Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Isotopes add to ‘Anthropocene’ debate... by Jonathan Dean

A 2013 art installation at Edge Hill University near Liverpool, 
by Robyn Woolston included this mock sign
Are we in a new geological age?
Have we really altered the global environment?
When did these impacts reach a critical point?

These are just some of the questions that Jonathan Dean, Melanie Leng and Anson Mackay have attempted to answer in a major new piece of research. Here Jonathan tells us more about their research and why you might have been born in a different geological age to your grandparents…

Our paper has just been published in The Anthropocene Review, which is available for free here. It stemmed from the increasing debate in the geological and wider scientific communities regarding whether a new geological age called the Anthropocene should be defined.

At the moment, the Anthropocene is an informal term that denotes the impact humans have had on the Earth. It is argued that, since humans are the dominant force of global environmental change, it is no longer appropriate for us still to be in the same geological age as when humans were living in caves and not flying round the world emitting vast amounts of CO2.

A working group of the International Commission on Stratigraphy is set to present its preliminary findings in 2016 on whether a change should be made to geological time. The major sticking point is likely to be where to set the beginning of the Anthropocene, with some people arguing for thousands of years ago when humans started chopping down forests and farming, to the last few centuries with the Industrial Revolution, to sometime in the future when greenhouse gas emissions are predicted to lead to large temperature increases. As isotope geochemists, we decided to review how isotope records can help with this debate.

Some details if you are still with me! Isotopes are different types of an element: they have the same number of protons but a different number of neutrons. The ratio of one isotope of an element to another will change in response to human impacts on the environment, so isotope ratios can be used to establish how humans have altered the global environment and when changes began to be momentous. We can use carbon isotopes (carbon-13 and carbon-12) to investigate human impact on the composition of the atmosphere. Fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) are the remains of organisms that lived millions of years ago, and because organisms preferentially use carbon-12 rather than carbon-13 when they grow, when we burn fossil fuels this releases large amounts of carbon-12 into the atmosphere. The increase in carbon-12 in the atmosphere over the last few centuries as we have burnt large amounts of fossil fuels can be reconstructed by analysing gas bubbles that are locked away in ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica. They show there was a trend to increasing carbon-12 (indicating increased CO2 emissions due to humans burning fossil fuels) since the Industrial Revolution, but that there was a big acceleration in this trend after the Second World War when economic growth took off.

Another example is that of lead isotopes. These can be used as a fingerprint to trace the sources of lead pollution, since human mining and smelting release lead with different isotope ratios to natural processes. This has allowed researchers not only to show that lead pollution found in ice from Greenland dating to 2,000 years ago was due to human, not natural processes, but that it was lead released by mining and smelting of Spanish lead by the Romans!

A petrochemical refinery in Grangemouth, Scotland
Wikipedia source
Overall, in the paper we demonstrate that isotopes show substantial human impacts on the environment. While we showed that different isotopes show different impacts at different times in the past, there is a clear acceleration in the input of CO2 into the atmosphere (recorded by carbon isotopes) around 1950. Other indicators, such as deforestation and species extinction rates, also suggest this was a time when human impacts on the environment increased substantially. If I were a betting man I’d probably go for the start of the Anthropocene being fixed around this time, which would mean that many of us were born in a different geological age to our grandparents!

By Jonathan Dean
You can follow us on twitter: @jrdean_uk, @MelJLeng and @AnsonMackay

Monday, 11 August 2014

Paper pride... by Jack Lacey

We proudly invited Jack, star blogger and PhD student at CEG (Centre for Environmental Geochemistry), to write about his very first lead authorship paper because it's a great academic and personal achievement worthy of cake, bubbles and blogging! So please welcome Jack to outline the research and conclusions of his online paper "A high-resolution Late Glacial to Holocene record of environmental change in the Mediterranean from Lake Ohrid (Macedonia/Albania)"...

The first year of my PhD was initially meant to involve fieldwork at Lake Ohrid in Macedonia, coring through over a million years of sediments that had accumulated in the lake and through various geochemical analysis can provide information about past Mediterranean history. However, there was unfortunately a delay at the start of the operation. This meant I had the opportunity to work on a shorter core (the ‘Lini’ core) from Lake Ohrid that dates back to when glaciers retreated from the area (the last ice age transition) from 12,000 years ago to the present day. I have used the sediments to investigate how the climate and environment in and around the lake has changed over this time.

