Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Working together to combat environmental pollutants and inform agricultural Michael Watts

My team at the British Geological Survey has hosted four Commonwealth Professional Fellowships from Pakistan, India, Malawi and Zimbabwe since 2012.  The scheme funded by the Commonwealth Scholarship Council UK (CSCUK) provides support for professionals in the Commonwealth to undertake training at a host institute in the UK.  Here a few of the Fellows give an account of their experience and opportunities arising from such a Fellowship in the UK.

‘It was like my dream came true,” says Dr Mousumi Chatterjee, ‘when I opened the email informing of my success in attaining a Commonwealth Professional Fellowship. I was happy as I was going to experience everything that I had wanted to learn for the previous three years of postgraduate and post-doctorate training at the University of Calcutta.’  Mousumi, a biogeochemist working on mercury pollution in the Indian Sundarban wetland ecosystem, wanted to highlight the mercury exposure of different fish within an estuarine food chain, in order to measure direct human exposure levels. ‘My desire was fulfilled when I started my Professional Fellowship with BGS. Not only is the BGS well equipped with sophisticated analytical facilities, but the organisation also provided me with expert guidance and a friendly environment, and encouraged me in the new practical implementation of scientific ideas.’

Mousumi Chatterjee - University of Calcutta / University of Reading 
During her Professional Fellowship in 2013, Mousumi used the BGS Inorganic Geochemistry laboratories to determine mercury contamination in a variety of edible fish, polychaete worms and bivalve molluscs.  ‘The results were fascinating, as the level of mercury contamination signified the feeding habits of different species of fish.’

Mousumi benefited from several scientific exchanges during her stay. ‘I visited the Marine Sciences Department at the University of Bangor, where I learnt how to extract the otolith (a small fish ear bone), which acts as a recorder of environmental chemistry, from hilsha fish. This resulted in a research collaboration with the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore after my return to India. I also had the opportunity to attend and present my research findings at the International Conference of Mercury as a Global Pollutant 2013, held in Edinburgh, which brought together the world’s leading experts on mercury contamination of the environment.’

‘My Professional Fellowship was fruitful enough not only to implement independent research ideas in my home country of India, but also to build long-lasting research networks with the BGS. I am still in contact with Michael and now we are collaborating to work on global road dust pollution. I enjoyed every moment at the BGS, whether it was working in the laboratory or hanging out with colleagues in the canteen.’

Dr Munir Zia - Fauji Fertilizer Company (FFC), Pakistan
Munir Zia - ‘I had an opportunity to get hands-on experience for trace element analyses of soils, waters and grains to better understand soil-to-transfer of key minerals. Another area of professional development was to learn about the handling of large amount of analytical data and its GIS integration. After completion of a Fulbright Scientist Award, FFC assigned me as the R&D Coordinator however, being a scientist I was lacking in necessary management experience relevant to R&D. The professional training at BGS in 2012 enabled me to introduce collection of georeferenced soil samples across Pakistan. The FFC farmer education programme collects and analyses 25,000 soil samples every year, therefore, introduction of geo-referencing will enable us to transform this effort into national scale soil fertility maps. Generation of such maps will enable FFC to pinpoint areas that are deficient in trace minerals and other essential elements. Our effort in developing national scale maps will help strengthen crops bio-fortification programmes being run by HarvestPlus Pakistan, to which we are a local partner. We are also in a process to establish a Fertilizer Research Centre in Pakistan, the first of its kind in this country. The opportunity provided by CSCUK was invaluable in developing a network of partners and skills training. Since my first visit to BGS in 2012, I have returned several times through alternative funding opportunities to continue a joint programme of research and more recently with academics at the University of Nottingham through the joint Centre for Environmental Geochemistry’

Grace Manzeke from the University of Zimbabwe and Salome Mkandwire from the Malawian Department of Surveys also undertook a CSCUK Fellowship in 2015 (see previous blog).  For Grace, support from the CSCUK Fellowship provided a solid start prior to her commencing a project funded by the Royal Society-DFID on geospatial characterisation of micronutrient deficiency in Zimbabwean soils, starting summer 2015 (see previous blogs by Michael Watts and Grace Manzeke).

For all of the Commonwealth Fellows, it was important to expose them to the variety of opportunities in the UK, from work through to visiting the variety of tourist and scenic locations. They were initially helped in doing so, but soon unleashed the enthusiasm for exploring the UK and grew to enjoy the environment and culture. From a host perspective, there are the obvious opportunities to develop collaborative networks and partners, but also an opportunity for other members of a team or junior scientists to broaden their horizons through training or working alongside Fellows from overseas.

