Friday, 19 January 2018

Back to geoscience research after a career Andrea Snelling

Working in research is brilliant but at times it can be tough. Post-doctoral work often means working on short-term contracts ranging from a couple of months to several years, with the constant shadow of where or when the next position will be. Trying to get a foot in in the first place can be extremely hard and finding a permanent position can feel like an impossible goal. There is always so much competition and it often feels as if you are on the back foot and of course there is the perpetual voice of doubt of “when will I be found out?”

Taking a career break as an early career researcher could perhaps be viewed as less than smart but sometimes life just works out that way and anyway when is a good time to take a career break? The bigger issue perhaps is how do you get back in again? If you want to return to research following some time out, especially if you haven’t got a job to go back to can be a big challenge. So many doors seem to have closed, techniques have moved on and your publication record has likely gone into dormancy. From personal experience I felt like I’d blown my chances of working in research, I’d made a decision to take some time out, and getting back in was proving difficult. It’s hard not to take job rejection personally, especially when vacancy after vacancy gets filled with others who have more recent relevant experience. Job applications are draining, interviews are nerve wracking and rejections are demoralising, but somehow you keep going, just one more.

I’d got to the “just one more attempt” before facing up to the “I’m going to need to make a career change” place when I found out about the Daphne Jackson Trust Fellowship scheme. They offer a fellowship for people who have had to take a career break of more than 2 years and, along with a host institution provide funding and support, including retraining for a part-time, two year research position in a STEM subject. It seemed to be the perfect opportunity to return to research and there was a sponsored position available at the University of Nottingham. I allowed myself a small sideways look at hope.

I knew I wanted to get back into palaeoclimate research using diatoms (photosynthesising algae) for silicon and oxygen stable isotope analysis. I had the basis of an idea of what I wanted to do and so I approached a contact in the School of Geography that were happy to support me. The application process is rigorous and there are several selection stages to go through before you are invited to put together a proposal of the research idea, which is then peer reviewed. It felt empowering to write the proposal for a project that I hoped I would get the opportunity to complete and the support from both the trust and university was exceptional. 

Being offered the fellowship was amazing and renewed my faith in myself that this was something I could do and that other people believed I could do it too, a feeling which had been lacking since I’d decided to return to work.

I’m now three months into my fellowship: Assessing the role of biogeochemical cycling in the North Pacific and the Bering Sea through the Mid Pleistocene Transition. I’m up to my eyes in sample preparation and I’m looking forward to learning new techniques in silicon isotope analysis with the Stable Isotope Facility within the Centre for Environmental Geochemistry at the BGS. I’m really happy to be back in the depths of research and the potential of what is yet to come.

Andrea has started her Fellowship working with George Swann at the University of Nottingham and Melanie Leng at the BGS.

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Why do we need to know what's under our cities? And what's it got to do with Icebergs?! ... by Catherine Pennington

Drill auger sections and debris on the London
Underground track (photograph courtesy of Network Rail)
Do you remember when a London Underground tunnel was accidentally drilled into by a piling rig from a construction site above it?  It happened near Old Street Station in March 2013 and, thanks to the driver of an out-of-service passenger train reporting it immediately, no one was hurt. 
"This was a serious incident that could have ended very differently had it not been for the vigilance and prompt reporting and actions of our drivers. We carry two million people a year on the Northern City Line"   First Capital Connect managing director Neal Lawson, as reported by the BBC.
The construction site was 13 metres above the tunnel and because the location of the tunnel wasn't shown on any map available to the site developer or the local planning authority, Network Rail was not consulted during the planning application stage.  As a result, no one knew the tunnel and the drills were going to collide.

It also turns out that when the Rail Accident Investigation Branch examined the incident, over half the piles intended for the site would have crashed their way through the tunnel, had they been constructed. 

You can read more about it in the RAIB Rail Accident Report.

This kind of scenario, where an asset (e.g. railway tunnel) is damaged or affected by something else (e.g. a drill), is known as a strike.

How on earth can a 'strike' happen with today's advanced detailed mapping technology?

This situation could have been avoided entirely had the data about the ground beneath the construction site been coordinated and available to the right people at the right time.  Sadly, this incident is just one of many.

At the moment, subsurface information is quite tricky to get at unless you know what you are doing.  Data quality can be variable - entirely absent or poor.  Meanwhile political and organisational boundaries make it difficult to get a wider picture of the subsurface conditions.  Ultimately, there is no central digital map showing what is present, exactly where it is and what issues you need to be aware of.

An incomplete view of subsurface data can have costly and far-reaching outcomes.   As well as damage to the underground assets themselves, other consequences include environmental costs and economic costs associated with the millions of hours of road disruption, huge repair and replacement costs, project re-designs and overruns. The Department of Transport estimates that street works account for an estimated cost of £4.3bn annually. Meanwhile the Treasury estimated in 2013 that greater cross-infrastructure collaboration can save the economy an estimated £3bn.

Introducing Project Iceberg

Project Iceberg aims to address the serious issue of the lack of information about the ground beneath our cities and the un-coordinated way in which the subsurface space is managed. This is an exploratory project undertaken by the British Geological Survey, Future Cities Catapult and the Ordnance Survey

The long-term goal is to help make future urban land development a safer investment through better management of the information that is held about the subsurface.  It will also improve the way data are managed and coordinated.  The full potential of subsurface data – when integrated with other city data - needs to be countered against the separate delivery of data and services which are often incentivised on efficiency over better (long term) outcomes.

