Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Brick Kilns and Fish: a Symbiotic Relationship? by Dr Andy Marriott

During the 1st two weeks in March Dr Andy Marriott and Dr Simon Chenery visited India to foster ties between India and UK environmental scientists. They were funded by the BGS Global team to develop future collaborative research in the growing suburban aquaculture systems. Here's Andy to share their experiences with brick kilns and fish!

Local transportation and one of the many vehicles that festoon the roads of Calcutta
Arriving in Calcutta, the city was an immediate assault on our senses. The loud cacophony of frantic horns emanating from all manner of transportation, buses, lorries, cars, motorbikes and of course the local form of transport the tut tuk’s (auto-rickshaw) sounded there confusion as each tried to jostle for position in the melee that was traffic control. India Style!!!! Construction work is everywhere with buildings sprouting up from land cleared for just this purpose. After such a long journey the developing world is really in your face! We arrived at our destination; the university guest house in its faded glory seemed like an ocean of calm in what appears to be a world of change. On our arrival we were met by Dr Sarkar our host and dear friend from the Marine Biology department at the University of Calcutta.

Team Fish (from left to right): Soumi Mitra, Dr Andy Marriott, Dr Simon Chenery, Baskhar Deb
Bhattacharya, Dr Santosh Sarkar (our host) and Dibyendu Rakshit

 This was my first trip to India and my colleague Dr Simon Chenery’s second. We visited India with the intention of developing a joint international project to investigate the biogeochemical cycling of pollutants/minerals and potential for bioaccumulation in aquacultural fish from Indian pond systems. This was our opportunity to exchange ideas and experiences from our different fields of expertise with a view to applying to UK and Indian agencies future research funding. Crucially, we were there to understand the aquaculture ponds role in supplying fish as the main source of protein/minerals for Calcutta and potential for pollutant cycling.

Brick manufacture and the chimneys which form an integral part of the process go hand in hand
with fish aquaculture with ponds forming part of the overall system
One hour south of Calcutta we approached the aquaculture pond systems formed from former brick/clay extraction sites. Here you see brick manufacture on a large scale, with brick kilns located along the main Hughli river, with their chimneys, spewing out their acrid plumes. We counted 10 such chimneys along the river banks. The areas surrounding the kilns are littered with ponds large and small, from where the removed clay are now filled with water from the river. Intertwined, these ponds are split using clay left over from the brick manufacture as makeshift walls to separate each pond. Along the makeshift walls were small reed and wood huts. We were informed that the huts were used by what we would term the local bailiff and would allow him to remain on site and to protect the pond owner’s interests. The Fish! An indication on how profitable the ponds were in the ever increasing system of aquaculture production.

Areas where Brick kilns meet fisheries aquaculture. Note the makeshift hut
on the right of the picture for the pond bailiff.

Discussions with locals by our hosts led us to a couple of likely sites. After some negotiation, we were taken to a pond where they had some fish ready netted. Surrounded by a bevy of men, women and children we collected our fish, water and sediment. Our hosts went through a questionnaire with the fisherman. Introductions complete, we were then taken to the first pond and watched as the owner walked through with his accomplice to corral fish into a corner where he could cast his net. Throughout the week we visited 9 sites/ponds and collected between 4-8 fish from each one. Now followed the task of processing all of our samples.

The pond owner proudly holding a fish surrounded by family and locals from his village.
Back at the University we prepared our samples, filtered the water and stored the sediment. Then came the arduous task of processing all those fish. Working as a team, Dr Chenery and I, and the ever helpful and enthusiastic Baskhar and two of Dr Sarkar’s PhD students Dibyendu and Soumi worked through collecting tissue samples e.g. muscle, liver and gonads combined with biological measurements such as length and weight. Scale samples were collected for aging and the removal of the fish’s ear stone or otolith. This little aragonite structure would be later used to verify the fishes age and to assess elemental concentrations incorporated within its structure using LA-and sb-ICP-MS. Trained by myself in the black art of otolith extraction Baskhar, Debindar and Soumi all became quite adept and finding these sometimes elusive little structures. Tissue samples were then vacuum sealed and stored frozen until we would transport them back with us to the UK the following morning.   Detailed analyses will follow to better understand the mineral and potential biogeochemical cycling of pollutants in these ponds which work on both an artisanal and commercial scale. 

