Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Why learn good Science Communication?... by Jonathan Dean

Our scientists never stop striving to improve their understanding of the world around them. Equally they never stop learning new ways to better communicate their work and discoveries to the wider world. One such scientist is Jonathan Dean, a Postdoctoral Research Assistant at BGS, who's just back from a 2 day public engagement course run by NERC. Here Jonathan reflects on the importance of good science communication and the skills learnt on the NERC Engaging the Public with your Research training course...

Public engagement – letting non-scientists know what science we’re doing with their taxes – is important. Many people are interested in finding out, for example, when humans evolved from apes, what caused an extreme flooding event and if there is life on Mars, but they are going to be left in the dark unless they trawl through academic journals on their evening commute (unlikely) or unless we make an effort to reach them. We can get our message out to the public in a variety of ways, for example via the media, in blogs on our websites and at talks in schools. Lots of our work could benefit society – we might have discovered mineral deposits that could stimulate economic growth, found a way of reducing the pollution emitted from car or established how changes in solar activity influence the Earth’s climate. But if policy-makers don’t know what we’ve found, then policy can’t be changed and our findings might go to waste.

NERC - the parent body of BGS
We began our training course with instruction from a BBC News science reporter on how to write a good press release. We found that they are written the opposite way round to how we’d write up our results for a peer-reviewed journal – the snappy summary of the findings, which would be in the conclusion of a paper, should come first, followed by more detail about why it is important and how we carried out the research. Unless their imagination is captured within the first few seconds, journalists will stop reading and move onto the next press release, and our research will never find it onto the Today programme or into The Times (other media outlets do exist).

We then learnt about how to design public engagement activities, such as talks in school or in pubs, before moving onto radio interviews. While listening to the sound of your own voice played-back in front of everyone is never enjoyable, our practice interviews were really useful. We realised the importance of avoiding jargon (for example using the word ‘results’ rather than ‘data’) and in coming across enthusiastic – making yourself smile during the interview helps this! Finally, we had to chance to produce our own media, by making a podcast. I played the role of a radio presenter interviewing two people about fracking.

The course takes place in the NERC office in Swindon 9 times a year and can be attended by anyone who works for NERC or holds a NERC grant, including NERC PhD students and PDRAs. I would thoroughly recommend it as a really useful and enjoyable course that gives you new ideas for engaging with the public and more confidence when dealing with the media.

Find me on Twitter @jrdean_uk

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Welcome to Iceland fieldwork from above... by Jez Everest

Jez Everest established our Virkisjökull Glacier Observatory in 2009, and new equipment has been installed each year to monitor climate, ice dynamics, landscape change, hydrology and groundwater. Today, with the snow keeping them close to camp, Jez has put together a little intro video with the new hexacopter footage...

The BGS Glacier Project machine grinds into gear once more, boldly going where none have gone before. Well almost. This time the team consists of a mixture of BGS and GSNI staff, plus staff and MSc and MRes students from Dundee and Lancaster Universities, here for 10 days with a huge range of research activities to complete.

Atypically the trip started with delays caused by a late shipment of equipment from the UK. Who would have thought it was so hard to transport LiPo batteries between countries? However the blue roof of Austurbaer at Svinafell hove into view on Wednesday evening, bathed in sunshine. Thursday was spent steam drilling holes in the glacier to discover meltwater pathways along faults and thrusts, sampling various water sources for sulphur isotopes, and testing the hexacopter which will carry our thermal imaging kit to be used on the trip… more on this hopefully later in the week. There was still a bit of time for Paul and Ali to go for a run before dinner, and for me to do some video using the quadcopter.

Unfortunately today has seen bucket loads of snow, hiding crevasses on the glacier, and blanketing the ground, obscuring features and their thermal properties from the two drone helicopters. The only work possible has been to download all the groundwater borehole data, test various bits of kit, and piece together a short intro video for your enjoyment. The Dundee students have also had to do a series of presentations for their MSc coursework, via the internet to their classmates and staff back at home. So still plenty to do, despite the Christmassy weather outside.

Hopefully we will be able to get back on the ice, and get all our birds in the air tomorrow, really getting the research programme underway.
I’ll keep you posted

The St. Patrick’s Day Geomagnetic Storm... by Sarah Reay

On the 17th March 2015 the Earth experienced a strong geomagnetic storm. This ‘St. Patrick’s Day storm’ was the largest storm in over 10 years, and the largest of the current solar cycle! Sarah Reay, from the BGS Geomagnetism team, expands on the science behind the solar storm...

So what happened?