With national subsurface data integrated with surface data from our cities, new technologies can be developed and approaches to urban planning can be streamlined and improved. Would we see augmented reality being used to view the accurate location of pipes before they dig? Sustainable drainage schemes being modelled to help manage surface water and reduce the pressure on the water pipe network? Quicker and more accurate estimates of the costs of remediating land for housing? A speedier conveyancing process for homebuyers? Project Iceberg aims to explore these opportunities and potential benefits to support integrated urban planning.

Stephanie Bricker, British Geological Survey
Stephanie Bricker is leading the project and says:
"Our study aims to enable a means to discover and access relevant data about the ground’s physical condition and assets housed within it.  This needs to be in a way that is suitable for modern, data driven decision making processes and in a way that is meaningful for city practitioners".

What are we likely to find in the ground beneath a city?

The short answer is ... a lot.  It's a complex, highly variable environment that has been through multiple phases of development.  Not only are the natural ground conditions varied and often highly disturbed, but the ground contains a large number of built structures and utilities.  There are gas mains, sewers, water supply pipes, drains, oil pipelines, old mine workings, tunnels, power cables, telecom cables, boreholes, landfills, basements... and the list goes on.  These are owned or managed by different entities, making the job of uniting data quite an undertaking.  As well as assets, there's geological information that needs to be taken into account for the design of foundations, slopes, retaining walls, tunnels, roads, rail and more.

Take a look at this:

©Future Cities Catapult

And what's it got to do with Icebergs?

It's well known that a large proportion of an Iceberg lies below the surface (Isostasy).  The same is true of our cities.  We rely on the ground for a wide range of applications: for example provision of natural resources and housing of critical infrastructure and utilities.  When it comes to planning, we often focus on the visible parts of our towns and cities and forget the complex and valuable ground beneath our feet – the name Project Iceberg is a reminder not to forget what you can’t see!


For more information, you can contact Stephanie Bricker at BGS or see Project Iceberg

Friday, 12 January 2018

Sharing AGS data via HoleBASE Rachel Dearden

After two years of work, our BIM for the subsurface project, funded by Innovate UK is starting to yield the first of its exciting deliverables. The project was funded by the Digitising the Construction Sector and that is exactly what we have set out to do; to enable the geotechnical industry to access and share digital data. This blog describes the first of our project outcomes that have been achieved working collaboratively with Keynetix and Atkins.

So the problem…

BGS have a huge archive of scanned borehole records. These provide unique insights to the 3D make-up of the geology beneath our feet and provide the geotechnical industry with an unrivalled source of subsurface data. We know that UK industry find this resource incredibly valuable, but it is analogue and we know that many hours are spent transcribing our borehole records into digital format for onward use.

The solution moving forwards… 

The geotechnical industry has for some time adopted the Association of Geotechnical and geoenvironmental specialists (AGS) digital format for borehole data. Transferring borehole data in this format allows the industry to share data more easily, load it into a range of software types, create bespoke graphical logs and also re-use the data for creating 2D cross sections and 3D geological models. The AGS format has been specifically designed for the sharing of geotechnical data and thus our project aimed to make this a reality from the BGS archive; we wanted the ensure that the National Geoscience Data Centre not only archived and shared analogue borehole data, but also digital AGS data.

Sharing is key here

Our aim was to make it as easy as possible for the geotechnical industry to upload AGS data to the archive and also to download the data that we hold. Where is there a better place to locate this interface than in one of the UK’s leading borehole data management software packages? Working with Keynetix, we developed two webservices accessible from within HoleBASE SI.

Our first development is an AGS download function that allows users to explore the AGS data we hold via a mapping interface, select relevant AGS boreholes and then download these files directly to HoleBASE SI. These files can then be incorporated into projects in the same way as any other AGS data but each of the locations is marked as historical in HoleBASE SI so it is easy for the data user to see the origin of each borehole they are using.

The usefulness of such a service is dependent on the volume and quality of the data uploaded to the archive, so the second function we developed was an AGS upload function that allows HoleBASE SI users to select their own data and upload this to the BGS AGS archive directly. This service validates the data and ensures that the donator provides sufficient metadata such that the data is good quality and can be shared and re-used. If you want more information about what constitutes good AGS data, take a look here.

So now the proof will be in the pudding…

The service is live. Please donate your data to the archive and in return take advantage of the growing archive of AGS borehole data that will ultimately improve our knowledge of the UK’s subsurface.

Now, if you aren’t a HoleBASE SI user, don’t despair. You can upload data (AGS, site investigation reports or a whole range of other geological data) to our new ingestion portal and you can search data that has been donated to us via the donated data search portal . We’re working on a mapping interface for AGS data, but you’ll have to wait a little longer for that.


I’m worried that my AGS files contain sample analysis data that is confidential.
  • Uploads from HoleBASE SI exclude all contaminant data. You can choose to upload just the data you want to
I have data but it’s not mine, can I upload it?
  • We do need you to get permission from the data owner to upload your data. This allows us to openly share it onwards.
How many AGS files can I download at any one time?
  • Just 10 at the moment, but once we understand how robust our system is to large downloads we intend to increase this.
Are you going to transcribe your analogue borehole records?
  • We’d love to, but we don’t have the resource to do this. If you transcribe our analogue records, feel free to upload it.
Is the AGS data you receive uploaded to the borehole scans map interface?
  • Yes, we compile a log from the AGS data and upload it to the analogue borehole scans map.
Is this service free?
  • Yes!
What versions of AGS file do you accept?
  • Version 3 or version 4
What versions of AGS file can I download? What AGS groups can be downloaded?
  • We’re providing AGS 4.0 downloads as standard. We share all the mandatory groups and the GEOL and LOCA groups at present, but plan to expand this. The original uploaded AGS file ismade available through our donated data search portal
Can I access the originally deposited AGS file?
  • Yes, there is a link on the metadata file that comes with the AGS data when you download it, or you can get the original file from the donated data search portal
If I state that the data is confidential what happens?
  • We don’t release the data openly until the confidentiality period that you state has passed. We don’t want to encourage the deposit of data that is confidential forever – that’s not very useful to us.

