Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Energy transitions and Prof Mike Stephenson

Radcliffe, Nottinghamshire, at the height of the Industrial Revolution
At a recent conference at Chatham House I was reminded how important geoscience is to energy transitions. The Energy Transitions 2018 conference looked at some of the technologies and geopolitics that underlie the present movement towards renewables and away from fossil fuels.

Geology at the centre of energy transitions

But of course geology has always been at the centre of energy transitions. The industrial revolution had at its heart a transition from energy from wood and falling water to coal (the start of the fossil economy), in the process allowing greater energy on tap and also greater flexibility to operate (assuming you could get coal to your factory). The fossil economy also meant a long-term buy-in to coal and then to petroleum leading to increased CO2 emissions amongst other more beneficial aspects related to greater availability of energy including increased wealth and living standards. The start of the industrial revolution produced an ‘inflection point’ on the CO2 curve indicating an important point in human history when the focus of energy resource provision switched from the surface of the Earth to the subsurface. The transition from coal to oil generated atmospheric change too. Changes in the 1950s in the rate of human consumption and manufacturing have generated an inflection point known as the ‘Great Acceleration’.

Resource distribution, extent and accessibility

So the most obvious relationship between geoscience and energy transitions is the distribution of resources, their extent, distribution and accessibility. In the case of coal, its distribution has governed past industrialisation, and to some extent the accumulation of human wealth and power. The nations of the industrial revolution are still amongst the most powerful in the world.

The next transition to renewables

But moving into the next transition to renewables, geoscience and geological surveys will have just as important a role. Decarbonisation will involve geoscience at every level, from straightforward low carbon generation (e.g. geothermal), to energy storage to counteract renewables intermittency (e.g. compressed air energy storage, heat storage), to emissions abatement of fossil fuel generation and industry (e.g. carbon capture and storage). Geological studies that support these technologies will therefore be vital to the effort to go through the next transition.

Slow transition to renewables

Coal mine in Dhanbad, India
Studies show that transitions can be slow because of the in-built inertia of the incumbent technology. This may be visible in the developing world which is poised to industrialise and to experience changes in living standards, wealth and energy usage. Most forecasts suggest that energy demand will increase in the developing world, but the extent to which this demand will be satisfied by fossil fuels is not known, but could be considerable. India is a case in point. The forecasts of the IEA, EIA and BP suggest that much of India’s energy in future will come from coal. At present coal provides about 70% of India's electricity but about 243 GW of coal-fired power is planned in India, with 65 GW actually being constructed and an extra 178 GW proposed. Work by lead by Christine Shearer of the charity CoalSwarm has surveyed this proposed ‘fleet’ of Indian coal power stations. Their survey shows that coal plants under development could be producing 435 GW of coal power by 2025, and, assuming an average lifetime of 40 years, the coal plants could be operating as far ahead as 2065. Such a commitment to coal would guarantee high Indian greenhouse gas emissions for many years to come and prolong the dominance of fossil fuels, freezing out renewables. If the developing world takes up fossil fuels what hope do we have to keep within the 2 degree limit?

Understanding energy transitions properly

Human energy systems - the economies that are built around coal, oil and gas – contain inertia that slows down change.  They also operate in similar ways to the physical science feedbacks and tipping points of the natural climate system, and many other natural systems and cycles. There are serendipitous events that lead to the increased use of fossil fuels, and positive feedbacks that allow fuels to rapidly grow. The industrial revolution has many examples – like the introduction of coal/steam powered pumps that allowed coal mining to go deeper below the water table, so that more coal could be mined. Regulation and policy matter too – and politics. So to be able to understand energy transitions properly, it’s not just technology that matters – so does an understanding of human systems.

What role do geologists play?

Wind turbines at Holderness
But how can geologists and geological surveys be part of the transition? We should be thinking about geological studies that support such diverse aspects as pumped hydro storage, low enthalpy geothermal, compressed air energy storage, hydrogen storage, CCS, and biofuels and CCS (BECCS). We should be thinking about geological studies to support infrastructure (the pipelines for example) and where they might go. This will mean linking in with the Government’s Industrial Strategy and place agenda. Natural gas may also have a place in this work since it is (at the moment) the de facto way that the energy systems of the UK and elsewhere are adapting to the intermittency produced by increasing renewables. We may even have to start thing harder about batteries and the where the metals that make them might come from in the future!