By Dr Michael Watts, Head of Inorganic Geochemistry, Centre for Environmental Geochemistry, British Geological Survey.

Papers from the Fellows:

Chatterjee M, Sklenars L, Chenery SR, Watts MJ, Rakshit D and Sarkar SK. (2014). Assessment of Total Mercury (HgT) in sediments and biota of Indian Sundarban Wetland and adjacent coastal regions, Environment and Natural Research, 4(2): 50-64

Zia M, Watts MJ, Gardner A, Chenery SR. (2015). Iodine status of soils, grain crops and irrigation waters in Pakistan, Environmental Earth Sciences, 73, 7995-8008.

Monday, 5 October 2015

Learning to Jonathan Dean

Jonathan Dean from the Stable Isotope Lab at the British Geological Survey has just returned from a lake drilling training course in the Republic of Macedonia. Here he discusses what he learnt. 

Aerial view of Lake Ohrid 
The International Continental Drilling Program (ICDP) is an organisation that gives scientists money and technical support to allow them to drill deep holes in the Earth to retrieve sediment and rock. These projects aim to answer key questions about the Earth, such as how earthquakes occur, how mountains form and how the climate changed in the past. UK scientists have been involved in many of these big drilling projects over the last few years. For example, I'm currently investigating half a kilometre of tubes of lake sediment that were drilled in Ethiopia, as described in a previous blog post. We think these sediments extend back to over half a million years ago. By looking at how the chemical composition of the sediments varied between different points in the past, we're reconstructing how climate changed through time. Our aim is to understand what the natural drivers of climate change are and whether or not climate change could explain why our species decided to migrate out of Ethiopia from around 100,000 years ago onwards to populate the rest of the world.

Lake Ohrid 
Every year, ICDP organise a training course for scientists, and this year I was one of 20 people from 5 continents to be lucky enough to attend. We were based on the shores of Lake Ohrid in the Republic of Macedonia, where another drilling project funded by the ICDP was carried out in 2013. It is one of the oldest lakes in the world, probably existing for well over one million years, and has many species that are not found anywhere else on Earth. As Jack Lacey described previously, they drilled down 569 metres below the lake bed. The sediments are being analysed in Germany and the UK, including in the Stable Isotope Lab at the BGS.

Drilling platform on Lake Prespa 
For the training course, we started by driving to another lake, Prespa, in the middle of which is the tripoint border between Macedonia, Greece and Albania. German scientists were undertaking another drilling campaign, and were able to see lake sediment coring in action. We also drove around on a boat setting off explosions in the water behind us, and the way these sound waves bounced off the lake bed was recorded by devices carried by the boat. This technique is used to find where the most undisturbed sediments are on the lake bed – the best place from which to drill sediment cores.

The following two days were comprised of lectures and discussions with the scientists who worked on the Lake Ohrid project about the practicalities of taking many hundreds of metres of sediment cores in a lake that has waters nearly 300 metres deep. There were some interesting talks on the analyses being undertaken on the sediments from Ohrid. We also learnt a lot about the process of developing deep drilling projects and writing the funding applications. Such large, multi-million pound projects require an experienced, international team and lots of logistical and scientific planning if they are to be successfully funded and then carried out.

The training course was really useful – it improved my understanding of the process of drilling lake sediments and gave me a better appreciation of how to manage the analysis of the sediments after the fieldwork has ended. I would thoroughly recommend people applying for next year’s course!

Friday, 2 October 2015

How do deep ocean trenches form? Sev Kender

Sev Kender at his microscope 
One of the biggest questions remaining to be answered in plate tectonics is how subduction zones start, or ‘initiate’. Plate tectonics and seafloor spreading was a ground-breaking theory discovered in the mid-20th-Century that explained much of geology, and started our modern discipline. Before it there was no single accepted theory of why oceans and mountains formed, why continents look like they used to be linked together, and why animals of different continents appeared to have long-lost common ancestors. Here Sev Kender tells us about some recent advances in the science… 

Subduction zones, like the deep Mariana Trench off the south coast of Japan, are where one plate is pushed under another as they move towards each other. The underlying plate is consumed into the Earth’s mantle, and creates hot magma that erupts from volcanoes on the surface of the overlying plate (e.g. the Northern Mariana Islands). It is quite problematic to explain how a piece of passive ocean crust should suddenly break apart and start to form a trench, and there are two leading models that exist to explain how a subduction zone may start: ‘spontaneous’ (one side sinks because it is more dense) or ‘induced’ (forced by pressure from another, distant, source). But it is difficult to test these ideas, because the process cannot be observed happening today. Subduction zones persist for many millions of years, and the initiation period happened millions of years ago in most cases.