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

An Update from the Elephants…by Fiona Sach

Elephants within the Kruger National Park
The last year has been an absolute whirlwind of activity involving fieldwork at five UK Zoos, in the Kruger National Park and at a nearby mine in South Africa. There has been seemingly endless sample preparation, sample analysis and now, just recently, I have started to analyse the data generated. It is tremendously exciting to see these data from the UK zoo elephants, their diets and their environments and to use this information to identify the best matrix for reflecting mineral levels in free-living counter-parts. This unique, interdisciplinary project involves environmental geochemistry, plant science, and animal health between a range of partners including BGS and the University of Nottingham (UoN) through the joint Centre for Environmental Geochemistry, South African National Parks Authority (SANParks), South African Environmental Observation Network (SAEON) and Elephants Alive (EA). Read more about the project in a previous blog here.

The working hypothesis for this project is that African elephants (Loxodonta Africana) are being drawn towards a mining area just outside the Kruger National Park in South Africa, due to the unique geochemistry of the area. Previous studies have suggested that the soil in areas surrounding the mine, and associated plant and elephant faecal samples may be low in minerals such as phosphorus, causing a deficiency in the plants, and driving the elephants to seek these minerals elsewhere. It is therefore thought that the elephants may be attracted to the mining area due to the mineral provision in the plants, soil and water. Unfortunately, elephant incursion into the mine and nearby human settlements has resulted in human-elephant conflict, causing risk of injury and loss of income. It is hoped that the results of the project may help to inform 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 minerals, thereby reducing human-elephant conflict.

African elephants on land next to direct mine site
Last summer I spent a fantastic month in South Africa on fieldwork sampling soil, water, elephant faeces and plants (from the 6 key browse species consumed by elephants) in the Kruger National Park, Associated Private Nature Reserves and directly on and around the mine. In addition, dust samples from the plants in the mining area were collected. These samples have been processed and analysed using Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometry (ICP-MS) to give a suite of 55 elements (to account for any nutrient interactions).

The project is very fortunate to have access to banked blood and tail hair samples from the Kruger National Park BioBank, collected opportunistically from elephants within the Kruger National Park, banked tail hair, toenail and blood samples from collared elephants monitored by Elephants Alive (EA), as well as tracking data from seven animals collared by EA on the mine site. These data greatly inform elephant movement and thus the sampling strategy for environmental sampling in the area, as well as providing a baseline level for minerals in African Elephants (Loxodonta Africana). I am very much looking forward to processing and analysing these samples in the coming months and pairing the data with the appropriate environmental samples.

I would like to thank the fantastic field team and especially our game guard Desmond who gave great reassurance during long bush walks – his knowledge and experience was phenomenal. I would also like to thank all of the staff at SAEON who gave up vast amounts of time to assist with fieldwork, scientific services and Peter Buss & the veterinary department at SANParks (KNP) and collaborator Michelle Henley from Elephants Alive.

I would like to take this opportunity to extend my thanks to all five of the UK zoos which have assisted with this project to date; Colchester Zoo, Knowsley Safari, Twycross Zoo, Noahs Ark Zoo Farm and ZSL Whipsnade Zoo, to all the elephant keepers for collecting the samples and acting as an endless bank of knowledge for the animals they care for, the vet and research teams for assisting with logistics, and of course the elephants themselves. I am enormously excited to visit each zoo in the coming year and explain the results obtained, to provide a profile of the mineral status of each animal and hopefully give the zoos valuable data, to aid them in continuing to advance the captive care of these phenomenal animals.

Friday, 5 January 2018

New research to investigate human impact on the Yangtze Linghan Zeng

One of our collaborators from China (at the
back) and me collecting sediment core
Hello, I am Linghan, a PhD student within the School of Geography at University of Nottingham which is a part of the Centre for Environmental Geochemistry at BGS. I have recently started by PhD on using lake sediments to investigate how lakes in the middle Yangtze floodplain respond to multiple stressors created by human impact.

The Yangtze River which has a length of ca. 6400 km is the third longest river in the world. The various societal, economic and biological benefits that the Yangtze floodplain provided make it appealing and productive for human to inhabit. In 2011, more than 300 million live in the middle and lower Yangtze floodplain and it generates more than 20% of the nation’s agricultural production. Over the last several decades, large amounts of pollutants have been generated with the rapid expansion in population and agricultural and industrial activities. As a result, lakes in this area are severely polluted and some of them are faced with the problem of algae bloom. In addition, more than 50 thousand dams (e.g. the Three Gorges Dam) have been established in this flooding area for benefits such as flood control and hydropower, which may influence the floodplain lakes by changing the hydrological condition. The plan is to use palaeolimnological proxies (including chlorophyll and carotenoid pigments, chironomids, C/N ratios and stable carbon and nitrogen isotopes) to examine the combined effects of hydrological modification and increasing pollutants on the ecohydrological evolution of lakes in the middle Yangtze floodplain.  

