Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Lyell Centre Breaks Ground... by Lauren Noakes

Myself [Lauren Noakes] (left) and Nichola Gaffney (right), from
the BGS Communications Team in obligatory onsite selfie
Today, on a very crisp Edinburgh morning, I went along to see the Ground Breaking of The Lyell Centre. This new HQ for BGS Scotland will be home from home to me and my colleagues from Murchison House and our marine operations facility at Loanhead. Read on to find out why it's going to lead the world in earth science... 

John Ludden, BGS Executive Director (and chief silver spade wielder), said “It is a pleasure to see work begin on the British Geological Survey’s new home in Scotland. Our facilities and our staff, currently at several sites across Edinburgh, will be united here at The Lyell Centre alongside research teams from Heriot-Watt University. This tremendous opportunity will broaden our science base and create an innovative hub of world-leading research in the geosciences in Scotland. ”

Professor Steve Chapman, Principal of 
Heriot-Watt University (left) and   
Professor John Ludden, Executive   
Director BGS (right) breaking ground   
As John says we'll be sharing The Lyell Centre with researchers from Heriot-Watt University’s Schools of Energy, Geoscience, Infrastructure & Society and Life Sciences, with whom we'll create a global centre of excellence based on our research synergies and collaboration. The Centre will bring together key expertise from both institutions as well as an £8.5m investment in top-level academic recruitment from around the world, providing a huge opportunity for earth and marine science in general and for Scotland in particular. 

Professor Steve Chapman, Principal of Heriot-Watt University, said, “This is the physical start of a tremendous project, and is the result of many months of dedicated work behind the scenes. The Lyell Centre will provide a huge opportunity for earth and marine science in Scotland and globally, commensurate with Heriot-Watt’s international standing and global reach.”

As the press release says, the emphasis of the Centre’s work will be at the   intersection of the earth and marine sciences. Research in the Lyell Centre will play a key role in finding pragmatic solutions and providing evidence-based informed and reliable opinions in areas of energy supply, environmental impact and global climate change, where inputs have traditionally been polarised. Its work will be both socially and industrially relevant at national and international scales.

There are a lot of people to thank for the creation of this masterpiece. In particular The Lyell Centre is funded by BGS, Heriot-Watt University, the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and Scottish Funding Council (SFC).  Additional funding of £8.5m will also underpin investment in top-level academic staff recruitment and student research positions.

The BGS/NERC Project team. From Left to Right:
David Kearney, John Murray, John Ludden, Mike Patterson, Bob Gatliff

As well as providing new office and laboratory facilities The Lyell Centre will incorporate a new 50,000 litre climate change research aquarium, the UK NERC Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) in Oil and Gas, a high level industry engagement and training initiative for the oil and gas sector, and the Shell Centre for Exploration Geoscience.
It's going to be quite a journey over the next 52 weeks, so check the web and @BritGeoSurvey for #LyellCentre updates!

For more info about the Lyell Centre (design above) you can read our previous press release here

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Talking Isotopes, state side... by Ginnie Panizzo

Ginnie and Patrick Frings (Lund University) talking
Si cycling in coastal environments with Claudia Ehlert
at the “Biogeochemical Cycling of Silicon and
Isotopes in Biogenic Silica” poster session.
Every year, for a whole week in December, 20000 geoscientists descend on San Francisco for one of the biggest Geoscience conferences in the world: the American Geophysical Union (AGU) Fall Meeting. Can you imagine what its like?! Certainly there are fleece wearing, poster-tube-wielding geologists everywhere. Last month the number of delegates reached an all time high at 24,000 people, there were 3,000 talks and posters presented each day, here's Ginnie Panizzo and Sarah Roberts to tell us about their American adventure...

AGU is one of the main outlets for palaeoclimatology (the study of past climate) and therefore a great opportunity to present scientific findings in this field of research. As such some of the BGS honorary staff hosted a session on isotopes and environmental change. The session led by our Honorary Research Associates (Dr George Swann and Prof Anson Mackay) was entitled: “Biogeochemical Cycling of Silicon and Isotopes in Biogenic Silica”.

