Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Getting a Read on Radon: measurement of radon activity in groundwater samples from a proposed fracking site - a student project! James Dinsley

My name is James Dinsley, an Environmental Science student from the University of Nottingham and I am currently a quarter of the way through a one-year placement with the British Geological Survey, working in the Inorganic Geochemistry Laboratories in Keyworth, Nottingham. Over my year with the BGS, I have been supporting projects with Dr Charles Gowing and Dr Andy Marriott looking at the development and validation of (i) a method for determining the amount of radon in groundwater and its application to environmental baseline monitoring at proposed shale gas exploration sites, and (ii) a method of using a form of radioactive lead (210Pb) to determine the age of lake sediments. I will also be working in the aqueous chemistry laboratories, where I will use different chemical tests to analyse the composition of water samples for clients. As part of my work, I have learned how to conduct key laboratory tests such as determining soil pH and organic matter content, water pH and alkalinity, electrical conductivity and total organic carbon.

What does radon have to do with shale gas and fracking?

Fracking is a controversial topic due to public concern about it’s potential environmental and health risks. The process of fracking creates micro-fractures in the target shale rock to release natural gas (methane) for energy supply. One area of concern with fracking and the shale-gas development more generally is the possible release of naturally occurring radioactive materials (NORMs) contained in the shale, e.g. radon (222Rn), a known carcinogen, either as a gas or dissolved in the produced water that also comes up the shale gas well. Human exposure to radon is known to present a health risk if it is not adequately controlled.

In order to understand the potential additional risks that might arise from shale gas operations, a clearer understanding of the baseline groundwater chemistry is needed in areas around proposed development sites.

What have we found so far?

Libby preparing the samples for analysis to
determine radon concentration. 
Charles, Andy and Libby Gallanaugh, the previous placement student from the University of Surrey, refined a method for looking at the emission of alpha particles (a type of radiation) from the radioactive decay of radium (226Ra) in order to quantify the amount of radon present in groundwater samples. To do this, organic chemicals called ‘scintillators’ are used to convert the energy generated by alpha particle emission into light, which is then measured by a detector. More light pulses will indicate a higher amount of radon in the samples.
Libby’s work has identified the most suitable scintillator type and an appropriate scintillator/sample ratio to use, alongside helping to determine the most efficient analytical run time needed. Her results have helped to enhance both the counting efficiency of the detector and improve the quality of the results. It is hoped that the technique that Charles, Andy and Libby were working on could be used directly in the field to reduce the length of time that radium has to decay before analysis.

What are the next steps?

Alongside my duties in the aqueous lab, I will continue to further this research by investigating both the influence of sample temperature on the detector’s ability to quantify the radon concentration; and the influence that major ions in water (e.g. chloride, bicarbonate, etc.) can have on the detector’s readings, since water collected from different environments and rock types will have different chemical compositions! This work will help to ensure that the quantification of radon from field samples are more accurately represented despite variation in where and when sampling takes place.

During my time with the BGS I will also be working on another project, looking at refining a method for using a radioactive lead isotope (210Pb) to determine the age of Malaysian lake sediments. Ageing these sediments will help to reconstruct past pollution events from possible human activities. 210Pb dating can show us changes in sediment deposition over time, which is key as this can lead to changes in the lake’s physical and chemical characteristics. By using data collected from 210Pb dating, decision makers will then be able to determine the best method to remediate contaminated lakes. This project is being run in collaboration with the University of Nottingham through the joint Centre for Environmental Geochemistry.

I am enjoying my time with the BGS so far, and I am looking forward to getting involved with learning and experiencing as much as possible, alongside having the opportunity to meet many more people!

Monday, 24 October 2016

Examining the chemistry of mushrooms: a valuable tool for archaeology? Angela Lamb

The edible oyster mushroom, Pleurotus ostreatus, in Mere
Sands Wood Nature Reserve, Lancashire.
Mushrooms are a common part of modern human diets, yet they are rarely considered from an archaeological perspective. As soft-bodied organisms they readily rot, so are very rarely found on archaeological sites. Search for academic papers on archaeology and fungi and you are most likely to find articles discussing how microscopic fungi eat wall paintings and artefacts, and there are very few examples of mushrooms in relation to diet. The most famous exception is Oetzi ‘the Iceman’ from the Copper Age of Italy who had two species of bracket fungi in his possession. Neither of these are terribly edible but one could have been consumed as a vermifuge (something to kill parasitic worms), and both can be used as tinder to light fires.

A new collaboration between Dr Hannah O’Regan from the Department of Archaeology (University of Nottingham), Dr Angela Lamb (Centre for Environmental Geochemistry/British Geological Survey) and Dr David Wilkinson, (Liverpool John Moores University) set out to consider this lack of mushrooms from another angle -  as they are made of protein, can we see evidence of fungus consumption by looking at the stable isotope composition of people in the past?

