Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Sampling across the Atlantic Ocean for heat and carbon…by Chris Kendrick

Chris in the Stable Isotope Facility
In a few days I will be embarking on an epic 7 week journey across the Atlantic as part of a major project called ORCHESTRA (Ocean Regulation of Climate through Heat and Carbon Sequestration and Transport), one leg of the project which will be sampling the World’s oceans over the next few years. I will be joining the RRS James Cook in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on 24th February and cruising across the South Atlantic Ocean, staying close to the 24oS parallel and finally docking in Cape Town, South Africa on the 11th April.

As part of BGS’s contribution to the project I will be collecting water samples throughout the journey to bring back to the stable isotope laboratory where we will analyse the samples for oxygen and carbon isotopes. I will be collecting samples from approximately 150 sampling sites from 24 different depths, giving a total of 3600 samples (that is a lot of bottles)!  The data produced will help us trace marine currants and see where carbon and heat is either absorbed by the ocean or is expelled. This is particularly important due to current increases in atmospheric CO2.

In December my sampling kit (neatly packed away in 7 metal boxes) was sent off to Southampton to be loaded onto the RRS James Cook, the boat has since took off on a scientific cruise around the Caribbean and will then make its way to Rio where the scientific crew will change over. The first couple of days will be spent unpacking and setting up scientific kit. Then on the 27th an outreach event is planned around the signing of a high level Brazil-UK agreement for a year of cooperation in science. The excitement is building! I will blog again when on the ship…
The RRS James Cook
ORCHESTRA is led by the British Antarctic Survey. More about ORCHESTRA can be found here. Full details of the ORCHESTRA programme, including the detailed descriptions of the fieldwork and model developments, are available in the Case for Support.

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

FRACTURE CAPTURE! … by Catherine Pennington

BGS geoscientists at the Fractures Workshop February 2018
If you’ve ever had a look at our rather weighty website, you’ll know that the BGS is one of those organisations where it’s actually quite difficult to define what we do - because we do so much.  Even the what-is-the-British-Geological-Survey? page takes a bit of thinking about and, believe you me, those words had a lot of thinking put into them.

Trying to list everything we do would take me hours, so you’ll just have to trust me when I tell you that we are a very wide range of scientists, each with our own specialism and experience, all working to understand the Earth and its environmental processes.

Which is why I was so surprised to find myself at a workshop last week whose aim was to discuss something that appears to link, pretty much, all areas of BGS: fractures.

What are fractures and what’s so important about them?

The full BGS definition of a fracture is (hold onto your hat):

Everyone clear?  They’re basically a break in the rock.  They can be a fault (a fracture where one side has moved relative to the other) or a joint (a crack). 

Examples of fractures.  Top: More or less orthogonal set of joints on a glaciated
surface in Lewisian Gneiss, west coast of Lewis, Outer Hebrides;
Bottom: Quartz-cemented fractures in Penrith Sandstone, Vale of Eden, Cumbria
Fractures are found everywhere in the Earth’s crust.  The ground is full of them.  They occur, but behave differently, in every lithology (type of geology).  They can be tiny (less than a millimetre) or huge (kilometres).  They can be filled with another material or can be a void.  They can be lone beasts or part of a huge gang that pulverise the material through which they roam.  They can also, as I learned at the workshop, seal themselves shut again so you’d never know they were even there in the first place.  Sneaky.

And they are really important for all sorts of reasons: 

Fractures control permeability (the geology’s ability to transmit fluid/gas through it).  Fractures can affect an otherwise completely solid and seemingly impenetrable rock so water runs through it like a sponge.  Not only can fractures control the amount of fluid/gas that can pass through, but also their direction – an important thing to know about when it comes to groundwater science, oil and gas exploration, CO2 storage, shale gas, geothermal energy, underground gas storage and other buried objects that must not leak or corrode such as radioactive waste.

Nearer the surface, fractures exert their influence on hazards such as landslides and sinkholes and can be responsible for the way in which the landscape has developed in the first place. 

Understanding and locating fractures is also vital when it comes to some engineering projects such as tunnels.  If you get this wrong, the tunnel may collapse, and the consequences could be extremely high.  Which is exactly what happened at one case study described at the workshop – this is such an interesting case that I am going to write this up as a separate blog post, so watch this space!

