Sunday, 15 July 2018

Football Rocks: World Cup Geology Kirstin Lemon

The World Cup final day is finally here. It’s been a fantastic month of football with lots of surprises and of course, it’s also been a fantastic month of discovering a little bit about the geology of all 32 participating countries. In case you missed and of our World Cup Geology Tour we’ve put them all together in one handy blog.

Argentina: Argentina is famous around the world for its giant dinosaur fossils. These aren't just any old giant dinosaurs, these were the biggest dinosaurs to have ever lived! Discovered in 2013, fossils of Patagotitan mayorum, an extra-large titanosaur that lived during the Late Cretaceous period (100 million years ago) were found by a farmer in the Chubut Province. Over 200 bones have now been uncovered and these have been pieced together to get a true picture of what this dinosaur would have looked like, and we now know that it would have been 70m in length and 15m high.

Australia: We couldn't resist choosing one if its most famous, albeit predictable, geological icons, Uluru. At 3.6km long and 2.4km wide, this 348m high geological feature is made up of red/brown feldspathic sandstone. It is often described as a 'monolith' that literally means 'one stone' and can often be slightly ambiguos. Geologists much prefer to use the term 'inselberg' which is used to describe a prominent, isolated steep-sided residual upland surrounded by extensive flat plains. Uluru is part of the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park World Heritage Site, inscribed on the World Heritage List for both its cultural and geological significance.

Han-sur-Lesse caves, Belgium
Belgium: We've chosen the Lomme karst area located, near the city of Rochefort in the south of Belgium. The karst is located in a series of Middle Devonian limestones and is a major groundwater resource. The limestones display extensive cave development. Many of these have been developed as show caves included those at Han-sur-Lesse, a major Belgian tourist attraction. The Lomme karst area is located within the Famenne-Ardenne UNESCO Global Geopark, Belgium's first and only geopark.

Brazil: We’ve chosen the Paraná Plateau (or Paraná traps) a large igneous province that would have formed as flood basalts during the Early Cretaceous associated with rifting that would ultimately form the South Atlantic Ocean. The Paraná Plateau lies mostly in the states of Rio Grande do Sul and São Paulo in Brazil, it also appears in Uruguay, Argentina and Paraguay. A severed extension of the plateau is found in northwest Namibia and southwest Angola where it is known as the Etendeka traps. In Brazil where the Paraná Plateau is exposed at the surface it weathers to produce a fertile dark purple soil known as terra roxa that is famous as producing excellent coffee.

Costa Rica: Costa Rica is arguably best known for its volcanoes and in total there are nearly 70 active or extinct ones. Arenal is one of the best-known and most-visited volcanoes. It is located in the volcanic arc of Costa Rica that results from the subduction of the Cocos plate under the Caribbean plate.

Colombia:  One of the best known ‘geology’ tourist attractions is the Zipaquirá salt cathedral located in a disused salt mine in the town of Zipaquirá, 48km from Bogotá. The cathedral was carved by miners and sculptors in the mines out of the 70 million year old salt deposits found in the middle of the eastern Andean mountain range.

'Istrian stone', Croatia
Croatia: This time we’re not visiting a site but a building stone, specifically Istrian stone, or pietra d'Istria. This building stone is characteristic of the architecture of Dalmatia and perhaps more well-known as being used to build the foundations of Venice which had no building stone nearby. The limestone was quarried in Istria, between Portorož and Pula and is sometimes mistaken for marble which is actually metamorphosed limestone.

Denmark: The location this time is the Odsherred Peninsula, an iconic site for glacial geology in Northern Europe. Groundbreaking scientific research has been ongoing in the area since the early part of the 20th century when Odsherred’s hills were interpreted as being end moraines as opposed to eskers. This ‘new’ explanation was initially dismissed but since then, although more complex than initially thought, the glacial landforms are now accepted as being end moraines formed as a result of colliding ice streams that reached the fringes of the West Baltic Basin.

Egypt: Famous for its iconic pyramids, not many people really ever think about what they're actually made of. Many are constructed from Eocene limestone from the Giza Plateau. The limestone is known for its high content of Nummulites, a type of foraminifera, often used as a valuable index fossil. They can range in size from around 1cm in diameter to 5cm. The word 'Nummulite' is derived from the Latin word nummulus meaning 'little coin', with the ancient Egyptians actually using the shells for this purpose!

The White Cliffs of Dover, England
England: Out of all the amazing geological sites that we could have chosen we've gone for the White Cliffs of Dover which, together with Beachy Head and The Needles have welcomed many sea-faring travellers to southern England over the centuries. But there is more to the Cretaceous of southern Britain than magnificent chalk headlands for a wide variety of sandstones and mudstones occur in the Lower Cretaceous. It is these alternating hard and soft strata that weather into the hills and vales that perhaps epitomise the English landscape made famous by artists such as John Constable, Thomas Gainsborough and JS Cotman. Inland the chalk forms the rolling countryside of much of Dorset, the Hampshire Downs, Salisbury Plain, Marlborough Downs, the North and South Downs, the Chilterns and their north-eastwards continuation through Cambridgeshire and East Anglia. It underlies the Lincolnshire and Yorkshire wolds, and at Flamborough Head the chalk is carved into sea stacks, arches and wave-cut platforms.

France: With a country this size it was hard to choose one location but we’ve gone for the Rochechouart crater. Although the original crater morphology has disappeared this impact crater is part of the Réserve Naturelle Nationale de l’astroblème de Rochechouart-Chassenon because of its significant geological heritage value. The age of the Rochechouart impact is still the subject of debate but it is thought to have occurred between 207 and 203 million years ago. Although the morphology of the impact crater can’t be seen, certain features are seen that are characteristic of this type of event including a rock called suevite (seen below). This unusual rock is a type of breccia made up of shocked and unshocked rock fragments together with partly melted material.