This was a fantastic opportunity to showcase the silicon stable isotope work they have been pioneering in continental Siberia with staff from the Centre of Environmental Geochemistry at the BGS. Although scheduled on the afternoon of the last day (so called grave yard slot), the session still drew a crowd with a vast array of interesting talks on fractionation effects of carnivorous sea sponges, agricultural impacts upon soil biogeochemical cycling and a novel interpretation of the diatom bound 13C technique.  There was also a poster session which also brought a large amount of foot fall, with some very interesting discussions about field and laboratory methodologies covering a vast array of stable isotope methods (including 30Si and 18O). 
AGU logo source: Wikipedia

All in all, I had a great week at AGU, which needless to say, asides from the pioneering science, is a great chance to catch up with old friends and colleagues from around the world, as well as a great opportunity to forge new research collaborations. Bring on the next research year.

Written by Ginnie Panizzo and Sarah Roberts

Ginnie is a Research Fellow at the University of Nottingham and a Visiting Researcher Associate at the BGS, she will soon be starting an Anne McLaren Fellowship at the University and will be working within the Centre for Environmental Geochemistry at the BGS.

Sarah is doing her PhD research at the University of Nottingham in the School of Geography.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Bringing lights, camera and action to Carbon Capture & Storage... by Gemma Purser

At the beginning of December a group of MSc students from the University of Nottingham descended upon the BGS Keyworth site armed with cameras, lenses and all manner of technical gizmos to undertake some filming of the CO2 Storage (CCS) team. Gemma Purser, Analytical Geochemist, recounts their adventures on film...

This collaboration, set up between the British Geological Survey and University of Nottingham, was an opportunity for BGS scientists unfamiliar with talking in front of a camera to face their fears and develop their presenting skills. For the students this was the first time they had worked within their small production teams. Their brief was to produce a 10 minute film documentary on a science topic, a key requirement of their MSc course in biological imaging.

Timelapse recording at Keyworth reception
The students were on site for a week, initially chatting to their allocated scientists to develop a filming schedule and to assess possible locations for filming. The subsequent days saw a frenzy of filming with some very imaginative and modern filming techniques. Our very own BGS photographer, Paul Whitney, was on hand to give hints and tips to both students and scientists alongside the course director, David McMahon and course tutor, Steven Galloway.

Five scientists within the CCS team took part (including myself after some initial reluctance), each giving an overview of CCS before answering more specific questions relating to their particular area of expertise.
Chris Rochelle, who was one of the original members of a founding CCS project, Joule II, which was undertaken here at BGS about 22 years ago, gave an overview of CCS. He also discussed what the future may hold for CCS whilst still managing to throw in a few fun and visual examples of science for which he has become somewhat famous.

Group photo courtesy of David McMahon 

Michelle Bentham addressed the question of how much CO2 can be stored and where. Michelle has recently completed a project (CO2 Stored) with the Crown Estate and Energy Technologies Institute to assess the location and storage capacity of potential offshore CO2 reservoirs around the UK.
Dave Jones and Sarah Hannis gave the students a double bill of knowledge relating to the importance and assessment of wellbore integrity and how we can demonstrate the safety and permanent containment of storage of CO2 through the use of various monitoring techniques. Dave and Sarah have experience of monitoring both natural and experimental situations during which CO2 gas has been injected and/or released.

As a scientist working within the fluid processes research laboratories, I got the opportunity to talk about the processes that a molecule of CO2 gas, that would ordinarily be released to the atmosphere, has to go through in order to be stored as a solid mineral at depths greater than 800m below the earth’s surface.

Filming in the Core Store at Keyworth
I think the film week was a success for many reasons. It gave BGS staff the chance to develop their ability to explain the important science around carbon capture and storage to the Nottingham students and also the wider public through the films eventual release onto the BGS website. It provided an opportunity for the students to work in a real life situation based on a client brief with ‘on location’ filming. Based on the success of this year we are already in discussions as how best to continue and improve the experience for next year’s MSc course. So if any other teams out there fancy having a go in front of the camera then keep your eyes peeled for future requests for scientists or you can drop me an email for more information.

Finally a big thank-you to all of the people who took part but especially Nichola Gaffney and Lauren Noakes who made sure everything ran to the plan and to Jonathan Pearce, CCS team leader, who along with Clive Mitchell, communications manager, funded the staff time to allow it to happen, which was much appreciated.