The location of the research into the crust
 of the Izu-Bonin-Mariana arc
One way to understand subduction zone initiation is to drill a long borehole into the ocean crust on the overlying plate, to test the composition and age of the crust, and to see how it behaved (in terms of sea level changes), before the subduction started. The problem is that millions of years of time since the initiation has allowed kilometres of sediment to pile up on top and obscure the crust.

Myself and 30 other scientists travelled to the Philippine Sea in summer 2014 on the drillship JOIDES Resolution, operated by the International Ocean Discovery Program, to drill into the crust of the Izu-Bonin-Mariana arc. This is an extinct ocean trench zone south of Japan, where the modern-day Mariana Trench initiated. In our article in Nature Geoscience  we report how we successfully collected 1.5 km of borehole through the overlying sediments and into the crust itself, dating the rocks with microfossils and magnetic field reversal ‘magnetochrons’ (known past reversals that have been dated by other techniques in other records).

We found the crust to be much younger than expected (Eocene, about 50 million years old), a stunning discovery indicating that we needed to readjust our ideas of how the subduction zone formed. The crust has chemical characteristics indicating it was formed at the time the subduction zone started, rather than much earlier. The crust may have formed in an extensional setting through seafloor spreading, in some ways similar to that formed at mid-ocean ridges today, although in this case near the newly-formed subduction zone.

Mid-ocean ridges are where fresh new oceanic crust is formed and are the opposite of subduction zones. There are numerous 'transform faults' near ridges today, enormous fractures through the crust that form due to the spreading plates interaction with the curvature of the earth.

A thin section through the young crust 
One idea is that the subduction zone formed along a previous line of weakness in one of these fracture zones, but our records do not prove this. They do, however, show that the initiation was probably 'spontaneous' rather than 'induced', as the crust was formed in an extensional setting and did not become uplifted before formation. This has allowed us to begin understanding the process of subduction initiation, and further analyses over the coming years of the rocks collected will help us refine this new model, and understand the evolution of the Izu-Bonin-Mariana arc since its inception.
By Sev Kender (Research Fellow within the Centre for Environmental Geochemistry, BGS-University of Nottingham). 

Follow Sev on twitter @SevKender 


Sev Kender at his microscope

The location of the research into the crust of the Izu-Bonin-Mariana arc  

A thin section through the young crust

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Gas sampling near Gemma Purser and Tom Barlow

Evening sunshine on Krafla
Preparing to journey into the heart of a volcano...........

This story begins in Iceland back in 2009 during the Iceland deep drilling project (IDDP). The project was established to explore for supercritical geothermal fluids in the area around the Krafla Volcano, Northern Iceland.

Geothermal energy is the ability to harness heat energy carried by hot geothermal fluids which circulate in zones around magma. Geothermal energy contributes to 27 % of Iceland’s total energy supply. Hotter fluids are produced the closer the borehole can be drilled towards this magma with supercritical geothermal borehole producing approx 10 times more energy than conventional wells.

It was intended that the IDDP-1 borehole (the first to be drilled in the project) would be drilled to a depth of 4.5 km, to access the fluids at temperatures of 400°C and above. However at just over 2 km the drill unexpectedly struck the magma chamber directly.

So what does all this have to do with two geochemists from the British Geological Survey?

Recently a project has been developing to re-drill, intentionally, back into the same magma chamber. This will help us to better understand the geochemistry, fluid flow and sealing mechanisms of these geothermal systems. This project, supported by the International continental drilling programme (ICDP) will see international collaboration from scientist undertaking work at Krafla close to the Landsvirkjun power station site. Landsvirkjun, is the national energy company of Iceland and were the hosts during our visit to Iceland.

Gases such as CO2, H2S and Radon are released from geothermal fluids as they circulate from deep underground to nearer the surface. By mapping the location and concentration of gases we can start to build up a picture of the subsurface.

Tom Barlow measuring gas concentration for carbon dioxide, hydrogen sulphide and radon 
For the past two weeks, Tom Barlow and I have been out doing exactly that. We worked with a team of scientists from the Italian national institute of geophysics and volcanology (INGV). We undertook soil gas measurements as part of a baseline survey around the Krafla caldera in an area around the IDDP-1 well and the Viti crater formed from an explosion in 1724. This work will help define the background conditions on the site before the drilling stage of the Krafla Magma Drilling Project (KMDP). The main aim was to complete 3 survey areas, each approx  1 km2 to locate the best position in which to install a permanent Radon monitoring station. Gas flux measurements were taken every 50 metres, gas concentrations every 100 metres and radon gas every 200 metres in a systematic grid pattern. This involved a lot of walking and negotiating the steep and rough terrain of a volcanic landscape. During our work we both spent time answering questions from inquisitive tourists and enjoyed taking the time out to explain more about BGS and the project.