An Italian mushroom shop.
Examining their chemistry

Stable isotopes of a range of elements are widely used in archaeology and ecology to estimate the food source used by an organism – for example plants, herbivores and carnivores tend to show different stable isotope chemistries. We found that very few studies have been performed specifically on edible mushrooms, so we collected and analysed fungi from the wild in North West England. We combined our results with published data to see how variable isotopes of carbon and particularly nitrogen can be. It turned out to be that fungi are extremely variable, with nitrogen values ranging from those you might find in legumes up to those you’d see in a polar bear!! Edible mushrooms had a smaller range, but were still very varied. This means that a human – or other animal – feeding on lots of mushrooms could, depending on which species they are eating, have a bone chemistry that could lead people to think they were being carnivorous. But the main thing this work showed was how little we know about fungi and the archaeological record. There is still much to learn!

This work is published online in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

Monday, 17 October 2016

Linking Geology & Biology in Europe’s oldest lake: a 1.3 million-year record of climate change and evolution from Lake Ohrid…by Jack Lacey and Melanie Leng

Lake Ohrid SCOPSCO science team, photo courtesy of F. Wagner-Cremer.
The Lake Ohrid drilling project has featured regularly on Geoblogy over past years, now reaching its final stages Jack Lacey and Melanie Leng from the Centre for Environmental Geochemistry travelled to the Netherlands to attend the 6th project workshop in Utrecht. Here they report on the meeting and provide a much overdue update on this ground-breaking interdisciplinary research…

Lake Ohrid is one of only a handful of lakes worldwide that has continuously existed for millions of years and contains hundreds of unique species found nowhere else. It represents an outstanding natural laboratory allowing us to explore the links between geological processes (climate change, volcanic eruptions, tectonic activity) and biological evolution – i.e. what drives speciation; stable conditions or rapid environmental change. To this end, the lake was drilled in 2013 as part of the International Continental scientific Drilling Program’s (ICDP) Scientific Collaboration On Past Speciation Conditions in Lake Ohrid (SCOPSCO) project (see blog series). The fieldwork campaign recovered over 2000 m of sediment from four sites around the lake, with a master record in the central basin reaching 569 m below lake floor that archives at least 1.3 million years of Earth’s history back to the Early Pleistocene.

Recently, we published our findings from the upper half of the core - covering 650,000 years - as a special issue in the journal Biogeosciences (open access). The team has been working extremely hard to finalise analytical work on the lower half of the record, and we met in Utrecht last week to discuss new developments and future efforts. In short, progress has been exceptional and for many proxies (e.g. isotopes, pollen) the majority of work is complete for the entire lacustrine succession (equivalent to the upper 430 m of sediment). The project has now reached a very exciting stage, proxy data from different research groups are being collated and we can start to understand how the lake has responded to both long- and short-term environmental change, answer fundamental questions about why/how the lake first formed and ultimately determine what drove biological evolution. We also have one of the longest and best land-based archives of tephra (volcanic ash) in the Mediterranean, which will allow us to accurately date our core material and directly compare to other regional and global sequences. However, there is still much work to be done - so keep an eye out for future updates!

Thanks go to Friederike Wagner-Cremer and Timme Donders at the University of Utrecht for organising the workshop, and to the entire SCOPSCO team who exemplify the best of interdisciplinary and collaboratory science.

To find out more about SCOPSCO visit the project website, or for further information please contact
By Jack Lacey and Melanie Leng (Centre for Environmental Geochemistry & Stable Isotope Facility, British Geological Survey)


Monday, 10 October 2016

INTECOL International Wetlands conference in Changshu, Suzanne McGowan and Keely Mills

Conference delegates getting ready for the start of the Aquatic
Transition session. Suzanne is far right, Keely is second right. 
Staff from the Centre for Environmental Geochemistry (CEG), a collaboration between the British Geological Survey and the University of Nottingham, Suzanne McGowan and Keely Mills, travelled to Changshu in China to attend the 10th INTECOL International Wetlands Conference which took place on 19-24th September 2016.  Here they tell us a bit about the conference...

The main aim of this visit was to host a session on ‘Trends in wetland condition and ecosystem services’, also chaired by Prof Peter Gell from the University of Ballarat in Australia. The CEG has been supporting an international working group Aquatic Transitions which is coordinated by PAGES Past Global Changes

The aim of this working group is to ‘integrate regional records of change in aquatic systems to provide a global synthesis of the sensitivity of sites to critical stages of human impact, detailing the nature of changes that can provide insights for management of these aquatic ecosystems’. Much of the research conducted in the CEG is aligned with the Aquatic Transitions goals.

Keely Mills presented an overview of how human impacts influence freshwater ecosystems and the aims and activities of the working group, which has held two workshops to date and is working on several synthesis manuscripts. Suzanne McGowan presented work from a diverse range of floodplain lakes investigated by University of Nottingham / CEG researchers (Stefan Engels, Charlotte Briddon, Virginia Panizzo, Melanie Leng) including Attenborough Nature Reserve, lakes from the Yangtzse Delta and the Tasik Chini flood pulse wetland in Malaysia. The latter work presented some preliminary results from work initiated by CEG on Asian lakes and wetlands.