The Eyes of the Eifel, Germany
Germany: We’ve chosen Eifel highlands in the northwestern part of the ‘Rheinish Slate Mountains’. This area is famous for its volcanoes, with 350 known eruption centres. There were two volcanic phases: the first was active between 45 to 35 Ma; the second was around 1 Ma and ended with the most recent eruption 10900 years ago. This area is the international type locality of maar craters, broad, low-relief volcanic craters caused by eruptions that occurs when groundwater comes into contact with hot lava or magma. In some craters, bogs and lakes have formed, while others remain dry. This landscape is sometimes referred to as ‘The Eyes of Eifel’ and is one of the main features of the Vulkaneifel UNESCO Global Geopark.

Iceland: This was a tough choice as there are so many fantastic locations to choose from. Situated on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, Iceland is located at the tectonic plate boundary between the North American plate and the Eurasian plate, something that probably every single secondary school pupil is taught as part of their geography lessons, albeit in an oversimplified way. For that reason we've gone for the 'Bridge Between Continents' located on the Reykjanes peninsula and not that far from Iceland's main airport at Keflavik. It is also part of the Reykjanes UNESCO Global Geopark. However, it should be pointed out that the rift between the two tectonic plates is actually a zone of sub-parallel fissure swarms, often tens of kilometres wide and not as straightforward as North America on one side and Europe on the other.

Iran: The southern part of Iran is known for its numerous salt domes, many of which have been eroded into fine salt karst landscapes as well as containing the world's longest and largest salt caves. One such cave is located in Qeshm Island, in the Persian Gulf, where the 6.5km long Namakdan salt caves are thought to be the longest. There are numerous salt karst features associated with the cave including a salt spring resurgence where the stream channel is floored with crystalline salt.

Mount Fuji (or Fujisan), Japan
Japan: One of its most famous landmarks is undoubtedly Mount Fuji, the highest mountain in Japan at 3776m. Fuji is also a large composite stratavolcano that consists of alternating lava flows and pyroclastics. It is actually composed of three cones; Komitake, Older Fuji and Younger Fuji, put in order of decreasing age. Mount Fuji (or Fujisan) was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 2013 but as a site of cultural heritage significance and not because of its geological heritage.

South Korea: The Jeju Volcanic Island and Lava Tubes is a World Heritage Site and a UNESCO Global Geopark. Its central feature is Hallasan, the tallest mountain in South Korea and also a volcano. In addition to this feature there are 360 satellite volcanoes. But what the area is perhaps best known for is its extensive network of lava tubes. These are natural conduits through which lava travels beneath the surface of a lava flow. The tubes form by the crusting over of lava channels.

Mexico: We’ve chosen the Yucatán Peninsula and its karst landscape, particularly the features that are referred to 'cenotes'. Derived from the Yucatec-Mayan word 'ts'onot', it was a term used to describe any location with accessible groundwater. Cenotes are a type of sinkhole and formed by dissolution of rock (typically limestone) and the resulting subsurface void, which may or may not be linked to an active cave system. They are commonly found in low latitude areas, typically on islands and coastlines with post-Palaeozoic limestone. In the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico, cenotes were sometimes used by the ancient Maya for sacrificial offerings.

Atlas Mountains, Morocco
Morocco: Mount Toubkal in Morocco is the highest peak in the Atlas Mountains, that stretch for 2500 km through Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. The Atlas Mountains are divided into a number of subranges and formed as a result of several phases of tectonic activity that began during the Palaeozoic era and ended during the Neogene period.

Panama: For this one we're not focusing on a particular site but an event. In this case it's the formation of the Isthmus of Panama believed to be one of the most important geological events to happen on Earth in the last 60 million years. The Isthmus of Panama is the narrow strip of land that lies between the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, linking North and South America. But even though it is only a tiny sliver of land, its formation 2.8 million years ago as the Cocos plate slid under the Caribbean plate, had a huge impact on our climate and environment as it shut down the flow of water between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

Peru: We've chosen Vinicunca, or the Rainbow Mountain located in the Peruvian Andes. It gets its name from the mineral rich layers of Permian sedimentary rocks that have weathered to give the vivid colours of ochre, red, yellow, and sometimes even turquoise.

Poland: Salt deposits are making another appearance on our tour and this time its the turn of the Wieliczka Salt Mine located in the town of Wieliczka within the Kraków metropolitan area. The mines were opened in the 13th century, and produced table salt continuously until 2007. The salt deposits formed during the Miocene period and stretch for about 10km beneath Wieliczka, with the salt being between 500 and 1500m thick. The salt mines have now been developed as a tourist attraction are have been inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List since 1978.

'Giant' trilobite, Portugal
Portugal: We’ve chosen Arouca UNESCO Global Geopark, famous for, amongst other things, fossils of 'giant' trilobites. Often found in large quarrying surfaces of roofing slates, this otherwise waste material has yielded several of the world's largest trilobite specimens, with some reaching up to 70cm.

Russia: Russia is home to Mount Elbrus, the highest peak in Europe. It has two peaks, one of which is 5642m and the other is 5621, both of which are volcanic domes. Mount Elbrus formed more than 2.5 million years ago and its last eruption took place about AD 50. The area also contains numerous hotsprings.