Gemma Purser

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Geochemistry brings societal benefits to sub-Saharan Africa... by Michael Watts

Michael Watts
Michael Watts, Head of Inorganic Geochemistry at the Centre for Environmental Geochemistry, outlines how BGS is bringing big societal benefits to sub-Saharan Africa by supporting earth science researchers and academic networks. Before outline these benefits Michael explains the project framework and major partners involved....   
The Inorganic Geochemistry team within the Centre for Environmental Geochemistry recently won a consortia grant from the Royal Society-DFID Africa Capacity Building Initiative.  This grant was won by successful partnership with the University of Nottingham, universities and research institutes in Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
The initiative aims to strengthen the research capacity of universities and research institutions in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) by supporting the development of sustainable research networks between SSA and the UK.  The project will run until 2020 (£1.243M) and produce a cadre of young, talented researchers through integrated PhD scholarships and shared supervision between the UK and Africa consortia members.  It will focus on one of the three RS-DFID priority areas, soil geochemistry, the other areas being water & sanitation and renewable energy. 
This consortia will undertake experimentation to better understand the biogeochemical controls on trace element mobility and their soil-to-crop transfer through improvement of soil analytical capabilities, soil geochemical mapping and predictive modelling. Understanding soil geochemical processes is essential to support policies in agriculture (e.g. liming, nutrient inputs, organic residue incorporation) and public health (e.g. mineral deficiencies and toxicities).

Sampling team in the Zambian Copperbelt region, BGS, ZARI and CBU
Benefits to Society

The first Millennium Development Goal (MDG 1) of the United Nations, ‘to reduce extreme poverty and hunger’, will not be met by 2015 in many African countries. Even where staple food is plentiful, chronic micronutrient deficiencies (e.g. zinc, iron, iodine, calcium, selenium), termed ‘hidden hunger’, often constrain development. To place this in context, in Malawi, we have been able to estimate for pilot studies that zinc deficiency carries an annual health burden of ~3,800 childhood deaths and ~100,000 ‘lost’ healthy life-years; an economic burden of >1% of GDP. Hidden hunger also affects wider MDGs directly by causing cognitive dysfunction and growth retardation (MDGs 2,3), mortality (MDGs 4,5) and disease (MDG 6). Soil geospatial drivers of primary production and hidden hunger are widely recognised in the geochemical control of soil-to-crop transfer of minerals. However, understanding, capturing and integrating soil geochemical processes across multiple scales to deliver effective policy support has not yet been achieved in Sub-Saharan Africa due to gaps in data and in technical and analytical capacity.

This project will improve the understanding of soil geochemistry to underpin decision support tools for agriculture (e.g. liming, nutrient management and organic residue incorporation strategies) and public health (e.g. identifying regions at risk of micronutrient deficiencies and toxicities). We anticipate our project to support wider and sustainable development policies. The participation of government research institutes and their extension services alongside partner university staff in all countries ensures that societal benefits from translating research outcomes into soil-related policy are achieved as efficiently as possible.

Local interest and enthusiasm in our activities

Aligned activities

The overall programme of work for the consortia allows for additional PhD projects (and other funding opportunities) to be aligned to the RS-DFID project to connect work on soil geochemistry-dietary mineral intake-health impact-socio-economic impact.  In Malawi, there will be an additional PhD student developing a biomarker measurement for selenium health status at a population scale; in Zambia, we have Elliott Hamilton (BGS Inorganic Geochemistry team) undertaking a part-time PhD on metal speciation-modelling of controls on chromium soil-to-crop transfer in agricultural soils close to mine tailings in the Copperbelt region; and in Zimbabwe a third PhD student yet to be assigned.

A recent visit to Zambia and Zimbabwe to make preparations for collaborative efforts included fieldwork in the Copperbelt with Murray Lark and Elliott Hamilton, with the Copperbelt University and Zambian Agricultural Research Institute.  Murray and Elliott will write a follow-up blog to explain more. 


Want to know more about the topics included in this post? Here's a reading list of recent academic outputs from the research consortia:

Gibson RS, Wawer AA, Fairweather-Tait SJ, Hurst R, Young SD, Broadley MR, Chilimba ADC, Ander EL, Watts MJ, Kalimbira A, Bailey KB, Siyame EWP. (2015). Dietary iron intakes based on food composition data may underestimate the contribution of potentially exchangeable contaminant iron from soil, Journal of Analytical Food Research (in press).