The area over which the soil gas survey gas performed,
showing the steep terrain and gas explosion craters
Despite a couple of setbacks due to poor weather, a strong team effort between BGS and INGV resulted in the production of a final map showing CO2 gas flux, soil temperature and gas concentration maps for all the areas and a potential future site identified for the deployment of permanent radon monitoring equipment.  In addition we took fluids from the natural geothermal pools and drilled geothermal boreholes to get a better understanding of the fluid rock reactions occurring underneath the surface. Tom will now analyse the collected fluids in the BGS inorganic geochemistry facility as part of an inter-lab comparison with INGV in Italy.

Some of you may be interested to know that the word ‘viti’ in Icelandic means ‘hell’ . Given the horizontal rain, single figure temperatures and swarms of the local and infamous Myvatn lake midges at times the trip could have nearly felt like it. However, it was actually a great experience to work in such a stunning landscape and when the bad weather did subside we were treated to one of nature’s most spectacular shows. We were able to watch the northern lights dancing across the sky over the power station at Krafla, just magical!

Iceland was an awesome place in which to undertake fieldwork and it was great to be involved in an international collaboration and work with scientists from INGV at the very beginning of what will be a very novel, ambitious and exciting project of the future. Watch this space for future blog posts...........

The Northern Lilghts over Krafla

Thank you to Landsvirkjun for accommodating us at the site during the entire trip and to Sue Loughlin, BGS Edinburgh and Chris Rochelle, BGS Keyworth for the opportunity.

Monday, 28 September 2015

Seismology, geodynamics and beautiful Rose Hen-Jones

Earlier this month, Newcastle University PhD student Rose headed to Denmark to attend the tenth elite PhD training course at the University of Copenhagen, on using Seismology and Geodynamics to quantify earth’s internal processes. Rose tells us all about it...
Nyhavn, the beautiful 17th century waterfront of Copenhagen
Although the topic of my PhD concerns the development of a landslide monitoring system using electrical imaging, I wanted to learn more about seismic imaging methods, and was lucky enough to win a place on this course!
I was initially concerned that my research being heavily civil engineering-based I might have some trouble finding my feet, but the first day kicked off with a fantastic introduction to Geodynamics from Prof. Greg Houseman of Leeds University, and I found everything flooding back from my Geophysics undergraduate degree. The Seismology component of the course was taught by Prof. Rob van der Hilst from MIT, and began with the basic principles of elastic wave propagation. These were then used as the physical basis for seismic tomography applications.
Elastic wave equation - back to undergraduate maths! 

Although the course itself was based around lectures, these were incredibly dynamic and flexible, involving a lot of discussion depending on which topics were raised. Additionally, all of the attendees gave a very brief presentation on their own research, which was fascinating as it helped to showcase the application of what we were all there to learn more about.
The last afternoon was spent engaged in a debate, in which each of two teams had to defend a theory chosen at the start of the course, as well as to present a counter-argument for the other team’s point of view. Having presented the evidence for “the lower crust is the strongest part of the continental lithosphere“, we then had to witness the other team tear our poor theory to pieces, and then had half an hour in which to come up with a response. I’m not entirely sure who won in the end, but it was fantastic to see everyone come together in the final debate, and the fact of having various different perspectives was key in the development of a coherent argument.
The stunning interior of the Copenhagen Geological Museum
Although the University’s Geophysics department is housed within the iconic Geocenter, we were delighted over the course of the week to be hosted in several amazing locations, including the Geological Museum, with the most stunning interior design and breathtaking collections, as well as the Agpalilik meteorite in the museum courtyard – a real treat for a bunch of geophysicists!

The Agpalilik meteorite in the sunshine
The course did indeed keep me very busy during my week in Copenhagen, but we did have some spare time, so I headed to Nyhavn on what happened luckily to be the most beautiful day – all in all not a bad way to spend a week!

