Friday, 24 June 2016

BGS Hackathon... by Patrick Bell

BGS developers Wayne Shelley and Steve Richardson
get inventive at the NASA Space Apps Challenge Hack
held at the Met Office in 2014
BGS staff are holding a hackathon on 19-20 July at its Keyworth headquarters. Teams of 4-6 people will address scientific challenges and develop prototype solutions in a relaxed, informal, collaborative atmosphere. Example challenges include:
  • immersive visualisation of spatial data using video game engines
  • machine learning using Google technology
  • unleashing the BGS text corpus amassed over the last 180 years using new semantic web technologies
  • crowdsourced earthquake sensing using smartphones
  • enhanced processing of National Geological Repository digital assets

With more challenges still to be confirmed, this promises to be an exciting two days of interaction and creativity as our software developers, graphic designers and Communications team work together alongside our scientists to spark innovative uses of our technology and data assets to help answer key scientific questions facing society today.

Examples of BGS data delivery systems created by
our in-house software development team
At the end of the event, a judging panel will award the winning team with staff time to pursue their idea further. All teams will keep a video diary and write a blog so we’ll be able to share the outputs of their activities with you.
Keep an eye on our social media channels for updates throughout the event. And yes, we’ll no doubt be eating pizza!

BGS’s in-house software development team has extensive experience of creating award winning systems to visualise and provide access to geoscientific data and information. Examples include OpenGeoscience, UK Soil Observatory, OneGeology and the iGeology mobile app, which is now approaching nearly 300 000 downloads. We hope the hack will provide a springboard to a new generation of products.

We hope the hackathon will uncover exciting new ways to
visualise and interact with data like this augmented sandbox
If this sounds like fun, we are currently expanding our team and recruiting a number of positions including software developers, geospatial application developers, DevOps specialists and data scientists. These positions will be based across our Nottingham headquarters or Edinburgh office. This is a rare opportunity to join us and help shape our future as we expand and continue to modernise our Informatics skills to support our ambition to be a global leader of 'Informatics in geoscience' and remain relevant and competitive within the current IT landscape. For further details and to apply, please visit

Why is Glastonbury so muddy? ... by Rachel Dearden

Muddy Glastonbury, courtesy of Amanda Borrhamm
The Glastonbury festival is famous for turning into a quagmire seemingly every year. It’s almost an expected highlight of the event!

But why is it so muddy?

The geology underlying the festival site near Pilton comprises the Blue Lias and Charmouth Mudstone Formation. The key is in the name ‘Mudstone’. This Sedimentary Bedrock was formed approximately 183 to 204 million years ago in the Jurassic and Triassic Periods when the local environment was dominated by shallow lime-mud seas.
The bedrock of an area directly influences the type of soil present at the surface and thus at the festival site; the soil is very clay rich (around a third of the soil is clay) and it forms a deep mud when it is churned up.
Glastonbury Festival bedrock and superficial geology map

Soils like those at Glastonbury are densely packed mixtures of fine clay- and silt-sized particles, with only very small amounts of sand and organic matter. David Entwisle, Engineering geologist, says that it’s the plasticity of the soil that really matters; as clay absorbs water, its consistency and behaviour changes. It’s volume increases (it starts to swell) and it becomes a malleable, or in less technical terms - a squidgy mess.
Muddy Glastonbury, courtesy of Amanda Borrhamm

At the Glastonbury festival site, the plasticity is medium to high, so when it rains, the ground will quickly become very wet and malleable, and it won’t drain away because the underlying rocks have low permeability too (so the water cannot soak away through them) and the site lies within a valley (a lovely bowl of mud).  Vehicles, wellies, shoes and feet remould the surface, mixing the water and clay together, reducing the flow of water into the ground even more and increasing the depth of mud.

If you want to find out more about the geology of the UK go to our Geology of Britain viewer  and if you’re particularly interested in soils explore our UK Soil Observatory Map viewer or our mySoil app (we’d love a soil description from a festival go-er).

Thursday, 16 June 2016

Continental Drilling and South Korea…by Melanie Leng

The ICDP Executive Committee on Jeju Island
In early June each year the International Continental scientific Drilling Program (ICDP) committee meets to assess applications for drilling deep holes in the Earth. This year the meeting was held on Jeju Island (off South Korea). Here Melanie Leng explains a bit about ICDP, the UK’s geoscience community involvement and her trip to South Korea...

The UK is a member of the ICDP and this enables consortiums of geoscientists from the UK (in collaboration with other member countries) to apply for funding to deep drill the earth through kilometres of sediments and rocks in order to get cores of pristine material for scientific study (take a look at the ICDP website for more information on current projects).

There are many reasons we want to take long cores through the Earth and, like many applications that were assessed in South Korea, they often involve assessing natural hazards including volcano and impact structures, searching for resources and understanding past climates.