Saudi Arabia: We've chosen Mada'in Saleh an archaeological site located in the the Al Madinah Region.. The fabulous rock-cut architecture dates back to the 1st century and is characteristic of the Nabatean kingdom which also included Petra, in modern day Jordan. The settlement is carved out of the Ordovician Quweira sandstone, perfect for creating monuments and sculptures.
Serbia: We're off to the Djerdap National Park and more specifically the Djerdap Gorge, also known as The Iron Gate and is one of the longest river gorges in Europe. This complex river gorge comprises four smaller ones: Gornja Klisura, Gospodjin Vir, Kazan and Sipska Klisura and is over 100 km long.

Senegal: We’ve gone for the Senogambian stone circles found in Senegal and Gambia. These monuments are found at four large sites are believed to have been constructed between the third century BC and the sixteenth century. The stone circles consist of upright blocks or pillars made mostly of laterite a rock that is rich in iron and aluminium and formed due to intense weathering, such as that common in hot and wet tropical climates, of underlying parent rock. The laterite for the stone circles would have been quarried locally and worked using iron tools. The stone circles are part of the Senogambian stone circle World Heritage Site and are the largest group o megalithic complexes recorded in any region of the world.

Flysch deposits, Basque Coast, Spain
Spain: We're heading to the Basque Coast UNESCO Global Geopark where a 5000m thick flysch deposit reveals a practically continuous record of 60 million years of Earth history. Within this sequence is evidence of the last of the five mass extinctions to have taken place over the course of the Earth’s history. This event (also known as the K/Pg extinction event), which was probably caused by a large asteroid striking the Earth some 65 million years ago in Chicxulub (Mexico), also led to the demise of the dinosaurs.

Sweden: Fossils of Orthoceras, an exitinct genus of nautiloid cephalopod are common in the many quarries on the Baltic island of Öland off the southern coast of Sweden. Quarries from Öland have supplied Europe with material for floors, stairs and gravestones for centuries as the hard limestone in which the fossils are found is very durable and the fossil inclusions make it even more desirable.

Switzerland: Switzerland is located right in the centre of the Alps, a mountain range that formed due to orogenic activity, and put very simply as a result of the collision of the African plate with the Eurasian plate. The Alps span France, Germany, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Italy, Austria and Slovenia, but Switzerland is often described as being the most spectacular part!

Tunisia: We’ve chosen the Sidi Bouhlel Canyon, made famous in Star Wars . It was used during Episode IV and is where Luke Skywalker meets Obi-Wan Kenobi for the first time. The canyon is carved out of Middle Miocene sandstone and contains fossils of a number of vertebrates including crocodiles that provide vital evidence for changing palaeoclimate in the region.

Uruguay: The site we’ve chosen is the Grutas del Palacio or the Palace Caves. These unusual caves have been formed out of Late Cretaceous sandstone and get their name from the nearly 100 columns, each around 2m high that resemble those of a palace. The caves are part of the Grutas del Palacio UNESCO Global Geopark, located in the Flores Department near Trinidad in Uruguay.

Friday, 13 July 2018

Accordions, the Adriatic and Analytical Chemistry ... by Charles Gowing

Dr Charles Gowing, BGS
Dr Charles Gowing,
Analytical Geochemist at BGS
My name is Charles Gowing and I have recently attended a workshop in one of the most beautiful locations in Slovenia.

It was the 9th Workshop on Proficiency Testing (PT) in Analytical Chemistry, Microbiology and Laboratory Medicine, held in the coastal town of Portorož. This three-day workshop attracted 200 delegates from 53 countries, with wide ranging attendance from most European countries and extending from sub-Saharan Africa, north Africa and the Middle East across Asia as far as Australasia, and the Americas.

The location of the workshop was idyllic, on the shore of the Adriatic over which the sunsets made beautiful backdrops for end-of-the-day deliberations. One evening we were treated to a guided tour of the beautiful old city of Piran.  A centuries-old city in a protected bay, it has been inhabited variously by the Roman, Venetian and Austria-Hungarian empires and is nestled on Slovenia’s coastline, just 46 km long.

The Slovenian coastal town of Piran
The Slovenian coastal town of Piran
Slovenian hospitality was very generous.  Following the tour we were welcomed by an energetic dancing accordion player and were then taken to a local vineyard for a tasting of local sausages, cheeses and wines (including a most unusual chocolate wine).

A Slovenian sunset
The workshop considered six key topics:
  • the importance of interpretive PT schemes
  • changes to PT schemes in developing countries over the last 10 years
  • implementing the ISO/IEC Standard 17043 for sampling PT schemes 
  • traditional vs virtual PT schemes
  • guidance on the levels and frequency of PT participation
  • the use and treatment of measurement uncertainty in PT schemes
Each topic was discussed in working groups to provide feedback to the European Analytical Chemistry community. It was somehow refreshing to hear that similar issues caused concern across the globe and refreshing to be able to discuss such issues with colleagues from countries as diverse as Egypt, India, Palestine, Greece and Sweden.  I was honoured to be asked to provide feedback on behalf of my discussion groups in the sampling and measurement uncertainty working groups.

Discussions at the workshop
The meeting was further enhanced by 16 oral presentations and 57 posters presenting experiences of PT providers from every continent and useful advice on statistical methods for describing data distributions. Specific points of concern highlighted the incorporation of laboratory measurement uncertainty into PT reports and the logistical headache of having to get PT samples delivered into countries through local customs, that were not always able to respond in a consistent manner.

I was especially enamoured by presentations on the handling of datasets with multiple censored results, on water testing schemes across sub-Saharan Africa run out of Namibia and the difficulties in maintaining homogeneity in samples of manure (which appears to be even more heterogeneous that geological materials).