From L-R: One of the many waterways in Changshu. INTECOL being publicized in Changshu
Changshu is a natural place to host a wetlands conference. Located at the mouth of the Yangtzse River Delta a few hours from Shanghai, the city is a fascinating example of how wetland habitats and waterways can be integrated into urban design to create a very pleasant living environment. The conference was highly publicized in the city, and there were excursions to showcase some of the wetland restoration efforts and also to illustrate the importance of wetland environments to the rice farming communities in this region.
Selfie with Bob Costanza! 
It was very interesting to see such a mix of interdisciplinary research at the conference, with the range of topics including, for example, engineered wetland design, bird conservation in Ramsar sites, peatland restoration, socio-ecological interactions and pond ecology. The plenary speaker on the first day, Robert Costanza is renowned for his paradigm-shifting publication which introduced the, now widely applied, concept of ecosystem services. We ended up next to him in the restaurant later on that day, and could not resist the opportunity for a selfie. All in all, it was fascinating to see the great range of stakeholders who have interests in wetland management and conservation.

The main aim of the visit was to publicize the work we are doing to a different audience, and it was great to interact with academics, NGO representatives and businesses from across the world. We also found the time to plan for the next Aquatic Transitions workshop which is scheduled for February 2017 in Kuala Lumpur at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus.

For more information just contact us!

By Suzanne McGowan (University of Nottingham)  and Keely Mills (British Geological Survey)

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

A month with the BGS Volcanology Team…by Alastair Hodgetts

Hi, I’m Alastair, a graduate Geologist with a BSc (Hons) in Geology from the University of Leicester. I am about to study for an MSc at Lancaster University in Volcanology and Geological Hazards this upcoming academic year. I was offered an internship role in the British Geological Survey’s Volcanology Team, based in Edinburgh for the month of August 2016.

Throughout my time at BGS I was very lucky to be involved in some fascinating and exciting projects. Many of the projects I contributed to involved writing reports and compiling databases, as well as analysing data and conducting research. Most of this work will be used to advise the UK and overseas governments as well as inform and help observatories and other geological surveys that monitor volcanoes and record their hazards and impacts on a regional and worldwide scale. The work involved research along the whole spectrum of Volcanology, from the physical processes that trigger eruptions, and the parameters that control them, to applied volcanology - studying the hazards, risk and impacts on populations, aviation and infrastructure. Below are some highlights from my time at BGS:

As part of an ongoing project assessing potential volcanic hazards on Ascension Island, I was heavily involved in calculating and modelling the potential of re-suspended ash as a volcanic hazard on Ascension (a UK Overseas Territory). Volcanic ash can lie present on and around eruption sites for days, weeks or years, depending on the size of the eruption and volume of extruded ash and tephra. ‘Clean-up’ operations can be disrupted by the entrainment of volcanic ash and can take people and officials by surprise. It is often overlooked as a volcanic hazard as the volcanic activity has ceased. Models considered a number of parameters for ash to be re-suspended and re-entrained into the atmosphere, ultimately posing a threat to public health, infrastructure and aviation. I also plotted wind direction data on rose diagrams to determine the areas of the island that would most likely be affected by re-suspended ash (if the issue were to ever arise on Ascension Island…)

Ascension Island, photograph by Charlotte Vye-Brown
While I was working with the Volcanology team, Brava volcano in Cape Verde showed signs of increased seismic unrest.  Brava Island is a little known volcanic island with a population of ~7,000 people.  The seismic unrest in July and August 2016 highlighted that data and geological information needed to be collected to help prepare for a future volcanic eruption, if one were to occur. I spent a day researching and writing a literature review on the background geology and demographic statistics of the Cape Verde Islands, particularly focussing on the island of Brava.

I compiled an extensive database on the eruptive parameters of Mt. Sinabung in Indonesia since it’s almost continuous eruption starting in 2010, after lying dormant for ~400 years. With the exception of three eruptive hiatus’, (the longest lasting little under three years), it has remained in an unrestful and eruptive state, continuing to extrude large volumes of volcanic ash, tephra and lava and induce pyroclastic density currents, lahars and many other hazardous flows.  This involved me studying weekly reports from multiple sources from the past 6 years. I then extracted geological (plume height, shape and colour; ash dispersal distance and direction; lava dome growth; deformation etc.) and volcanic impact (alert level changes, geographic areas impacted, evacuation status etc.) data from the reports and compiled a database.  From this, I wrote a report to compare a number of eruptive parameters to see if a correlation between the data sets exists. The information, graphs and database will be used for a detailed report and publication on the eruptive source parameters of Mt. Sinabung.

Mt Sinabung in 2010.
My internship at BGS was very exciting and interesting with a strong focus on applied work for government, industry and civil protection. It has been very rewarding to work for a world-leading geoscience organisation that addresses current issues, hazards and risks and uses geological science to improve the lives of the British and international public. The internship with the Volcanology team has confirmed I have made the right decision to specialise in volcanology and I aim to work as a Volcanologist after my academic studies.

