticipated seventh Star Wars movie has finally made its appearance in our cinemas. You can't help but get swept up in all the excitement! There has been a huge amount of debate regarding the story line; will we finally have a female Jedi (girl power!), will Luke have gone to the Dark side, and just exactly what are those new lightsabers all about?

I'll be the first to admit that up until a few years ago, I had absolutely no interest in Star Wars, in fact I had never even seen any of the movies. I was born one year after the first movie was released in 1977 so most of my friends, especially the male ones, were completely obsessed with them. I knew the characters, I think that they are a firm part of our popular culture, but I had no idea what there role was. However, that all changed a few decades later. I now have children of my own, two boys no less, and they are both Star Wars mad! For a while, I managed to simply feign interest in the movies, but one Friday night as they were watching what I now know to be Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, I happened to look up and saw something that would change my opinion of Star Wars forever. It was the famous fight scene between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker, as they both battled with lightsabers whilst balanced on rocks floating on a river of lava. Something clicked that day, whether the Force was calling, or whether it was the rather impressive CGI work with the lava (let's be honest, this is more likely given that I'm a geologist), I don't know, but from then on I was hooked as well.

Over the past few years, I have been making up for lost time and have watched all of the movies more times that I can remember (although I have never watched them all in the correct order so my version of the story may be different from yours), I have been to numerous Comic Cons and have even made Star Wars gingerbread! I have also taken a great interest in the filming locations because whilst the story might be set in a galaxy far, far away, the filming has to be done here on planet Earth (for now). As always, the geology and geomorphology plays a key part in the location choice for all of the movies so just for a bit of fun, I've given a brief run down of some of the key planets and the geology of their real-life filming locations.

Twenty Mule Team Canyon, Death Valley, California
By far the most commonly used location for filming is Tunisia, where the desert landscape has been used to film Tatooine, the home planet of Anakin Skywalker and his son Luke.  A great number of sites were used around the city of Tozeur, where the stunning landscape provided the perfect backdrop for at least four of the movies. Some of the features include the yardangs, enlongated erosional landforms that resemble the shape of a sharks fin that were the location of the Jedi duel between Qui-Gonn Jin and Darth Maul in Episode I. One of the most famous geological features used is Star Wars Canyon or Sidi Bouhlel as it is known locally. This canyon is carved out of Middle Miocene sandstone and contains fossils of a number of vertebrates including crocodiles that provide vital evidence for changing palaeoclimate in the region. It was used during Episode IV and is where Luke Skywalker meets Obi-Wan Kenobi for the first time.

During the filming of Episode IV and V, shots that were scheduled for Tunisia were filmed in Death Valley, California, as production had gone over budget. Taking advantage of the typical 'badland topography' with its densely spaced drainage, deeply eroded hills, and lack of vegetation, Twenty Mule Team Canyon became the new Star Wars Canyon and was where R2-D2 was filmed as he made his way to Ben Kenobi's hut.

Tower karst in Guilin, China
The homeland of Chewbacca and the rest of the Wookies, Kashyyyk is perhaps one of the most stunning planets. No filming actually took place here, but background shots were taken from Phang Nga Bay in Thailand, and Guilin in China. These two locations are known for their breathtaking tower karst, the name given to steep sided hills of weathered limestone that typically develops in areas with thick limestone, warm wet weather and slow steady tectonic uplift. The landscape from both of these locations can be easily recognised in Episode III during the battle of Kashyyyk.

Everyone remembers the icy wasteland of Hoth from Episode V but it's real location was the Norwegian glacier of Hardangerjokulen and the area around the nearby town on Finse. The glacier itself is the sixth largest in Norway and is around 380m thick. It has played a significant role in the education of glaciologists over the past decades as it has been used as a base for a number of glaciology courses. Hardangerjokulen has also been the subject of a significant amount of recent research into glacier fluctuations during the Holocene period. 

Hardangerjokulen, Norway
Regarded as being the most Earth-like planet, Alderaan is probably most famous as being the home planet of Princess Leia. It was mentioned in both Episode I and IV, but was not actually seen until Episode III. Filming for Alderaan was done in Grindelwald, a municipality in the Swiss Alps, but also the name of  a glacially-carved valley and glacier adjacent to it. The area around Grindelwald has received a significant amount of publicity over the past few decades due to the  retreat of the Lower Grindelwald glacier.

