Friday, 29 December 2017

A potted history of geological survey in Northern Kirstin Lemon

GSNI staff on Curran Strand, Portrush in October 2016
The Geological Survey of Northern Ireland is celebrating 70 years of public service this year. Although merely a young thing in comparison to other Geological Surveys around the world, the GSNI certainly punches above its weight when it comes to delivering top-class geoscience information. Kirstin Lemon explores a bit more of the history of this ‘small but perfectly formed’ Geological Survey.

The first geological survey

The island of Ireland can lay claim to having the first government involvement in geological research when in 1832 Captain JE Portlock was appointed as a geologist to the Ordnance Survey. In 1845, the geological branch of the Ordnance Survey was incorporated into the Geological Survey of Great Britain and during the next 50 years a primary geological survey of the whole of Ireland was conducted. After the task was complete, limited revisions were carried out with the exception of resurveys of Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Belfast and Londonderry and in 1905 mapping ceased over much on the country. In 1921, when the partition of Ireland occurred, all of the maps and memoirs relating to Northern Ireland were housed in the Ordnance Survey in Belfast.

A country in need

Between 1922 and 1946, there was no geological survey in Northern Ireland and any geological advice came from the small geology department at Queen’s University. The only exception to this was during World War II when a number of special investigations were carried out by geologists from the Geological Survey of Great Britain to identify resources such as aluminium ore (bauxite) that were critical for the war effort. 

After the war, it became clear that detailed scientific investigations were required to identify mineral resources in Northern Ireland and in 1947, the GSNI was established as an Agency Service operated for the Department of Economic Development (now the Department for the Economy) by the British Geological Survey, an arrangement that still exists to this day.

Seven decades of subsurface science 

Since its creation, the GSNI has provided impartial and independent geoscience information and advice to assist with decision-making, primarily to help develop Northern Ireland’s economy. Over the past seven decades some of the scientific research that has been carried out the GSNI has made a huge impact on the economy and is still continuing to do so today. A few of the highlights over the past 70 years have been highlighted below.


GSNI field geologists in the 1950s
GSNI has been actively engaged in mineral exploration since it was first formed. One of the first projects was in the Tyrone and Ballycastle Coalfields. In the 1950s, a number of boreholes were drilled to determine the reserves in these two areas that led to small extensions of the known fields, extending the lives of the mines. Although all of the coals mines have now closed, the work of GSNI helped to prolong the activity of these important economic resources.


In the early 1960s, an aeromagnetic survey was carried out across Northern Ireland by the GSNI that identified a number of deep basins containing sedimentary rocks that were obscured by the Antrim plateau. As a result, deep boreholes were drilled to explore the sedimentary basins at Larne, Magilligan and Port More in search of salt, anhydrite, gypsum and coal. The Larne borehole helped to prove nearly 500m thickness of rock salt and the interest created in the publication of these results helped to establish the salt mines in Co. Antrim that are still active to this day.


Much work had been carried out by mineral exploration companies in Northern Ireland and in the early 1970s, the GSNI carried out a reconnaissance stream sediment survey over parts of the Sperrin Mountains, areas that were not of interest to the industry. The publication of these results in formerly neglected areas has attracted major company attention leading to further mineral exploration activity. The Sperrin Mountains are now home to one of the only gold mines in the UK and Ireland at Cavanacaw and the seventh largest undeveloped deposit in the world by grade at Curraghinalt.  
Staff outside the GSNI offices in College Gardens, Belfast in the 1970s

The GSNI carried out a major evaluation of groundwater in the late 1970s, leading to the publication of a report on the potential of the Lagan Valley. This work led to the abstraction of groundwater at a number of sites in the Belfast and Lisburn areas including by major companies such as Coca Cola who have specifically chosen their location as a result of this work.