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

BGS Hackathon: Tracking change in global volcanic activity... by Katy Mee

The BGS Volcanology team receive regular enquiries from government and media about volcanic activity around the world, particularly if it’s likely to have an impact on UK citizens abroad or there’s potential for humanitarian needs. When we get an enquiry, we normally first consult the appropriate volcano monitoring institution (volcano observatory) for status reports and the regional Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre (VAAC), which produce notifications for aviation about volcanic ash in the atmosphere. Volcanic eruptions may last for weeks or longer and changes in eruption style, intensity and scale can occur over  minutes to hours, so it can be challenging to keep track of what is happening and where new activity is occurring….…this is how our idea for the BGS Hackathon was born……

We pitched a challenge to take the advisories issued by the VAACs and see whether our hackers could use their programming skills to (1) automatically extract the relevant information, (2) populate these data into a database and (3) visualise the data on a map or graph.  Ideally, all of these things would be updated automatically as new ash advisories were released so that we could track changes in activity and look for new volcanoes erupting, in near real-time.

About volcanic ash advisories

There are 9 Volcanic Ash Advisory Centres (VAAC), each with a defined area to monitor, that cover most of the globe. The VAACs use a range of information – from volcano observatories, satellite and ground-based remote sensing, pilot reports and aircraft observations, and weather forecast and dispersion models – to identify and monitor the movement of ash in the atmosphere. They then issue advisories and guidance products for the aviation sector telling them where, how high and in which direction the ash cloud is moving so that pilots can avoid them.

The nine Volcanic Ash Advisory Centres (VAACs) and their areas of responsibility

 The advisories are in a standard format, meaning that they all provide the same categories of information e.g. the volcano name and ID number, summit height, information sources, height of the observed ash cloud, forecasted movement of the ash cloud, date that the next advisory is expected etc. If we could extract information detailing which volcanoes had ash advisories issued for them, when and how often they were being issued, we could produce a graph tracking this change, which could help to:
  • Look for new eruptions at volcanoes
  • Look for the end of an eruptive episode
  • Track the number and frequency of advisories issued in near real-time
  • Look for patterns in eruptive behaviour over the longer term.
Typical structure of a volcanic ash advisory

Team VAAC   

After pitching our challenge at the Hackathon, there was a slightly awkward wait whilst hackers decided which challenge they wanted to accept, but luckily for us, we enticed 5 very enthusiastic hackers with a wide range of skills. Team VAAC consisted of Charlie Kirkwood (environmental geochemist), Ailsa Napier (web developer), James Passmore (GIS and web specialist), Peter Stevenson (geomagnetic data analyst) and Carl Watson (geoinformation business analyst). Between them, they had a wide range of skills that were ideal for our hack challenge: computer programming, databases, geographical information systems (GIS), mapping and visualisation, building websites and…..making pizza – what more could you want?
Head scratching and concentration from Team VAAC

Extracting information from the ash advisories

Task one was to start scraping the relevant data from the ash advisories which are written in HTML code. Three of our hackers – James, Peter and Charlie – started working on this problem, each using the programming language they were most familiar with: ColdFusion, Python and R, respectively. Their task was to write a script that could extract the following information from the advisories and output this in a format that could be easily ingested into a database:
  • Date of the advisory
  • VAAC name
  • Volcano name and ID number (VNUM)
  • Geographic area
  • Date and time of next advisory
ColdFusion was quickly scrapped because we were getting quicker results from the other two methods and so we decided to streamline our resources into those two options. The R script was struggling to process the HTML code, so Charlie decided to work on an archive of advisories in text format from one of the VAACs. This not only gave us a different format to test the R script on, but also give us a back catalogue of data to help us analyse any patterns in activity over a much longer time period. By the end of the day, both Peter and Charlie had successfully written scripts, in Python and R, to extract the data and export these as either .CSV or .XLS files.
 Scraping information from the ash advisories using Python (left) and R (right) programming languages

Data via RSS feeds

As well as checking the VAACs, we regularly check over 30 volcano observatory websites for activity updates on dozens of active volcanoes. Although we receive reports and updates directly from many observatories we’re looking for rapid and global updates. Extracting this information into one database would be programmatically very challenging so Ailsa looked for RSS – or ‘Rich Site Summary’ – feeds, which use a standard web feed format to publish frequently updated information, such as volcanic activity reports. Subscribing to an RSS feed means that web updates are sent directly to you, meaning you don’t have to constantly check the website for updated information. Unfortunately, none of the VAACs use RSS feeds – which would have saved us a lot of time – but several of the observatories do. Ailsa was able to use RSS feeds from the USGS (United States Geological Survey) and KVERT (Kamchatka Volcanic Eruption Response Team) to compile relevant information from both websites onto a single webpage. This shows that for any observatories using RSS feeds, we could quite easily compile their information into one place, saving us lots of time in visiting many different websites.

An RSS feed of current volcanic activity updates issued by USGS (left) can be used to populate our own list of activity updates, saving the need for us to check individual websites

Building the database

Whilst Charlie, James and Peter worked on the scripting, Carl began work on the database. Having already identified what attributes the database table should contain it was fairly straightforward for Carl to set up a new database in Oracle. The ‘NOTE_ID’ was automatically generated whilst all other values were taken directly from the two scrape processes, which were loaded into the database manually. Ideally, we would have wanted these data to be automatically uploaded into the database to save someone from doing it manually, but this would have required writing a separate script to handle this process – something we didn’t have time to address during the hack.