Fracture Capture*

Geoscientists at BGS have recognised the importance of being able describe and classify fractures and other discontinuities and a report was published in 2011 detailing exactly how to do it. 

British Geological Survey scheme for classifying discontinuities and fillings report

Incidentally, this is a really great report with an hierarchical classification scheme and a brilliant glossary at the back so even a numpty non-fracture-specialist like me could take it in the field and make a proper description of what is in front of me.

So with the report and all the geological mapping we have done over the last 183 years, we must have a detailed national fractures map with every fracture and joint set located and interpreted, right…? 


Fractures and fracture networks are so complex and variable that this is a really tough and massive job, particularly because fracture data haven’t been recorded systematically as part of our historic national mapping programme.  To further muddy the water, the way we think about, collect and interpret fracture data is often dependent on why we're doing it and who we're doing it for.

The future challenge: how to MANUFACTURE the FRACTURE CAPTURE (ok I’ll stop it now)

Fractures possess an array of attributes e.g. roughness, filling, orientation, spacing, persistence, aperture, important for different applications e.g. landslide susceptibility modelling, understanding groundwater movement…

Getting engrossed in discussions: Fracture Rapture? (couldn’t resist)
Fractures can be studied using different techniques.  Mapping what is visible at outcrop seems the obvious place to start, but it turns out that what is seen at the surface is not necessarily what is happening at greater depths or even laterally.  There are other resources we could use e.g. aerial photographs, aerial and terrestrial LiDAR, satellite imagery, geophysics, hydrogeological assessments, seismic techniques e.t.c. but all these methods have their biases and spatial limitations.  Data may also come from boreholes, mines, caves and tunnels, but these too are subject to limited interpretation depending on the quality and quantity of data available.

So we’re in a bit of a pickle.  We need to know more about where fractures are and how they behave; we need to consider the range of scales and crustal depths at which they occur so as to satisfy the varied requirements of our work at BGS.  We have a number of staff with experience in observing, simulating, analysing and modelling fractures and fracture networks on different rocks for different purposes.  We have a huge resource full of core and borehole logs as well as the National Geotechnical Properties Database.  Representing all this as at the national scale is not impossible, but it wouldn’t be easy and would require considerable resources.  There are many questions that need to be asked and considered.

So what next?  The workshop provided an opportunity for geoscientists to come together to present and discuss their latest research as well as to share some more historic experience.  It was agreed that the next task is to reconvene to analyse some core and visit some field sites to continue to share and nurture the practical skills we might need in the future using the diverse resources and knowledge we have.

Another workshop is being planned too.  I’ll keep you posted…


For more information, please contact Richard Haslam, Maarten Krabbendam or Dee Flight.

*Credit where it’s due

Full credit is given to Vanessa Banks who coined the term ‘Fracture Capture’.  Genius.

Friday, 9 February 2018

Subterranean science in a salt Clive Mitchell

From L-R: Prof Mike Stephenson, Clive
Mitchell and Dr Katherine Daniels from BGS
in the Boulby Underground Lab
Clive Mitchell from the BGS recently visited Boulby Potash Mine in North Yorkshire with colleagues from the BGS, NERC, Heriot Watt University and Newcastle University to learn all about the subterranean science being carried out in the Boulby Underground Laboratory (BUL).

We made an early pre-breakfast start from the hotel in Whitby as we had to be at the mine for 7.15am in order to get through two inductions and a hasty breakfast. Our guide and chaperone was Professor Sean Paling, the Director of the lab, who cheerfully lead us through the day.

We quickly suited up in bright orange overalls plus steel toe capped boots and shin guards, hard hats with ear defenders and miners lamp, a chunky belt and the all-important self-rescuer (a shiny metal box that container a breather to scrub carbon monoxide out of the air in an emergency).

We were each presented with two tally tokens, V6 in my case, which had to be surrendered to enter and leave the mine. Don’t lose them we were told! We descended with the mining shift around 8.30am – I was not entirely sure of the time as I had to leave my electronic and battery operated devices on the surface. This is because of the risk of explosive gas in the mine. The descent took the count of 300 elephants in my head (roughly 5 minutes).