Mount Etna erupting in 2002
Last, but by no means least is Mustafar, the planet where the epic battle scene between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker took place and the one that got me hooked on Star Wars. Obviously, filming two men fighting whilst balancing on rocks floating on lava is impossible but some of the lava scenes were actually shot at Mount Etna in Sicily. Europe's largest active volcano was erupting during the filming of Episode III in 2002 so a film crew visited and got some shots of the lava flow to use as the backdrop for the planet Mustafar.

This impressive array of global filming locations has given us the planets that we know and love in the Star Wars series so far but what about Episode VII? The filming locations have been kept under wraps, although a few leaks have come through here and there. Rumour has it that filming has taken place in Iceland, and given the geological wonderland that Iceland is and the fact that it is used for a number of other science fiction movies and TV shows, then it comes as no great surprise. It has also been rumoured that filming took place at Skellig Michael, a small island off the south-west coast of Co. Kerry in Ireland. This relatively inaccessible place is a World Heritage Site as it was the location of a 6th century monastic site, perched on top of strongly deformed Devonian rocks that appear to burst up from the sea floor. A truly spectacular site but not an easy one to reach! It's been said that the producers of Episode VII have relied much less on CGI this time, and have instead used 'real' locations so let's hope we get a few geological surprises as well as a few storyline ones.

Skellig Michael, Co. Kerry, Ireland
May the force be with you.

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Extreme field testers wanted; wimps need not Kirstin Lemon

Me sheltering from the rain.
There's a saying amongst us that the best geologists are the ones that have seen the most rocks. But what about the people that have seen the most rocks, do they make the best geologists?

Some of the people that see the greatest amount of rocks are hill walkers, who spend their spare time exploring and enjoying our great outdoors. Many hill walkers have a practical understanding of the ground beneath their feet, and many of them are geologists themselves. But quite often, those that aren't, want to know more and that is where Mountaineering Ireland came up with an idea to address this.

Mark Cooper introducing the Rocks to Ridges map
Late last year, Mountaineering Ireland approached the Geological Survey of Northern Ireland and the University of Ulster to see if they would produce a simple geological map for the north of the island of Ireland. The idea being to help hill walkers, and anyone else using the outdoors for recreational purposes, to understand the rocks and natural landscape that they are using. The map, called From Rocks to Ridges, uses a digital terraine model (DTM) that shows the topography in 3D over which is draped a simple bedrock geology map. On the back of the map is a general description of the geology that helps provide an understanding of how the main rock types formed. Of course, it's not just the solid bedrock that we see but the superficial deposits that provide a thin veneer on top so in addition to providing information on the general geology, a description of the main superficial deposits and the features that result is also given.

But producing a map is one thing, checking how it functions in the field is another altogether. So on one of the wettest and windiest days in November a handful of us from GSNI together with two members of Mountaineering Ireland decided to test it in the Mourne Mountains, in Co. Down.

The day got off to a 'good' start when Alex Donald, Information Officer with GSNI tried to test our new Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), otherwise known as a drone. Even in the car park at relatively low levels the UAV would have been simply blown away so we had to shelve that idea for another day.

The view looking down valley (before the cloud came in).
Chief Geologist for NI, Dr Mark Cooper began by giving us an overview of the map and then we set off. Starting off at Meelmore Lodge with its stunning glacial features, we were treated to some interpretation by our Quaternary geologist, Dr Sam Roberson. We made our way up the track and lunched at an old granite quarry on what was apparently the calm side of the mountain. The high winds were only just beginning and our colleagues from MI started using the phrases 'a high level of grimness' and 'death zone'. But we are geologists in Northern Ireland and we could cope with this. As we continued upwards, on at least one occasion each of us managed to be blown over, with the smaller members of our group (me!) being blown over several times.

The view (or lack thereof) on our way up! 
Onwards and upwards we went, into horizontal rain and increasingly poor visibility. For all of our expensive outdoor clothing, all of us were starting to think that it was time to invest in upgraded equipment. We reached the Mourne Wall, a 35km wall used to mark the perimeter of the water catchment area for NI Water, and more importantly a place for shelter as we crouched down out of the strong winds. At this point we should have been getting spectacular views of the rest of the stunning Mourne Mountains with their glacially carved granite peaks. All we could see was rain! The paths that we were walking on were simply rivers, but we did manage to stop to have a look at some tuffasite (veins within the granite that formed during explosive events) that was lying loose along the way.