If you are interested in the wider geology – energy – climate nexus read my new book:

Prof Mike Stephenson is the Director of Science and Technology at the BGS.

Thursday, 8 March 2018

New research into carbon capture and sequestration in peat…by guest blogger Coleen Murty

My name is Coleen Murty and I began my PhD with Newcastle University and the British Geological Survey in September 2017. My research aims to increase current understanding of carbon cycling in peatlands and determine whether these large terrestrial carbon sinks can be preserved, protected and even harnessed to store external carbon. In this blog, I talk about the experience I had while out on a recent field visit to my study site in Cumbria.

 In late February 2018, I was joined by Chris Vane (British Geological Survey) and Geoff Abbott (Newcastle University) on a field visit to Butterburn Flow, the largest of 58 wetlands which lie on the border between Cumbria and Northumberland. Butterburn is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and is considered one of the most valuable mires in England, operating as a substantial carbon sink. We were particularly lucky, as the weather was perfect with clear skies and sunshine, which is a rare occurrence on Butterburn Flow! During our 3 day visit, we took water table measurements and collected peat cores, water samples and moss samples.

Peat coring, water sampling and moss sampling

One of the main challenges of the trip was carrying gear and equipment through uneven and boggy ground containing loads of hidden ditches! Although this provided me with a great opportunity to learn the technicalities of collecting different types of peat cores. We collected a series of 1-2 m peat cores using a combination of Russian coring equipment and polycarbonate tubes. Various cores were taken from 4 different sites across the bog, each containing a water level datalogger used to monitor changes in the water table overtime. Water data and air pressure can be downloaded onto an android device and correlated with peat cores taken nearby. Changes in the water table can have positive or negative impacts on a peatlands ability to accumulate carbon and therefore must be carefully monitored. The collected peat cores will be used for a combination of geomolecular and bulk geochemical analyses: from bulk density measurements used to estimate carbon stocks, to a series of laboratory mesocosm experiments by which peat cores will be placed in a ‘microenvironment’ where natural field conditions will be mimicked in order to monitor the changing chemistry of the cores in different conditions and assess their ability to sequester carbon.

Butterburn Flow, a valuable carbon sink and the largest of 58 wetlands that
straddle the border between Cumbria and Northumberland
A variety of water samples were collected from: the water level wells, the river which runs across the northern section of the site, and Sphagnum-dominated bog pools. Different Sphagnum moss species were also collected for species identification and chemical characterization. The nature and abundance of carbon within the bog and river water running off the peatland will give insights into the source, stability and fate of different organic molecules being flushed through the peat profile and how their mobility affects the resilience and vulnerability of the carbon being retained within the wetland.  Sphagnum moss is the dominant peat-forming species across the Northern peatlands. It thrives in wet, acidic conditions and its high recalcitrance allows it to store large amounts of carbon compared to other peatland plants. Characterizing the water extractable, solvent-extractable and macromolecular chemistry of Sphagnum moss will improve current knowledge regarding its role in carbon cycling within peatland ecosystems.

From L-R: Bog pool with an abundance of Sphagnum cuspidatum growing at the water surface; Levelogger well containing
water monitoring equipment that records alterations in the water table (four of which are deployed across the site)
Peatlands are complex systems where carbon accumulation rates exceed decomposition rates, however this balance of carbon uptake and loss may be shifted by periods of intense drought which are becoming more common in the light of climate change. Finding solutions to protect and preserve carbon stocks locked up in peat is essential as we move towards a more sustainable future.

Coleen is a PhD student at the University of Newcastle and is being supervised at the BGS by Chris Vane.

Friday, 2 March 2018

Natural Hazards and Disaster Risk Reduction in Joel Gill

Eruption of Santiaguito (2014)
Guatemala is exposed to multiple natural hazards, including earthquakes, volcanic eruptions (and all their associated hazards, such as ash, lava flows, pyroclastic density currents and lahars), tsunamis, landslides, floods, droughts, ground collapse, tropical storms and hurricanes, extreme temperatures, and forest fires. The impacts of these hazards threaten economic growth, lives and livelihoods. The World Risk Index (2017) ranked Guatemala 4th globally in terms of the risk of becoming a disaster victim due to an extreme natural event.