Delegates at the 9th Workshop on Proficiency Testing (PT) in Analytical Chemistry, Microbiology and Laboratory Medicine 
Building on a legacy of Reference Material production over recent decades, we currently have a project under the innovation initiative for the production of reference materials. Further developing existing links with the Geological Survey of Ireland, we are producing a series of soil Reference Materials. The series is designed to provide significant concentrations of a comprehensive suite of environmentally important elements which can be used to underpin Quality Control of national scale geochemical mapping while being sufficiently specialised to provide targeted materials for individual research projects. Lessons learned from discussion of robust statistical procedures at the Eurachem meeting will be of great use when determining reference values and confidence limits.

Dr Charles Gowing, is Quality Manager in the Inorganic Geochemistry team within the Centre for Environmental Geochemistry and works with the International Association of Geoanalysts on the Steering Committee of the GeoPT Proficiency Testing Scheme for the analysis of Geological materials.

Wednesday, 11 July 2018

Sensing the Earth: UKGEOS, statistics and streaming data by Mike Stephenson

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a workshop on streaming data organised by the Turing Gateway to Mathematics, at Cambridge University[1]. The meeting brought together some formidable mathematical brains with the sorts of people that might want to use those brains. People with data.

I was one of those visitors. I gave a talk about the BGS’ new UKGEOS project[2] which aims to collect data from a whole range of new sensors at two sites: in England near Chester, and in Scotland, on the east side of Glasgow. The sites will collect data from boreholes on groundwater, seismic activity, ground motion, and a range of other variables. The sites will be observatories that will match the ambition and science presence of some of our more famous observatories such as Jodrell Bank and the Royal Observatory at Herstmonceux – only the UKGEOS observatories will point down into the ground rather than up into the sky.

UKGEOS - instrumenting the Earth

The reason I wanted to talk at the meeting was that I was sure that the UKGEOS data and the way it will be collected will be of interest to statisticians– mainly because it represents a new realm for data. Oil companies collect data on subsurface reservoirs, and volcanologists and seismologists collect data to assess hazards, but comprehensive data on the subsurface isn’t collected. It’s the last great frontier – we have ‘macroscopes’ for the atmosphere and oceans, but so far nothing for the subsurface.

Two trends have prompted this. One is the need to understand the subsurface better – because we build on the ground and tunnel through it, and because we extract things from the ground and store things in the ground. It’s clear that to do this sustainably we need to understand the subsurface better.

The other trend has been in technology. A ‘geological macroscope’[3] is now within our grasp because of the technology that’s available – more sensors that are capable of withstanding the challenging conditions in the deep underground, better visualisation technology – and most importantly - bigger computing capability.

In the end we’ll want to use the UKGEOS sites to understand the subsurface – the fluids that flow through it, and the way that it changes day to day and hour to hour. Of course like meteorologists, we geologists would also like to be able to predict what’s going to happen – not in the atmosphere but in the underground. How does groundwater quality change from day to day? How do the shallow geothermal resources change with the seasons? How sustainable is shallow geothermal for the UK? How do we know when sinkholes or landslides are going to happen?

So a big draw of collecting all this subsurface data is the ability for geologists to forecast change. And this was the main reason why I attended the Cambridge meeting. To meet lots of clever people who are used to looking at data and who are interested in looking for trends that presage change.

At the beginning of the event, the audience was treated to an anecdotal story and cautionary tale exactly on those lines – the perils of prediction. The story detailed a bank that almost went out of business because of the inability of its computer systems to tell between anomalies and so called ‘change points’. The latter are more structural changes, while the former are essentially ‘blips’. Statistical algorithms that controlled an automatic buying and selling strategy at the bank, misidentified a change point as an anomaly and continued trading at highly unfavourable terms. So the bank took a big hit.

Discussions at the event also considered the ways that personal medicine – streamed data on personal health - could be used to discern dangerous trends and predict catastrophic health failures in individuals.

The implications for subsurface data are obvious. Complex statistics are used in earthquake seismology aiming for the holy grail of earthquake prediction or at the less difficult game of predicting aftershocks – but how could some of the techniques being discussed be used for more low key subsurface natural processes like subsidence or groundwater drought prediction? Clearly better process understanding is needed – but perhaps some of the statistics that aim to distinguish change points and anomalies could be useful too for forecasting, but also perhaps more mundanely to just spot imminent sensor failure.

The Cambridge event ended with a talk from Jeremy Bradley of the Royal Mail Data Science Group – which took a different tack. It seems that some of our long standing institutions are beginning to realise the value of their infrastructure in the new world of environmental sensors. The physical infrastructure that the Royal Mail controls in order to deliver its parcels and letters is huge. The service delivers 50000 letters per day to 24 million addresses. It has 115000 postboxes visited regularly - and 40000 post vans – as well as 20000 hand trolleys. Most of these follow the same route every day. The Royal Mail Data Science Group wonders if sensors could be mounted on this physical infrastructure – for air quality monitoring for example – or traffic. The Royal Mail’s infrastructure can’t offer a clear geological angle, but there is a lot of other subsurface infrastructure.  I wonder what geological use sensors in our subsurface water pipeline network might be put to? What other subsurface physical infrastructure could be used for gathering underground data? Time will tell!


Friday, 6 July 2018

Past climates of the western Tibetan Plateau…by Yuzhi Zhang

Hi. I am Yuzhi, a PhD student from Lanzhou University (China) currently on secondment to the School of Geography (University of Nottingham) and the Centre for Environmental Geochemistry at BGS. I am working on reconstructing the climate and environmental change in the western Tibetan Plateau over the Holocene period from lake sediments. In the UK my placement is specifically to gain experience with geochemical proxies including stable isotopes at the BGS.

Yuzhi undertaking fieldwork in the alpine region of the Tibetian Plateau.
There are more than 1000 lakes located in the Tibetan Plateau, and its fragile ecosystem is very sensitive to climate variations.  Therefore, it is important to look at past changes in the environment to understand how climate change will impact the region in the future.