The sun came out as we walked back to the car park. 
We eventually began our descent and as we did so, the rain stopped and the cloud began to clear and we were able to catch glimpses of the glacial valley that we were walking down. We took shelter from the still very strong winds in an old quarrymen's hut. This time it was our colleagues from MI that were able to tell us about the granite quarrying heritage in the Mourne Mountains, something that has all but ceased.

As we reached the bottom of the valley, the rock type changed and this time it was Silurian metasediments. These were the original country rocks that the granite would have been intruded into about 55 million years ago. From a walkers point of view, these require a different approach altogether with their sharp edges and slippery surface. Although I can assure you, that falling on to the granite was no delight either, and I have the bruise on my shin to prove it.

But what about the map? Well we brought it out on several occasions to see what the various rock types were. Despite it acting a bit like a sail in the wind, and the exceptionally heavy rain that it was subjected to, it faired very well. It has been printed on waterproof paper and fits easily into a leg pocket so it is designed to be used in the field. We were also told by our colleagues from Mountaineering Ireland that a number of schools have requested to use the map so it is definitely being put through its paces. I'd like to think that the conditions that we took it through were some of the roughest that it could possibly experience so if it survived that, then it can survive anything!

Click here to download your free copy of From Rocks to Ridges.

No geologists were harmed during the writing of this blog

Monday, 14 December 2015

Rare minerals and community cohesion: impact through geological Kristine Pommert

BGS Executive Director John Ludden introduces the blog below, shared with us by Kristine Pommert from Bulletin after their recent Impact Skills Training: "As a world-leading geological survey, focusing on public-good science and research, we are required to generate and demonstrate the impact of what we do. BGS recently enlisted Bulletin to develop our skills in this area and we are delighted with what they have been able to achieve. Their recent blog summarises the positive results from their training and gives an insight in to further excellent results."

Before I say anything else about the British Geological Survey, I have to declare an interest: I like them. Not just because what they do is intrinsically interesting, which it is; and not just because they’re a good bunch of people to work with, either.

The geological walk at the entrance to BGS headquarters  in Keyworth 
The added attraction is what you walk into when you enter their headquarters at Keyworth near Nottingham: an Aladdin’s cave of a shop, featuring intriguing geological books and maps and – best of all - a wealth of covetable stones and minerals, with rows of boxes proffering colourful samples from agate to (if my memory serves me right) zebra jasper. And don’t get me started on those glass cases holding beautiful pendants with semi-precious stones, many far superior to what you find in regular jeweller’s shops.

But on Bulletin’s most recent visit, once I’d torn myself away from these distractions, we discovered things which were even more fascinating: a kaleidoscope of the impacts BGS researchers are achieving in the real world. In a series of coaching conversations, we worked with research teams from different areas to discuss their planned impact case studies for the next NERC evaluation exercise.

Measuring mine water temperature and chemistry 
The range of where and how BGS researchers are achieving impact is impressive: among the projects that have particularly stuck in my mind is one exploring the sub-surface of some of Europe’s major cities, providing governments and councils with a wealth of useful data for urban planning and regeneration purposes – even down to new options for harnessing heat from abandoned mines.

Another project examines the effects of fracking on groundwater, shedding light on an important aspect of a highly emotive public debate. Yet another explores the future availability of rare metals needed for digital and low-carbon energy technologies, allowing governments and industry better resource planning and all of us a better understanding of how our own consumption habits may impact finite resources.

And then there are the kinds of impacts you would never expect from geological research: such as the building of bridges between Protestants and Catholics from both sides of the border in Ireland through geological tourism projects. Perhaps the most spectacular of these projects is the Marble Arch Caves UNESCO Global Geopark near Enniskillen, which takes visitors through a natural underworld with stunningly beautiful cave formations – in the process uniting the two communities through a common interest exceptional features of their natural environment.

Bringing communities together in the
Marble Arch Caves UNESCO Global Geopark
What makes coaching conversations such a valuable tool for developing impact case studies is that as often as not, new impacts emerge which no-one has thought of. In a discussion on landslide research, it came to light that fire services had changed their professional practice in direct response to the research findings: clear impact, but one which the case study author had not thought to include in her draft.

For me as Bulletin’s training lead, the two days’ of sessions at BGS were also highly satisfying for another reason: the case study drafts I was shown demonstrated very clearly that the impact training I had run there in 2014 had borne fruit. Almost all of the case study authors began their description of the underpinning research with a clear and convincing outline of the “real world” context that made their research relevant and desirable; and most had succeeded in choosing a manageable scope for their impact cases.