During the early 1980s, GSNI designed and supervised a drilling programme to investigate the lignite potential of Northern Ireland. A number of boreholes were drilled to the south and south-west of Lough Neagh, around Coagh and near Ballymoney and substantial thicknesses of lignite were encountered. Although there was enough lignite identified for to fuel a lignite power station, the environmental impact of such a development was deemed so great that a moratorium on further exploration has been in place ever since.  


In the 1990s, GSNI became one of the first Geological Surveys to actively support geological-based tourism with the initiation of the Landscapes from Stone project in conjunction with the Geological Survey of Ireland (GSI). This project identified walking and driving tours, and produced a number of popular publications that would pave the way for further projects.

Towards the end of the 1990s, the GSNI together with counterparts in in the GSI began to plan an integrated project to acquire continuous regional geochemical and airborne geophysical data across the whole island. Building on the success of individual local geochemical and geophysical surveys it was identified that such a project could stimulate further exploration throughout the island of Ireland. In 1998, when the Good Friday Agreement was signed, the project proposal received the support of the Chief Scientific Advisor to the President of the USA.


In 2001, GSNI was instrumental in establishing the first Geopark in the UK that would then go on to become the first cross-border Global Geopark in the world in 2008. GSNI has since been a trailblazer leading the way for Global Geoparks to ultimately become UNESCO Global Geoparks.
One of the many awards being received as part of the Tellus project

In 2004, the Tellus project began and was the most concentrated geological mapping project ever undertaken in Northern Ireland. The project was set to be the first phase in a series that would ultimately achieve the vision that was first thought of in the 1990s to acquire continuous dara across the whole of the island of Ireland.  The Tellus project produced new geochemical and geophysical maps that enhanced the understanding of the geology, soils natural resources and the environment of Northern Ireland.

The Tellus project received three industry awards from the Chartered Institute of Public Relations and Public Relations Institute of Ireland, the 'Country Award' in the prestigious annual industry awards sponsored by the Mining Journal, and 'Innovation and Best Practice Award', in the Central Government Category for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Geographic Information.


The early part of the 2010s concentrated on the more focused application of the data acquired during the Tellus project, with both mineral exploration and environmental objectives. This was also accompanied by the extension of the project across the Irish border and the creation of the Tellus Border project, that included not only further airborne geophysical surveys and ground geochemical samples but also allowed for the merging of the two datasets to provide a continuous suite of data. 

In 2011, GSNI became involved with the IRETHERM project, an academic-government-industry collaborative research project aiming to develop a holistic understanding of the geothermal energy potential of the island of Ireland. GSNI has also been working with DfE licence holders to explore the potential for compressed air energy storage (CAES) in the thick salt beds located in East Antrim. CAES uses excess electricity to pump compressed air undergoudn which can then be released to the surface to generate electricity when demand is high. Both projects go some way to demonstrating GSNI’s commitment to ensuring energy security and enhancing sustainability.

What does the future hold?

GSNI still has at its heart carrying out scientific research for the public good of Northern Ireland. There is still a large focus on providing impartial and independent geoscientific advice for the benefit of the economy, but societal challenges mean that the nature of this work has evolved. GSNI now also has a role to play in contributing to the green economy by searching for alternative energy sources, providing information that helps to monitor the natural environment, contributing to the acquisition of data that helps safeguard both human and animal health, and helping to develop sustainable tourism resources. A lot has changed in 70 years, but this ‘small but perfectly formed’ geological survey continues to develop and adapt to the needs of the citizens of Northern Ireland and will do so for many, many years to come. 

Saturday, 23 December 2017

Geo-Ho-Ho: The 12 Days of a BGS Kirstin Lemon

It seems that everyone has been doing advent calendars with a geology theme, so to be a little different we're going for the 12 days of Christmas instead. It's all in the hope that by the time the 12 Days begin we'll all be lying around the house with time on our hands. So grab a cup of tea, a big slice of Christmas cake, relax, and enjoy the 12 Days of a BGS Christmas.