Natural hazards (in Guatemala, and elsewhere) do not always occur independently, but there can be interactions between natural hazards. One hazard may trigger multiple secondary hazards, which can subsequently trigger further hazards. For example, in Guatemala regular eruptions of the volcano Santiaguito (pictured) result in large volumes of volcanic debris. This debris can be mobilised as lahars, and enter the hydrological system, triggering erosion and flooding, with the potential to damage important infrastructure. Understanding potential interactions and chains of interactions can help to improve disaster preparedness and response.

During my PhD (at King’s College London, funded by NERC and the ESRC), I spent two-months in Guatemala collecting evidence of potential hazard interactions. I used fieldwork, interviews and data-generating workshops to help construct comprehensive and systematic frameworks of hazard interactions in Guatemala at national and sub-national scales. These frameworks take the form of visual matrices of primary hazards and potential secondary hazards. This project, and subsequent work outlined below, directly supports the UN Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, which calls for new "multi-hazard" approaches that characterise and integrate information about hazard interactions.

Through the BGS Innovation Flexible Fund, I recently returned to Guatemala to share this work and discuss with partners how government agencies responsible for hazard monitoring and disaster reduction could use frameworks of hazard interactions. An important step in the research process, and an ethical responsibility for scientists, is communicating and sharing our work with stakeholders, including those who have contributed to the research and those who may benefit from its results. It is a really rewarding part of being a scientist. Knowing that the work I spent many (long) days on as a PhD student won’t just sit on a shelf in the UK, but can support the work of a fantastic and dedicated team of hazard and risk professionals in Guatemala is very special.

Meeting with scientific staff at INSIVUMEH to discuss
hazard interactions
During my recent visit, I presented the hazard interaction frameworks in Guatemala through seminars, workshops and meetings at universities, INSIVUMEH (the National Institute of Seismology, Volcanology, Meteorology and Hydrology), CONRED (the National Coordinator for Disaster Reduction), and the Guatemalan branch of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Multiple partners identified the value of the frameworks as reference tools in both disaster response and preparedness. For example, some participants noted their use in informing public communications regarding potential secondary hazards after a primary hazard. Others observed interactions in the matrix that they had not previously considered, but they acknowledged could occur and that they could integrate into their planning. All partners agreed that a priority next step would be developing tools that inform municipal level planning and preparedness.

The scientific and risk professional teams in Guatemala work under difficult conditions to protect lives and livelihoods. I am very grateful for the help and time they provided during my visits. At the heart of the UN Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (and the Sustainable Development Goals) are international cooperation and respectful partnerships. I finished my time in Guatemala by meeting the British Ambassadors to Guatemala and Honduras, sharing the results of our meetings, and discussing disaster risk reduction in the region. We all agreed that there is significant scope for future collaboration between hazard scientists and disaster professionals in the UK and Guatemala.

Meeting with HE Carolyn Davidson (British Ambassador to Guatemala) and
HE Tom Carter (British Ambassador to Honduras) to discuss disaster
risk reduction in Guatemala
Original research funded by a studentship grant from NERC/ESRC (NE/J500306/1). This work was continued through BGS Innovation Flexible Funding (2017/18) awarded to Joel Gill (BGS Global) and Katy Mee (BGS Geoanalytics and Modelling).

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Mapping a geomagnetic storm with Raspberry Pi Ciaran Beggan

Aurora captured in Iceland (from Heiko Buxel, BGS)
In September 2017, one of the largest storms of the current solar cycle hit the Earth. A coronal mass ejection left the Sun at midday on 6th September and crossed space in around 36 hours. Starting around 23:30 on 7th September, the first and deepest part of the storm lasted for around 3 hours. Beautiful aurorae were visible all across the UK. Around 13:00 on 8th September a second burst arrived, though as it was during the day in the UK, the aurorae were not visible. They were, however, detected by the newly installed BGS Schools Magnetometer Network.