Boulby Potash Mine is the deepest mine in the UK (down to 1300m) and has operated since the 1970s. Potash (a mix of potassium bearing salts, the most valued being sylvine, potassium chloride, KCl) is used in fertilizers, chemicals and pharmaceuticals. Roadways have been tunnelled into the underlying halite (sodium chloride, NaCl) as it is more competent. The extracted halite forms one of the products of the mine and is mostly used for road de-icing. More recently the mine has started to produce polyhalite (hydrated potassium, magnesium, calcium sulphate) which is a completely new product used in fertilisers.

Visiting group in halite roadway, Boulby Potach Mine. From L-R: Prof Sean
Paling, BUL; Clive Mitchell, BGS; Prof David Manning, Newcastle University;
Prof John Underhill, Heriot-Watt University; Amber Vater, NERC;
Dr Lizzie Garratt, NERC; Dr Liz Felman, NERC; Prof Mike Stephenson, BGS;
Dr Katherine Daniels, BGS.
The 15 minute walk along the salt roadways to the lab was a slightly surreal experience. It is very dry and hot (temperatures get up to 35oC and higher in the mine). The 8m wide tunnels are maintained with rock bolts, mesh and metal bands. In places, large hexagonal patterns can be made out in the ceiling; these are the infilled evidence of evaporation cracks that formed at the surface of salt pans and are close to the upper surface of the halite beneath the potash.

On reaching the lab we suited up in paper overalls, hard hats and shoe covers as it operates as a clean room. Boulby Underground Laboratory is an impressive facility that is operated by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC). It did feel a little like Moon Base Alpha in reverse. As a science facility it exists because it is buried deep below the ground in a salt deposit. This acts to shield the lab from the majority of cosmic radiation that occurs at the earth’s surface. As a consequence it is a comparatively ‘quiet’ environment to conduct fundamental research into dark matter which is thought to form the missing 85% of the mass of the known universe but remains unseen. In addition, the lab has expanded its research activities to encompass muon tomography to image the uptake of CO2 by carbon capture and storage, astrobiological research into life found in extreme environments such as the salt brines in the mine and it acts as a testbed for tools to be used by the ExoMars rover that is planned for the 2020 mission to Mars. An excellent article on the lab and its science was published in Geology Today (Vol. 33, No. 4, 2017).

From L-R: Polyhalite (hydrated potassium, magnesium, sodium sulphate - this will eventually take over from potash as the
main output of Boulby Mine. Halite (rock salt, sodium chloride) from roadway at 1100m depth in Boulby Potash Mine.
Our 4 hour mission to the mine went very quickly and we were whisked back to the mine shaft to leave with the 1.10pm shift change. It was another 300 elephants back to the surface world. Some of us emerged back above ground clutching samples of halite, tangible evidence of our slightly out of this world experience in the subsurface.

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Geochemistry and “sea elephants” guest blogger Debbie Wall-Palmer

I first stumbled across atlantid heteropods (a very tiny swimming snail rather oddly called a sea elephant because they have a type of trunk) while looking for benthic foraminifera in Caribbean sediment samples during my Masters project at the University of Plymouth. It took me a long time to find out what these tiny, beautiful, delicately coiled shells were, because there are so few specialists working in this field. This little known group of planktonic snails that have a foot adapted for swimming, and a trunk that gives the common name sea elephants intrigued me. Now after almost 10 years working on calcareous plankton, I have the opportunity to continue researching atlantids as a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow at the Naturalis Biodiversity Centre in Leiden, Netherlands.

Despite the current surge in research upon the aragonite shelled pteropods and their response to ocean acidification, the atlantid heteropods, which also have an aragonite shell (an unstable form of calcite) and live in the upper ocean, have barely been considered. This is largely due to a lack of baseline data on diversity and distribution, and a lack of identification skills. So, in pursuit to find out fundamental information about the atlantids I teamed up with Melanie Leng and Hilary Sloane in the Stable Isotope Facility at the BGS to answer the question ‘at what depth do atlantids live?’ Understanding the vertical distribution of planktonic gastropods is essential when considering the effects of imminent ocean acidification and climate change. It has long been hypothesised that the atlantid heteropods reside in the upper 250 m of the ocean, but this is a very broad definition of their habitat. Previous studies using opening and closing plankton nets have given us snippets of information about vertical distributions. However, these are often restricted to a small geographic region, or to only a few species. We took a different approach, using a combination of museum collections to look at broad distributions and migration patterns, and shell geochemistry, to pin point exactly where shells are calcified.