Day 1: Christmas Cards

As part of the BGS Archives we hold a collection of Christmas Cards sent by John Vernon Harrison in the 1920s. JV Harrison was born in 1892 and graduated in Chemistry and Geology from the University of Glasgow in 1914. From 1916 to 1918 he served with the Royal Engineers in Mesopotamia and then in 1918 he joined the geological staff of the Anglo Persian Oil Company. He carried out fieldwork in Persia and Iraq, and also travelled extensively including to Honduras, USA, Mexico, North Borneo, Hong Kong, Japan, Canada, Peru, Jamaica, Venezuela, Trinidad and Colombia. He sent many Christmas cards using photos from his travels all of which are available to view in GeoScenic.
One of the many Christmas cards sent by JV Harrison. This one is from the volcano of Poas in Costa Rica in 1832.

Day 2: Christmas Eve Landslide

We maintain the National Landslide Database that has over 16500 records of landslides from across the country. Much of this information is gathered from surveys and reports by the Landslide Response Team and much of this is from historical evidence. One such historical landslide occurred in Whitby on Christmas Eve in 1787 in the area now known as Henrietta Street. Just under 200 families were left destitute as a result of the catastrophe and together with subsequent landslides in the same area resulted in Henrietta Street being significantly shorter in length.

Day 3: Christmas Day Earthquake (or not)

The UK Seismograph Network
We operate a network of over 100 seismograph stations across the UK meaning that continuous data from nearly all is transmitted directly to our office in Edinburgh. But what about in our historical past? We have carried out research into historical seismicity in the UK pre-1600 and tried to work out whether the information recorded really was from an earthquake or not. One such event was in Stirling on Christmas Day in 1034. This was recorded as an earthquake in the Chronicles of Boece (a 16th Century philosopher and historian) but our research has concluded that it wasn't an earthquake at all but was more likely to be a landslide or a bog-burst!

Day 4: Christmas Lectures

This very British Christmas tradition was begun by Michael Faraday in 1825, and now the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures are delivered annually as a series of lectures on a single topic that are specifically aimed at the general public, especially children. The topics vary widely and have included How to Survive in Space, Crystals & Lasers, and The Message in the Genes to name but a few. Whilst there has not been a lecture series dedicated to specifically to geology (yet!), all of the topics are designed to inspire and engage the next generation of scientists which is something that BGS actively tries to encourage. This year's Christmas Lectures are being delivered by Prof Sophie Scott from University College London who will lead the way on a fascinating journey through one of the fundamentals of human and animal life which is our unstoppable urge to communicate, very appropriate for our Christmas GeoBlogy!

Day 5: North Pole

We all know that Santa lives in the North Pole and to find him, all we need to do is look at our compass and follow it North. But did you know that the magnetic field of the Earth is changing slowly every day and in 2014, for the first time in 350 years, we saw the direction of magnetic north move from being west of grid north to east of grid north. At BGS, our geomagnetism team measures, records, models and interpret variations in the Earth's magnetic field. In the UK, we run three magnetic observatories that constantly monitor the change in the Earth's magnetic field, in Lerwick in Shetland, Eskdalemuir in Dumfries and Galloway, and Hartland in Devon.

Day 6: Reindeer

The Bone Caves at Inchnadamph
Listed in our Secret Geology pages, the Inchnadamph Bone Caves, Assynt in Scotland are where the bones of bears, reindeer and wolves that once roamed this part of the country have been discovered. There are four caves in total that formed thousands of years ago, before the last ice age, as water gradually dissolved the limestone along cracks and fissures. The caves here are only shallow and are the remains of a larger cave system that extended over a wide area. Over thousands of years, the valley has gradually deepened, cutting away part of the cave system, and leaving the caves we see today high and dry on the valley side. Excavations have unearthed the bones of wolves, bears, lynxes and arctic foxes that took refuge in these caves when Scotland’s climate was much colder than it is now. Reindeer bones and antlers have also been found, but reindeer are unlikely to have entered the caves, and so it is unclear how these remains accumulated.