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Verticality and the Anthropocene: Politics and law of the Stephanie Bricker

The city and its subterranean environment 
The Geoscience and Society team at the British Geological Survey was invited to co-host a session on Verticality and the Anthropocene with social-science researchers from Lancaster University at this year’s Royal Geographical Society conference. Stephanie Bricker, team leader for Urban Geoscience participated in the event along with BGS’ Hazel Napier, team leader for Geoscience and Society and Michelle Bentham, Energy Geoscientist.  Stephanie explores the ideas emerging from the session and the mix of social perspectives and practical applications…

Let’s start with the final question of the conference session, posed by Dr. Nigel Clark of Lancaster University, What do geo-social futures look like, what do we want from the ground beneath our feet?The Verticality and the Anthropocene session at the RGS-IGB conference saw a merging of perspectives from social scientists and applied geographers to examine ‘the interface between human designs on the subsurface and the malleability of geological formations under both natural and human processes’. Much of the discussion centred on the issue of ownership and governance of the subsurface.  Listening to the speakers, where the historical and philosophical approach to this issue was frequently highlighted, I was reminded of the works of Emerson in Nature and Other Essays(i), where the concept of commodity, property and the visual and theoretical connotations we attach to nature is discussed.

Commodity and Property

The subsurface provides us with resources, a concept known as ‘natural capital’, Emerson referred to this as commodity and rather poetically writes;

‘Under the general name of Commodity, I rank all those advantages which our senses owe to nature. This, of course, is a benefit which is temporary and mediate, not ultimate, like its service to the soul…we explore the steady and prodigal provision that has been made for his support and delight on this green ball which floats him through the heavens…What angels invented these splendid ornaments, these rich conveniences, this ocean of air above, this ocean of water beneath, this firmament of earth between?’

Drilling a groundwater production borehole for
West of Scotland Water, at Machrie, Arran
When it comes to the subsurface we are of course talking about the firmament of the earth between. As applied geologists, when investigating the resources that the ground provides, such as minerals, groundwater and heat, we tend to do so in a very practical manner - we evaluate the amount of resource, the processes involved and the impact of those processes.  We are perhaps therefore more concerned with governance and the legal planning and environmental framework controlling the activities being undertaken. As practitioners, rarely do we debate the moral or ethical context of subsurface utilisation which was illuminated by speakers in the session.  The issue of subsurface ownership is however gaining increasing traction, particularly in regard to shale gas extraction, radioactive waste disposal and underground storage and the legal ambiguity on this subject is increasing topical.  Dr. Saskia Vermeylen, Lancaster University even considered the historical references of ‘private property’ by Abraham and Plato.  Emerson makes an interesting observation that nobody owns the landscape – ‘There is a property in the horizon which no man has but he whose eye can integrate all the parts…this is the best part of these men’s farms, yet to this their land-deeds give no title.’  In this we might draw parallels with the subsurface, whilst people may lay claim on the materials beneath their property, there are services which the ground or ‘sub-scape’ provides which cannot be owned, e.g. the regulation of flows such as heat and water.

However what resonated most was Dr. Saskia Vermeylen’s observation that the broader historical and political context of the laws on ownership should be considered, i.e. what additional sentiment is behind the laws as written?  This is a concept I can identify with, for example legislation is often brought in after significant events that had large economic, social or environmental impacts and the justification for the new legislation is only apparent to those who remember those events.

Human attachment to the subsurface

Long Harry Mine, Mid Lincoln Ironstone Mines, Greetwell
In fact the attachment of human perspectives to subsurface uses was a recurrent theme throughout the session. Cary van Lieshout (Nottingham University) in recounting 17th Century metal mining in Derbyshire, highlighted the ‘layered notions of ownership’ and the accelerated public discourse once water supplies and farms were effected.  Meanwhile Alan Webster (Lancaster University) spoke of disconnect in public perception between resource supply and consumption – we think the extractive industry is a thing of the past? These comments led us to debate the detachment that people have with the subsurface, does the fact that we can’t easily see or visualise the subsurface mean we have a more limited frame of reference for activities occurring underground? A feeling of being ill-informed because the processes are harder to explain and to understand. I find intriguing the names used for the subsurface, from underground, to the more mythical underworld and netherworld.  Emerson notes that appearances in nature corresponds to a state of mind, e.g. a cunning man is a fox, the owl is wise, light and dark are often used to imply knowledge and ignorance, so what then do we associate with the subsurface? The fiery depths?! When we want to hide or conceal something we ‘go underground’? But we also look to the ground as a foundation – to stand on firm ground, or to build from the ground up…no wonder we seem somewhat hesitant about the use of the subsurface.