The storm began at 04:46 UT on the 17th March 2015 when a shock in the solar wind (a stream of charged particles emanating from the Sun) hit the Earth’s magnetic field signalling the arrival of a coronal mass ejection (CME). A CME is a massive burst of charged gas and magnetic field ejected from the Sun’s corona which is carried away from the Sun by the solar wind. The sunspot region responsible for the CME was centrally placed on the solar disc and so the Earth was directly in the line of fire! This CME travelled quickly towards Earth arriving earlier than space weather forecasters had predicted, taking us a little by surprise.

BGS magnetometers, which measure the variations in the strength and direction of the Earth’s magnetic field, recorded the impact of the CME. We observed a rapid variation in the magnetic field signalling the start of the geomagnetic storm. At Eskdalemuir observatory in the Scottish Borders the rapid variation was approximately a fifth of a degree in compass variation (i.e. declination). 

A magnetogram showing the variation in the compass variation (in degrees west of true north) for the three UK magnetic observatories the 17th – 18th March 2015. You can see the shock arrival and storm commencement followed by larger variations later in the day
Shortly after the shock impact those on the night-side of the Earth were treated to a spectacular auroral display. There were various sightings reported across North America, and more unusually, some great sightings of the aurora australis in New Zealand (New Zealand is of similar geomagnetic latitude to the south of UK). If it had been dark, we should certainly have seen the northern lights across the UK. However our night-time was many hours away. The question everyone was asking was how long would the storm last and how strong would it be?

Why the storm was so strong?

One of the main factors that influence how big a magnetic storm will be is the direction and strength of the interplanetary magnetic field (IMF). That is, the magnetic field carried in the solar wind. If this turns southwards it allows much more energy into the Earth’s magnetic field. If it turns northwards it can effectively ‘shut down’ a magnetic storm. This key aspect is, unfortunately, not one space weather forecasters can predict well in advance so it is difficult to know what nature a storm may have in the coming hours.

Solar wind conditions measure by the ACE satellite. The top trace (red) shows IMF turning southward for extended period of time. Orange, yellow and green traces show the change in density, speed and temperature and the CME arrived.
Remarkably in this case the IMF went strongly southwards for well over 12 hours allowing a lot of energy to flow into the Earth’s magnetic field. This produced a major magnetic storm. The Space Weather Prediction Centre (run by NOAA in the USA) has five defined levels of geomagnetic storm activity from G1 to G5 with G5 being the most severe. This storm, at its peak, reached G4 level for several hours. G4 levels were seen globally between 12:00 – 18:00 UT and again between 21:00 – 00:00 UT on the 17th March 2015. Space weather forecasters in BGS and Met Office continually monitored the situation throughout the day and consulted with each other as the storm progressed. 

A snapshot of BGS's activity monitor when global geomagnetic activity was at the G3 storm level on the 17th March 2015.

A northern light show

When a geomagnetic storm is in progress the auroral ovals, usually located near the Arctic and Antarctic circles, broaden and move out towards the equator. That is why during a magnetic storm the aurora can be seen more easily in the UK.

As the geomagnetic storm rumbled on throughout the St Patrick’s Day more people around the world were treated to a spectacular auroral display - that is, if they were lucky enough to find a gap in the clouds. Unfortunately for the UK many places were covered in thick cloud or fog so missed out on this event. However many more were lucky and sightings were reported across Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and the parts of England even as far south as Hampshire and Sussex. In Europe, aurora was seen as far south as Germany and The Netherlands.

Model of aurora oval over the northern hemisphere at 21:40UT on the 17th March 2015. The line of auroral visibility in UK is located around the Midlands. Image SWPC NOAA.

The day after the solar wind conditions remained heightened and geomagnetic activity, whilst no longer at the peak of activity, continued at a moderate storm level throughout the 18th March. Once again parts of the UK reported aurora sightings but these were mainly confined to Scotland.

So how big was this storm?

One way of measuring how large a magnetic storm is by a type geomagnetic index – the Ap index. This is measure of global geomagnetic disturbance. When Ap is greater than 100 (out of maximum of 400) this is classed as a ‘severe storm’ (severe in this case refers to the magnitude of the storm rather than a comment on the possible impact). The St Patrick’s Day storm had an estimated daily Ap of 108. This is the largest magnetic storm of the current solar cycle (which began in 2008). We need to go back 10 years to September 2005 for the last storm with an Ap >100. The last magnetic storm which was bigger than the St Patrick’s Day storm was in November 2004, almost 11 years ago!

Chart showing all the major magnetic storm with a daily Ap greater than 100 since 1980. Notice the large 10-year gap before the St. Patrick’s day storm.
Do you want to keep track of current geomagnetic activity and watch out for the next chance to see the aurora in the UK?

You can keep up with the current geomagnetic activity levels here.
Read our daily space weather forecast here.
If you don’t want to miss out on the next chance of seeing the aurora you can subscribe to our email alerts.