Although a lot of work has been done in the eastern and southern Tibetan Plateau, little has been done in the west. Different regions across the Tibetan Plateau are influenced by different atmospheric circulation systems (ie Indian Summer Monsoon and Westerlies) so it is essential to know the palaeoclimate change in the different regions.  This will give us a better understanding of the variability of the Indian Summer Monsoon (ISM). Water resources on the Tibetan Plateau are of great importance in understanding the history of human civilization in this region.

Lake A’ong Co in Western Tibetian Plateau.
I have been working on an alpine lake, A’ong Co, which is a glacier-fed lake. In 2015, I took a 4.5 m long core from the central part of the lake. Palaeolimnological proxies, including stable isotopes and ostracode species, are being used to reconstruct the climate change (mainly wet-dry variations) through the Holocene. Specifically I want to investigate the past influence of the Indian Summer Monsoon. As A’ong Co is a glacier-fed lake, I am also investigating the source of the lake water and how sensitive it is to variations in glacier melt, as well as carbon cycling in the lake and its connection with climate change.

Yuzhi Zhang is a PhD student currently on secondment in the School of Geography, University of Nottingham working within the Centre for Environmental Geochemistry in BGS.

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

World Heritage Sites under threat! BGS scientists strive to protect them … by Catherine Pennington

The climate is changing.  We know this.  And while many dedicated scientists, researchers, activists, politicians and people in their own homes are trying to understand, tackle and find ways we can be more resilient to it, we have also been looking at how the changing climate may affect geohazards such as landslides, sinkholes and shrinking and swelling clays.

Will more landslides happen?  Will previously stable landslides reactivate?  Will there be more sinkholes appearing?  Will the London buildings subject to the shrinking and swelling of underlying clay suffer even more damage in the future?

What about all the buildings, roads, railways, utilities and other assets on and around these hazards?  How could they be affected?  It’s perfectly sensible to wonder about your own home and surrounding area, but what about those assets that we all love and identify our location by?  Such a place might be your local stately home or another famous monument like a castle or a river valley teaming with wildlife.  These sites are collectively known as Cultural Heritage sites.  In fact, these sites are being celebrated right now as part of the European Year of Cultural Heritage.  How might these places be affected?  Does anyone know?  Is anyone thinking about that?

Well, in short, yes.  Yes we are.  And we’ve been to the UNESCO headquarters in Paris to talk about it.

(Left to right) Alessandro Novellino, Emma Bee and Anna Harrison at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris for the PROTHEGO project meeting


Scientists (pictured) at the BGS have been working with European partners from Italy, Cyprus and Spain on the Protection of European Cultural Heritage from Geohazards (PROTHEGO) project.  The meeting at UNESCO presented the findings from this work.

Emma Bee, PROTHEGO project manager at BGS explained the aims: “Focusing on selected pilot sites on the UNESCO’s World Heritage List, the PROTHEGO project identifies geohazards that may impact the sites and then develops ways of detecting and monitoring them”.

Such geohazards may include volcanoes, earthquakes, landslides or sinkholes as well as flooding from rivers or groundwater, or shrinking and swelling clays.  Emma added: “By understanding the likely threats from geohazards, the owners of the heritage sites can adapt their management practices to reduce potential damage to these culturally important sites, helping to protect them for future generations”.

Part of the project was also to create the PROTHEGO Map Viewer.  For the first time, you can now view hazard fact sheets for World Heritage Sites.

PROTHEGO World Heritage Site Map Viewer

How do we monitor geohazards? The Eye in the Sky

Satellites whirl round and round us all the time.  As they’re doing this, they’re streaming radar images of our planet back to us.  Some of the data are freely available and allow us to monitor large areas for small movements in objects that reflect the radar well (such as buildings and roads).  For the full title, this technology is called Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Radar (InSAR) analysis and can detect movement accurate to around one millimetre.

By combining InSAR analysis with information from geological data and expertise, any geohazards affecting heritage properties can be detected, monitored and understood.

Our test site: the Derwent Valley

At least one site in each PROTHEGO project partners’ country was selected.  For the UK, this is the Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site.  

This site is near Derby in the East Midlands and is on the southern edge of the Pennines.  It is a largely rural, industrial landscape containing a number of historic cotton and silk mills, watercourses that powered them, railways, housing and other facilities developed for the mill-worker communities during the 18th and 19th centuries.  You can find out more about this site on the Derwent Valley Mills website.

Core Area and Buffer Zone boundaries of the Derwent Valley Mills UNESCO WHL site with indication of key World Heritage buildings and mill complexes, overlapped onto aerial photography (a). Photographs of: Masson Mills (b), Cromford Mills (c), North and East Mill in Belper (d), River Derwent in Milford (e) Darley Abbey Mills (f) and Derby Silk Mill (g). WHL site boundaries © Historic England 2015; Contains Ordnance Survey data © Crown copyright and database right 2015.

The upshot?  Landslides and flooding…

The Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site is vulnerable to certain geohazards due to its geographical setting and the close location of buildings to the river.

We used information from our National Landslide Database and landslide susceptibility maps, InSAR analysis, expertise in engineering geology and geohazards, and fieldwork and we were able to identify two active landslides in Starkholmes and Ambergate that could affect the Derwent Valley.  Fortunately, they are not a threat to the historic buildings in the area.  The type of geology means that sinkholes and shrinking and swelling clays are unlikely to be present in this location.

Left: Starkholmes landslides. RIght: Ambergate landslides.  These are taken from our free GeoIndex.  The black points are from the National Landslide Database and the hashed polygons are from our geology maps.