I took samples of the core sediment for analysis at intervals of around 2 decades and this provides one of the highest resolution lake sediment records for the region. This enables me to see the progression of environmental change through decadal and centennial trends.

The results show that since the retreat of glaciers from the area there have been three main types of climate. The first is a transitionary period where cold winters and cooler summers coming out of the ice age gradually give way to a warmer climate more conducive to plants, animals and people living in the region. The numbers of plants within the lake and surrounding area especially increases to a maximum over this time as temperatures and rainfall increased and conditions become more favourable. In the last few centuries human activity impacts the record due to local forest clearance and enhanced agriculture. In particular more soils are washed into the lake causing algae to bloom.

The data from the Lini core will act as a modern calibration for the deeper cores drilled as part of the SCOPSCO project in Spring 2013, and set the scene for a climatic and environmental reconstruction over the entire 1.2 million-year lake history. I am currently working my way through this time period, and hope to discover how climate forced evolutionary change of the plants and animals in the lake

By Jack Lacey, @JackHLacey (BGS funded student at the University of Nottingham)

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Keith Ambrose - a geology champion... by Hazel Gibson

Hi, I’m Hazel Gibson, a PhD researcher from Plymouth University, who is interested in what people think about geology and how that affects how we as geoscientists communicate it. During July I was up at the British Geological Survey speaking to the scientists about their work, what makes them passionate about it and why they think it’s important to us. The following is a series of short 'people posts' about the real faces behind the BGS.

Keith at his desk in Keyworth.
Keith Ambrose will have been working for the British Geological Survey (BGS) for 40 years on the 7th of October 2014. In his time the BGS has moved from offices in central London, embraced computer technology and started producing digital 3D maps of the geology of the UK. Keith is a Principal Geologist, which basically means that he is a field geologist. He has spent most of his career collecting information to make maps and build models and now that he goes out into the field less, he is going back through old data trying to improve it and with that improve the quality of the maps we use. You might think that is an odd job for someone to have, but a lot of the older data that the BGS holds hasn’t been looked at since it was first collected, because there is so much of it!! Much of the data comes from boreholes or trial pits; the boreholes especially help us to understand what is happening deep down. By integrating the old data with new data collected with newer methods, Keith is able to double check all the models and maps made for specific areas. He is also able to see the bigger picture the way that the original mappers couldn’t. “Sometimes I'll be examining a map and I'll see how rocks under Teesside and Nottingham (for example) equate with rocks under the North Sea, how the onshore relates to the offshore and I can fill in a gap in the model.”
“I never really thought about geology at school,” he told me “I had a really keen geography teacher and enjoyed doing all the physical geography, so I thought, this could be fun.” He did have a cousin who was a geologist, so when he got to university at Newcastle, he decided that geology was the subject for him and has never looked back! He got a job at the BGS in 1974 and when he started there were no computers at all – everything was done by hand. “It was a very manual process, we had cards and cards of data, but it was a very antiquated process.” 

The Charnwood Forest map and guide that Keith helped to
create, that highlights the areas important geological heritage
Luckily things have moved on from then and Keith embraced the technological revolution with enthusiasm. One of the things Keith is passionate about is protecting the geodiversity of our country. Now I imagine that many of you have heard of biodiversity and are thinking, ‘but how can rocks go extinct?!’ Well, obviously rocks won’t die out the same way that a living organism will, but there are many examples of geologically interesting and unique places in the UK that are not found anywhere else in the world. In some cases, it is like these examples of geological environments, rock or mineral types or historical locations are all on the critical list and we only have one chance to save them or they will be lost forever. Keith has taken on a leading role in the defence of our nation’s valuable geological heritage.