The plan is to combine the geochemical data with historical archives which will help to quantify the relationships among eutrophication, aquatic plant coverage, hydrological connectivity and organic matter cycling. As well as improving our understanding of floodplain lake ecology and ecosystem dynamics, we will be able to provide a regional overview of the consequences of these changes for shallow freshwater lakes in the middle reaches of the Yangtze floodplain.

Fuchi dam constructed at the confluence of the Yangtze River and Honghu Lake in 1971

In the first instance this study is based on sediment cores from six shallow freshwater lakes spanning the middle section of the Yangtze River. Two of them are freely connected with the Yangtze River and the others have experienced hydrological modification caused by the dam construction. Sediment cores from the six lakes have been collected and dated, and in June samples from surface sediments, catchment soils, seston, submerged and emergent aquatic macrophytes were collected to facilitate interpretation of downcore changes.

At the moment the analysis of the carbon and nitrogen isotopes is underway at the BGS and it is hoped that these will help to track the source of organic matter in ecosystem state change and provide information about the productivity of these shallow freshwater ecosystems.

Linghan Zeng is a PhD student in the School of Geography, University of Nottingham working within the Centre for Environmental Geochemistry.

Friday, 29 December 2017

A potted history of geological survey in Northern Kirstin Lemon

GSNI staff on Curran Strand, Portrush in October 2016
The Geological Survey of Northern Ireland is celebrating 70 years of public service this year. Although merely a young thing in comparison to other Geological Surveys around the world, the GSNI certainly punches above its weight when it comes to delivering top-class geoscience information. Kirstin Lemon explores a bit more of the history of this ‘small but perfectly formed’ Geological Survey.

The first geological survey

The island of Ireland can lay claim to having the first government involvement in geological research when in 1832 Captain JE Portlock was appointed as a geologist to the Ordnance Survey. In 1845, the geological branch of the Ordnance Survey was incorporated into the Geological Survey of Great Britain and during the next 50 years a primary geological survey of the whole of Ireland was conducted. After the task was complete, limited revisions were carried out with the exception of resurveys of Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Belfast and Londonderry and in 1905 mapping ceased over much on the country. In 1921, when the partition of Ireland occurred, all of the maps and memoirs relating to Northern Ireland were housed in the Ordnance Survey in Belfast.

A country in need

Between 1922 and 1946, there was no geological survey in Northern Ireland and any geological advice came from the small geology department at Queen’s University. The only exception to this was during World War II when a number of special investigations were carried out by geologists from the Geological Survey of Great Britain to identify resources such as aluminium ore (bauxite) that were critical for the war effort. 

After the war, it became clear that detailed scientific investigations were required to identify mineral resources in Northern Ireland and in 1947, the GSNI was established as an Agency Service operated for the Department of Economic Development (now the Department for the Economy) by the British Geological Survey, an arrangement that still exists to this day.

Seven decades of subsurface science 

Since its creation, the GSNI has provided impartial and independent geoscience information and advice to assist with decision-making, primarily to help develop Northern Ireland’s economy. Over the past seven decades some of the scientific research that has been carried out the GSNI has made a huge impact on the economy and is still continuing to do so today. A few of the highlights over the past 70 years have been highlighted below.


GSNI field geologists in the 1950s
GSNI has been actively engaged in mineral exploration since it was first formed. One of the first projects was in the Tyrone and Ballycastle Coalfields. In the 1950s, a number of boreholes were drilled to determine the reserves in these two areas that led to small extensions of the known fields, extending the lives of the mines. Although all of the coals mines have now closed, the work of GSNI helped to prolong the activity of these important economic resources.


In the early 1960s, an aeromagnetic survey was carried out across Northern Ireland by the GSNI that identified a number of deep basins containing sedimentary rocks that were obscured by the Antrim plateau. As a result, deep boreholes were drilled to explore the sedimentary basins at Larne, Magilligan and Port More in search of salt, anhydrite, gypsum and coal. The Larne borehole helped to prove nearly 500m thickness of rock salt and the interest created in the publication of these results helped to establish the salt mines in Co. Antrim that are still active to this day.


Much work had been carried out by mineral exploration companies in Northern Ireland and in the early 1970s, the GSNI carried out a reconnaissance stream sediment survey over parts of the Sperrin Mountains, areas that were not of interest to the industry. The publication of these results in formerly neglected areas has attracted major company attention leading to further mineral exploration activity. The Sperrin Mountains are now home to one of the only gold mines in the UK and Ireland at Cavanacaw and the seventh largest undeveloped deposit in the world by grade at Curraghinalt.  
Staff outside the GSNI offices in College Gardens, Belfast in the 1970s

The GSNI carried out a major evaluation of groundwater in the late 1970s, leading to the publication of a report on the potential of the Lagan Valley. This work led to the abstraction of groundwater at a number of sites in the Belfast and Lisburn areas including by major companies such as Coca Cola who have specifically chosen their location as a result of this work.


During the early 1980s, GSNI designed and supervised a drilling programme to investigate the lignite potential of Northern Ireland. A number of boreholes were drilled to the south and south-west of Lough Neagh, around Coagh and near Ballymoney and substantial thicknesses of lignite were encountered. Although there was enough lignite identified for to fuel a lignite power station, the environmental impact of such a development was deemed so great that a moratorium on further exploration has been in place ever since.  


In the 1990s, GSNI became one of the first Geological Surveys to actively support geological-based tourism with the initiation of the Landscapes from Stone project in conjunction with the Geological Survey of Ireland (GSI). This project identified walking and driving tours, and produced a number of popular publications that would pave the way for further projects.