Joy, EJM, Broadley, MR, Young, SD, Black CR, Chilimba, ADC, Ander, EL, Barlow, TS and Watts, MJ*. (2015). Soil type influences crop mineral composition in Malawi, Science Total Environment, 505, 587-595.

Joy, E, Ander, EL, Young, SD, Black, C, Watts, MJ, Chilimba, ADC, Chilima, B, Siyame, E, Kalimbira, A, Hurst, R, Fairweather-Tait, SJ, Stein, A, Gibson, RS, White, P, Broadley, M. (2014) Dietary mineral supplies in Africa, Physiologia Plantarum, 151, 208-229.

Siyame E; Hurst R; Wawer AW;Young SD; Broadley MR; Chilimba ADC Ander EL; Watts MJ; Chilima B; Gondwe J; Kang’ombe D; Kalimbira A; Fairweather-Tait SJ; Bailey KB; Gibson RS. (2014). A high prevalence of zinc but not iron deficiency among Women in Rural Malawi: a cross-sectional study, International Journal for Vitamin and Nutrition Research, 83, 3, 176-187.

Hurst, R, Siyame, E, Young, SD, Chilimba, ADC, Joy, EJM, Black, CR, Ander, EL, Watts, MJ, Chilima, B, Gondwe, J, Kang’ombe, D, Stein, AJ, Fairweather-Tait, SJ, Gibson, R, Kalimbira, A, Broadley, MR*. (2013). Soil-type influences human selenium status and underlies widespread selenium deficiency risks in Malawi, Scientific Reports, 3, 1425.

Broadley MR, Chilimba ADC, Joy, E, Young SD, Black CR, Ander EL, Watts MJ, Hurst R, Fairweather-Tait SJ, White PJ, Gibson RS. (2012). Dietary requirements for magnesium but not calcium are likely to be met in Malawi based on national food supply data, International Journal of Vitamin and Nutrition Research, 82(3), 192-199.

Joy EJM, Young SD, Black CR, Ander EL, Watts MJ and Broadley MR. (2012). Risk of dietary magnesium deficiency is low in most African countries based on food supply data, Plant and Soil, 368. 129-137.

W H Shetaya, S D Young, M J Watts, E L Ander and E H Bailey (2012). Iodine dynamics in soils, Geochemica et Cosmochimica Acta, 77, 457 – 473.

Chilimba, A.D.C., Young, S.D., Black, C.R., Ander, E.L., Watts, M.J., Lammel, J. and Broadley, M.R. (2011). Maize grain and soil surveys reveal suboptimal dietary selenium intake is widespread in Malawi, Scientific Reports, 1, 1 - 9.

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Ancient carbon beneath frozen Arctic lakes... by Mark Stevenson

These images weren't taken while location scouting for Disney's Frozen but during a science expedition to find ancient carbon in West Greenland. In the first blog of 2015 Mark describes his icy expedition and why it's important to understand how much carbon is stored in  the thousands of lakes along the ice free coastal plain. He asks if these lakes will act as a good store of carbon or whether with future climate warming they will start to release more CO2 into the atmosphere...

Let it snow... an ice covered Lake Disko (Photo by E.Pearson)
Disko island lake number 2 (of many thousands), I am on the right and my field assistant Joe Bailey on the left.
During my PhD research I had the opportunity to visit the remote and beautiful island of Qeqertarsuaq (Greenlandic) or Disko Island as it is more widely known. The visit involved taking cores of sediment that had accumulated at the bottom of the lakes (over the last 10,000 years) for various geochemical analysis of the carbon in the sediments.

As we visited Disko Island in spring the lakes were still frozen so we had to core through the surface  ice into the sediments underneath. We also surveyed the areas around the lakes to look at the soils and plants that subsequently might get washed in and then have their carbon stored on the lake bed. Access to the lakes was by snowmobile which was an amazing experience, with lots of helpful logistical support provided by the University of Copenhagen’s Arctic Station.