From left to right. Dibyendu, Dr Chenery, Baskhar and Soumi process one of the fish in the labs at the marine science department
Thanks for reading about my adventures in India. Keep an eye on the blog for updates about our continuing collaboration and results

by Andy

Discovering Malawi's spatial data by Carl Watson

Carl Watson, a Systems Developer & Analyst at the BGS, has visited Malawi twice in six months for meetings between members of the countries spatial data community. Here he tells us how and why it's so important, where to find free data and what's in store for the future. Carl's work is on behalf of the BGS Knowledge Exchange team and BGS Global team, which is funded by the Natural Environment Research Council.

Green and pleasant lands of Malawi

The first thing that strikes you on arrival at Lilongwe international airport in January, is how green it is, Malawi is a beautiful country and even more so when there has been a bit of rain to cultivate an explosion of life.

The trip involved visits to a range of government departments in Lilongwe and Blantyre, including the Ministry of Health, Ministry of Agriculture and Surveys Department. The aim of the June 2013 meetings was to investigate data modelling capacity within departments responsible for spatial data management, identify potential collaboration opportunities and promote the free to use data models published at

There are a large number of projects run by government, commercial organisations and Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) in the country that involve the capture and storage of spatial data, methods vary from organisation to organisation. There is a high regard for GIS expertise in the country and plenty of well trained and keen practitioners, there is also a significant number of researchers and decision makers who are interested in finding out what spatial datasets exist within the country. Unfortunately there appear to be a large number of datasets that could have national significance but remain hidden on individual laptops, often held in spreadsheets and GIS files that are well understood by the authors but poorly documented, raising the risk of data being lost or misunderstood by future potential users.

Malawi Spatial Data Portal
One shining example of how spatial data management could be improved in Malawi, and perhaps other low income countries, is MASDAP. This system provides an online portal for the upload, search and download of spatial datasets, its development is funded by the World Bank programme for Disaster Risk Management. 

The Surveys Department are in the process of creating a National Spatial Data Centre for the country, they will host and administer the MASDAP system and are in the process of developing national standards for the capture and storage of spatial data.

The MASDAP system is a powerful tool for capturing and storing spatial data, however, it is only possible to capture metadata when a user is uploading a dataset. Many data owners are willing to tell others what data they possess but strongly resist ‘giving it away’. We came up with a plan to encourage the capture and use of spatial metadata through a series of changes to the existing system and by arranging data management and data modelling training in the UK and Malawi.

Over the two visits we met a lot of welcoming people, in particular Alice Gwedeza at the Surveys Department and Allan Chilimba at the Ministry of Agriculture who treated us with great enthusiasm and hospitality.  The concept of organising metadata for both the Ministry of Agriculture and Health was grasped as a powerful tool to inform government policy and promote academic research.  Follow-on work from evaluation, training and design will focus on developing specialists at the Surveys Department who will be able to advise and forge close working relationships with other government agencies on the use and archiving of metadata. We look forward to developing stronger links between the BGS and the spatial data specialists of Malawi, the Warm Heart of Africa.

by Carl Watson

Monday, 24 March 2014

Geochemical processes during CO2 storage meeting by Gemma Purser

Gemma Purser is an Analytical Geochemist working at our BGS Headquarters in Keyworth, Nottingham. In this post she details the happenings and successes of last months 'Geochemical processes during CO2 storage' meeting.

Poster session, BGS, Nottingham
Recently the BGS hosted a meeting focused on geochemical processes related to the deep underground storage of carbon dioxide (CO2). This provided an opportunity for UK and European researchers to exchange knowledge as part of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology.  CCS aims to take carbon dioxide from point sources such as power stations and inject it underground into a formation where it can be stored instead of being released to the atmosphere as a way to mitigate climate change.

The meeting also provided an opportunity to showcase the work undertaken as part of CRIUS (carbon research into underground storage), a natural environmental research council (NERC) funded project. The CRIUS project is a consortium consisting of the BGS and the universities of Cambridge, Manchester and Leeds. CRIUS has over the past 6 years undertaken research to better understand the geochemical reactions that are likely to occur between CO2 and fluids and minerals within geological storage reservoirs. 