Day 7: Snowflake Obsidian

The chances of getting a picture postcard Christmas with crisp white snow in the UK are pretty slim. Perhaps the best chance of getting any kind of 'snowflake' is to get your hands on some snowflake obsidian. Obsidian is a type of volcanic glass formed when lava cools down so quickly that crystals don't have time to form. In the case of snowflake obsidian, this usually dark-coloured glassy rock contains white spots that resemble snowflakes that are known as spherulites. Obsidian is relatively unstable (in a geological timescale) and it is rare to find any that is older than around 20 million years. As a result, over time the obsidian undergoes a process called devitrification whereby it loses its glassy texture and crystals form which is what the 'snowflakes' are. Because of this characteristic, obsidian is only found in areas with recent volcanic activity so there are no outcrops in the UK but there are significant deposits in volcanically active countries such as Mexico, Iceland and Indonesia.

Day 8: Puddingstone

Christmas pudding is a much celebrated part of a Christmas dinner in the UK but in geological circles we have a 'pudding' of our own. The Hertfordshire Puddingstone is a type of conglomerate made up of rounded flint pebbles held together by a silcrete matrix and it gets its unusual name as the rounded flint pebbles are thought to resemble the plums in a traditional Christmas pudding. Puddingstone is very hard which led to it having a variety of uses including as supplementary building stone and being used as querns by the Romans.

Day 9: Glitter

What would Christmas and New Year be without a bit of sparkle? Before the modern use of plastic glitter, there were many other ways to 'bling' up your home and body using minerals that are known to both geologists and non-geologists alike. Glitter has been used as decoration from as early as 30,000 years ago when mica flakes were used to give cave paintings a glittering appearance, and Prehistoric humans were also believed to have used hematite to give cosmetics a bit of sparkle too. The ancient Egyptians produced glittering cosmetics using finely ground malachite, and it is now thought Mayan temples were sometimes painted with glitter paint made from mica dust.

Day 10: Coal

Coal miners in a Midlands Colliery, 1944
Coal is often associated with Christmas as you would have been given a lump in your stocking if you were on Santa's naughty list. Coal occurs in the form of layers in sequences in sedimentary rocks with almost all onshore coal resources in the UK being within rocks of Carboniferous age. Coal is made up of the remains of plants from millions of years ago, making it a fossil fuel, and it was mined in the UK from as far back as Roman times. Coal mining in the UK dramatically increased during the Industrial Revolution and reached a peak in 1913 when 287 million tonnes was produced. The use of coal has been steadily decreasing, and it was announced in April 2017 that the UK had gone for its first day without coal generated electricity since the Industrial Revolution.

Day 11: Gold

Gold is synonymous with Christmas but did you know that gold is a mineral that occurs widely in the UK. It has been worked from a few areas, notably in southern and northern Scotland, near Dogellau in Wales, in south-west England and in Co. Tyrone, Northern Ireland. In the 1860s, following the excitement of the Californian gold rush, northern Scotland experienced its very own gold rush, initiated by the discovery of alluvial gold in the Helmsdale River by a miner recently returned from Australia. The excitement was short-lived and the bedrock source was never found. However, scientific advances since then in the understanding of how gold deposits are formed have led to the discovery of new deposits and the revisiting of old ones, all of which use BGS baseline data as a starting point in the exploration process. There are currently gold mines operating in two areas of the UK; one in Cononish, near Tyndrum in the Scottish Highlands and the other in the Sperrin Mountains, in Co. Tyrone, Northern Ireland.

The Sperrin Mountains in Northern Ireland

Day 12: Christmas Trees

Nearly every home in the UK will be lit up with the lights of a Christmas tree this festive season but have you ever stopped to think about where Christmas trees, or specifically, conifers come from. The fossil record shows that they originated in Europe and North America in the Carboniferous period around 310 million years ago. At the BGS we hold more than three million fossils collected over two centuries and one of these collections was assembled by botanist Joseph Hooker (Darwin's best friend) while he was briefly employed at BGS in 1846. These comprise hundreds of beautiful thins sections of fossil wood including some fine examples of fossil conifers, some of which date back to the Jurassic period and beyond.