Me placing the samples into a mass spectrometer
for isotope analysis at the BGS (Photo Jonathan Dean).
Back in the UK I have spent the last year doing laboratory work (at Nottingham, Newcastle and the BGS) focusing for the moment on just three lakes with different catchment (the area immediately around the lake) types. I can tell where the carbon in the lake sediments has come from using carbon isotope, pigment, and lipid biomarker analysis.  These types of analyses are complicated and take a lot of time, but worthwhile as I can unpick the source of the carbon (soils, rocks, plants within the lake etc.) which is really important. From initial data I have shown that the lakes with small catchments have less soil carbon in-washed, whereas much larger lakes have greater soil carbon washed in during the spring thaw, and this relationship has changed over the last 10,000 years. Another important finding is that some lakes, mostly those at higher altitudes in the landscape, with smaller catchments have algal communities that are different today compared to the past. 

So what have I found out and how do these lakes’ influence the global carbon cycle?

It’s complicated! The thousands of Arctic lakes contain a lot of carbon which is effectively being stored in the sediments, preventing more CO2 from entering the atmosphere (carbon from soils often reverts into CO2 through bacterial action). At the moment the larger lakes are storing more carbon than is being released as CO2 back into the atmosphere. What I now need to investigate is if this was the case in the past when conditions were warmer, for example the Medieval Warm Period (AD950 to 1100) or early Holocene (c. 8,000-6,000 years ago) warm period. When I have figured this out I can estimate how much additional CO2 will go into the atmosphere from Arctic lakes during a warmer world. Release of this store of Arctic carbon will further exasperate global warming.

I am very pleased with the progress of my project so far and am looking forward to new data in the New Year which will help to make my initial interpretations more robust. The collaborations in my project have really helped ‘add value’ to my project and training and I am very grateful to everyone who has been involved. Big thanks especially to Suzanne McGowan and George Swann (Nottingham), Emma Person (Newcastle) and Melanie Leng (BGS).

Happy New Year, I will look forward to updating you later in the year!


Mark is doing his PhD research at the University of Nottingham in the School of Geography, he has recently started a new aspect of his project within the Centre for Environmental Geochemistry at the BGS.

Friday, 19 December 2014

Reading the signals in sediments... by Jonathan Dean

Jonathan Dean has just published a paper in the Journal of Hydrology, where he brought together measurements made at the British Geological Survey over two decades, to better understand how climate change is recorded in lake sediments. Here he discusses why this was such important work...

Nar Gölü in April 2014. The lake formed in an old volcano.
In the Stable Isotope Facility at the BGS, a lot of our work is focussed on using lake sediments to reconstruct how climate has changed in the past. In lakes, sediment deposited every year records what was going on in the lake, which is often related to climate, and by looking at variability in the chemical signature of lake sediments over time we can therefore reconstruct how climate changed in the past. But every lake records climate differently: some lakes have sediments that record how temperature is changing whereas others respond to how precipitation amounts are varying. Therefore, before we can use lake sediments to reconstruct climate, we need to calibrate the signal from the lake we are working on.

Over the past couple of decades, researchers from the Universities of Nottingham, Plymouth, Birmingham and Ankara have been collecting water samples and lake sediments from a lake in central Turkey called Nar Gölü. We then analysed the samples here at the BGS to look at how the oxygen isotope ratio has changed over recent times and what aspect of climate they are recording.

Isotopes are different types of an element, and oxygen has two main types. We compared how the oxygen isotope ratio in the lake sediments has changed over recent times compared to our measurements of lake level and the local meteorological record. Over the 2000s, lake level fell by 3 metres as precipitation decreased and high summer temperatures increased evaporation in central Turkey.

We were able to show that oxygen isotopes recorded this shift well: there was a strong correlation between the oxygen isotope ratio and the lake level (which was responding to the drying climate), with an increase in the ratio as the lake level fell.

Assuming this relationship was consistent into the past, we can therefore infer than if the oxygen isotope ratio in the sediments decreases the climate was getting wetter, whereas if the ratio increases the climate was getting drier.

Our study will allow us to better interpret a long sediment core sequence spanning roughly the last 15,000 years that we collected in 2010. It will hopefully also demonstrate to other scientists working with lake sediments that monitoring how the lake responds to climate change in the present allows us to better use lake sediments to reconstruct how climate changed in the past.

The photo on the right is a recent sediment core from Nar Gölü, with the top the present day, and a light and dark band representing 1 year of sedimentation.