Meeting dinner, BGS, Nottingham
The meeting held over two days opened with a poster session which saw a range of UK and international studies represented. The days then continued with seminars on natural CO2 analogues focusing on field scale geochemical observations from Greenriver, Utah, USA and Teapot dome, Wyoming (Mike Bickle, Cambridge and Niko Kampman, BGS/Lancaster). Focus then moved to reactions at the pore-scale and its impact upon porosity and permeability through the use of high pressure and temperature column experiments which demonstrated the dissolution and re-precipitation of mineral phases (Chris Rochelle, BGS) and the use of x-ray CT to highlight the changes in porosity and permeability due to geochemical reactions within sandstone cores (Benoit Lamy-Chappuis, Leeds) and the behaviour of supercritical CO2 within a pore system (Xianfeng Fan, Edinburgh). The first day closed with a networking meal in the heart of Nottingham followed by the obligatory pint or two which always has a natural tendency to get people talking about science into the early hours! 

Bruce Yardley, University of Leeds, presenting
work on mineral dissolution kinetics (top)&
Eric Olkers presenting on the CARBFIX project (bottom)
Day two kicked off at looking at the role of noble gases as tracers as applied to following CO2 and fluid migration in the field (Stuart Gilfillan, Edinburgh) and how laboratory experiments are critical in deriving crucial new data on noble gas partitioning in a supercritical CO2 phase and its application to predictive modelling (Oliver Warr, Oxford). Keeping with this theme and the requirements of generating reliable data for predictive models, talks were given on mineral reaction kinetics (Jorgen Rosenqvist, BGS; Panteha Bolourinejad, Uni. Of Gronigen, Netherlands) also the lessons learned from the CRIUS project and more importantly the unknowns and questions it has generated (Bruce Yardley, Leeds). A twist on the traditional CCS approach was showcased with an energetic talk on the CARBFIX project, a field scale demonstration project in which CO2 was injected into a basalt formation onshore in Iceland which highlighted that in such systems geochemical trapping is the dominant process that rapidly stores CO2. (Eric Olkers, University College London).  It is envisaged this technology will be a useful way of combating Iceland’s CO2 emissions which are relatively high on a per capita basis. The day closed with a talk highlighting the future needs of CCS (Tony Espie, British Petroleum) and a discussion of the role of geochemistry has in the implementation of CCS in the future. 

The geochemical processes meeting represented a final farewell to the CRIUS project which is now in its completion stages. The project has seen the involvement and maturation of 6 PhD students, an Icelandic geothermal bathing session field trip and a few journeys stateside for fieldwork acclimatising to temperatures both well above and below the average UK geochemists optimum working temperature! The outputs have been many including presentations in the UK including at UKCCSRC (the UK Carbon Capture and Storage Research Centre) events and internationally at conferences such as European Geoscience Union, American Geophysists Union and Goldschmidt, and several papers in peer reviewed journals with more still awaiting submission. The key to all of this however is the close working relationships and collaboration that has been forged through working in a consortium, which has become the lasting legacy and biggest success of the project, which will help UK geochemists work together and develop new joint ideas well into the future.

CRIUS project consortium, Iceland 2012 (as we are in the field!)

CRIUS project consortium, Leeds 2010 (as we were then!) and Cambridge 2013 (as we are now!)
 By Gemma Purser

Monday, 10 March 2014

New powerful mass spectrometer at the British Geological Survey

The British Geological Survey (BGS) took delivery of a new mass spectrometer this month. This instrument, acquired with joint funding from the University of Nottingham, will provide the UK’s environmental geoscience community access to one of the most precise research equipment for use in environmental research. Melanie Leng tells us more.

The mass spectrometer is an instrument used to measure tiny differences in the masses of naturally occurring molecules (chemistry) that result from changes in the environment. Within the Stable Isotope Group here at the BGS we have eight instruments that we use for measuring small changes in the chemistry of our environment. This new instrument has high sensitivity, meaning that it can detect very small changes in geochemistry or can be used to measure very small samples. We can analyse, for example, tiny shells from the ocean that are smaller than a grain of sand. The chemistry of these shells provide information on changes in the chemistry of the oceans which is linked to past changes in the size of the ice caps. We analyse sediments that accumulate in lakes and oceans, and the ice at the poles, to track climate over time. Point sources of pollution can be traced, for example the sources of high nitrogen levels in water bodies from agriculture or sewage works. We also use these instruments in archaeological research, for example to measure the chemistry of bones and teeth that informs on the diet of ancient people and also helps to understand trade routes and migrations.