Both workshop and drilling proposals were assessed at the meeting and the outcomes will be published soon on the ICDP website.

A volcano on Jeju Island (L) and steps up to the crater (R)
As well as assessing drilling proposals the ICDP committee visited some outstanding geological sites on Jeju Island. In 2007 the UNESCO World Heritage Committee listed “Jeju Volcanic Island and Lava Tubes” as a World Natural Heritage site in view of the islands outstanding examples of volcanoes and lava tubes. We visited a lava tube system at Manjanggul and the volcanic cinder cone of Seongsan Ilchulbong Peak. Both the lava tube and cinder cone are amazing examples of their types. The cinder cone can be accessed by a series of steps ascending the 200m to the rim, which reveals an almost perfect volcanic cone as a result of an underwater eruption approx. 5000 years ago. The lava tube, formed by a lava flow crystallizing from the outside inwards, now forms a 7 km long cave system (the central lava crystallizes more slowly was emptied from the tube leaving a long tube-like structure. We also had the opportunity to visit Jeju Stone Park, which was inspired by Jeju’s history of spiritual myths and legends associated with the creation of the volcanic island. There are amazing natural and manmade basalt sculptures...

Jeju Stone Park with sculpture from basalt 
Back to ICDP, the UK has key personnel within the program. Prof John Ludden (BGS Director) sits on the Assembly of Governors, I sit on the Executive Committee and Dr Kathryn Goodenough (BGS) is part of the Science Advisory Group.

Please feel free to contact us about ICDP activities. The next deadline for ICDP drilling and workshop proposals is January 2017. You can also keep up to date with ICDP-UK through our website.

For more information please contact Melanie Leng.

Thursday, 2 June 2016

Reconstructing Wildlife Populations in East Africa (Mara Triangle, Kenya) using Faecal Sterol Christopher Vane

Chris Vane collecing elephant
dung samples


Over the last few years the Organic Geochemists at the British Geological Survey (BGS) have been successfully analysing human sourced faecal waste in UK soils and sediments in order to assess the extent of treatment, frequency of raw sewage pollution release and how this corresponds to pollutants and pathogens. One outcome of this work has been to show that sediments often contain distinct faecal chemical 'fingerprints' from other sources namely, domestic and wild animals (Vane et al., 2011)

The Big Idea

Long–term collaborators Chris Vane (BGS) and Andy Kemp (University Tufts) teamed up with Chris Dutton, University of Yale to explore the idea of whether the faecal sterols (a class of organic molecules) found in animal waste and disseminated in sediments could be used to reconstruct past wildlife populations in Africa. Understanding how wildlife populations have changed over long periods (1000 years) through time is an important conservation goal particularly in Kenya and Tanzania where safari tourism is an important source of income for local communities. External funding was sought and won to evaluate faecal matter from a range of key species with the long-term aim to then apply this information to sediment cores from watering holes.

Field Campaign

Our study area was, close to the Kenyan-Tanzanian border, we camped in woodland on the edge of the savannah enabling a daily collection campaign like no other.  Fortunately, we were in good hands with knowledge and logistical support from the Mara Conservancy who gave permission to explore most of the conservancy via land rover and supplied an armed ranger for the collection of fresh samples on foot.  The team tracked and collected fresh faecal samples from a huge variety of animals including, elephant, ostrich, hippopotamus, zebra, lion, giraffe, baboon, wildebeest, buffalo, topi, hyena, leopard, cheetah, warthog, crocodile as well as domestic cattle and sediments from the Mara and Talek rivers. In order to account for dietary and locational/migratory differences we sampled from multiple individuals and herds across the Mara conservancy.

A selection of the huge variety of animals that were tracked and fresh faecal samples collected from.
From L-R: Black back jackal, elephants, lions, giraffes, hyena. 

Faecal Sterol Database

Organic Geochemists at BGS, Drs Chris Vane, Alex Kim assisted by University of Nottingham placement student Katherine Edgley are currently (May-August 2016)  busy preparing, separating and measuring the concentrations of 14 different sterols using Gas-Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry, a technique used to analyse and quantify organic compounds. The aim of this was to build a database from which the wildlife populations of the past can be tracked even in disseminated sediments. Preliminary results look promising with clear differences between major species.


Vane, C.H., Kim, A.W. McGowan, S., Leng, M.J., Heaton, T.H.E. Coombs, P. Kendrick, C.P., Yang, H., Swann, G.E.A.  2010. Sedimentary record of sewage pollution using faecal marker compounds in contrasting peri-urban shallow lakes. Science of the Total Environment 409, 345-356.

For up to date information about this on-going  project or other Organic Geochemical studies at BGS please contact Chris Vane (email