The city

The Verticality of the Anthropocene does not just relate to the subsurface but to the entire 3D form of the human-modified landscape and Lauren Rickards (RIMT University, Australia) and Etienne Turpin (University of Wollongong, Australia) both spoke about the city. Lauren likened the evolution of the village setting through to the mega-city to the maturing of grasslands to forest.  This analogy is compelling in thinking about the surface and subsurface expression of our cities – as trees mature they develop deeper root networks and in the same way our expanding cities extend increasingly into the subsurface. Just as larger trees spread their roots further in order to sustain themselves, Lauren observes, the increasing gravitational orbit of the city, or as applied scientists we might say the increased catchment area needed to support the city.  Mentioned earlier was the malleability of geological formations under both natural and human processes and natural thresholds was something highlighted by Nigel Clark and alluded to by Etienne, that there is a tipping point in the Anthropogenic processes and perspectives.  It is curious that with nature we rely on the consistency and patterns of nature to inform our own routines, for example, working to the seasons and to daylight – a concept Emerson refers to as ‘the discipline of nature’, yet we also accept and learn to cope with nature’s irregularities. Etienne spoke of flood-hit Jakarta, ‘an accelerator of the Anthropogenic condition’ but first gave an account of the postcolonial theory of Shiv Visvanathan and Dipesh Chakrabarty, where Jakarta’s urban design honoured its tropical setting.  With an increasing detachment of human perspectives from our natural environment and the advent of globally accessible technology and expertise I can’t help but wonder if all our cities are trending towards the same form and end-point? Have we forgotten how to design to the local rhythms of nature?

So returning to the first question, what is the geo-social future? What do we want from the ground beneath our feet? The growing interest of local communities in the uses of the subsurface, re-connecting with our natural environment is a move in the right direction to answer this question. And the next steps – how do we continue to merge the broader perspectives of the social scientists with the practical approach of the applied scientists?

Read abstracts from the RGS-IGB Verticality and the Anthropocene session here

Find out the urban geoscience research at the British Geological Survey here

(i) Emerson (2009), Nature and Other Essays, Dover Publications Inc. ISBN-13: 978-0-486-46947-8.

Friday, 18 September 2015

Cosmic Colliery - an astronaut training centre in the South Wales Valleys? Gareth Farr

Boyo in space: Hefin in his space suit made
of Welsh materials © Hefin Jones
Gareth Farr from BGS Wales talks about zero gravity, abandoned mines and community engagement in Penallta, South Wales.

It was a normal day in the BGS Cardiff office.  The phone rang and Jane, BA to the Chief Geologist Wales, passed the call over to me. I stopped what I was doing, put my cup of coffee down and picked up the phone. Now we are used to receiving a wide range of questions from the public and professionals all of which we enjoy answering, however this one was going to turn out to be stranger than most.

Putting the phone to my ear I was greeted by a familiar Welsh accent, ‘how can I help’ I said, expecting a normal day to day query. The man on the phone, introduces himself as Hefin Jones (a good Welsh name) and gets ready to outline his query….. ‘I would like to open an astronaut training centre in South Wales and I am thinking of using abandoned mine shafts to create an underground zero gravity training facility’.

Now this is the point where most people would either rub their eyes, check they were actually awake and not dreaming, or question the strength of their coffee. However, as I like to think I am open minded I let Hefin carry on, ‘so explain your idea a little more’ I suggested.  Not wanting to dash his hopes I gently told him of the dangers of abandoned mines and that the likelihood anyone in an expensive white space suit would want to dive to the bottom of an abandoned shaft filled with ocherous water,  was extremely if not totally unlikely. The conversation ran on for a while, I just didn’t get it, perhaps it was a prank call? Hefin told me he had a website I should look at, he dictates the address to me Hefinjones dot co dot uk forward-slash swc’. I type it into the browser and hit the return key (CLICK HERE if you want to follow the story).

Cosmic Colliery logo: design by
Aron Jones © Hefin Jones
I was greeted (as you will be if you have followed the link) by a chap wearing a space suit, made of Welsh wool complete with traditional clogs, it clicked, and relieved I thought ‘he must be an artist’, and so began an unusual collaboration. Hefins concept of a Welsh Space training centre was just that, a concept. Its aim is to get people to think big, about ‘what ifs’ and about regeneration in the South Wales coalfield – a very similar theme to our recent work on mine water temperatures and their potential use for ground source heating. The project involved ex miners, a mine surveyor, diving instructors and local youth groups, all of whom got together, under the imposing pit head and wheel at Penallta Colliery, to dream big and plan the astronaut centre. The plans were all based on positive initiatives to regenerate ex mining areas and the concept of heating the centre using abandoned mine water were well received. 