Flooding simulations based on different climate change scenarios in the Derwent Valley catchment area also identify the potential for flooding, mainly over the west riverbank.

We can also expect to see an increase in these geohazards in the coming decades due to changes in climate.

The Future

The managers of the Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site are now armed with information about what they are likely to expect to see happening to the valley over the next few decades.  David Knight from Derwent Valley Mills Partnership said: “The data and methods developed by PROTHEGO will help us target resources and improve our long-term strategies to preserve the Derwent Valley in the face of climate change”.

The method we have established means that this approach could be rolled out to other World Heritage Sites or, indeed, other Cultural Heritage sites where owners need to assess the long-term stability.


For more information about this project or any of the scientific methods used, please contact Emma Bee.

PROTHEGO is a collaborative research project funded in the framework of the Joint Programming Initiative on Cultural Heritage and Global Change (JPICH) - Heritage Plus in 2015–2018. 

Friday, 29 June 2018

Using our emotional intelligence: Lessons from the UK Geoenergy Observatories by Mike Stephenson

An interesting article in Nature last year, by scientist and journalist Anita Makri, described how science communicated in the popular media sometimes leaves the public confused, and that in the ‘post-truth’ world, scientists are increasingly being ignored[1]. Makri criticised what’s known as the ‘deficit model’ of the public understanding of science concluding that it’s partly scientists’ fault that they are being ignored. The message is clear. Scientists need to be less technical and perhaps even a bit more humble when putting over their messages. Over the last year at the BGS, we’ve been putting this theory into practice communicating our major UK Geoenergy Observatories investment to the public – with some success.

Anita’s Makri’s article makes an interesting distinction between the blue-sky, ‘sense-of-wonder’ science of Brian Cox and David Attenborough, and applied socially-relevant, ‘incremental’ science, suggesting that the latter is the more difficult to communicate. BGS science sits firmly in the socially-relevant category. Though we have grown out of a science rich in wonder (fossils, ancient climate change and mass extinctions), BGS concentrates on ‘lives and livelihoods’.  Our strategy of sensing the Earth is about understanding the subsurface at timescales that matter to people, rather than over millions of years. This is exactly the science of UK Geoenergy Observatories – infrastructure designed to look at the possibilities of using the subsurface for decarbonisation technology.

One of the problems of the ‘deficit model’ of science communication is its assumptions. The model was first promoted by the Royal Society in 1985 in a report called the ‘Public Understanding of Science’[2]. The story is that the public doesn’t believe or care much about science because the science isn’t being explained clearly enough. There are clear doubts now that this is the right model. Social scientists who study communication, for example Jane Gregory[3] and Ruth Dixon[4], believe that scientists worry far too much about the words they use and the diagrams they show, and too little about finding out about how people feel. Ruth Dixon says that academics need ‘…to question, with some humility, their own ‘deficit model’ of the public understanding of politics’, and try to empathise a bit with our audiences. She praises the artist Grayson Perry who recently said that what was missing when communicating with the public was ‘emotional literacy’, the ability to understand and express feelings. A recent academic article by Iain Stewart and Deidre Lewis has also suggested a more empathic approach is needed, in that ‘…factual information’ should be ‘…subordinate to values and beliefs in shaping public perspectives on contested geoscientific issues…’[5]

I have to admit that as a scientist with a role in communicating geoscience issues, I have sometimes got it wrong. A few years ago, a YouTube cartoon was made of a talk on shale gas that I gave at a London debate[6]. The filmmaker shortened and simplified my argument (that science needs to take a greater role in the debate). I liked the cartoon, and so was surprised by some of the online reaction, which described the delivery as a bit arrogant and stuffy. So when the UK Geoenergy Observatories project came along – with all its challenges for communication – it presented an opportunity for a new approach. This is part of a sustained BGS communications campaign, planned and led brilliantly by UK Geoenergy Observatories communications manager Cristina Chapman.

The UK Geoenergy Observatories are BGS and NERC’s new geoscience test sites being set up in Glasgow and Cheshire. The sites will watch and analyse the underground, and develop technologies that might help the UK to decarbonise. Our new observatories will look down into the Earth just as Jodrell Bank and Herstmonceux look up into the sky.

Developing the science, designing the arrays of boreholes and specifying the sensing devices has been an absolute focus of our activity to take the idea from concept to reality. So too has been the importance of meeting local people in Glasgow and Cheshire to explain what our observatories will do and why we are so excited about the science.

Reaching out to local people meant meeting them on their terms. We made sure that the approach was neither didactic nor pedagogic and that we were in listening mode at all times. We turned up in church halls and community centres right at the heart of the communities that would be closest to our boreholes. We turned up at times that allowed for different working patterns and daily routines.
The communications team stripped away the usual academic props (orating experts, lecterns, projectors, rows of chairs and jam-packed agendas), replacing them with open space drop-in sessions, free-flowing dialogue with BGS scientists ready to listen – and lots of pictures, maps and physical props. We fielded representatives from all areas of the organisation: generalists, specialists, delivery staff - and from the very top of the organisation. Everyone pitched in and everyone played a part – which helped to break down ‘them and us’ barriers.

BGS public engagement UK Geoenergy Observatories Chester Town Hall

The ‘drop-in and meet the scientist’ events I attended were among the most interesting experiences of my 17 years at BGS. It was intellectually taxing and physically demanding work, and probably some of the most rewarding work I’ve done in years. Others found it similarly rewarding. For a government scientist, there can be no better test of your ‘function’ - to be able to say convincingly what your science is for, how it benefits the country and whether it represents taxpayers’ money well spent.