The tiny sea elephant with its trunk is only a few mm across
Species collection data (species, depth, time) were collated from publications and from several museum collections. This revealed two patterns of atlantid heteropod vertical migration. Small species remained in shallow waters of <140 m at all times, whereas larger atlantids migrated to deep waters during the day, returning to shallow waters at night. The data revealed that some atlantids probably migrate to even deeper waters than we anticipated (>600 m), highlighting that the atlantids may be affected by a shallowing aragonite lysocline in addition to surface water acidification. To look closer at the depth of shell calcification, we analysed oxygen isotope ratios of atlantid shells from the Atlantic Ocean, the Red Sea, and the Indian Ocean. When atlantids produce their shells they incorporate oxygen and carbon (and many other elements) from the water in which they live, trapping a chemical signature of the water within their shells. We used this chemical signature, in addition to water temperature and salinity, to determine the depth at which the atlantids calcified their shells. The data revealed that calcification takes place within the upper 150 m of the water column for all 16 of the species analysed. This depth is linked to concentration of chlorophyll (algae) in the water and is likely a region of abundant food. Atlantids are carnivorous, but their planktonic prey feed on algae and will have high numbers where there is abundant chlorophyll. This region is projected to experience the earliest and greatest anthropogenic ocean changes, strongly indicating that atlantid heteropods will be adversely affected in the near future.

You can read more in our article published in Marine Ecology Progress Series

Debbie Wall-Palmer is a marine biologist and micropalaeontologist working on calcareous plankton at Naturalis Biodiversity Centre.

Monday, 5 February 2018

Fieldwork Diaries: people, places and Eleni Wood and Stacy Phillips

What happens when two BUFI students who are passionate about science communication, join forces to come up with a way of sharing their stories? Well, they create a podcast of course!

Eleni Wood & Stacy Phillips are geology PhD Researchers at The Open University who are investigating orogenic processes in Bhutan, Eastern Himalaya. As BUFI students funded by CASE partnerships with the BGS, they work with Dr Nick Roberts at NIGL and use isotopic tracers and geochronological techniques to understand what happens in the core of mountain belts.
Having collected some amazing stories of their own from their fieldwork adventures, they decided there needed to be a platform for people to be able to share their incredible tales and experiences from fieldwork. Thus, they created the Fieldwork Diaries podcast

What is Fieldwork Diaries?

Fieldwork is an integral part to answering our big questions about how our little blue planet works.Researchers travel far and wide, gathering data that helps us better understand the Earth’s processes. But, fieldwork is also all about the places you go, the people you meet and the unexpected things you learn along the way. In this podcast you’ll get to hear all the weird and wonderful stories of fieldwork from the people who have been there and done it. You’ll find out about the highs, the lows, and the science that has come out of their adventures.

In our first 8 episodes we have travelled far and wide, just check out our map! We’ve travelled from Nicaragua to the Himalaya, from Indonesia to Uganda, even from Antarctica to Mars! We’ve heard about everything from camping next to active volcanoes and how to fix your field equipment in ingenious ways, to getting up close and personal with animals such as elephants, penguins, and blue sheep. We’ve interviewed a range of brilliant researchers investigating a variety of questions, including how the Himalayan mountains were built, how can we better understand volcanic hazards, and how can we use the information we know about the Earth to understand how glaciers on Mars work.
As well as keeping you entertained, we hope that these stories inspire you to carry out some fieldwork of your own! And we are here to help you along the way, by providing you with the resources you need to plan your next expedition. Check out our Links page for more information.

Who are Fieldwork Diaries?