Towards the end of the 1990s, the GSNI together with counterparts in in the GSI began to plan an integrated project to acquire continuous regional geochemical and airborne geophysical data across the whole island. Building on the success of individual local geochemical and geophysical surveys it was identified that such a project could stimulate further exploration throughout the island of Ireland. In 1998, when the Good Friday Agreement was signed, the project proposal received the support of the Chief Scientific Advisor to the President of the USA.


In 2001, GSNI was instrumental in establishing the first Geopark in the UK that would then go on to become the first cross-border Global Geopark in the world in 2008. GSNI has since been a trailblazer leading the way for Global Geoparks to ultimately become UNESCO Global Geoparks.
One of the many awards being received as part of the Tellus project

In 2004, the Tellus project began and was the most concentrated geological mapping project ever undertaken in Northern Ireland. The project was set to be the first phase in a series that would ultimately achieve the vision that was first thought of in the 1990s to acquire continuous dara across the whole of the island of Ireland.  The Tellus project produced new geochemical and geophysical maps that enhanced the understanding of the geology, soils natural resources and the environment of Northern Ireland.

The Tellus project received three industry awards from the Chartered Institute of Public Relations and Public Relations Institute of Ireland, the 'Country Award' in the prestigious annual industry awards sponsored by the Mining Journal, and 'Innovation and Best Practice Award', in the Central Government Category for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Geographic Information.


The early part of the 2010s concentrated on the more focused application of the data acquired during the Tellus project, with both mineral exploration and environmental objectives. This was also accompanied by the extension of the project across the Irish border and the creation of the Tellus Border project, that included not only further airborne geophysical surveys and ground geochemical samples but also allowed for the merging of the two datasets to provide a continuous suite of data. 

In 2011, GSNI became involved with the IRETHERM project, an academic-government-industry collaborative research project aiming to develop a holistic understanding of the geothermal energy potential of the island of Ireland. GSNI has also been working with DfE licence holders to explore the potential for compressed air energy storage (CAES) in the thick salt beds located in East Antrim. CAES uses excess electricity to pump compressed air undergoudn which can then be released to the surface to generate electricity when demand is high. Both projects go some way to demonstrating GSNI’s commitment to ensuring energy security and enhancing sustainability.

What does the future hold?

GSNI still has at its heart carrying out scientific research for the public good of Northern Ireland. There is still a large focus on providing impartial and independent geoscientific advice for the benefit of the economy, but societal challenges mean that the nature of this work has evolved. GSNI now also has a role to play in contributing to the green economy by searching for alternative energy sources, providing information that helps to monitor the natural environment, contributing to the acquisition of data that helps safeguard both human and animal health, and helping to develop sustainable tourism resources. A lot has changed in 70 years, but this ‘small but perfectly formed’ geological survey continues to develop and adapt to the needs of the citizens of Northern Ireland and will do so for many, many years to come. 

Saturday, 23 December 2017

Geo-Ho-Ho: The 12 Days of a BGS Kirstin Lemon

It seems that everyone has been doing advent calendars with a geology theme, so to be a little different we're going for the 12 days of Christmas instead. It's all in the hope that by the time the 12 Days begin we'll all be lying around the house with time on our hands. So grab a cup of tea, a big slice of Christmas cake, relax, and enjoy the 12 Days of a BGS Christmas.

Day 1: Christmas Cards

As part of the BGS Archives we hold a collection of Christmas Cards sent by John Vernon Harrison in the 1920s. JV Harrison was born in 1892 and graduated in Chemistry and Geology from the University of Glasgow in 1914. From 1916 to 1918 he served with the Royal Engineers in Mesopotamia and then in 1918 he joined the geological staff of the Anglo Persian Oil Company. He carried out fieldwork in Persia and Iraq, and also travelled extensively including to Honduras, USA, Mexico, North Borneo, Hong Kong, Japan, Canada, Peru, Jamaica, Venezuela, Trinidad and Colombia. He sent many Christmas cards using photos from his travels all of which are available to view in GeoScenic.
One of the many Christmas cards sent by JV Harrison. This one is from the volcano of Poas in Costa Rica in 1832.

Day 2: Christmas Eve Landslide

We maintain the National Landslide Database that has over 16500 records of landslides from across the country. Much of this information is gathered from surveys and reports by the Landslide Response Team and much of this is from historical evidence. One such historical landslide occurred in Whitby on Christmas Eve in 1787 in the area now known as Henrietta Street. Just under 200 families were left destitute as a result of the catastrophe and together with subsequent landslides in the same area resulted in Henrietta Street being significantly shorter in length.

Day 3: Christmas Day Earthquake (or not)

The UK Seismograph Network
We operate a network of over 100 seismograph stations across the UK meaning that continuous data from nearly all is transmitted directly to our office in Edinburgh. But what about in our historical past? We have carried out research into historical seismicity in the UK pre-1600 and tried to work out whether the information recorded really was from an earthquake or not. One such event was in Stirling on Christmas Day in 1034. This was recorded as an earthquake in the Chronicles of Boece (a 16th Century philosopher and historian) but our research has concluded that it wasn't an earthquake at all but was more likely to be a landslide or a bog-burst!