As Day 1 came to an end, the hackers were treated to a healthy concoction of sweets, fizzy drinks, takeaway (and maybe a sneaky beer) before heading off to their programmer pits. And if one round of pizza wasn’t enough, we were treated the following morning to a second dose courtesy of the culinary delights of chez Passmore! Everyone loves cold pizza, right?
Famous takeaway pizza outlet vs Pizzeria Passmore

Web viewer and visualisation tool

The final element of our challenge, after all of the scraping, databasing and stuffing our faces, was to display the results on a web viewer, preferably updated in real-time. So once Carl had set up the database, he and James set to work on adapting an existing web viewer that had been created for the EPOS (European Plate Observing System) project (thanks Simon Burden!), for our needs – the true sense of hacking! The ‘hacked’ web viewer had 4 windows which showed:
  1. A map of all volcanoes, highlighting those with current ash advisories
  2. A list of all volcanoes with current ash advisories issued for them, from which you could select any volcano of interest
  3. The details for the selected volcano that have been extracted from the volcanic ash advisories
  4. A graph showing the number of advisories issued per day for the selected volcano
The windows in the viewer should all be linked so, for example, if you click on a volcano in the map, its details will appear in the other windows, or if you click on a volcano in the latest advice list, it should zoom to the volcano on the map. We did manage to get most of the windows linked apart from the map window, which you could pan around and zoom into independently. This is something that could have been easily linked we just ran out of time!

So all in all, we managed to achieve the majority of our aims in (1) extracting relevant data, (2) building and populating a database and (3) creating a web viewer to display our results – quite an achievement in less than 2 days! We didn’t manage to link all of the elements so these had to be done manually, and we didn’t quite manage the automatic updates so that we could monitor new volcanic activity in real-time.

Web viewer showing 1) map of volcanoes, 2) volcanoes with current ash advisories, 3) details from selected advisory, 4) graph of number and frequency of advisories for the selected volcano


A bit more time was what we wished for……and a bit more time was what we got!! After the shock announcement that Team VAAC were being crowned hack champions (so unexpected that half our team had already left!), we discovered that our reward was more work – 15 days extra to be precise! Oh, and a coaster!

Members of Team VAAC receiving their winners’ coasters.
Note that Carl and Ailsa had little confidence in our chances of winning and had already left :)
(From left: James, Peter, Katy and Charlie).

Since the Hackathon

Peter has continued working on his Python script to extract data from the VAACs and produce an automatically updated map showing number of advisories over time for all volcanoes with current activity. The graph shows data for the past 7 days (from the current date) and plots the cumulative number of ash advisories, for each volcano, over time. When an advisory states “NO FURTHER ADVISORIES” the count returns to 0, signalling that there are no more ash observations. The graph shows which volcanoes have had particularly intense periods of activity, such as Sinabung in Indonesia, which had 6 advisories issued in the space of 18 hrs. We can also see which volcanoes are producing ash clouds over the course of the week, shown by more than one spike e.g. Sinabung and Klyuchevskoy (Russia). If we were to track this sort of activity over weeks, months and years and compare with other information, it’s likely that we’d start to see patterns emerging for certain volcanoes, helping us better understand how good observations of different eruptions are, how volcanoes and ash clouds behave, and thus how to best interpret such information in the future.

Automatically updated graph showing cumulative number of advisories issued per volcano over past 7 days

Sunday, 18 September 2016

Zoo elephants help their wild counterparts in Kruger National Fiona Sach

Fiona feeding lemurs.
Eight zoo elephants from Knowsley Safari Park and Twycross Zoo have been contributing to work that is being carried out to reduce Human-Elephant Conflict surrounding the Kruger National Park. This unique, interdisciplinary project involves environmental geochemistry, plant science, and animal health between a range of partners including BGS and the University of Nottingham (UoN) through the joint Centre for Environmental Geochemistry. Read more about the project in a previous blog here.

The working hypothesis is that the elephants in this study group, originally from the Kruger National Park, are deficient in phosphorus, owing to a deficiency in the soil and forage. This drives the elephants to supplement their phosphorus from the water, soil and forage on land surrounding a phosphate mine in close proximity to the National Park. En route to the phosphorus mine, elephant incursion into nearby human settlements has resulted in human-elephant conflict, causing risk of injury and lost income. The results of the project may help to inform  key locations in the elephants’ home range where mineral-supplemented forage or mineral licks may be placed to reduce the drive to seek additional sources of phosphorus, thereby reducing human-elephant conflict. Samples (hair, toenail, blood and urine) from the UK elephants will be used to validate their possible use as biomarkers of mineral status in the wild: This is a brilliant example of the contribution captive animals can make to directly benefit research on their wild counterparts.

From L-R: Browse sample; water sampling at Knowsley Safari Park.
Five UK zoos have kindly agreed to assist with and contribute samples to this research with each zoo being visited four times throughout the year to collect necessary samples from the elephants and from items which the elephants consume from their environments in the zoos. Biological samples required include toenails, faecal samples, serum and tail hair. Environmental samples include all food items (browse, hay, grass, pellets and fruit and vegetables) consumed and soil and water samples to assess the influence of geochemistry on dietary intake and land use decisions. These will be analysed for “essential mineral” content (e.g. zinc, iron) to estimate dietary intake and possible seasonal changes in browse, grass and hay over the year. These data will be related to mineral measurements in the elephants’ biological samples to validate methodologies for use and comparison to wild elephants.