In particular Keith has always been interested in the National Forest, Breedon on the Hill and Charnwood Forest; writing a series of guides, trails and maps to highlight the value of these areas and making DVD’s about Charnwood and Breedon to help teachers, walkers and anyone who is interested to appreciate the spectacular geology of these areas. But that is not all, Keith has also written chapters for books to tell the next generation about what geodiversity is and why we must protect it, he has been involved in the creation of a Geodiversty Charter for England (the Scottish equivalent can be seen here) that will be published and approved by the Government and he has helped develop the Geodiversity Action Plans of various areas dedicated to preserving their local geology. “I really just want people to come out and look, to see how science relates to their environment and to understand what geology does for you.” he said to me. With Keith leading the charge of protecting the varied, interesting and beautiful geological environments of the UK, I’m sure many people will do just that.

You can read more about Keith's thoughts on geodiversity here
Find out more about the UK Geodiversity Action Plan.

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Food security in Malaysia... by Diriba Kumssa

Food security and sustainable development are a high priority for scientists around the globe and this summer a multidisciplinary team from the UK travelled to Malaysia to help build collective research partnerships between various government and non-government organisations (NGOs). Here Diriba Kumssa, a PhD student working on geospatial aspects of food security (pictured right) tells us more about the trip.

The team I'll be travelling with for this one week mission to Malaysia comprised of staff from the Centre for Environmental Geochemistry: including a plant nutritionist (Professor Martin Broadley) and soil chemist (Dr Scott Young) from the University of Nottingham (UoN) and a geochemist from the BGS.

We visited the Crops for the Future Research Centre (CFFRC), which is a non-profit research Organisation that was established in 2011 and currently based at the UoN Malaysia Campus, in Semenyih near to Kuala Lumpur. They presented the activities in their various research programs to provide us with the bird’s eye view of what they are planning to implement both in the short run and long-term. Besides, we visited their ongoing research activities at their research site on Napier grass adaptation and propagation experiment, Bambara ground nut adaptation trials, the research site (geochemical) problems, and substantial idle land under power pylon throughout Malaysia that makes up to 80,000 hectares.
My PhD research is sponsored by the CFFRC and I presented my research progress on spatial aspects of mineral nutrient deficiency in Asia. After discussing outcomes from my research, a research plan was agreed. The future plan included understanding the role of soil geochemistry and land-use in constraining the adoption of underutilized crops, and improving nutritional intake and income.
On 24 April 2014, we visited the Malaysia Rubber Board (MRB) where we were taken to see the International Rubber Products Exhibition Centre (right); The Material Characterization Laboratory; a Jatropha adaptation trial site; Rubber grafting and seedlings nursery (below left); and a rubber plantation, and even engaged in practical rubber tapping sessions! The Material Characterization Unit conducts plant and soil samples analyses for internal and external clients with a standardized equipment, procedure and global recognition from the International Standards Organization.
The MRB Agronomy research staff described ongoing research and extension activities to integrate small holder rubber plantation and crop production to optimize land use and increase farmers’ income per unit area. This is done in two ways: intercropping by making use of the rubber inter row space at the early stage of a future mono-crop rubber plantation establishment before canopy closure (a.k.a., Taungya system); and intercropping by increasing the inter row spacing between rubber trees so that farmers are able to grow some food crops in that space all the time.
Overall, there is a great sense of motivation and fertile ground for collaboration among this group which will span soil geochemistry, agronomy, food security, and human nutrition. I will return to CFFRC Malaysia for a more extended visit later in summer 2014.

by Diriba Kumssa
PhD student Nottingham-BGS Centre for Environmental Geochemistry.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Prize winning Joy... by Michael Watts

It's with great pride we share with you the super achievements of one of our sponsored PhD students Edward Joy. Edward is a student of the Centre for Environmental Geochemistry (CEG) and has won prizes both at the University of Nottingham (UoN) and BGS for his PhD research. His BGS supervisor Michael Watts sent us this...

Edward in his panama hat out in Malawi
Edward is a fantastic student and all his supervisors at the Centre for Environmental Geochemistry, include myself, Dr Louise Ander (BGS), Professors Martin Broadley, Colin Black and Dr Scott Young (UoN) are very proud of his achievements.