Day 4: Christmas Lectures

This very British Christmas tradition was begun by Michael Faraday in 1825, and now the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures are delivered annually as a series of lectures on a single topic that are specifically aimed at the general public, especially children. The topics vary widely and have included How to Survive in Space, Crystals & Lasers, and The Message in the Genes to name but a few. Whilst there has not been a lecture series dedicated to specifically to geology (yet!), all of the topics are designed to inspire and engage the next generation of scientists which is something that BGS actively tries to encourage. This year's Christmas Lectures are being delivered by Prof Sophie Scott from University College London who will lead the way on a fascinating journey through one of the fundamentals of human and animal life which is our unstoppable urge to communicate, very appropriate for our Christmas GeoBlogy!

Day 5: North Pole

We all know that Santa lives in the North Pole and to find him, all we need to do is look at our compass and follow it North. But did you know that the magnetic field of the Earth is changing slowly every day and in 2014, for the first time in 350 years, we saw the direction of magnetic north move from being west of grid north to east of grid north. At BGS, our geomagnetism team measures, records, models and interpret variations in the Earth's magnetic field. In the UK, we run three magnetic observatories that constantly monitor the change in the Earth's magnetic field, in Lerwick in Shetland, Eskdalemuir in Dumfries and Galloway, and Hartland in Devon.

Day 6: Reindeer

The Bone Caves at Inchnadamph
Listed in our Secret Geology pages, the Inchnadamph Bone Caves, Assynt in Scotland are where the bones of bears, reindeer and wolves that once roamed this part of the country have been discovered. There are four caves in total that formed thousands of years ago, before the last ice age, as water gradually dissolved the limestone along cracks and fissures. The caves here are only shallow and are the remains of a larger cave system that extended over a wide area. Over thousands of years, the valley has gradually deepened, cutting away part of the cave system, and leaving the caves we see today high and dry on the valley side. Excavations have unearthed the bones of wolves, bears, lynxes and arctic foxes that took refuge in these caves when Scotland’s climate was much colder than it is now. Reindeer bones and antlers have also been found, but reindeer are unlikely to have entered the caves, and so it is unclear how these remains accumulated.

Day 7: Snowflake Obsidian

The chances of getting a picture postcard Christmas with crisp white snow in the UK are pretty slim. Perhaps the best chance of getting any kind of 'snowflake' is to get your hands on some snowflake obsidian. Obsidian is a type of volcanic glass formed when lava cools down so quickly that crystals don't have time to form. In the case of snowflake obsidian, this usually dark-coloured glassy rock contains white spots that resemble snowflakes that are known as spherulites. Obsidian is relatively unstable (in a geological timescale) and it is rare to find any that is older than around 20 million years. As a result, over time the obsidian undergoes a process called devitrification whereby it loses its glassy texture and crystals form which is what the 'snowflakes' are. Because of this characteristic, obsidian is only found in areas with recent volcanic activity so there are no outcrops in the UK but there are significant deposits in volcanically active countries such as Mexico, Iceland and Indonesia.

Day 8: Puddingstone

Christmas pudding is a much celebrated part of a Christmas dinner in the UK but in geological circles we have a 'pudding' of our own. The Hertfordshire Puddingstone is a type of conglomerate made up of rounded flint pebbles held together by a silcrete matrix and it gets its unusual name as the rounded flint pebbles are thought to resemble the plums in a traditional Christmas pudding. Puddingstone is very hard which led to it having a variety of uses including as supplementary building stone and being used as querns by the Romans.

Day 9: Glitter

What would Christmas and New Year be without a bit of sparkle? Before the modern use of plastic glitter, there were many other ways to 'bling' up your home and body using minerals that are known to both geologists and non-geologists alike. Glitter has been used as decoration from as early as 30,000 years ago when mica flakes were used to give cave paintings a glittering appearance, and Prehistoric humans were also believed to have used hematite to give cosmetics a bit of sparkle too. The ancient Egyptians produced glittering cosmetics using finely ground malachite, and it is now thought Mayan temples were sometimes painted with glitter paint made from mica dust.

Day 10: Coal

Coal miners in a Midlands Colliery, 1944
Coal is often associated with Christmas as you would have been given a lump in your stocking if you were on Santa's naughty list. Coal occurs in the form of layers in sequences in sedimentary rocks with almost all onshore coal resources in the UK being within rocks of Carboniferous age. Coal is made up of the remains of plants from millions of years ago, making it a fossil fuel, and it was mined in the UK from as far back as Roman times. Coal mining in the UK dramatically increased during the Industrial Revolution and reached a peak in 1913 when 287 million tonnes was produced. The use of coal has been steadily decreasing, and it was announced in April 2017 that the UK had gone for its first day without coal generated electricity since the Industrial Revolution.

Day 11: Gold

Gold is synonymous with Christmas but did you know that gold is a mineral that occurs widely in the UK. It has been worked from a few areas, notably in southern and northern Scotland, near Dogellau in Wales, in south-west England and in Co. Tyrone, Northern Ireland. In the 1860s, following the excitement of the Californian gold rush, northern Scotland experienced its very own gold rush, initiated by the discovery of alluvial gold in the Helmsdale River by a miner recently returned from Australia. The excitement was short-lived and the bedrock source was never found. However, scientific advances since then in the understanding of how gold deposits are formed have led to the discovery of new deposits and the revisiting of old ones, all of which use BGS baseline data as a starting point in the exploration process. There are currently gold mines operating in two areas of the UK; one in Cononish, near Tyndrum in the Scottish Highlands and the other in the Sperrin Mountains, in Co. Tyrone, Northern Ireland.