Or follow us on twitter at @BGSauroraAlert or @BGSspaceWeather

Sarah Reay
BGS Geomagnetism Team

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Is there an environmental link to esophageal cancer in Tanzania?... by Michael Watts

Scientists from the Centre for Environmental Geochemistry are helping health organisations understand why esophageal cancer is localised within specific areas of the African Rift Valley. Whilst various causal factors are now under investigation, such as high-strength ‘kill me quick’ alcohol consumption or hot tea drinking, it is difficult to fully explain the localised nature of the burden. Here Dr Michael Watts outlines why soil around Mount Kilimanjaro could unearth some answers…

Dr Valerie McCormack from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC, part of the World Health Organisation) has studied the high prevalence of esophageal cancer in the Rift Valley and identified a particularly localised incidence of cases in the Mount Kilimanjaro area of Tanzania. A hypothesis was presented that an environmental factor, such as exposure to potentially harmful elements or organics (e.g. polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, PAHs, from wood fires) or deficiency of essential micronutrients (e.g. zinc) that diminishes the body’s ability to recover from or buffer an event that may cause cell damage, could be contributing to this.

Kilimanjaro district
This is where the skills of the inorganic geochemistry team come in. With support from the Centre for Environmental Geochemistry (CEG) and BGS Global, the BGS Inorganic Geochemistry team assisted IARC-WHO and the Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Centre (KCMC) in designing and undertaking a detailed survey of soil, water and crop samples in the Kilimanjaro district.

Children from Masame
Our primary aim was to link geochemistry and crop data with areas in which esophageal cancer cases were prevalent.  In addition, the data will demonstrate a spatial understanding of the geochemistry of the differing climatic zones and food production areas around Mount Kilimanjaro and to provide an indication of micronutrient composition or presence of potentially harmful elements. 

This increased understanding of the soil and crops in Kilimanjaro will improve baseline evidence for a differing climatic zone compared to previous work in Sub-Saharan Africa (previous blogs), to inform future experimentation of agricultural methods that could improve soil-crop transfer of micronutrients for onward health benefits.

We also provided training to local counterparts from KCMC and the Ministry of Agriculture Kilimanjaro District Extension Office in the collection of environmental samples, recording of field data for quality assurance / data management and onward presentation in GIS maps for agricultural planning tools. It is a privilege to be able to help where our skills are needed most and it’s clear these strong working relationships will bring benefits to local populations and the wider science community. We see clear opportunities for future collaboration with all of the partners we worked with in Tanzania, including the Regional Area Secretariat from the Prime Minister’s Office.

Rombo Mkuu
In fact the CEG has already partnered again with IARC-WHO (the project leaders) on a recently gained grant from the US National Cancer Institute to study a similarly high-localised prevalence of esophageal cancer in the Eldoret region of Kenya.  Such work involves the cross-disciplinary collaboration of epidemiologists, medics, health practitioners, biostatisticians, geochemists, farmers and local agricultural extension workers and commences 2015 to 2017. Watch out for future blogs and see all our research via our CEG website.

Dr Michael Watts
Head of Inorganic Geochemistry, Centre for Environmental Geochemistry

Suggestions for further reading:
Joy et al. (2015). Zinc enriched fertilisers as a potential public health intervention in Africa, DOI:10.1007/s11104-015-2430-8.

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.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Records on the move... by Lorna Stewart

Last pallet being loaded on the lorry in Edinburgh
As we've reported here before our two offices in Scotland are being united at one single site in Edinburgh. In the Spring of 2016 The Lyell Centre will be the new home of BGS in Scotland and preparations are already well underway. Here Lorna Stewart, Records Manager, tells us about the latest activity...

Following months of careful indexing and scanning the first delivery of Records from Murchison House left Edinburgh on Monday 9th February for relocation to Keyworth.
Records staff still smiling after a hard
day of re-shelving the records in
their new home
For the past 18 months the Records Team at BGS Murchison House have been preparing the records for transfer, some collections have been scanned and all have been  meticulously indexed to ensure that they remain accessible. Where there is no existing scanned image a Scan on Demand Service will be available. Records and  Reprographics staff at BGS Keyworth had in the meantime prepared the top floor of the Publication Store (V block) to receive the material.

Each folder and container is barcoded and is associated with the barcoded shelf location at Keyworth to make sure that they can be quickly and accurately retrieved when requested.
The respective Records Teams managed the physical handling at either end of the operation; happily the weather was on our side and all 49 pallets were unloaded and undercover by the end of Tuesday morning.

Records happy in their new home
By Wednesday afternoon all of the 3,000 boxes and files had been shelved and the database updated with their new locations. Massive thanks is due to all staff who helped in the process, it bodes very well for the next 12 months or more of work ahead.


[The BGS Communications team have also just published the latest YouTube update from The Lyell Centre site, see below.  

Heriot-Watt have also announced on their website some major donations to the Lyell Centre development from two leading philanthropic charities.