Live monitoring of flood basalts... by Evgenia Ilyinskaya

Evgenia at the eruption site in Holuhraun, Iceland
September 2014
Remember the volcanic eruption at Holuhraun, Iceland which started back in the summer? Now, three months later, it’s still ongoing and has reached a size category called ‘flood basalts’  (>1 km3 erupted lava). It is now the largest flood basalt in Iceland since the Laki eruption in 1783-84, which caused the deaths of >20% of the Icelandic population by environmental pollution and famine and likely increased European levels of mortality through air pollution by sulphur-bearing gas and aerosol.

This is the first time in the modern age we have the opportunity to study the environmental impact of a flood basalt  as it happens. Now Dr Evgenia Ilyinskaya (pictured above), from the BGS Volcanology team, has led and won her first ever NERC research grant to allow a multidisciplinary team to continue this cutting edge research. Here she explains more about the work and why it's so important...

Flood basalt eruptions are one of the most hazardous volcanic scenarios in Iceland and have had enormous societal and economic consequences across the northern hemisphere. In 2012 the UK not only included an Icelandic flood basalt eruption in our National Risk Register but listed it as one of the highest priority risks. Such an eruption is hazardous not because of ash (for instance, Holuhraun is not producing any ash at all) but because of volcanic gases and aerosol which can cause air pollution and even impact the climate.

The air pollution from Holuhraun has been intense since the beginning, repeatedly reaching hazardous levels of SO2 gas in populated areas in Iceland. Moreover, elevated concentrations (albeit not at dangerous levels) have been detected in the UK and mainland Europe.

Holuhraun, Iceland, October 2014
The blue colour of the eruption plume is typical for sulphur-rich emissions
The available measurements from Holuhraun suggest that the sulphur emissions (per kg of erupted magma) may be exceeding both that of other recent eruptions in Iceland and perhaps also other historic basaltic eruptions globally, raising questions regarding the origin of these prodigious quantities of sulphur.

A lack of understanding of the source of this ‘prodigious’ sulphur, the conversion rates of SO2 gas into aerosol, the residence times of aerosol in the plume and the dependence of these on meteorological factors is limiting our confidence in the ability of atmospheric models to forecast gas and aerosol concentrations in the near- and far-field from Icelandic flood basalt eruptions.

Our project will contribute to two broad issues with sulphur:

  • The magmatic controls on the sulphur content of flood basalt eruptions. There is evidence to suggest we may have underestimated the sulphur output from older eruptions by several orders of magnitude.
  • The lifetime of sulphur in the atmosphere which is critical for both the magnitude and scale of the environmental perturbation.

We propose to address these questions both through petrological analysis of the erupted rocks, measurements of gases and aerosol in the volcanic plume, as well as plume dispersion modelling.

This project involves collaboration between a number of institutes in the UK (British Geological Survey, Universities of Cambridge, Oxford, Leeds, Birmingham and Manchester, and the UK Cabinet Office Civil Contingencies Secretariat) and Iceland (Icelandic Meteorological Office, University of Iceland and Icelandic Civil Protection). The first step is to plan some very challenging fieldwork in winter time Iceland (January 2015), and again in the summer if the eruption is still ongoing.


On Twitter follow Evgenia @EIlyinskaya and the BGS Volcanology team @BGSvolcanology

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Random variables, uncertainty and decisions... by Murray Lark

Here's Murray Lark, our environmental statistician, to talk about the uncertainty in three dimensions. How do different people interpret the same information and how can we make that information about uncertainty useful to you, the valuable user...
Rocks are three-dimensional objects, and computer technology has revolutionized the way in which geologists can present their understanding of the subsurface in 3D.  Where once geological information was presented on a flat map, with a few judiciously-chosen cross sections, a computer model can now represent the rocks beneath our feet in full 3D.  This is useful to planners, engineers, regulators and others who want to build a tunnel or explore the complexity of groundwater flows. 
However, all geological information has an uncertainty attached, and 3-D models are no exception to this.  In a recent paper, published open-access in the journal Solid Earth, we examined the uncertainty in interpretations of boreholes along a cross-section by a group of more than 20 geologists.  This is a key stage in the development of the 3-D model.  But in this blog I want to focus on the question, how can this information on uncertainty be made comprehensible and relevant to the end user?
It is relatively straightforward to make a statistical description of the uncertainty in some information.  Well, in fact it can be quite a complex task, but the real challenge is always to ensure that the resulting account of uncertainty is useable.  The figure (right), from the Solid Earth paper, shows a 95% confidence interval for the elevation of the base of the London Clay formation along a 4-km section.  At any location the probability is 95% that the base lies between the two blue lines.  The lines narrow near boreholes, and widen away from them.
This is interesting, but how should the user apply it?  In my view this can be done only by analysing the decision that the user wants to make.  We consider the hypothetical case of an engineer who wants to dig a tunnel along the route of the section, and to minimize the risk that the tunnel goes under the London Clay into the less-suitable Lambeth Group below.  The engineer might specify that the route of the tunnel should impinge on the Lambeth Group for no more than 1% of its length.  If the model is perfect, with no uncertainty, then the tunnel can be planned to follow the modelled base of the London Clay.  Because of the uncertainty, however, a safety margin should be applied.  We can use the uncertainty model to answer the question, "how close to the modelled base can the route be planned such that the risk of failing to meet the 1% criterion is small?"