The Sperrin Mountains in Northern Ireland

Day 12: Christmas Trees

Nearly every home in the UK will be lit up with the lights of a Christmas tree this festive season but have you ever stopped to think about where Christmas trees, or specifically, conifers come from. The fossil record shows that they originated in Europe and North America in the Carboniferous period around 310 million years ago. At the BGS we hold more than three million fossils collected over two centuries and one of these collections was assembled by botanist Joseph Hooker (Darwin's best friend) while he was briefly employed at BGS in 1846. These comprise hundreds of beautiful thins sections of fossil wood including some fine examples of fossil conifers, some of which date back to the Jurassic period and beyond.

Monday, 18 December 2017

When did the “isotope” age of humans guest blogger Jonathan Dean

The Anthropocene is the concept that humans have had such an impact upon the functioning of the Earth system that a new geological time interval should be designated to signify this. This will probably mean that the current epoch, called the Holocene, which started 11,700 years ago when the Earth warmed up naturally at the end of the last glacial, will be designated as having ended and the Anthropocene as beginning. However, scientists are currently arguing over when exactly the Anthropocene began – was it thousands of years ago when ancient farmers started chopping down trees, at the time of the Industrial Revolution when coal started to be burnt in vast quantities, or after the Second World War when there was the rapid industrialisation of much of the world?

We decided that we would use our expertise in stable isotope geochemistry to review the evidence that isotopes provide for human impacts on the Earth system. Isotopes are different types of an element – they have the same number of protons but a different number of neutrons. The ratio of one isotope of an element to another can change due to human impacts. Therefore, we can use these isotope ratio changes to investigate when the human impact on the Earth really reached the extent to which we might want to define the Anthropocene as having begun.

The carbon isotope ratio shows a big shift, recording the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere because of the burning of fossil fuels. Boron isotopes show there has been ocean acidification, related to this release of carbon dioxide. The nitrogen isotope ratio also shows a shift, recording in particular the increased production of artificial fertilisers. Lead and sulphur isotopes record air pollution related to human activities. While some of these isotopes show changes millennia ago, indicating a long history of human impacts on the environment, overall it was around 1950 that isotopes really suggest there was a big change in the functioning of the Earth system, when humans became the dominant force of global environmental change. This is around the time of the so called ‘Great Acceleration’, when human population growth and industrialisation really took off, leading to the sorts of impacts that the isotopes record.

If we did set the Anthropocene boundary at around 1950, we need what is called a ‘golden spike’ – something that will be locked away in the rock record and that in a million years time a geologist could find and use as a marker for when the Anthropocene began. Isotopes can also help with this as isotopes of plutonium were released around 1950 because of atmospheric nuclear bomb testing. These isotopes did not really exist on Earth before this, and because their occurrence coincides with this ‘Great Acceleration’ in human impacts on the Earth, this can be used as the golden spike.
So, isotopes are a useful tool in the quest to establish when the Anthropocene really began and to provide a marker for this in the geological record. A committee of scientists will take the final decision in the coming years, so watch this space…

Dr Jonathan Dean is a Lecturer in Physical Geography at the University of Hull, and until this year worked at the British Geological Survey. His book chapter, written with Prof Melanie Leng from the Stable Isotope Facility at the British Geological Survey and Prof Anson Mackay from University College London, is now out in the Encyclopaedia of the Anthropocene and can be accessed here:

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

A scenic tour of Scotland’s dynamic glacial Romesh Palamakumbura

John Merritt describing the Alturlie Gravels that formed
from a retreating ice sheet.
Recently BGS staff hosted a field excursion to look at the spectacular glacial geomorphology in the Inverness-Nairn area of NE Scotland. This trip attracted 37 leading academic scientists from across the UK, Poland and Sweden. BGS colleagues Jon Merritt, Clive Auton and Emrys Phillips of BGS expertly led the field trip. Over the 4 days we looked at ancient glacial landscapes, newly discovered moraines, world-class glacial deposits and extraordinary glacial landscape features. There is also a comprehensive field guide of around 250 pages, will be available from the Quaternary Research Association soon.

To Moraine or not to Moraine

An optional day to start, organised by Martin Kirkbride and Adrian Hall, took us high into the Cairngorm Mountains to look at a newly defined moraine that represents the development of a Little Ice Age glacier in Coire an Lochain. Martin presented evidence for his interpretation of the moraine, with combination of geomorphology, cosmogenic dating and glacial modelling. Fortunately, his hypothesis managed to withstand the scrutiny of the party, even as the rain started to pour! Check out his paper.

Its main event time!

The following three days were the main field trip, which explored the glacial landscapes and features along the edge of the Moray Firth. We started off at Alturlie Point where we looked at deltaic deposits related to a retreating Moray Firth ice-stream. There was much debate regarding the presence of gravel in the deposit and whether these could possibly represent kettle hole deposits in the delta. Elsewhere quickly deposited gravels resulted in some very eye-catching soft-sediment load structures.

Following on from this we went on to the SSI site at Ardersier to look at world-class folding and soft-sediment deformation structures in the Ardersier Silts. Emrys Phillips guided us through these complex structures, showing the benefits of applying some structural geology knowledge to glaciology, a fantastic example of interdisciplinary collaboration in science. This spectacular site shows the power of a moving glacier and how it can deform sediments, representing a crumple zone in fore-front of the glacier.

From L-R: Ball and pillow soft structures in the Ardesier Silts; Sandy inter-beds within the Alturlie Gravels.

Seriously, this is a rock?