Fieldwork Diaries is the brainchild of Eleni Wood, a geologist and PhD researcher at The Open University. She’s interested in all things mountainous, and is currently working on rocks from the Himalayas, trying to figure out how deep they got buried, what happened to them down there, and how they’ve made their way back to the surface. Eleni has a passion for fieldwork that has taken her all over the world. Her first taste of fieldwork was helping organise an expedition to Greenland in 2013 for an undergraduate project. She’s been there, done that, and made the video, and it’s her enthusiasm to pass on this knowledge and learn about other people’s travels that led to the creation of this podcast, which she hosts, produces and edits.
Eleni’s creative assistant in this venture is Stacy Phillips, also a rock-loving PhD student at The Open University. If it’s a rock that used to be molten, Stacy wants to know about it. Her research involves looking at granite (formerly molten rocks) and investigating how they melted in the first place, and what effect this had on how the Himalayan mountains were built. Her geological career has taken her from Scotland, to California, to Canada and her love of an epic vista has turned her into a bit of an amateur photographer. She’s the lady behind the lens for all the in-house podcast photos, and is the website and social media guru.
Our podcast home is at, where you’ll find all of our episodes, biographies of the people we’ve interviewed, and a stunning gallery of fieldwork photos from our researchers. You can also find our episodes on iTunes, Stitcher, and many other podcast sites.  Subscribe to us on the website, and follow us on Twitter and Instagram to keep up to date with our latest episodes and news.
And if you’ve got a story you’d like to tell then please do get in touch via our website contact page or through Twitter. We’d love to hear from you!
The BGS University Funding Initiative (BUFI) directly funds university collaboration. The aim is to encourage and fund science primarily at the PhD level and at present there are around 80 PhD students on our books who are based at about 35 UK universities and research institutes.

Thursday, 1 February 2018

A major advancement in isotope geochemistry capability at the Andi Smith

From L-R: Chris Brodie (Thermo Scientific), Angela Lamb
and Andi Smith at the new IsoLink.
Last week the Stable Isotope Facility (part of the NERC Isotope Geosciences Laboratory and the Centre for Environmental Geochemistry at the BGS) took delivery of a new “Elemental Analyser IsoLink and Delta V Isotope Ratio Mass Spectrometer” from Thermo Scientific. This new instrumentation will drastically improve stable isotope analysis of carbon, nitrogen, sulphur, hydrogen and oxygen from a wide range of different materials. Here Andi Smith explains some of the advantages of this new equipment and plans for future collaboration with Thermo Scientific to develop the instrumentation...

The last few months have seen a large amount of activity in the stable isotope labs, preparing for a new elemental analyser (EA) and mass spectrometer to be delivered and installed. This included a major lab reorganisation including new gas lines, electricity and air handling to accommodate the new instrument. This new instrument is the stable isotope facilities 9th mass spectrometer, and will offer great new capability and flexibility for the facility.

The new IsoLink system offers both traditional combustion and high temperature pyrolysis within one EA, meaning that we can analyse the stable isotope ratios of a whole range of elements (C, N, S, O and H), all within one system, and often simultaneously. One of the great steps forward with this new EA is the capability to analyse carbon, nitrogen and sulphur isotopes from the same sample. This is technically difficult due to the high ratio of carbon to sulphur in most environmental samples. This new system uses a novel temperature ramping technique to amplify the sulphur signal making triple element analysis a reality. This offers a great step forward for researchers who are interested in the relationship between these elements and for those who have precious or size limited samples. The new technology also significantly decreases the amount of helium used which significantly lowers the cost and reduces our demand for helium, a finite global resource. We envision this new capability to be of great interest to environmental change, archaeological, palaeoclimate and geological researchers. Examples of the improvements in analyses include sulphur isotope analysis of organic materials such as kerogen, which are difficult to combust; very low sulphur concentration analysis in materials such as wood and collagen and simultaneous multi element analysis (C, N, S and O, H).  In addition, the IsoLink is also far more sensitive than our current instruments, meaning we will be able to analyse significantly smaller samples. One of the areas we will be concentrating on is to work towards drastically reducing the sample size required for oxygen isotope analysis of nitrate, sulphate and phosphate materials, with an aim to  improve our ability to apply isotopes as environmental tracers. We hope that the new IsoLink will allow us to achieve these method developments whilst retaining world leading levels of precision and sample throughput.

Thanks to this new investment there are many new and exciting collaborations and instrument developments in the pipeline, watch this space for updates….

Please contact either Angela Lamb or Andi Smith if you want to learn more.