The BGS is part of the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), which is the UK's main agency for funding and managing research, training, and knowledge exchange in the environmental sciences. The NERC reports to the UK government's Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). There are, of course, considerable imponderables surrounding the next NERC evaluation exercise. Although the Nurse review has restored confidence in that NERC and the six other research councils will continue to exist (albeit under a different umbrella), we are still waiting to find out when the next evaluation will take place, and what exactly the rules will be.

Yet, as in the higher education sector, there is little doubt that impact will play a part. BGS research teams are doing well to start preparing their impact cases now. Many will need considerable development over time, but some solid groundwork has been laid.

So all in all, our visit to Keyworth felt eminently worthwhile. And who knows, I might yet find one of those beautiful pendants from that glass case in my Christmas stocking. At least I’ve encouraged my husband to pay a visit to the BGS shop.

Kristine Pommert is an impact and training consultant with Bulletin

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Going South Part 3: Doing some science! PhD student Rowan Dejardin

Rowan collecting samples from the seafloor sediment
As described in my previous blogs, I’m travelling south with the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) to collect samples from the South Georgia shelf, as part of my PhD (jointly funded by the BGS and the University of Nottingham, and within the Centre for Environmental Geochemistry). Having dropped off a team of scientists and technical staff on the remote island of Signy we started heading north in the general direction of South Georgia. After a day of slow sailing through the brash ice we head in to open waters. Whilst we’re going to miss the ice behind, with its attendant penguins and seals, the entry into open water means it will now be possible to undertake some science! Also, a gigantic tabular iceberg, that fills the horizon at times, is soon sighted and keeps us company for much of the day, with other smaller bergs.

The first proper science deployment is the CTD, and impressive contraption made up of many instruments to measure a range of oceanographic properties, including conductivity, temperature and depth, and 24 bottles to take water samples at various depths. The first couple of CTD deployments are at locations where data has been collected in previous year and therefore add data to ongoing studies of the Southern Ocean. The instrument first descends to its maximum deployment depth (approximately 1km at these initial locations) continuously recording data as it goes. As the CTD ascends the bottles are activated by an observing scientist on the ship collecting water at different depths for later analysis.

The CTD equipment
Having deployed the CTD at two stations we then sailed to the location of a scientific mooring, known as P2. The mooring consists of a buoy, with a range of instruments measuring parameters such as pH, salinity, CO2, connected to the seafloor more than 3km below by a very long and strong Kevlar rope. Attached to the rope at various depths are sediment traps, measuring variation in sediment flux through the year, and water samplers. Once we arrive at the approximate location of the buoy an acoustic signal from the ship fires the releases and everyone rushes to the monkey island, at the top on the ship to watch out for the buoy breaking the surface. Despite being left in some of the roughest waters in the world the P2 mooring was just where it had been left, unfortunately after it was recovered to the ship it became clear that the buoy had been hit by a huge iceberg that had dragged it to a huge depth, damaging many of the instruments.

Humpback whales circling the ship
Whilst we deployed the CTD at the P2 location we could see whales blowing all around the ship, presumably feeding on the large krill swarm that was visible in the ship's acoustic data. Initially, the whales were quite distant from the ship but they slowly got closer and closer until a pair of humpbacks were circling the ship, repeatedly surfacing just a few metres away!! Apparently humpbacks are often quite curious and attracted to the noises of the ship and the scientific instruments, and this pair spent the next couple of hours hanging out with us.

Leaving P2, and the whales behind, we continued towards South Georgia where we would be resupplying bases at Bird Island and King Edward Point. On the way we were able to deploy the box corer to sample the sediment on the South Georgia shelf, the reason I joined the cruise! The box corer is essentially a big box with a shovel that closes when it hits the seafloor, collecting around 30cm of surface sediment. We were able to deploy the box corer at two locations, in around 250m water depth, and recovered sediment from both locations, in spite of the box corer failing to fire a couple of times! Once the box corer was on deck, I subsamples the sediment with my supervisor, Vicky Perk, collecting four cores and as much of the top 1cm of sediment as possible. I am now processing the sediment so that can study the foraminifera (a single-celled organism that grows carbonate shells in a range of beautiful forms) in the sediment. Observations of which species live in the surface sediment, under current oceanographic conditions, will inform how I interpret fossil data from the Holocene cores that make up my PhD project.

Rowan is supervised at the BGS by Melanie Leng, at the University of Nottingham by Sev Kender, and at BAS by Vicky Peck and Claire Allen.