Now this question cannot be answered from the confidence limits shown above, but it can be answered from the statistical model of uncertainty from which the limits are generated.  The graph (left) shows the probability of achieving the 1% criterion as a function of how far above the modelled base of the London Clay the route is planned.  This shows that the safety margin must be 8m or so if we are to have a high level of confidence.
This graph is tailor-made for the particular user question.  Other information users need to analyse their questions and then come up with risk assessments built on the uncertainty model.  In short, there are no identikit solutions, but many powerful ways to explore the implications of uncertainty for the users of information in earth sciences.

We will be talking about how to communicate uncertainty effectively to information users at the 2015 EGU general assembly in Vienna (12th-17th April).  Details of the session are below, and anyone interested is invited to submit an abstract by 7th January via the congress website.
SESSION: Communication of uncertain information in the earth sciences
(SSS11.5/ESSI3.6/HS12.7/NH9.17) Uncertainty impinges on most information that earth scientists generate, whether this is by observation, measurement, interpretation, process modelling or some combination of these.... read more on the EGU website.

Monday, 15 December 2014

BGS visits Westminster... by Lorraine Field

Freya Horsfield (left) & myself (right)
(c) Royal Society
Lorraine Field, BGS Petrologist, visited Westminster for a whole week to observe parliament in action as part of The Royal Society MP Pairing scheme. Here's what she made of it...
I wanted to take part in the scheme because I had no idea how science fed into policy making – Westminster seemed to be something of a faceless black box.

The four days I spent in central London as part of the scheme brought Westminster to life, starting with a lively history and anecdotal-filled tour of the Palace of Westminster.  A series of lectures followed, organised by the Royal Society, around how Parliament works and how science fits into the day to day business. These formed a basic insight for the scheme participants into understanding of how the different departments, process (including select committees) and science itself fit together within the policy process. Talks and discussions from Parliamentarians, such as the Rt Hon The Earl of Selborne, Chair of the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee and Dr Sarah Barber, Library Clerk, Science and Environment Section, House of Commons Library were invaluable in understanding the ways in which scientific information is gathered into the policy and decision making process. A clear message which came across is that there is an invaluable role for scientists to play, but also a responsibility on the scientific community to become involved within this process.

Within the week, there is opportunity to shadow your paired civil servant or MP and visit their offices. I was one of three scientists visiting the Government Office for Science, and an energy and climate change workshop was organised for civil servants from several different departments. This gave each of the visiting scientists the opportunity to present an introduction to both our scientific research and our respective organisations.

Here are some of the scientist participants enjoying a lively tour around the Palace of Westminster at the start of our ‘Week in Westminster’
The MP Pairing Scheme participants took part in a mock select committee within the real surroundings of a House of Lords committee room which was an informative insight into one of the major ways scientific evidence is provided to MPs. We also had the opportunity to view the process for real when we attended a House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee as observers. It was also a fantastic opportunity to be able to attend debates in both the House of Commons and House of Lords as part of this visit.

GO Science organised a final day of talks and activities including a SAGE exercise, which helped us understand the process by which Government reacts to a crisis, and the resulting requirement for rapid scientific input.