The 'University of Nottingham Andrew Hendry prize' was presented in May 2014 to the University’s top postgraduate research students. Here is Professor Colin Black's testimonial about Edward:

Edward Joy is a third year PhD student in the Plant & Crop Science Division who is working on the supply of mineral micronutrients in human diets throughout Africa. His multidisciplinary work includes teams of soil and plant scientists, economists and human nutritionists in the UK and Africa.  Edward has already published 4 peer-reviewed papers regarding the risk of micronutrient deficiency in Africa and another recently submitted. He has completed geospatial analyses of micronutrient intake in Malawi after analysing many hundreds of soil, crop and water samples. His work has contributed greatly to our global understanding of dietary nutrient risks at a continental scale 

Edward has also made major contributions to wider University life through the Sutton Bonington Allotment Society, which received an RHS award in 2013, and numerous sporting activities in UK and Malawi.  You couldn’t hope to find a more pleasant, motivated and integrated PhD student.  Indeed, several Malawian “Mammas” have “adopted” him after he worked so effectively in their villages! 

A thoroughly deserved award for one of the next generation of leading UK agroecologists!”

Edward far right with his fellow BUFI prize winners
Edward also won a commended prize for his poster presentation on Dietary Mineral Supplies in Malawi at the BUFI (BGS University Funding Initiative) Science Festival on June 16th 2014, at which BGS sponsored PhD students presented updates on their research.

We cant wait to see what the future holds for Edward, keep your eyes peeled for this rising science star.

by Michael Watts

Friday, 18 July 2014

Peter Hobbs – a pioneering engineer... by Hazel Gibson

Hi, I’m Hazel Gibson, a PhD researcher from PlymouthUniversity, who is interested in what people think about geology and how that affects how we as geoscientists communicate it. For the last two weeks I have been up at the British Geological Survey speaking to the scientists about their work, what makes them passionate about it and why they think it’s important to us. The following is a series of short 'people posts' about the real faces behind the BGS.

Peter, next to the SHRINKiT instrument he helped to invent.
It’s easy to look at the British Geological Survey and imagine that it has always been this way – a high-tech organisation, with precision gadgetry and computer models for any situation that may need investigation. But in fact only 40 years ago much of the equipment that today’s geologists and engineers would find indispensable didn’t even exist. In the Engineering Geology section of the BGS, the section that deals with finding solutions to engineering problems that have a geological side, much of the essential equipment introduced over the last four decades was championed by Peter Hobbs. 
Peter started his career as a civil engineer, but during his degree studies he had to complete two six month industry placements and his second was with the British Geological Survey, which at the time was based in what is now the geological section of the Natural History Museum, London. He enjoyed his experience so much that when he finished his degree and was offered a job, he took it. At that time, Engineering Geology was a subject in its infancy – it had only been an actual subject for about 10 years and there were only 10 people working in the dark and dusty basement area that focussed on it specifically. This however, was soon to change.

Archive picture of the Geological Survey Museum
in Kensington
, where the BGS was based until 1976  
The challenges of our modern society that relate to engineering geology are now very obvious to us. Anyone who remembers the train line at Dawlish collapsing into the sea, is interested in the development of HS2, has had subsidence under their house (I have – we had cracks in our wall I could put my hand in!!), even the difficulties of new builds in cities like London and Glasgow all need the solutions provided by engineering geology. Often the traditional ways of learning more about the soils and clays we build our society on, just aren’t safe anymore! For instance Peter has been instrumental as a part of the team that developed a new piece of equipment – the SHRINKiT – that measures the shrink and swell behaviour of clays. This instrument uses a laser scanner combined with a digital balance, to measure the changing volume and weight of a piece of clay as it dries out. This important information produces a value called the ‘shrinkage limit’ or the point at which the soil or clay will not lose any more volume regardless of whether it loses more moisture. The shrinkage limit helps engineers know how the soil or clay is going to behave. Previous to Peter’s team inventing the SHRINKiT, the most common way of testing this property of the clay was to dip it in mercury, which can’t have been good for anyone’s health!
This crooked house may look funny, but subsidence
causes £100s of million in damage each year.
Another technological innovation that Peter advocates for is called LiDAR, a remote sensing system that is a kind of light based radar that is used by geoscientists all over the world to help detect ground movement. In Britain it is particularly useful when looking at landslides, a type of geological investigation that really highlights the dangers of engineering geology. “There was once a rock fall on the Yorkshire coast, which landed where a colleague and I had been standing two seconds earlier and we literally just missed it by the skin of our teeth!” Peter told me, but by using LiDAR to survey the cliff faces, engineers and geologists don’t have to put themselves in these difficult and sometimes dangerous positions as often.