Keep checking on here and follow us on Twitter for more updates on the move to The Lyell Centre. - Editor]


Friday, 6 March 2015

Jellyfish are dish of the day at EnviroHack 2015... by Rachel Heaven

EnviroHack 2015 ©
Is open access data helping to solve environmental problems? Yes, but only with the innovative thinking and skills of people from a wide range of scientific and engineering disciplines. Rachel Heaven, Stephanie Bricker, Anubha Singh may have different expertise within BGS but one thing they all share is wanting to put data to it's very best use. Here they tell us more about their experience (and jellyfish) at this years NERC EnviroHack...

So it turns out that jellyfish can wreak havoc for power stations by getting sucked into and clogging up the water supply intake pipes – who knew? (Don’t believe me? The headline in National Geographic read Jellyfish Invasion Shuts Down Nuclear Reactor). A system to identify and track likely jellyfish hotspots using atmospheric and oceanographic data was just one of the great ideas we saw developed at NERC’s EnviroHack 2015 last weekend.

EnviroHack 2015 is a data jam. In essence you put a bunch of enthusiastic data scientists, designers and software engineers in front of a wealth of openly accessible environmental data (atmospheric, meteorological, hydrological, ecological, geological…), feeding them some pizzas (and perhaps a little beer), letting them cook for 2 days and then hopefully seeing some innovative application prototypes that could address important environmental challenges such as environmental change, resilience to environmental hazards and use of natural resources.

The event was hosted at Digital Catapult, in what is being branded the Knowledge Quarter in London. We were on a 9th floor office opposite the British Library, giving fabulous views over St Pancras Station, and across the London skyline. 

After admiring the view and a few talks from the event partners - which in addition to NERC and Digital Catapult included the Knowledge Transfer Network, Microsoft Research and Red Ninja Studios - we had a quick brainstorming session and then were encouraged to give lightning talks to pitch our ideas. Some of these had clearly been planned in advance and were well thought out with a good knowledge of the available data...others were loose ideas sparked off that morning that morphed and took shape as the project teams were formed around them.

The ideas that we pitched and worked on (food_chain and Energy Cast) definitely fell in the latter category, but the self-organising teams managed to do an amazing amount in a short time to present prototype solutions by the end of day 2.

The jellyfish hackers on team JellyStrike led by Centre for Ecology and Hydrology's (CEH) Tom Redd were catch of the day taking overall first prize and winning development support for the next 100 days, but - as at a school sports day - most teams managed to come away with at least one prize (best 2D visualisation, best mobile app etc).

Some of the other ideas were:
  • food_chain - connecting surplus produce e.g. from allotments, to food charities and businesses to reduce food waste.
  • Energy Cast - a weather-forecast and machine learning informed green energy app to help match domestic energy supply with energy consumption.
  • ShowMeTheNature - putting people in touch with green space, an app to rate the quality of the green space near to you using the metrics of your choice, with user-feedback.
  • CHARM - a self-learning data system to allow users to enrich environmental data by adding annotations, use cases and key metrics to make more sense of our data-rich world.

Why no geological data ? Well, independently of this event BGS had already started implementing ideas based on the same principles as EnviroHack. For example:
  • aligning our geochemical sampling datasets with those of CEH and British Oceanographic Data Centre (BODC) so that chemical pollutants can be tracked from source to sea
  • aggregating worldwide soil data in the BGS mySoil app
  • optimising the use of national scale datasets in Natural Capital Mapping (see the  CEH/BGS academic paper here)

The original idea for Energy Cast could have included various datasets available for assessment of Ground Source Heat Pump potential, but the hackers preferred the wow factor of presenting dynamic datasets (and who can blame them with an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset to compete for?!). It’s true many of BGS’s open datasets describing the subsurface are static, but they can provide the framework that determines the movement of fluids underground and are so important for many of today’s critical issues.  As an organisation we are increasingly dealing with time series monitoring data and outputs from process models, and we need to work on making all those open and accessible where appropriate so that other developers and data scientists can make use of them.

We also learnt a lot about how other people approach and solve software problems, got ideas about how we might apply machine learning, made a lot of good contacts and had a load of fun. 

What did the organisers learn ? That even though lots of datasets are available it still took them a lot of time and effort to find out what was out there and how to get hold of it, and even then the size and complexity of the data can inhibit its usage. BGS was held up as a great example of making data open and accessible but we still have far to go and it’s something we are continuously improving.