Since 2015, BGS and Lancaster University have been working on an STFC Small Public Engagement Grant to build and install 10 Raspberry Pi magnetometers. These are relatively small and cheap sensors which are installed in schools across the UK. During the storm they measured the change of the magnetic field in the north, east and downward directions. The north (or X) direction is most sensitive to the aurora.

Map of the instrument locations and line plot of the magnetic field change
in the north (X) direction
The figure (above) shows all the data collected for the storm. The map shows the location of the scientific observatories (INTERMAGNET), the BGS and Lancaster University network of variometers and a new network in Ireland run by Trinity College Dublin and data from the Tromsø Geophysical Observatory network. The line plots show the change of the magnetic field over the three days from the 7-9th September 2017. The measurements are arranged by latitude. The first and second parts of the storm are clearly visible as large spikes, decreasing in intensity further south. This is the signature of the auroral oval moving south during the peak of the storm, then returning northwards.

The line plot data was turned into a map of the magnetic field variation across the UK for each minute. The video of the storm is shown below. At around 23:30 UT the aurora moves southward across the UK (left panel). Several more bursts of activity can be seen later in the day from 12:00 to 18:00 UT.

Without the new magnetometers, it would not be possible to see such detail. These measurements will lead to new understanding about how the magnetic field changes over regions smaller than 1000 km, such as the UK, during large geomagnetic storms.
We wish to thank the STFC for the funding to create and disseminate the instruments and to the various host schools and institutions who provided the data. Data are freely available at:

Monday, 26 February 2018

BGS sets its eyes (and ears) on a clean energy David Schofield

The British Geological Survey and the Natural Environment Research Council are proposing two UK Geoenergy Observatories that will provide one of the most detailed subsurface characterisation and monitoring datasets in the world. The proposed Cheshire Energy Research Field Site will gather new data and information applicable to all energy technologies and the proposed Glasgow Geothermal Energy Research will gather data on the underground environment of a former coal mining area, including the heat within the flooded mineworkings. Dave Schofield, British Geological Survey director of energy science, explains how this data will be used and why it is relevant to the energy trilemma: providing clean, secure and affordable energy sources. 

CLIMATE change is real. Demand for energy is relentless. Never has it been more important to find new clean, secure and affordable ways of powering our future. Knowledge is the backbone to problem solving and responding to this energy challenge depends on discovery science furthering geological understanding.

Geology has transformed understanding of the Earth’s natural processes over the last 300 years, underpinning major discoveries and breakthroughs. However, there is still much we don’t know about the last 4.5bn years of Earth evolution. Continuous observation of real geological environments, using state-of-the art technology, can help to fill these knowledge gaps.

The £31m UK Geoenergy Observatories is such an investment. It will create two research sites (one in Cheshire and the other in Glasgow) that will advance understanding across geological disciplines and provide real environments for studying potential energy technologies.
The observatories will sit alongside Natural Environment Research Council’s (NERC) RSS Attenborough Polar ship and atmospheric science plane as big research equipment available for the environmental and energy science community. The UK Geoenergy Observatories will be among just a handful of worldwide research sites which enable scientists to deepen understanding of environmental management and the way that geology can help to solve the energy challenge.

The UK Geoenergy Observatory at Ince Marshes (Cheshire Energy Research Field Site) will provide continuous, long-term data on a complex geological research environment applicable to a range of energy technologies. The Glasgow Geothermal Energy Research Field Site will provide an observatory to understand the sustainability of supplying Britain’s former coal mining towns with energy from the heat within the flooded mineworkings below ground. Both research field sites will have a network of deep and shallow boreholes containing state-of-the-art listening devices, which will act like stethoscopes to measure precisely the state of the underground in its natural condition – and any changes that may occur – in great detail.

UK Geoenergy Observatory at Ince Marshes (Cheshire Energy Research Field Site)
These “eyes and ears of the underground” will be able to measure the level of the water table and how it is moving, and the temperature and chemistry of groundwater. They will also be able to detect minute movements and other changes in the physical nature of the rocks. They will measure seismicity and a vast range of other characteristics. The data will be open to all through an online portal, providing important evidence to improve understanding of the ways to decarbonise the energy supply, and inform future decision-making on the use of the subsurface.