Despite the dangers, Peter really loves engineering geology, especially the team-working ethos! He continues to invent new technology to help engineers understand rock and soil behaviour and he is instrumental in helping to re-interpret geological maps so they are more understandable to engineers and other (non-geologist!) people that have to use them. He is even involved in speaking with the public – helping to develop a brilliant demonstration of what quicksand is by using a special sand tank and sacrificing a Playmobil Lifeguard in the name of science! 

So despite an illustrious 40 years of inventing and engineering for the BGS, Peter Hobbs shows no signs of resting on his laurels.

by Hazel

Exploring geochemistry and health in Malawi... by Kate Knights

BGS geochemists Louise and Kate recently took a trip to Malawi to join agricultural scientists and nutrition experts to study the factors that can impact the nutritional benefit of foods grown and eaten by the Malawian population (recent paper). Here they tell us more about the exciting trip and the ongoing joint research between BGS, University of Nottingham and collaborators in Malawi...

We were greeted by heavy rains when we landed in Malawi but they cleared in time for our drive to the north of the country to Mzuzu, a city with all the hustle and bustle of commerce, markets and a thriving university - where staff and students are working on programmes to ensure good sanitation and maintaining quality water supplies form pumps and well.

We visited the SMART centre at the University, where Rochelle Holm  gave us an overview of activities since our previous visit last May and Chrissie was kind enough to show us around the WASH demonstration area, with examples of wells and ground pumps and water filters, and latrines and composting solutions (photo left).

We shared experiences between our institutes on how we collect data on private drinking water supplies by travelling together to some local villages with hand-pumps installed, and demonstrating to each other the types of information we typically gather.

Kate demonstrating the filtration of a small
sample volume  typically used in BGS to
gather information on the chemistry of waters
Colleagues at the Mzuzu University Centre of Excellence in Water and Sanitation taught us about a mobile app they’d developed to perform questionnaires with a smartphone. This innovative tool allows for digital data to be collected, and referenced, for all their fieldwork in the area.

Rainy season in Malawi means being careful not to get the vehicle stuck up a road that might become impassable in heavy storms. Here is the view from the back of our 4x4 as, with perfect timing, we finish up at that village and depart with the storm clouds gathering.

We also caught up with our long-standing collaborator  Dr Allan Chilimba, Director of the Ministry of Agriculture’s Lunyangwa Research Station, Mzuzu. We walked the experimental fields, and were particularly pleased to see Edward Joy’s pot experiment of maize looking very healthy (photo below left).

Healthy looking maize
Maize is a really important crop for the people of Malawi, so improving the supply and quality can make a real difference to the people that rely on it. For more information on the importance of micronutrients and health, see one of Edward’s previous blogs. After such a great time in northern Malawi, we travelled back south via the lake road, taking time to admire the geological splendours of the southern end of the East African rift valley – and of course the lake itself!

Back in Lilongwe, we caught up with staff at the Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources –LUANAR (formerly Bunda College) for the day and see all the exciting new initiatives that they have and current research projects on soil and crop assessment and micronutrient status.  

Storm clouds gathering

Later we meet with the LUANAR soil scientists in a visit that was an equivalent of that to Zambia and Zimbabwe, previously undertaken by some of our other colleagues (see Michael's blog). We are all involved in helping to develop a PhD training programme for Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe. The idea is that in the future students will have opportunities to primarily study in their home country and also benefit from additional skills transfer through annual placements in the University of Nottingham, BGS, and the partner African countries. This type of work could really strengthen the academic and scientific communities in these countries, and is a great opportunity for UK scientists to experience working with overseas counterparts too.

After two weeks we bid farewell– and it was certainly a great trip to Malawi, with the warmth and hospitality that we have come to know so well and we look forward to continuing to work with all those we visited in the years to come!

Kate & Louise