Elephants at Knowsley Safari Park.
In June, the second set of UK sample collection took place at Knowsley Safari Park, having commenced a first seasonal cycle in April at that facility. It was especially exciting to collect a longitudinal toenail sample from one individual that will be analysed by spatial analysis using techniques such as laser ablation coupled to ICP-MS or ion beam analysis to give an indication of mineral status over time in that elephant. We would like to thank all the elephant team at Knowsley Safari Park for their assistance with procuring samples and enthusiasm for the research and of course the elephants for their ongoing cooperation. We then moved on to Twycross Zoo for the first very successful sample collection at this facility. We would like to thank all of the elephant team at Twycross Zoo, especially Team Leader Andy Durham, and the veterinary team for their assistance.

Thanks to the NERC Envision Doctoral Training Programme, the Hermes Trust and Royal Society International Exchange scheme. The project is based on a Centre for Environmental Geochemistry collaboration between the Inorganic Geochemistry (Dr Michael Watts) and Stable Isotopes teams (Professor Melanie Leng) at BGS and Schools of Veterinary (Dr Lisa Yon) and Biosciences (Professor Martin Broadley & Professor Simon Langley-Evans) at the University of Nottingham. The collaboration is further strengthened by partners in five UK zoos and with partners in South Africa who have been studying elephant populations there for the past two decades, tracking elephant movements using GPS and GMS to better understand their habitat use.  In addition, Dr Ellen Dierenfeld (E.S.Dierenfeld Nutrition Consulting, LLC) is an internationally renowned expert on elephant nutrition and a co-investigator on this project.

Elephants at Twycross Zoo.
I am very excited to be starting my PhD full time this October, having contributed to activities over the summer months in advance. I will be leaving my current employment at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), where I have been Nutrition and Research Officer at London and Whipsnade Zoos for the past 4 years. My role has included maintaining accurate diet records for all the animals within the collection, reviewing animal diets based on clinical need, working with procurement to source the myriad of food items needed to feed a zoo and working with keepers to implement diet changes. I am also a Research Advisor for the BIAZA Elephant Focus Group and aid the EAZA Elephant TAG Chair with the strategic planning of the TAG giving input into the direction of the group. This experience has put me in touch with the global captive elephant community and given me an understanding as to the work zoos can do to benefit wild counterparts. I look forward to starting this new challenge, collaborating with several UK zoos to directly advance field research and to employ a multi-disciplinary approach to the PhD research question – “Are land-use decisions made by elephants influenced by geochemistry?”

For further information please contact:,  and

More information will follow from the Centre for Environmental Geochemistry and from Knowsley Safari Park.

Keep up to date with the project on the Knowsley Safari Park Twitter (@KnowsleySafari) and Facebook pages.

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Jumpsquiffling geodiddlyology: the many landscapes of Roald Kirstin Lemon

Today we're celebrating 100 years since the birth of Roald Dahl, one of the world's best known authors and one that fired the imaginations of generations of children. Many of his stories took inspiration from places that he had lived in or visited, often exquisitely described, transporting the reader to far off and distant lands or simply making them feel that they were in the story themselves. We've taken a look at the landscapes that played a part in his life, or appear in Roald Dahl's literary works, many of which have since been on the silver screen.

1. Roald Dahl Place, Cardiff

Roald Dahl was born on 13th September 1916 in Llandaff, Cardiff and wrote about his early years in his book 'Boy: Tales of Childhood' including the story of the mouse in the gobstopper jar. He is commemorated in the newly redeveloped Roald Dahl Plass, a public space in Cardiff that is home to the Welsh Assembly Building. Originally a dock, this was once a thriving coal port exporting millions of tons of coal mined from the Valleys of South Wales. The space was formerly known as the Oval Basin and many of the original building stones can still be seen and have been reused. For example, Pennant Stone, an Upper Carboniferous sandstone found within the Warwickshire Group, also from the South Wales Coalfield, and a common building stone in the South Wales and Bristol areas.

Tenby Harbour, Pembrokeshire

2. Tenby, Pembrokeshire 

A regular holiday destination for the Dahl family, Roald spent many holidays here as a child, exploring the rocky coastline and fuelling his lust for adventure. Part of the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, the coastline at Tenby is predominately limestone from the Lower Carboniferous period and part of the Pembroke Limestone Group. Once of the many characteristics of limestone is that it is particularly susceptible to chemical weathering, giving it a characteristic craggy appearance and the ideal location for searching in rock pools!

3. Oslofjord, Norway

Roald Dahl's parents were both from Norway and for at least the first few years of this life, the only language spoken in their household was Norwegian. After the death of his father in 1922, this all changed, but the Dahl family continued to spend summer holidays in Norway. These holidays inspired the setting for the first part of 'The Witches' and the landscapes around the Oslofjord were described in the story as where many of the children went missing in mysterious circumstances. Despite the name, Oslofjord is not a fjord in the geological sense, a name reserved for a long, narrow, flooded inlet, carved by glacial erosion. Instead, Oslofjord uses the Norwegian word fjord in its literal sense meaning sea inlet. In actual fact, the Oslofjord is a rift valley formed as crustal extension formed a long linear lowland with higher ground on either side.