Rachel, Stephanie and Anuhba

How much shale gas lies beneath our feet… by Dr Clement Uguna

Dr Clement Uguna at work in the laboratory
Most people these days will have heard of shale gas.  It’s the unconventional gas stored within fine grained mud rocks and its extraction has been hitting the UK headlines over the last couple of years. Dr Clement Uguna, a new Research Fellow at the British Geological Survey and the University of Nottingham, is pioneering research into answering questions about how much gas lies beneath our feet...
My research, within the Organic Geochemistry Laboratory and Centre for Environmental Geochemistry, focuses on understanding the fundamental mechanisms through which gas is generated and retained within deeply buried rocks in the UK and overseas.
Although the amount of research on shale gas has vastly increased during the past decade, the mechanism of how shale gas is actually generated and how it is retained within shale is not properly understood. Shale gas is dry and composed mainly of the fossil fuel methane, and we know it is formed at high temperatures and pressures deep in the subsurface. What we really need to know though is whether the amount of methane generated is greater at particular depths (temperatures and pressures) in the Earth.

Dr Clement Uguna between his team members
(left) Prof Colin Snape (right) Dr Christopher Vane
A few studies have so far investigated the  process of gas formation by analysing natural shale rocks or used 'pyrolysis' techniques but have not replicated subsurface conditions to simulate gas generation.  I have devised a specialised experimental technique (called high water pressure pyrolysis) that does closely replicate subsurface conditions beneath us to simulate shale gas generation as a function of the temperature and depths under the Earth subsurface. I can then calculate the amounts of methane and other hydrocarbon gases generated from my experiments which will be significant in improving the assessment of gas stored at different depths across the UK (and this varies a lot).

Overall my aim is to better understand the amount of gas in the shales buried deep under the UK, and then others can decide on whether extraction is economically viable.
Dr Clement Uguna at work in the laboratory
By Clement

Clement is a Research Fellow within the Centre for Environmental Geochemistry at the British Geological Survey and the University of Nottingham where he is working with a team including Prof Colin Snape, Dr Christopher Vane, Dr Will Meredith and Vicky Moss-Hayes.

For more details have a look at Clements recent paper: Uguna, C.N., Carr, A.D., Snape, C.E., Meredith, W. 2015. High pressure water pyrolysis of coal to evaluate the role of pressure on hydrocarbon generation and source rock maturation at high maturities under geological conditions. Organic Geochemistry. 78, 44-51.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Out of Africa into Arabia’s ‘Garden of Eden’... by Andrew Farrant

Andy Farrant
Following on from yesterday's post by Ash about Arabia's lush past, Dr Andrew Farrant, a Principal Geologist from the BGS, looks at how geological mapping has changed the way we view human evolution...

Think about Arabia, and normally an image of deserts, endless sand dunes and camels comes to mind, not verdant green pasture, rivers, lakes and herds of grazing animals. Yet at various periods during the last few hundred thousand years, this is exactly what Arabia has looked like. Changes in global climate have periodically transformed Arabia from an arid desert into a more welcoming savannah landscape, replete with wildlife. Understanding when these wet periods occurred is critical for understanding human evolution. This is because Arabia lay at a bottleneck for early humans migrating out of Africa into Asia. Too dry and early humans would have faced an impenetrable desert barrier. This has sparked a considerable amount of scientific debate as to how early humans crossed out of Africa into Eurasia.

The Al Sibetah quarry near Al Ain, a 42 m section in
stratified alluvial fan sediments spanning160,000 years.
Professor Adrian Parker and Dr Ash Parton (upper
figure) for scale. Photo (c) A R Farrant
Two hypotheses have emerged to explain how this was achieved. The first suggested human populations expanded rapidly from Africa to southern Asia via the coastlines of Arabia approximately 50,000 to 60,000 years ago, the interior being far too arid to support human settlement. An alternative hypothesis suggests that humans migrated much earlier, around 75,000 to 130,000 years ago, crossing into the Arabian interior several times when increased rainfall provided sufficient freshwater to support expanding populations. Key to solving this debate lies in understanding the climatic record; were there just a few sporadic wet interludes linked to northern hemisphere interglacials, or were there multiple wet periods allowing repeated dispersal?

Research just published by the British Geological Survey and Oxford Brookes University (Parton et al., 2015; Geology) has suggested that the latter scenario is most likely. By analysing river sediments near Al Ain in the United Arab Emirates, we unearthed a unique and sensitive record of landscape change in southeast Arabia spanning the past 160,000 years which provides evidence for several wet climatic interludes during both glacial and interglacial periods. These periodic wet phases allowed humans to migrate across the interior of Arabia several times during the past 160,000 years.
So how did we come to work on the climate of Arabia? The story began in 2002, when BGS was contracted by the UAE Ministry of Energy to undertake a comprehensive geological mapping project, covering the whole country. This included mapping the extensive alluvial fans emanating out from the Hajar Mountains and the dune sands of the Rub al Khali desert, popularly known as the ‘Empty Quarter’. During the mapping work, it soon became apparent that these Quaternary sediments were far more interesting than most people realise. Our mapping identified numerous quarries between Dubai and Al Ain which exposed thick alluvial fan and dune sediments. As alluvial fan systems only form during wet climatic periods, whilst dune sands accumulate during arid phases, these interbedded fan and dune sands had the potential to record a detailed palaeoclimate record spanning the last few hundred thousand years.