Monday, 18 December 2017

When did the “isotope” age of humans guest blogger Jonathan Dean

The Anthropocene is the concept that humans have had such an impact upon the functioning of the Earth system that a new geological time interval should be designated to signify this. This will probably mean that the current epoch, called the Holocene, which started 11,700 years ago when the Earth warmed up naturally at the end of the last glacial, will be designated as having ended and the Anthropocene as beginning. However, scientists are currently arguing over when exactly the Anthropocene began – was it thousands of years ago when ancient farmers started chopping down trees, at the time of the Industrial Revolution when coal started to be burnt in vast quantities, or after the Second World War when there was the rapid industrialisation of much of the world?

We decided that we would use our expertise in stable isotope geochemistry to review the evidence that isotopes provide for human impacts on the Earth system. Isotopes are different types of an element – they have the same number of protons but a different number of neutrons. The ratio of one isotope of an element to another can change due to human impacts. Therefore, we can use these isotope ratio changes to investigate when the human impact on the Earth really reached the extent to which we might want to define the Anthropocene as having begun.

The carbon isotope ratio shows a big shift, recording the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere because of the burning of fossil fuels. Boron isotopes show there has been ocean acidification, related to this release of carbon dioxide. The nitrogen isotope ratio also shows a shift, recording in particular the increased production of artificial fertilisers. Lead and sulphur isotopes record air pollution related to human activities. While some of these isotopes show changes millennia ago, indicating a long history of human impacts on the environment, overall it was around 1950 that isotopes really suggest there was a big change in the functioning of the Earth system, when humans became the dominant force of global environmental change. This is around the time of the so called ‘Great Acceleration’, when human population growth and industrialisation really took off, leading to the sorts of impacts that the isotopes record.

If we did set the Anthropocene boundary at around 1950, we need what is called a ‘golden spike’ – something that will be locked away in the rock record and that in a million years time a geologist could find and use as a marker for when the Anthropocene began. Isotopes can also help with this as isotopes of plutonium were released around 1950 because of atmospheric nuclear bomb testing. These isotopes did not really exist on Earth before this, and because their occurrence coincides with this ‘Great Acceleration’ in human impacts on the Earth, this can be used as the golden spike.
So, isotopes are a useful tool in the quest to establish when the Anthropocene really began and to provide a marker for this in the geological record. A committee of scientists will take the final decision in the coming years, so watch this space…

Dr Jonathan Dean is a Lecturer in Physical Geography at the University of Hull, and until this year worked at the British Geological Survey. His book chapter, written with Prof Melanie Leng from the Stable Isotope Facility at the British Geological Survey and Prof Anson Mackay from University College London, is now out in the Encyclopaedia of the Anthropocene and can be accessed here:

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

A scenic tour of Scotland’s dynamic glacial Romesh Palamakumbura

John Merritt describing the Alturlie Gravels that formed
from a retreating ice sheet.
Recently BGS staff hosted a field excursion to look at the spectacular glacial geomorphology in the Inverness-Nairn area of NE Scotland. This trip attracted 37 leading academic scientists from across the UK, Poland and Sweden. BGS colleagues Jon Merritt, Clive Auton and Emrys Phillips of BGS expertly led the field trip. Over the 4 days we looked at ancient glacial landscapes, newly discovered moraines, world-class glacial deposits and extraordinary glacial landscape features. There is also a comprehensive field guide of around 250 pages, will be available from the Quaternary Research Association soon.

To Moraine or not to Moraine

An optional day to start, organised by Martin Kirkbride and Adrian Hall, took us high into the Cairngorm Mountains to look at a newly defined moraine that represents the development of a Little Ice Age glacier in Coire an Lochain. Martin presented evidence for his interpretation of the moraine, with combination of geomorphology, cosmogenic dating and glacial modelling. Fortunately, his hypothesis managed to withstand the scrutiny of the party, even as the rain started to pour! Check out his paper.