Our 3D Geological Model of the South Wales coalfield (Andy Hulbert, Carl Watson & Luz Ramos Cabrera) helped to illustrate the scale of mining in South Wales and the possibilities for using flooded mines for ground source heating. Calum Ritchie, our award winning cartographer, also created a bespoke map for inclusion in the exhibition booklet. Although this project was conceptual, it is thinking ‘big’ and ‘outside of the box’ that must have helped man take his first step on the moon, and more recently land a washing machine sized robot on an asteroid. If humankind can achieve such mind boggling feats then sustainable regeneration and low carbon ground source heating should surely be within our grasp. 

Coalfield Cartography: Calum Ritchie's bespoke map for the Cosmic Colliery exhibition
The Cosmic Colliery exhibition opens on the 9th September at the Design Museum London.


Wednesday, 16 September 2015

An Alaskan Road Mark Patton

Mark Patton panning the Fairbanks Placer deposit
Alaska doesn’t have many roads – you can’t even get to the capital by road, you have to take a ferry. Of the few the State has, I’ve been on about a third of them as part of a residential road trip with the postgraduate Mining Professional Programme run by Camborne School of Mines (CSM). Eight professionals from different mining related disciplines joined Professor Kip Jeffry and Dylan McFarlane from CSM for a ten day trip visiting mining operations which were accessible from the limited infrastructure.

In the first week we met with groups involved with the promotion of Alaska’s natural resources, a core store housing some USGS core, the Wishbone coal prospect operated by Usibelli Coal, the Pogo underground narrow vein gold mine, the Hilltop Gold Prospect, Fort Knox open pit gold mine and Fairbanks Creek Placer Gold Mine. (A placer deposit is where the gold eroded from a vein has been concentrated by a stream and deposited in the sand and gravel on the stream bed). Not one of the mine operations was on a main road. In fact the road to the Pogo mine was 50 miles long and had been put in by the mine to access the operation from the highway. At least that one was wide enough for more than one vehicle. The Hilltop Gold Prospect could be described as ‘unsuitable’ for the hire cars we took along it. The fact that two of our three hosts for that visit were carrying side arms for bear protection just added to the excitement.
Underground drill bay, Pogo Mine 
Enough about roads though. We were there to see mines and geology and we got that in spade-fulls (and in some cases, pan-fulls). The coal was shiny and black as you might expect but the most striking aspect of the visit to Wishbone was the litter of shotgun cartridges, .22 shell casings and large hunting rifle cases all over the floor of the locality. A bit unsettling, even for a boy from Belfast.

Pogo mine was the highlight of the trip, with a visit to the mill where the ore is processed in the morning, followed by a trip underground in the afternoon. We saw a face getting prepped for blasting, the underground grizzly, a rig, roof support rods getting put in and heard the paste backfill glugging overhead in its way to backfill a stope. Pretty much the full underground package.

Fort Knox opencast gold mine
Fort Knox was vast – a much lower grade, high tonnage gold deposit. Here two methods are used to extract the ore. For the higher grades a carbon and cyanide method called Carbon in Pulp is used. A heap leach, where cyanide is trickled through the crushed rock, is used to extract metal from the low grade ore. Getting to hold the ‘Tour Bar’ of doré gold,which had been  smelted and poured at the mine, was cool. Eight kilograms and about £200,000 at the market rate. A thoroughly humourless guide was unmoved by all talk of slipping it into a pocket – probably heard it all before.

Fairbanks Placer Deposit with historic placer barge 
Though Fort Knox was huge it was not the most alarming in terms of perceived impact on the environment. That honour fell to placer mining. Another ‘off the beaten track’ drive to Fairbanks Placer Mine was 10 or 20 minutes in before we realised that what we were driving over was about 100 years of legacy placer mine spoil heaps. Granted, nature was reclaiming what had been left, but that did little to lessen the impact of what had been left behind by methods used in the early 20th century. The current operation was compact and pretty cool to see and we all had a surprisingly successful go at panning whilst there.

The final mine trip was in the second week to the Usibelli Coal Mine. This is the only coal mine in Alaska which, given the coal reserves the State has, is pretty surprising (until you remember what the weather is like and how little infrastructure there is). Our guide was incredibly enthusiastic about the company and the importance of coal in Alaska. Given that 40% of U.S electricity is generated by burning it, it’s easy to see why someone so ‘on message’ was our host for the day.