BGS public engagement UK Geoenergy Observatories Helsby Community Centre
BGS has gone some way to understanding the challenges of communicating science but there is much more we can do. One thing is certain: when we make the time to listen, people return the respect by taking time to engage with us. It is this two-way dialogue that makes our science more relevant and our communication more efficient.

[5] Iain S. Stewart & Deirdre Lewis 2017 Communicating contested geoscience to the public: moving from ‘matters of fact’ to ‘matters of concern’. Earth-Science Reviews 174, 122–133

Tuesday, 26 June 2018

DeepCHALLA hits Stockholm…by Heather Moorhouse

Heather presenting her poster at IPA-IAL with DeepCHALLA principal
investigators Prof Phil Barker (Lancaster) and
Prof Melanie Leng (BGS/Nottingham)
In June 2018, scientists interested in the study of mud found at the bottom of lakes met for the first joint meeting of the International Paleolimnology Association and International Association of Limnogeology (IPA-IAL) at Stockholm University in Sweden to “unravel the past and future of lakes”.

Considering lakes are important sources of freshwater, stores and sinks of carbon and provide us with a wealth of other services, the more we can understand about these incredible ecosystems will ultimately help us to protect them from environmental degradation. Studying the sediment found at the bottom of lakes which builds up over time allows us the ability to investigate how the lake and its surrounding landscape has changed from the past to the present. This can then help us to predict what may then happen in the future. The IPA-IAL meeting was a chance for researchers around the globe to discuss progresses made in using lake sediments to understand human impacts, climate change, landscape and ecological evolution and natural hazards.

Scientists working on the International Continental scientific Drilling Programme (ICDP) led project DeepCHALLA (see my previous blogs!) were present at IPA-IAL to update other leading researchers on our investigations of  ~250,000 years of environmental change in equatorial east Africa. We are using sediments retrieved from the bottom of Lake Chala, which is found directly on the Kenyan, Tanzanian border. Inka Meyer from Ghent, Belgium presented work on how we can use the grain size and mineralogical composition of the terrestrial (land-based) components of the sediment. This can help us to understand whether wind or run-off was delivering this material to Lake Chala and so, tells us about the changing climate and landscape. Maarten van Daele also from Ghent, Belgium discussed how turbidites or sediment disturbances can deliver material from shallower depths to deeper depths. Often this material contains fossils such as fish teeth, and invertebrates that aren’t normally deposited at deeper depths where sediment cores are usually taken. This has the potential to help us understand changes to these ecological communities more thoroughly. Aihemaiti Maitituerdi from Haifa, Israel presented methods on investigating the geophysical record to understand changes to the lake level at Chala, which can help understand changes to past hydrology and climate.

Finally, I presented a poster on our work at BGS and Lancaster University, which is looking at the biogeochemistry of phytoplankton in the sediments of Chala to see if we can identify and constrain the African Megadroughts thought to have occurred 130 to 90 thousand years before present. These Megadroughts were periods of severe aridity lasting thousands of years and are believed to be important in the evolution and dispersal of our hominin ancestors from the region. Those working on DeepCHALLA look forward to continuing the exciting discussions and future work that was presented at IPA-IAL.

No conference studying things under water is complete without a boat trip. Some delegates elected a cruise around the Swedish archipelago and learnt about islands named after each day of the week according to when the farmers would row their livestock to each island to let them graze. The conference dinner featured a surreal evening of entertainment, with musical tributes to the nations sweethearts: ABBA.

Thanks to the conference organisers and committees of IPA and IAL for hosting a fantastic meeting.
Heather Moorhouse is the new Early Career Representative for the IPA and encourages anyone who wants to get involved to get in touch via twitter @H_Notts or email:

Carbon Rich Forests of Panama – Welcome to the Christopher Vane

The protection of tropical wetlands including below ground peats is a key internationally agreed strategy in reducing CO2 emissions from deforestation and land use change and therefore slowing climate change. Whilst numerous estimates of carbon stores exist, they often only focus on carbon close to the soil surface (0 to 0.5 m) or from mangrove swamps and seagrass meadows (Blue Carbon) environments. Consequently, surprisingly little is known about the carbon accumulating at depth (0 to 10 m) below tropical forests and particularly those in Central America.

From L-R: Eyelash pit viper; Litter degradation series
A joint team of scientists led by Chris Vane (BGS) and Sofie Sjogersten (University of Nottingham, Biosciences) took on this challenge and undertook a pilot coring campaign in the extensive San San Pond Sak tropical peatland situated in Bocas del Toro, NE Panama. Coring in pristine freshwater swamp forest requires a high tolerance for biting insects, a keen eye to avoid the occasional snake and a good sense of direction to avoid getting lost. Nevertheless, the team cut a trail with the help of a local guide and hand-cored a lateral sequence spanning five vegetation zones.

Sofie finds quality peat at depth
Upon return to the Organic Geochemistry team including visiting University of Nottingham MSci student Abbie Upton measured the carbon stored in each vegetation zone and assessed changes in organic matter input and decomposition rates down profile using Rock-Eval (6) pyrolysis, lipid compound distributions and infrared spectroscopy. Usually coastal mangroves are cited as among the most carbon-rich forests in the tropics with values around 1,023 Mg carbon per hectare (Mg ha-1) however we found that mixed swamp forest (1884 Mg ha-1), Camponsperma forest (1695 Mg ha-1) were even richer and that carbon accumulation increases with burial time/depth because selective decomposition of carbohydrates by bacteria effectively increases the proportion of polymerised aromatic structures as the peat mature sand stabilises. The findings of this research have just been published in the Journal Geoderma.  