Its main event time!

The following three days were the main field trip, which explored the glacial landscapes and features along the edge of the Moray Firth. We started off at Alturlie Point where we looked at deltaic deposits related to a retreating Moray Firth ice-stream. There was much debate regarding the presence of gravel in the deposit and whether these could possibly represent kettle hole deposits in the delta. Elsewhere quickly deposited gravels resulted in some very eye-catching soft-sediment load structures.

Following on from this we went on to the SSI site at Ardersier to look at world-class folding and soft-sediment deformation structures in the Ardersier Silts. Emrys Phillips guided us through these complex structures, showing the benefits of applying some structural geology knowledge to glaciology, a fantastic example of interdisciplinary collaboration in science. This spectacular site shows the power of a moving glacier and how it can deform sediments, representing a crumple zone in fore-front of the glacier.

From L-R: Ball and pillow soft structures in the Ardesier Silts; Sandy inter-beds within the Alturlie Gravels.

Seriously, this is a rock?

Day 2 and the impressive geology kept coming. We started by looking at the Old Red Sandstone. Upon arrival we find a “rock” that can be dug out with a spade. This remarkable change in character is due to the de-calcification of the rocks, making them a pale white colour, providing a very soft section. It’s the hydrofracturing that really captures the imagination of the group. The pressure and movement of the glacier above has resulted in high-pressured water causing fractures in the bedrock. The fractures are filled with clay and contains broken up pieces of the surrounding Old Red Sandstone.

From L-R: The group exploring hydrofracture networks in the Old Red Sandstone, related to an overriding glacier;
 Decalcification and hydrofractures in the Old Red Sandstone. 

Landscapes and deposits of the Findhorn Valley

The final day of the trip was spent in the stunning and picturesque Findhorn Valley. Incredibly, the valley has Devonian (420-360 Ma) aged deposits, suggesting that it was also a valley in the Devonian time. This was a natural point for Adrian Hall (also a BGS VRA) to jump in and give us an overview of ancient landscapes in the area. This resulted in a spirited debate on the uplift history of Scotland. Was the Scottish Highlands ever covered in Cretaceous-aged chalk? We certainly see them in the offshore area, but how far did this extend on-land? Watch this space for some very exciting science in the future!

From L-R: An overview of the Findhorn Valley; Climbing ripples in the Findhorn Valley. 
The final section of the trip was in the river cliffs along the River Findhorn. The 15 m thick section exposed, represents glacial-meltwater draining from an ice-front resulting in small delta/fan pro-grading down the valley. The energy of the delta system was represented by metre sized rip-up blocks that are now entrained in the fluvial deposits. A more recently exposed section shows lacustrine rhythmites and spectacular photogenic climbing ripples that underlie the glacial delta deposits, representing older phases of the glacial delta/fan system.

Overall, a fascinating trip which provided an excellent opportunity to see some of the most interesting glacial features and deposits in Scotland. Most importantly the excursions created an environment for lively and enthusiastic debate. Many thanks to field trip leaders for organising a fantastic trip and I look forward to QRA/GLWG 2018 in sunny Iceland!

Monday, 11 December 2017

Using fossilised algae to detect historical Heather Moorhouse

DeepCHALLA is an International Continental Scientific Drilling Programme project investigating ~250,000 years of climate change using lake sediment cores from Challa, a 92m crater lake on the Kenyan-Tanzanian border. Dr Heather Moorhouse from Lancaster University explains how fossilised diatoms have been purified from the sediments ready for isotope analysis at the Stable Isotope Facility, British Geological Survey.