Prof Mel Leng with the new mass spectrometer

The Stable Isotope Group at the British Geological Survey has a range of different mass spectrometers. The new instrument expands our cutting edge research capabilities and is available for all UK geoscientists to use in the course of their research. Please contact us if you think you might be like to take advantage of our National Capability provision.

Funding to purchase the new mass spectrometer came from the National Capability funding to the British Geological Survey and the University of Nottingham.

Prof Melanie Leng manages the Stable Isotope Group which is part of the NERC IsotopeGeosciences Facilities. She is also Director of the Centre for EnvironmentalGeochemistry, a joint venture between the University of Nottingham and the British Geological Survey.

Follow Mel on Twitter @MelJLeng

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Have you ever baked a cake and it’s turned out to be complete disaster? by Jackie Swift

…. In this case, that was the (w)hole idea! 

On the 28th February Jackie Swift presented this cake to Dr Tony Cooper, our very own world-renowned sinkhole expert, to celebrate his retirement from BGS. 

Jackie said "I made this cake in tribute to his long and outstanding career, and to his all-round good-bloke-iness".

Jackie Swift is the Personal Assistant to the Science Director of Geology and Regional Geophysics at our Keyworth Office. Jackie also helps run the office baking club, Billy's Basement Bakers, who do amazing work for local charities. Last year they raised over £2000 by selling their own recipe book. Find out more about them on our website.  

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Ancient Climate Secrets by Jonathan Dean

Standing on the rock on which
the first peace treaty in human
history was signed between the
Hittites and the Egyptians
Jonathan Dean started working as a Stable Isotope Apprentice in NIGL this January after he finished his PhD research at the University of Nottingham. Here he tells us a little bit about his research into how lake sediments are revealing secrets of past climates...

I carried out my PhD research (between 2010 and 2013) on the chemistry of lake sediments from central Turkey, supervised by Dr Matthew Jones and Prof Sarah Metcalfe at the University of Nottingham and Prof Melanie Leng and Dr Steve Noble in BGS.  The research was aimed at reconstructing changes in the hydroclimate (i.e. wet vs. dry) of the region over the past 15,000 years. Previously, there were no reconstructions of hydroclimate from the region spanning this time period that were analysed at a sufficiently high resolution to allow changes in climate from one decade to another to be examined. There were a couple of key motivations for my work. Firstly, Turkey is an important region in human history, as it was here that some of the first farming communities sprang from ~10,000 years ago and where important civilisations such as the Hittites developed. My climate data will allow archaeologists to better investigate the links between societal development and climate change.

The other motivation for my research was so we had a climate record which could be better compared to those from other parts of the world, so we can consider the drivers of Near East hydroclimate. In particular, I wanted to investigate how abrupt climate changes seen in the North Atlantic, such as one that occurred 8,200 years ago (the infamous 8.2 event), are expressed in this region. Understanding the form and drivers of these sorts of climate perturbations is particularly important given the concern that human forcing of climate may increase the probability of such events occurring in the future.

Nar lake in July 2010
In 2010, a group from Britain, France and Turkey travelled to Nar lake in Cappadocia, central Turkey and retrieved a 21.5 m long core of sediment from the lake. The top-most sediments were deposited in 2010 and the bottom-most ~15,000 year ago. I then took samples from the sediment at intervals of 30 years or less, and analysed the changes in the ratio of one type (or isotope) of oxygen to another in the calcium carbonate in the sediment. This allowed me to reconstruct how the hydroclimate of the region changed through time. I found some large shifts than occurred within just a few decades. The climate seems to have been wet at the time agriculture developed and droughts appear to have occurred at the same time civilisations such as the Hittites collapsed. Some of this work has been published and I will be writing up further papers in the coming months, as well as being examined for my doctorate next month!

Undertaking isotope analysis on hundreds of samples for my PhD has put me in good stead for my job as a Stable Isotope Apprentice at NIGL. I’ve spent the first few weeks preparing samples and analysing them for oxygen and carbon isotopes, as well as getting on with writing papers from my research.