Upton, A., Vane, C.H., Girkin, N., Turner, B., Sjogersten, S. 2018 Does litter input determine carbon storage and peat organic chemistry in tropical peatlands. Geoderma, 326, 76-87.

Monday, 25 June 2018

Not a boring story: the impact of sharing Gerry Wildman

Large infrastructure projects regularly over-run due to unforeseen ground-conditions, so in order to minimise the project risk, desk studies and site investigations are carried out which often include drilling boreholes. But boreholes are expensive and time consuming to drill, around £4000 for a 20m deep borehole, so consultants try and gather as much historic information about the site as possible before planning their site investigation works.

Legacy borehole records

BGS operates the National Geoscience Data Centre (NGDC) which collects and preserves geoscientific data and information, and makes them available to a wide range of users. Borehole records are just one type of data that the NGDC collects from third parties. In 2010 BGS scanned its collection of legacy borehole records and released them as open data on its OpenGeoscience website. The impact has been staggering. Overnight, the number of borehole records accessed went from 2,000 a month to 20,000. By the end of the first year, 300,000 records had been downloaded; a significant increase on the 17,000 from the previous 12 months. This has steadily grown over the last 7 years, and in 2017 we logged over 2.5 million downloads. This incredible increase was stimulated by BGS' commitment to pushing the borehole records out as widely as possible including via its data partner network and through the BGS iGeology smartphone app.

Benefits of data sharing

But it’s not just the number of hits that’s impressive, but the virtuous cycle that this triggered. As more people access the borehole records, more clients and contractors see the benefit that data sharing brings to the wider industry, and start to donate their own borehole records to BGS. This means more borehole data is accessible, triggering greater uptake, and so the cycle continues.

Further opening of geotechnical data

Unsurprisingly BGS has made many friends by investing in the borehole data release who are keen to collaborate to extend this principle further. We have just started a project with Atkins and Morgan Sindall to encourage a community around further opening of geotechnical data, in particular data in digital AGS format, and the creation of a simple to use and sustainable workflow. As there is no legal obligation to deposit site investigation records, BGS has to rely on good will by the depositor and importantly need the client’s permission so a lot of the work will focus on communication and education around the process. We hope this approach will release and unlock the estimated 80% of site investigation data that are still hidden within the geotechnical industry leading to a major shift in the availability of borehole data for the benefit of all.

The success of any data sharing initiative is down to those who are willing to buy into the process and commit their own data. This takes time and resources, and so we are grateful to all who have donated their information in the past and continue to do so today. By working together to achieve a common goal, we have been able to save potentially millions of pounds in unnecessary site investigation costs.

For more information, please contact

Friday, 8 June 2018

From lab to Lake Victoria, Kenya: a student learning Kelsey Ferris

Kelsey standing on floating Tilapia cages on Lake Victoria, Kenya.
My name is Kelsey Ferris, a Biotechnology student from the University of Waikato, New Zealand. I am half way through my one-year placement with the British Geological Survey, working in the Inorganic Geochemistry Laboratories in Keyworth, Nottingham.

I have been supporting Dr Andy Marriott in his project - Aquaculture: Pathway to food security in Kenya, looking at the link between anthropogenic pollution in Lake Victoria and the geochemical content in caged and wild fish, sediments and lake water. We are investigating the impact this has on health and nutritional quality of aquaculture farmed fish, and the potential of aquaculture to strengthen food security and sustainability for the region. My main role as an analyst in this project is to test the total mercury content of sediments and wild and caged fish tissue, and the water quality parameters taken from key locations in the Winam Gulf of Lake Victoria.

Andy and I partnered with Dr Tracey Coffey from the School of Veterinary Science (University of Nottingham), Professor Odipo Osano from the School of Environmental Sciences (University of Eldoret) and key stakeholders in Kenya’s aquaculture industry, including an excellent research team from the Kenyan Marine Fisheries Research Institution (KMFRI) led by Dr Chris Aura and local aquaculture cage owners.

I was lucky enough to be a part of the fieldwork aspect of the project, and have recently returned from a 10 day trip to Kenya for sampling. We spent 3 days and nights on the largest tropical lake in the world, surrounded by locals in their traditional canoes and floating plant islands which are home to monitor lizards, birds and even hippos. Whilst on board the KMFRI research vessel R.V. Uvumbuzi, we conducted transects of Lake Victoria to be sampled for waters, sediments, and wild and caged Tilapia.

Visual examination of the waters highlighted possible causes of  pollution into the lake indicated by their colouration, which ranged from a vivid green (algal blooms) close to the city of Kisumu and also Siaya County (where intensive cage culture was observed), brown water rich in particulates throughout Winam Gulf, and clear water as we entered the main Lake Victoria basin. This trend was consistent with the strong H2S aroma from sediment samples, an early indication of possible eutrophic conditions due to human interactions. One of my tasks was collecting and filtering water for elemental analysis by ICP-MS and anions by Ion Chromatography in the Inorganic Geochemistry labs, so it was a relief to enter the clear waters so that my thumb could have a rest from the filtering.

From L-R: The RV Uvumbuzi crew, KMFRI researchers with Kelsey preparing to collect water and fish samples;
Assisting in the subsampling of caged Tilapia fish tissue.
As a placement student I have travelled all the way from the University of Waikato to work at The British Geological Survey, and have now had the chance to do fieldwork on Lake Victoria and at the University of Eldoret. The student programme that BGS offers is extremely beneficial because of the combination of routine analytical testing and hands-on fieldwork, which contributes to important real-world research projects. My placement has been very valuable to my studies, allowing me to apply my theoretical knowledge into a practical work environment, and strengthen my initiative and drive to contribute to the scientific community. From wearing a lab coat to a life jacket, you never know where a science degree may take you!