Aerial view of Oslofjord

4. Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire

Great Missenden was where Road Dahl lived for the last 36 years of his life and many features of the village and surrounding area featured in his books. Located in the Chilterns, the entire area is underlain by Upper Cretaceous chalk, part of the White Chalk Subgroup. This has led to the formation of a number of landscape features including natural springs, one of which has given its name to Angling Spring Wood, an ancient woodland just outside Great Missenden. It is this forest that was not only the setting for Hazell's Wood in 'Danny the Champion of the World', but one of the trees (known as the Witching Tree) inspired the story of 'Mr Fantastic Fox'.

The Headland Hotel, Newquay

5. Newquay, Cornwall

'The Witches' is perhaps one of Roald Dahl's darkest children's book and in one section the main character of the book stumbles across a Witches convention at a seaside hotel. The Headland Hotel in Newquay in Cornwall was used in the film version and due to its imposing position atop the cliffs overlooking Fistral Bay it is not hard to see why it was chosen. The cliffs themselves are Devonian sandstone, part of the Meadfoot Group and the stark contrast between the grey sky, the red brick building and the grey sandstone has made the location for this grand hotel appear nothing short of sinister.

The Old Man of Hoy 

6. The Old Man of Hoy, Orkney

The most recent addition to the list, the Old Man of Hoy is a 137m sea stack on Orkney and was used in the film adaptation of the BFG this summer quite literally as a 'stepping stone' as the BFG travelled home to Giant Country. The stack is made up of Late Devonian sandstone sitting on top of a plinth of volcanic rocks of a similar age. It is separated from the main cliffs by about 60m, although due to the dynamic coastal nature of its location it is not expected to stay that way for long. In the 1750s paintings show the Old Man of Hoy as a headland, and then in 1820s it was once again painted but this time as an arch and a stack, giving rise to the name of an Old Man as it looked like two legs. Since then one of the legs has been removed by stormy seas so all that is remaining is the other leg!

7. Mount Kirishima, Japan

This one is a bit of a wild card, but Roald Dahl didn't just write children's stories, he also wrote short stories for adults as well as screenplays for many famous movies. One such movie was the 1967 James Bond film 'You Only Live Twice'. Mount Kirishima in Kyushu, Japan was the filming location for the exterior shots of one the most famous bad guy hideouts of all time, the Blofeld volcano lair, complete with a retractable 'crater lake' opening. The real Mount Kirishima is a group of active volcanoes and described as one of Japan's most active volcanoes, with the last notable eruption being in 2011. Despite the physical impossibilities of having an evil lair inside an active volcano, you have to admire Roald Dahl for his choice of location, one that went on to inspire many other movie and TV writers.

Friday, 9 September 2016

Unexpected Iran: caves, cardamom and one or two Kirstin Lemon

Kirstin was travelling with fellow assessor
Mona Holte from Norway
As a member of the UNESCO Global Geopark evaluation team, each year I get sent to evaluate or revalidate an aspiring or existing UNESCO Global Geopark. Finding out where you're being sent is perhaps one of the most exciting parts of the process and something that all of the team very much looks forward to. This year, when I got the call I was asked 'How do you feel about going to Iran?'. To be honest, my initial reaction was one of fear; we've all seen the news footage and watched the dramatisations on TV, so I expect most of you will understand my reticence. But the scientist in me quickly decided that some proper research was required to see if my initial reaction was deserved, after all, I come from Northern Ireland and know how my home country is portrayed to the rest of the world on occasion. After a little digging, involving several blogs, Sky News reports and countless travel websites, I concluded that Iran was actually safer than some parts of Europe this summer, and that as long as I was sensible, then there was no reason to not go.

The preparations began

My initial fear was quickly replaced with excitement as the preparation got underway, with visa applications, vaccinations, insurance, a whole new wardrobe to satisfy the strict cultural requirements, as well as the actual work that I was being sent there to do. As a UNESCO Global Geopark evaluator, I was being asked to visit the Qeshm Island Geopark to see if it met the required standard to become a UNESCO Global Geopark. The application dossier gave me all the information that I needed to know as well as giving me a lot that I still needed to find out, after all that's why the evaluation mission was happening in the first place.

From Tehran to Qeshm Island

The journey to Qeshm Island was a long one as I had to first of all travel to Tehran before making my way south. But Tehran was not without its attractions and I was fortunate to be able to spend half a day exploring the sites with our colleagues from the Geological Survey of Iran who were to accompany us on our entire journey. I also had the chance to at least partially acclimatise to the intense heat that I was due to experience. I arrived in Qeshm Island, late at night and was instantly met with what can only be described as a wave of steam as I got off the plane. With a temperature of around 39oC at 11pm and a humidity of about 90%, it was likened to an outdoor sauna.

Visiting Chahkooh Gorge. 