Hot air ballooning over the badlands of Cappadocia

Jonathan @jrdean_uk

Monday, 10 February 2014

Colours, Shapes & Science of Iceland (2/2) by Lauren Noakes

Yesterday I blogged about the art exhibition which our Iceland team have been a great part of. I'd tantilised you with the prospect of finding out how their science could impact people round the globe and left you with the question - where does all the water from the glacier go? 

So to quench your palpable intrigue here's Part 2/2 where we hear from the groundwater experts on the Iceland project. Again this is written by me, Lauren, your intrepid press officer in BGS Edinburgh.

Also on display at the exhibition is
Andrew's famous fieldwork hat!
Hydrologist Dr Andrew Black from the University of Dundee explains why a lot of his time in Iceland is involved with trying to measure the volume of water in the river. "All the water from the glacier catchment emerges into the river system via a lake"

“It’s about trying to understand how the outputs of this large and hostile glacial system link to its inputs [about 7m of snow and rainfall a year]. If we succeed in that we can make better predictions about how long the ice has left before it either completely vanishes from this part of Iceland or if some new equilibrium might be achieved.” 

Jean worked alongside Andrew on the bridge over the river "stopping traffic so he could safely dangle bits of equipment into the river to measure its flow". Jean also said she was spooked by the river because “when I came back to it a few minutes later the water level had visibly risen, you were actually experiencing the glacier melting before your very eyes, it was a shock”. 

Whilst i sat in the audience listening to Andrew talk about his experiences it occurred to me that this band of scientists are in a very unique position. For many years now they’ve been privileged to witness, record and study in detail the changes to this environment that not many other people ever have or will. With their arsenal of science equipment including weather stations, boreholes, seismometers, webcams…….(the list goes on here)..... I don’t think even the locals know the glacier in the intimate and in-depth way this team do. More importantly this work isn't just about doing science for science's sake. What they've learned, through hard graft and ongoing collaborations, has the real potential to benefit hundreds of millions of people around the globe. Brighid O Dochartaigh, hydrogeologist at the BGS, explained more of this in her talk. 

Brighid proudly stands next to her Icelandic
jumper on display at the exhibition. Hand
knitted by herself with wool from the
island it's a thing of beauty coveted
by her collegues!
“We’ve discovered there’s a thick permeable aquifer made of sand and gravel that’s sat just in front of the glacier, in the area called the sandur. During winter there’s more water flowing underground through here than there is water flowing in the river. Close to the glacier this aquifer is filled in part by the river but further away it’s filled by mostly rainfall. This could be really significant and important for future water resources around the globe, not just in Iceland.”

“In many areas people rely extremely heavily on melt water from glaciers, in areas like the Himalayas  people rely on it for drinking water. So if these glaciers disappear, as we’re seeing on Iceland, then that's a massive problem and we’ll have to find replacement sources of water. The work we’re doing on Virkisjokull suggests there could potentially be a large store of water underground that’s replenished by rainfall and not glacial melt water which clearly could be really important for those living close to it. So I’m lucky enough to work in this amazing place and do work that could have important ramifications all around the world”. 

With potentially global benefits to the work the team are doing in Iceland it’s clear to me that grabbing every chance to communicate their work is essential. What could be more important, other than the work itself, than raising awareness of not only our local ancient environments and evolving landscapes but the future security of water around the globe? 

By doing outreach collaborations with CechrArtist in Residence Jean Duncan, and previously with the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition (see our 2013 online outreach on that), the team are making their work accessible and understandable. Not only that but they hope such events will inspire a whole new generation of young and early-career scientists. Not only do you get great science by bringing different skills and people together but great art too.

Together again: scientists and artist reunite at Jeans 'Melt' exhibition
From left to right: Andrew, Verity, Jean, Brighid and Jez
Jean's closing comment: “I wanted to record the changes happening as the glacier is dying, nothing stays the same out there. The place, people, history, geology and geography came together and became a strong memory for me. What I came away with was a picture of this landscape that’s never going to be the same again because it’s changing constantly. So I’ve made these sketches but when everyone goes back in April it’s not going to look the same. It was a really unique opportunity.”

Thanks again for reading,

Please feel free to leave comments below. I'll endeavor to get your science questions answered by Jez and the team, but please be patient with me.
Go see Jean’s ‘Melt’ exhibition NOW. It’s on in the Tower Foyer Gallery, University of Dundee and runs until 29th March. For opening times of the Tower Building see the previous link.