Working in the 'empty quarter'
However, understanding the palaeoclimate of Arabia was not something our Ministry clients were interested in. This is where colleagues at Oxford Brookes University stepped in. Professor Adrian Parker and Dr Ash Parton, then a PhD student had been working near Jebel Faya, an important rock-shelter with the earliest archaeological evidence for human dispersal out of Africa, located some 60 km east of Dubai. They were analysing alluvial fan sediments in order reconstruct the palaeoclimate of the region. Ash’s work at Jebal Faya had shown that the alluvial fans were active ~55-60,000 years ago – nicely in the middle of a glacial period, but this was just one site. The 40 m deep Al Sibetah quarry we had discovered near Al Ain offered considerably greater potential for unearthing Arabia’s climatic secrets.

So, in 2008, we were back mapping in the UAE. Logging the sections was not easy. Fieldwork in the UAE sounds glamorous, but the reality was working in a sun-scorched, smelly pit, strewn with rubbish and camel excrement with only flies for company and temperatures approaching 40°C. However, the hard work, dust and sweat paid off. Through painstaking sedimentological, geochemical and isotopic analyses, the latter with the help of Professor Melanie Leng of the NERC Isotope Geosciences Laboratory here at BGS, Ash constructed a detailed record of climatic and environmental change for this part of Arabia. Dating of the sediments was done by Dr Matt Telfer using a dating technique known as optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) dating.

Map showing location and photo of the study site (Sibetah) and extent of relict
alluvial fan system in SE Arabia. Jebel Faya and other study sites are shown.
Our findings, published in the journal Geology have shown that wet climatic periods in Arabia were not driven by global ice volume changes during interglacial conditions every ~100,000 years. Instead the quarries at Al Ain demonstrate that the vast alluvial fans along the western Hajar and Oman Mountains became active approximately every 23,000 years since at least ~160,000 years ago. These wet periods were triggered by periodic northward shifts in the position and strength of the Indian Ocean Monsoon, driven by subtle changes in the Earth’s orbit every ~23,000 years. During these times the vast Arabian deserts were transformed into landscapes littered with freshwater lakes and active river systems, providing ample opportunities for humans to disperse across the region en route to the rest of Eurasia.

Moreover, this is but one of the academic spinoffs from the UAE geological mapping project. Dating of the desert sand across the UAE have clarified the timing of dune formation, stabilisation and links to past climate, whilst mineralogical analysis of the sand has yielded insights into the provenance and formation of the dune systems. BGS colleagues have also been busy studying the evolution of the UAE-Oman ophiolite complex, exquisitely exposed in the Hajar Mountains, and understanding salt dome evolution in the Arabian Gulf.

In short, geological mapping not only underpins the economic well-being of a country, but can also deliver some fantastic science.


Working in the 'empty quarter'
To read more about Ash Parton's PhD and research for the Geology paper read his Geoblogy post here.


A. Parton, A. R. Farrant, M. J. Leng, M. W. Telfer, H. S. Groucutt, M. D. Petraglia, A. G. Parker. Alluvial fan records from southeast Arabia reveal multiple windows for human dispersal. Geology, 2015; DOI: 10.1130/G36401.1


Thanks to all the members of the BGS UAE mapping team, in particular Richard Ellison and Mike Styles, and to the UAE Ministry of Energy for funding the mapping in the first place.

Dr Andrew Farrant is a Principal Geologist at the British Geological Survey and led the geological mapping element of the UAE project from 2006-2012. He mapped the area around Al Ain including the Al Sibetah quarry. He continues to research climate change in Arabia.

Dr Ash Parton did his PhD research in the UAE whilst at Oxford Brookes University, part funded by the British Geological Survey. He is currently a member of the Palaeodeserts Project at the University of Oxford, which is seeking to better understand the relationship between environmental change in Arabia and the demography of early human populations.

Was Arabia once a lush paradise? Dr Ash Parton

Ash Parton
Ash Parton is on a mission to understand the relationship between environmental change in Arabia and the demography of early human populations. His PhD research, undertaken in collaboration with the BGS, has provided a unique climate record for southeast Arabia over the past ~160,000 years. This work has helped expand our understanding of early human dispersals out of Africa.

If you saw the recent BBC article "Arabia was once a lush paradise of grass and woodlands" you'll already be aware of his latest results, published in the prestigious academic journal GEOLOGY

To guide us through the research in full here's Ash, lead author of the paper and a member of the Palaeodeserts Project at the University of Oxford, and some of his amazing fieldwork photos...
I began my PhD at Oxford Brookes University under the supervision of Professor Adrian Parker with the rather ambitious aim of reconstructing the evolution of the Indian Ocean Monsoon system throughout the Pleistocene.