The DeepCHALLA project is a large, international consortium of scientists investigating ~250,000 years of climate and ecosystem change in equatorial east Africa using sediment cores from lake Challa. My role, along with Principal Investigators Prof. Philip Barker at Lancaster University and Prof. Mel Lang at BGS is to test whether mega-droughts (lasting up to thousands of years) from ~130-190,000 years before present, may have resulted in the dispersal of our hominin ancestors out of Africa. Further, this region is drought-sensitive and improved understanding of past climate will help predict and prepare the area for future climate change as our planet warms.

In order to investigate the historical climate of the region, we are using diatoms found in the lake sediment cores. Diatoms are a common and abundant member of the phytoplankton community; the microscopic single-celled organisms found in all surface waters, which produce energy from sunlight. They bloom in Challa in the summer and when they die, they sink to the lake floor and form noticeable diatom-rich layers in the sediments, which accumulate over time. Because Challa is a deep crater lake with little shoreline or shallow lake habitats, it is a relatively simple system leading to low diatom diversity, dominated by two species; Afrocymbella and Nitzschia species.

From L-R: Two of the DeepCHALLA lake sediment core sections - the lighter layers are rich in diatoms; Difference
 between a sample rich in diatoms (left) and a sample with little diatoms and more mineral matter (right).
In particular, we are interested in the oxygen isotopes that the diatoms have up-taken from the lake water. Heavier oxygen isotopes indicate higher evaporation rates and so, drier conditions, whereas lighter isotopes indicate more rainfall. Diatoms produce silica or glass cell walls, which protect the isotopes from degradation and thus make ideal proxies for climate reconstructions. Additionally, In terms of investigating isotopes from diatoms the low diversity at Challa is a good thing, as sometimes the size of the species can influence what isotopes they uptake and cause confusion when interpreting results.

Sediment samples were collected this summer from the lake Challa sediment cores from Gent, Belgium (see my previous blog). Since summer, I have been busy in the lab at Lancaster trying to purify ~290 sediment samples so that just diatoms remain. This involves dosing the sediment with hydrochloric acid to remove carbonates, hydrogen peroxide and nitric acid to remove organic material and sieving to remove large particles. Because the sediments of lake Challa are so rich in diatoms, most samples have been processed quite quickly.

SEM image of fossilized diatoms from lake sediment 39 metres deep.
Image shows diatom fragments, Afrocymbella species.
It is important that the diatom samples are as pure as possible as any additional organic or minerogenic material can alter the isotope results. In order to double check the cleanliness of the diatoms, I looked at all the cleaned samples under a light microscope and determined the percentage of diatoms to contaminants. A further subset of samples was investigated using a Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) at Lancaster University, which has a greater magnification to that of a light microscope. Any potential contaminants were scanned using the EDX detector attached to the SEM, which describes the elemental composition of the item in question and again is another great tool to help detect impurity. Luckily most of my samples consisted of diatoms or diatom fragments, and so, are ready to undergo isotope mass spectrometry at BGS, which will begin at the start of next year. Watch this space for what I hope will be some exciting results.

Special thanks to Dr Sara Baldock at Lancaster University for help with the SEM.

Friday, 8 December 2017

The First International Conference of the World Iodine Association…by Olivier Humphrey

Delegates from BGS and the University of Nottingham at the
World Iodine Association conference
In November 2017 a group of students from BGS and the University of Nottingham researching iodine geochemistry and its affect on human health attended the World Iodine Association’s first international conference ‘Iodine in Food Systems and Health’ in Pisa, Italy. The international conference aimed to bring together scientists and other stakeholders working on various aspects of iodine in food systems, to increase understanding on how variations in the earth’s supply of iodine affect human and animal health.

Iodine is an essential micronutrient involved in the production of the thyroid hormones, essential for all mammalian life. Approximately one-third of the world’s population are at risk of iodine deficiency disorders (IDDs). The most common outcome of iodine deficiency is goitre, a swelling of the thyroid gland, however, the most severe effects occur during foetal development; leading to stillbirth, cretinism and mental impairment. The most widely-used method for reducing IDD is implementing iodised salt programmes; however, poor treatment, food processing, losses through volatisation and implementation reduces its effectiveness.