Polychrome Pass, Denali National Park and Preserve 
All in all the trip was fantastic. The mineral potential is huge but the State is hamstrung by its size and the lack of infrastructure, something the local businesses involved with developing the mineral (and other natural resource) potential are acutely aware of. The locals are generally friendly and closer to Canadian than American but they are still American and they are staunchly supportive of the military. Like any isolated community they are a bit cut off from the global picture. It’s a long way to go for a lot of driving but the mountain scenery is fantastic and the vastness is hard to take in. It was totally worth the trip and I’m exceptionally appreciative of the opportunity but it’s not somewhere I’d rush back to.

Mark Patton is the Minerals Geologist for the Geological Survey of Northern Ireland (GSNI).

Thursday, 10 September 2015

20th QRA Annual International Postgraduate Jack Lacey

In early September, the Quaternary Research Association (QRA) hosted their annual symposium exclusively for postgraduate (PhD and MSc) students at the University of Cambridge. Over 45 delegates from 24 universities presented and discussed their diverse research on the Quaternary (the most recent period of geological time covering the last 2.6 million years) from sites around the world covering ice, land and sea.
Symposium group photo outside the Scott Polar Institute, Cambridge.
#QRAPG15 kicked off with a tour of the British Antarctic Survey (BAS). We learned how BAS create maps using satellite imagery, visited the cold marine aquarium containing animals brought back from Antarctic waters, and were shown the drilling equipment used to recover ice cores. There was also the opportunity to see thinly sliced sections of ice that visibly enclose small bubbles of past atmosphere frozen in time (scientists can use this trapped air to understand more about Earth’s past climate).

Conference dinner at the Riverside Restaurant.
The main symposium had a variety of talks split into sessions covering a broad range of research themes, including ice cores, ocean circulation, and palaeoclimate reconstructions. I presented some of my recent PhD work on Lake Ohrid, including a talk on a 640,000 year record of Mediterranean hydroclimate variability and a poster on a high resolution record of environmental change over the last 12,000 years. We also had some great keynote lectures from Robert Mulvaney (BAS) on the ice core evidence of climate change and deglaciation, Babette Hoogakker (University of Oxford) on determining past ocean oxygen concentrations and Lucy Gonzalez (Anglia Ruskin University) on research funding opportunities.

The prize for best presentation was awarded to Alwynne McGeever (Trinity College Dublin) for her excellent talk on modelling tree populations in Europe and best poster was awarded to Francesca Falcini (University of York) who used 3D images to showcase her interesting research into the roughness imparted onto surfaces by past ice streams.

Francesca with her prize-winning poster
(Photo: @Lauren_Knight).
The QRA postgraduate symposium exists to provide students a forum to present their research in a relaxed and supportive environment, and the University of Cambridge team (led by Jenny Roberts) did an excellent job of upholding this tradition. This was one of the largest meetings to date, and a great success!

The next symposium will be hosted by the Centre for Environmental Geochemistry at the University of Nottingham in summer 2016. For more information on #QRAPG16, keep an eye on the QRA meetings page, Facebook or Twitter.

Jack Lacey (PhD student at the British Geological Survey and the University of Nottingham)

Twitter @JackHLacey

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

The paradox of plenty: BGS helps poor countries to manage the impact of minerals and hydrocarbons Andrew Bloodworth

Small-scale mining of tantalum
An abundance of natural resources can represent both an opportunity and a threat to poor countries. Although the wealth released from minerals, oil and gas should present a path to prosperity, the reality is that many developing countries struggle to manage the impacts of minerals and/or hydrocarbons extraction on their economy, environment and society.

Attended by civil servants, regulators and civil society groups from 7 countries across sub-Saharan Africa, an intensive ‘Extractives Executive Course’ addressing these issues was held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia earlier this year. The course was organised and funded by UK Department for International Development through their ‘iFuse’ programme. BGS played a prominent role in delivering the course content.

Bob Gatliff and Andrew Bloodworth presented, discussed and debated a variety of topics relating to hydrocarbons and minerals exploration, permitting and management with a lively audience.  Colleagues from other UK public bodies including the Coal Authority, OS, Health and Safety Laboratories and the FCO were  responsible for delivering complimentary elements of the course covering a range of issues including spatial infrastructure, health and safety, environmental legacy and human rights.

Gold mine, Namibia 
Despite a packed schedule and ineffective air-conditioning, both delegates and trainers found the experience very informative. We developed some excellent new contacts amongst our African colleagues which we hope will lead to further funded work on a range of topics. It was also a great opportunity to strengthen person to person links with other UK public-sector organisations.

For more information contact:

Andrew Bloodworth ( or
Bob Gatliff (