Day 2 and the impressive geology kept coming. We started by looking at the Old Red Sandstone. Upon arrival we find a “rock” that can be dug out with a spade. This remarkable change in character is due to the de-calcification of the rocks, making them a pale white colour, providing a very soft section. It’s the hydrofracturing that really captures the imagination of the group. The pressure and movement of the glacier above has resulted in high-pressured water causing fractures in the bedrock. The fractures are filled with clay and contains broken up pieces of the surrounding Old Red Sandstone.

From L-R: The group exploring hydrofracture networks in the Old Red Sandstone, related to an overriding glacier;
 Decalcification and hydrofractures in the Old Red Sandstone. 

Landscapes and deposits of the Findhorn Valley

The final day of the trip was spent in the stunning and picturesque Findhorn Valley. Incredibly, the valley has Devonian (420-360 Ma) aged deposits, suggesting that it was also a valley in the Devonian time. This was a natural point for Adrian Hall (also a BGS VRA) to jump in and give us an overview of ancient landscapes in the area. This resulted in a spirited debate on the uplift history of Scotland. Was the Scottish Highlands ever covered in Cretaceous-aged chalk? We certainly see them in the offshore area, but how far did this extend on-land? Watch this space for some very exciting science in the future!

From L-R: An overview of the Findhorn Valley; Climbing ripples in the Findhorn Valley. 
The final section of the trip was in the river cliffs along the River Findhorn. The 15 m thick section exposed, represents glacial-meltwater draining from an ice-front resulting in small delta/fan pro-grading down the valley. The energy of the delta system was represented by metre sized rip-up blocks that are now entrained in the fluvial deposits. A more recently exposed section shows lacustrine rhythmites and spectacular photogenic climbing ripples that underlie the glacial delta deposits, representing older phases of the glacial delta/fan system.

Overall, a fascinating trip which provided an excellent opportunity to see some of the most interesting glacial features and deposits in Scotland. Most importantly the excursions created an environment for lively and enthusiastic debate. Many thanks to field trip leaders for organising a fantastic trip and I look forward to QRA/GLWG 2018 in sunny Iceland!

Monday, 11 December 2017

Using fossilised algae to detect historical Heather Moorhouse

DeepCHALLA is an International Continental Scientific Drilling Programme project investigating ~250,000 years of climate change using lake sediment cores from Challa, a 92m crater lake on the Kenyan-Tanzanian border. Dr Heather Moorhouse from Lancaster University explains how fossilised diatoms have been purified from the sediments ready for isotope analysis at the Stable Isotope Facility, British Geological Survey.

The DeepCHALLA project is a large, international consortium of scientists investigating ~250,000 years of climate and ecosystem change in equatorial east Africa using sediment cores from lake Challa. My role, along with Principal Investigators Prof. Philip Barker at Lancaster University and Prof. Mel Lang at BGS is to test whether mega-droughts (lasting up to thousands of years) from ~130-190,000 years before present, may have resulted in the dispersal of our hominin ancestors out of Africa. Further, this region is drought-sensitive and improved understanding of past climate will help predict and prepare the area for future climate change as our planet warms.

In order to investigate the historical climate of the region, we are using diatoms found in the lake sediment cores. Diatoms are a common and abundant member of the phytoplankton community; the microscopic single-celled organisms found in all surface waters, which produce energy from sunlight. They bloom in Challa in the summer and when they die, they sink to the lake floor and form noticeable diatom-rich layers in the sediments, which accumulate over time. Because Challa is a deep crater lake with little shoreline or shallow lake habitats, it is a relatively simple system leading to low diatom diversity, dominated by two species; Afrocymbella and Nitzschia species.

From L-R: Two of the DeepCHALLA lake sediment core sections - the lighter layers are rich in diatoms; Difference
 between a sample rich in diatoms (left) and a sample with little diatoms and more mineral matter (right).
In particular, we are interested in the oxygen isotopes that the diatoms have up-taken from the lake water. Heavier oxygen isotopes indicate higher evaporation rates and so, drier conditions, whereas lighter isotopes indicate more rainfall. Diatoms produce silica or glass cell walls, which protect the isotopes from degradation and thus make ideal proxies for climate reconstructions. Additionally, In terms of investigating isotopes from diatoms the low diversity at Challa is a good thing, as sometimes the size of the species can influence what isotopes they uptake and cause confusion when interpreting results.

Sediment samples were collected this summer from the lake Challa sediment cores from Gent, Belgium (see my previous blog). Since summer, I have been busy in the lab at Lancaster trying to purify ~290 sediment samples so that just diatoms remain. This involves dosing the sediment with hydrochloric acid to remove carbonates, hydrogen peroxide and nitric acid to remove organic material and sieving to remove large particles. Because the sediments of lake Challa are so rich in diatoms, most samples have been processed quite quickly.

SEM image of fossilized diatoms from lake sediment 39 metres deep.
Image shows diatom fragments, Afrocymbella species.
It is important that the diatom samples are as pure as possible as any additional organic or minerogenic material can alter the isotope results. In order to double check the cleanliness of the diatoms, I looked at all the cleaned samples under a light microscope and determined the percentage of diatoms to contaminants. A further subset of samples was investigated using a Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) at Lancaster University, which has a greater magnification to that of a light microscope. Any potential contaminants were scanned using the EDX detector attached to the SEM, which describes the elemental composition of the item in question and again is another great tool to help detect impurity. Luckily most of my samples consisted of diatoms or diatom fragments, and so, are ready to undergo isotope mass spectrometry at BGS, which will begin at the start of next year. Watch this space for what I hope will be some exciting results.

Special thanks to Dr Sara Baldock at Lancaster University for help with the SEM.