For example, wind, solar and tidal power are vital for decarbonising UK energy production, but renewable energy cannot yet fuel our economy. The underground may provide a place to store excess energy when it is generated to balance the peaks and troughs in supply and demand. The deep sandstone rocks of Ince Marshes could be used to test energy storage that will support the UK renewable energy industry.

Geothermal energy could provide a long-term and sustainable heat source for the country but we need to understand more about heat transfer, subsurface chemistry, biology and water movement to find out whether geothermal energy can provide a safe and sustainable energy supply. The sandstone rocks at Ince Marshes and the shallow mineworkings below Glasgow could tell us much more about the sustainability of geothermal energy.

Carbon storage is an important way to lower emissions. Deep sandstones in offshore Britain might help us to return carbon to the ground from the emissions captured from the UK’s power stations, factories and refineries. An onshore research site will ensure the UK has the scientific capability and engineering skills to make carbon storage an option in the plan for decarbonising energy supply. Ince Marshes has the right geology to provide vital scientific understanding of the feasibility of offshore carbon storage.

Commercial operators at Ince Marshes are exploring for gas from the deep shale at Ince Marshes. The UK Geoenergy Observatories are not dependent on shale gas extraction but observing the process would answer some important geoscience questions.

The nation’s leading geoscientists identified all these research areas during an NERC science consultation during 2015. The research questions are summarised in the UK Geoenergy Observatories science plan. The UK Geoenergy Observatories will provide the equipment and natural environments to begin to answer some of these questions, delivering two research observatories of world-class importance; one in the Cheshire Science Corridor, and another in Glasgow, one of the UK's leading cities of science.

BGS ran community engagement events during Autumn 2017 and is creating more engagement opportunities during 2018  to explain the research ambition. For event dates and project information then visit the BGS website.

Friday, 23 February 2018

EMODnet Data Ingestion Service - collect data once and use it many times!

This blog is to quickly introduce you to the EMODnet Data Ingestion service.

The European Marine Observation and Data Network (EMODnet) consists of more than 160 organisations that together work on assembling, harmonising and making marine data, products and metadata more available. BGS are heavily involved in the EMODnet Geology project and have taken on the role as Geology thematic lead for the EMODnet Ingestion project.

The aims of this project are to reach out to organisations from public, research and private sectors who are managing marine datasets for bathymetry, geology, physics, chemistry, biology and/or human activities and who are not yet connected and contributing to existing marine data management infrastructures. We hope to motivate and support those potential data providers to release their datasets for safekeeping and subsequent free distribution.

We would really like to know if you have any suitable data which are not being routinely archived and could potentially be ingested. Please have a think, as any data would be great at this stage! There are many advantages of releasing your data and making it available! Costs can be saved, duplication of effort can be avoided and it allows your data to have greater impact by ensuring it reaches a much wider audience for future re-use.

We encourage you to use the EMODnet Data Ingestion Portal to submit your datasets. We need to test the EMODnet submission service, provide feedback to portal developers and provide evidence to EU that this project has relevance by increasing productivity of those working on marine issues, stimulating innovation in the blue economy and reducing uncertainty in our knowledge of the behaviour of the sea.

Once data are ingested via the EMODnet Ingestion Portal, data are passed to the appropriate expert national data centres for open access publishing and further integration into EMODnet data services and products. In the UK, MEDIN (Marine Environmental Data & Information Network) is as a hub for UK marine data and operates via a network of Data Archive Centres (DACs). BGS is the MEDIN DAC for Geology and Geophysics. The Offshore GeoIndex is our main data delivery method. By submitting your data, it can also be made available in this way.

For more details and the EMODnet Submission service:

For more details on MEDIN:

BGS Offshore GeoIndex:

Contact us at BGS Marine Data Enquires:

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

FRACTURE CAPTURE! … by Catherine Pennington

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And they are really important for all sorts of reasons: 

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

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

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

Fracture Capture*

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

British Geological Survey scheme for classifying discontinuities and fillings report

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

*Credit where it’s due

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

Friday, 9 February 2018

Subterranean science in a salt Clive Mitchell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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