The Arabian Peninsula is a key region for research concerning both human evolution and climate studies, and so my initial idea was to develop a long transect of palaeoclimatic records running the entire length of the peninsula. This, Adrian informed me, was far beyond the scope of a self-funded PhD! Indeed, it is beyond the scope of most large, well-funded projects. Instead, he suggested that we attempt to investigate the evolution of the Arabian climate through more realistic means. It was agreed that I should accompany him on his field work to Arabia, which at the time involved working with a German archaeological team who were excavating a rockshelter site at Jebel Faya in the UAE. This site later contained evidence for the earliest human dispersal out of Africa, and while its actual age was unknown at the time, it was clearly a region for which a palaeoenvironmental framework was much needed to underpin how people were able to survive and move through this landscape.

It was during this trip that the central premise for my PhD became clear. This question has stayed with me since and still remains to be fully answered;
“how has the changing environment of this vast desert landscape shaped the fortunes of our earliest ancestors?”

From the moment I first set foot among the sands of the Rub’ al-Khali, I was amazed to think how dramatically different it had once been. A number of palaeoclimatic records had already shown that while now arid/hyper-arid, at times the landscape of Arabia was littered with rivers, lakes and extensive grasslands. It was clear that such changes would have had a profound effect on any early populations, and that by better understanding the timing and nature of these changes we might better understand our own demographic trajectory.

Previous studies had suggested that the occurrence of humid periods in Arabia were predominantly driven by global ice volume changes. In particular, the development of interglacial conditions every ~100,000 years was seen as the principal driver of increased rainfall across the peninsula. As the major ice sheets contracted, monsoonal rainfall shifted much further north, bringing with them large volumes of summer rainfall and transforming the arid environment. Conversely, during global glacial periods these systems were pushed further south and Arabia returned to the harsh, dry conditions we see today.

As I began to explore the full range of climatic records, however, it became clear that some records told a rather different story. Marine records seemed to show that the monsoon experienced these phases of intensification and northward displacement every ~23,000, in line with periods of maximum solar radiation. Why then, I wondered, do we not see the same evidence in the terrestrial records? Confirming the presence of additional wet phases in Arabia then became a key aim of my work, as the occurrence of such periods would have provided further ‘windows’ for human populations to expand out of Africa.

Fig. 1 from Parton et al.: Map showing location of the study site and
extent of bajada system in southeast Arabia, including other identified
sections of the Al Ain fan (UAE—United Arab Emirates).
Image from GEOLOGY press release (c) GSA
In order to answer this question a greater range of climatic records was required. Previous climatic reconstructions had relied predominantly on speleothems, which require a lot of rainfall to form and as such, a significant range of rainfall remained undetectable from these records. In the first instance I had managed to locate an ancient lake deposit near the rockshelter site at Jebel Faya. Initial optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) dates indicated that the lake formed ~55-60,000 years ago – nicely in the middle of a glacial period – suggesting that the patterns of rainfall I had seen in the marine records did have an expression on the land. This was just one relatively small palaeolake site, however, and I needed more proof that glacial-age humid phases were more than just climatic ‘blips’.
After a brief worrying period in which no further sites were found, I was fortunate enough to begin a collaboration with the BGS. Adrian had started working with a BGS team who were mapping the geology of the UAE and in 2008 one of the team, Dr Andy Farrant, introduced me to the site that would vastly improve our understanding of the Arabian palaeoclimate. Situated near the town of Al Ain, recent quarrying had exposed a deep ~42 m sequence of alluvial fan deposits at the site of Al Sibetah. These ancient river channel and soil sediments comprised the biggest record of major climate changes from anywhere in the peninsula, and provided evidence of multiple periods of increased rainfall. 

Over the following year, successful collaborations with Andy Farrant and with Professor Melanie Leng of the BGS Isotope Geosciences Laboratory, and Dr Matt Telfer then from the University of Oxford, led to the development of a unique record of climate change for southeast Arabia that has had important implications for our understanding of early human demography. OSL dating of the sequence indicated that the activation of rivers within a vast bajada along the western Hajar and Oman Mountains had occurred approximately every 23,000 years since at least ~160,000 years ago, confirming that monsoon incursions into Arabia did in fact occur in line with insolation maxima. During these periods, expansive river systems surrounded by verdant savannah grasslands and trees, connected the mountains and the coast, potentially acting as vast green corridors through which early human populations could move. Importantly, the findings suggest that there were numerous windows for the dispersal of human populations out of Africa, and that demographic mobility was not restricted to interglacial periods every ~100,000 years.