The mock select committee within one of the splendid House of Lords committee rooms preparing questions for the scientific witnesses
My paired civil servant, Freya Horsfield, Senior Policy Advisor for GO Science [in full, Government Office for Science], was invited to the BGS HQ at Keyworth on a reciprocal visit on a freezing cold day in early December. She was joined by two of her colleagues who were also able to take the opportunity to visit: Dr Rupert Wilmouth, Head of Energy, and Dr Neil Waby, Policy Advisor for Energy. A packed day began with an informative discussion with Professor Mike Stephenson, Director of Science and Technology at BGS, followed by a variety of meetings and facilities tours to give a flavour of the work that BGS are involved in. We saw everything from actual core held within the National Geoscience Data Centre, to ‘flying’ across, around and under the UK geology within our 3D Visualisation Suite, and being able to see many of our laboratories in action.

Here I am explaining to Freya Horsfield the process of isotopic analysis of fallow deer teeth in the clean labs of the National Isotope Geological Laboratories (NIGL) at BGS, Keyworth
The aim of the scheme is to increase communications and awareness between Parliament and Scientists. From my perspective it has certainly done that - Parliament is less of black box and more of a multicoloured jigsaw! I now have a far better perception of how the different departments and processes fit together, and the role that science can play. I hope that some of the links and introductions made between the two organisations will become the basis for long term working relationships.


[This blog has also been submitted to The Royal Society's In Verba science policy blog]

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Searching for abandoned mines: breaking new ground, literally! ... by Kirstin Lemon

Ballylig in Northern Ireland is home to one of many abandoned mines found in Co. Antrim. Worked from as early as 1872 it was originally exploited for its iron ore before closing just after the First World War. As is the case with many abandoned mines, there are no mine plans for Ballylig, although a brief inspection during the Second World War led to the creation of a partial sketched plan indicating that the mine workings extended at a shallow depth under a public road.

Given the lack of knowledge about the site, it is not surprising that farmers living near by didn’t give a second thought to the dangers posed by underlying mine workings.  However, in  2013, disaster struck when part of the mine collapsed as a tractor and its slurry tank working on the overlying field, and fell in to the underlying void. The farmer was uninjured but quite shaken by the experience.

Kieran Parker on site at Ballylig
The Geological Survey of Northern Ireland (GSNI) work with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) to look after abandoned mines and survey work began immediately to try and find out whether there was the potential for further mine collapses. The results were conclusive; there was a strong possibility that this could happen again. A programme of works was put in place to stabilize the area, with the public road being the prime area of concern. However, with no mine plan and access through the mine deemed unsafe, this was going to prove difficult.

BGS scientist, Kieran Parker with responsibility for monitoring abandoned mines in Northern Ireland, had been looking after the site at Ballylig. The solution seemed to be to drill ‘blind’ holes into the approximate location of the mine and hope that it was found before the cost of the works escalated. But Kieran decided to bring in the help of BGS scientist, geophysicist Mohammednur Desissa, and use a potentially more effective method.

Results of the geophysical magnetic survey showing the proposed
location of mines /adits with suggested locations for drill sites
Kieran and Mohammednur conducted a geophysical magnetic survey on site to see if they could detect the shallow underground voids that would indicate the location of the mines. The theory behind this is well-known but this method of mine location had never been used in Northern Ireland. The results indicated a ‘room and pillar’ mining method with the extent of the mine roadways greater than previously thought. Confident in the results, targets were chosen to locate the mine location at the points either side of the road.

It was time to put this theory to the test and work began to try and locate the mine. Kieran Parker gave a brief update from the site:

The drill rig on site at Ballylig 
“Using the map produced using the data from the geophysical survey, drilling started on Monday 8th December 2014. The first target on the first day was a success with the mine roof encountered at 11m depth and mine floor at 12.5m. A further two boreholes had to be drilled and each of them was successful. Given the fact that the mine voids are no greater than 2m in width, precision was of utmost importance and was made possible by the geophysical survey beforehand.”

With the mine roadways now located, remedial work is currently ongoing to stabilize the public road.

By using this groundbreaking technique of mine location, a huge amount of time and money was saved, as the alternative was to drill ‘blind holes’.  In the current economic climate it is more important than ever to be innovative and makes the work at Ballylig an important example of the practical applications of geoscience. 

For more information on the abandoned mine work carried out by BGS scientists at the GSNI then please contact Kieran Parker at