Internationally important geology

Qeshm Island is located in the Persian Gulf, off the southern coast of Iran. It is part of the Zagros Mountain Range made up of rocks from the Late Precambrian to Cambrian periods. One of the common features within this range are salt domes that form as salt intrudes into overlying sediments causing them to deform and doming to occur. The Namakdan Salt Complex is one such dome in Qeshm Island and is home to the world's longest salt cave at a distance of 6500m. The majority of the other geological features are formed within much younger Oligo-Miocene sedimentary rocks, and are visible as impressive erosional landforms usually as river canyons such as the one at Chahkooh Gorge. I was taken to visit all of these important geosites and was able to assess not only the geological significance but also the visitor access, the interpretation and the conservation objectives for each one. All of which are an important element of a UNESCO Global Geopark. 

More than just geology

One of the many Women's Co-operatives on Qeshm Island. 
As well as assessing the impressive geological heritage of the island, I was also there to see how this was being used as a tool for sustainable development and due to support from the Iranian government they had been able to develop some pretty significant projects. A Geopark Hotel, a Geopark Square in the main city and countless visitor centres, museums and information points were just some of the examples. But perhaps more impressive was how the Geopark had worked with local communities to try and improve their lifestyles especially through the development of women's co-operatives, the aim of which was to provide local women with a viable means of supporting themselves economically.

A cultural eye-opener

Eating dinner on the floor! 
Whilst I was there we got to experience true Iranian culture, in some ways very different to my own, but in others very similar. The dress code for women is strict in that our heads must be covered at all time, and that our entire bodies must also be fully covered (so full length tops and trousers). This might not have been a problem at home, but when the temperature got to 45oC with a wind-chill of 51oC, this was really quite tough going. Most of my meals were eaten on the floor which I discovered required a great deal of skill, that I rather embarrassingly don't think I ever obtained. The type of food was very different to anything that I had ever experienced with lots of cardamom-flavoured dishes and even the local Qeshm coffee was full of cardamom, but it was all very delicious. Of course the landscape was very different, and instead of the usual cows and sheep that I see when I'm driving home, I encountered herds of roaming camels that more than once stopped us on our journey. One of the most memorable parts of the Iranian culture however, was the warm welcome that I received everywhere I went; I lost count of the number of people that invited us to their homes for tea and of the many invitations that were accepted everyone was only too willing to show me their home and treated me like part of the family. 
Camels by the side of the main road. 

Mission complete 

My trip to Iran, albeit very short was a real cultural eye-opener, and was completely unexpected, especially given my initial reaction. It just goes to show how much the media influences your opinion. As for a UNESCO Global Geopark on Qeshm Island, well the evaluation report has been submitted to UNESCO so we'll just have to wait and see! 


Perspectives on sediment supply: views from water, earth and Katie Whitbread

A team from BGS Scotland has been getting thigh-deep in the Eddleston Water, a tributary of the River Tweed, developing a new monitoring programme to investigate sediment supply and the evolution of the stream following the reintroduction of channel meanders.

The Eddleston Water, like many streams across the UK, has been strongly affected by historic river straightening to protect road and rail infrastructure, and by the effects of agricultural land use in the catchment. In efforts to protect the nearby town of Peebles from river flooding and improve the ecological status of the stream, the Tweed Forum has been working with partners in the Scottish Environment Protection Agency and CBEC Eco Engineering to re-meander the stream and develop a natural flood management (NFM) scheme which has been funded by the Scottish Government.

Alongside the management works, a long-term monitoring system has been established to assess the impact of the NFM and meandering on the rivers’ ecology and hydrology, including the groundwater system, with partners in Dundee and Edinburgh universities working alongside the BGS Groundwater team. Now a team of BGS geologists are utilising both state-of-the-art technology and ingenious shed-built solutions to get to grips with the catchment’s sediment supply system.

UAV pilot Jez Everest, usually to be found on an Icelandic glacier, has been out with the BGS drone capturing high-resolution aerial footage of the re-meandered reaches in the first tranche of a series of monthly monitoring flights to assess channel evolution following the most recent re-meandering work. Footage showing the connecting of the new meanders can be seen in Jez’s video “Re-meandering the Eddleston Water” from the first survey. The footage will be used to construct a sequence of digital elevations models of the channel system which will be analysed to assess how the new channel morphology evolves.

Meanwhile, Chris Thomas and Katie Whitbread have been out wading to empty a prototype integrated sediment sampler constructed (to high specification) from a length of sewer pipe and some funnels. Despite its humble origins, the sampler performed impeccably, yielding several hundred grams of sediment (a months’ worth) captured from the flows’ suspended load. Following the success of the first sampler, two more are under construction for deployment along the stream, and geochemical analyses in conjunction with connectivity modelling will be used to trace the sediment sources to learn more about the geological controls on sediment supply in the catchment.

Katie Whitbread – Geology Scotland
Chris Thomas – Geology Scotland
Jez Everest – Marine Geology

 Chris Thomas installing the prototype sediment sampler in the Eddleston Water (K Whitbread/BGS/NERC)
Jez and Chris getting ready to fly the first UAV survey at Lakewood on the Eddleston Water. The sediment bars have formed since this section of the stream was re-meandered two years ago, creating a diverse range of riverine habitats (K Whitbread/BGS/NERC).