Issues concerning the spatial and temporal variability of the Arabian climate continue to be the main focus of my research, and that of the Palaeodeserts Project. The findings from the Al Sibetah fan demonstrated that hidden beneath the sand seas of Arabia lies evidence for a complex and incredible climatic history. Despite many years of study, we are still just scratching the surface, quite literally, when it comes to understanding the evolution of the Arabian environment. And yet, the unfolding archaeological record continues to prove that the region played a critical role in the development of our species.
The findings from the Al Sibetah alluvial fan were recently published in the journal GEOLOGY, and reported by media outlets such as the BBC, Science Daily and the Daily Mail. Its been a very exciting week!

By Ash Parton

PhD supervision at BGS by Dr Andy Farrant (fieldwork and sedimentology) and Prof Melanie Leng (stable isotope geochemistry).

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Prehistoric eating habits... by Niklas Hausmann

Niklas Hausmann is working on shells from archaeological sites in Saudi Arabia to reconstruct prehistoric eating habits and environmental change. As part of his PhD he is working within the Stable Isotope Facility at the BGS to analyse his shells for their geochemistry and to get away from the boiling heat of the Red Sea…

In the last 3 years, as part of my PhD in the DISPERSE Project at the University of York, I have worked extensively on the Farasan Islands (Google Maps link) in the southern Red Sea, which definitely has its upsides. You are surrounded by crystal clear water and, more importantly, you are able to eat extremely tasty fish every night.

Living specimen of Conomurex fasciatus.
Sichel-shaped operculum (a kind of trap door hatch)
can be used as a pick to eat the animal after it is cooked.
My supervisor Professor Geoff Bailey surveyed Farasan in 2003 and found a massive amount of shells heaped up by past inhabitants of the islands dating around the mid-Holocene (5,000 years ago). It was probably the archaeology that drove him to apply for funding for an excavation, but I want to believe that it also was the food. Either way, together with Geoffrey King from the Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris (IPGP), he came up with the DISPERSE research project which looks at human dispersal across the Red Sea during prehistory. The Farasan Islands are an important part of this dispersal as they are the only place where we find well preserved sites on the Arabian coastline, and they can be used as a reference for marine exploitation for the wider area of the southern Red Sea.

Shell mound at Janaba Bay. Cars to indicate scale
While Geoff started above-water and underwater excavations in 2006, 2008, and 2009, I only started my PhD on the project in 2012. My research is especially focused on the shell mounds themselves. I look at how the shells accumulated (were eaten by people) and what kind of environmental information I could get out of the shells themselves. It can’t have always been this hot!

Luckily, there were not many shell species that I needed to analyse, because 95% of the shell mounds consisted of the species Conomurex fasciatus (or Strombus fasciatus, the common name is the lined conch). Unfortunately, there is not much published on this species,  however, we know that the shells are generally between 2 and 5 cm, they are found almost exclusively in the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf, and are very pretty!

Artisanal fishers invited the team on a cruise
(Photo © C. Beresford)
It is assumed that the conch prefer shallow water in sandy and calm areas. But when we went out to look for it, it was almost never to be found in those areas. I spent many hours diving at all kinds of beaches (and enjoying myself despite the occasional stingray encounter). The result was a red hot sunburn and only two areas where I found the shellfish. Both places experienced heavy wave action and instead of sand I only found rough coral bedrock. I am not sure what the molluscs prefer in the end, but I liked the smooth beaches better.

Typical amount from 30 min of fishing (Photo © C. Beresford)
To find out about depositional patterns and the prehistoric environment, I am using geochemistry. Oxygen ratios in the shell can tell us about temperature and the saltiness of the water. I would have to figure out how both factors interact or if one of them is dominant.

For once, the incredibly hot conditions and aridity of the desert landscape had an advantage! If there is no rain, and there are no rivers or generally no freshwater bodies whatsoever (so the shells live in normal saltiness sea water), then they cannot mess up my geochemistry. Good news for me! It did rain once while I was on the Farasan Islands, it was over soon and flowed off the island within minutes.

Me, visually analysing erosional processes after
a very rare rain shower at Janaba Bay (Photo © R. Inglis)
After we collected modern shells from different seasons and compared their geochemistry to the temperature throughout the year, we had a baseline to show how we could reconstruct past sea water temperatures from the archaeological shells. I am now sampling the archaeological shells to find out at what time of the year people were gathering shellfish and how hot the ocean was. Combined with the archaeological context this can tell me a lot about their food preferences, how much they collected at a time, and if they used the sites continuously or only came a few times.

In the bigger perspective, we can apply these results to the rest of the southern Red Sea and have an idea of how rich the marine wildlife was and how important it was as food source in comparison to the desert landscape of Arabia.


Niklas Hausmann is a PhD student in the Department of Archaeology at the University of York. He is supervised at the BGS by Melanie Leng in the Stable Isotope Facility.