The conference welcome reception was held at the Domus Comeliana, a charming house situated next to the world famous leaning tower. It was here we were given introductory presentations regarding the history of iodine and human health by Dr Elizabeth Pearce. The great work conducted by various organisations towards eliminating global IDD was highlighted by Prof Michael B Zimmermann. After these opening talks, we had our iodine enriched gala dinner consisting of fish, cheeses and, of course, pasta.

Posing in front of the leaning tower of Pisa
I couldn’t resist!
The remainder of the conference was held at the Palazzo dei Congressi where talks were divided into multiple sessions addressing various iodine research related themes. The presentations given covered a wide range of topics including technical hurdles, salt iodisation, international stakeholder organisations’ opinions, before looking at iodine in soil, water and atmosphere. The next step, after looking at iodine in the environment, is to assess iodine in food and health. Dr Sarah Bath, a lecturer in public health nutrition at the University of Surrey, discussed nutritional recommendations for iodine and whether they can be met via dietary sources. Alongside these presentations, there were talks monitoring the iodine status of populations, industrial applications and iodine deficiency and excess in humans and animals.

The final session focused on agronomic biofortification of agricultural produce with iodine and I presented my current work investigating iodine uptake, translocation and storage mechanisms in spinach. Not only was this the World Iodine Association’s first international conference, it was the first conference I had given a presentation at! Despite the wide use of iodised salt, approximately 2 billion people are at risk of IDD, therefore we need to improve and add to current preventative treatments. The fortification of food with iodine is another strategy that can be used to reduce the risk of IDD, however, there is a lack of understanding of how iodine behaves in plants. In general, iodine has positive effects on plants when applied at a low concentration in soils, nutrient solution or foliar sprays. Despite the apparent positive effects on plant growth, the uptake pathways of iodine remain unknown and translocation pathways once absorbed by plants are still disputed. In my research, I have conducted a number of experiments to grasp a fundamental understanding of iodine-plant dynamics and have used isotopically labelled iodine tracers to trace the movement through spinach roots to show that uptake follows both active and passive pathways. This work, and recently published papers, indicates that agronomic biofortification could have a much larger role in tackling IDDs.

Whilst in Pisa, we also visited some key tourist spots, including: the square of miracles where we saw the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta - Duomo, the Baptistery, the Camposanto and the Tower, ate pizza and gelato (when in Rome…). We also managed to spend an afternoon in Lucca, a small city famous for its intact Renaissance-era city walls that surround the city. We wandered around and through the city before climbing the Guinigi Tower, a 45 metre high tower in the middle of the city with seven holm oak trees planted at the top.

My overall impression was that the conference was a great success, the quality of all talks were fantastic and the inclusion of researchers from various backgrounds all investigating iodine was brilliant.

The PhD is supervised under the umbrella of the Centre for Environmental Geochemistry: Dr Scott Young, Dr Liz Bailey and Professor Neil Crout (University of Nottingham) and Dr Louise Ander and Dr Michael Watts (BGS).

Monday, 27 November 2017

Stable Isotope PhD training at the Melanie Leng

In November the BGS hosted the second PhD training course in “Principles and Practise of Stable Isotope Geochemistry in Earth and Environmental Geosciences”. This intensive 2 day course attracted 30 PhD students from across the UK (from St. Andrews to Exeter) who are researching a diverse range of subjects including stable isotopes in Martian analogues, mantle perdotite, Mesolithic artifacts and Namurian shales!

The course had the aims of providing an introduction to general principles of isotope geochemistry (which are very similar across a range of disciplines), understanding notation and standardisation, to mass spectrometry physics. There were also lectures on isotopes and the water cycle and how these get transferred to palaeoclimate archives, how isotopes are used to trace nutrient and pollution cycles, isotopes in ecology and archaeology and also how we apply isotopes to a variety of geological questions, including the genesis of volcanic magmas, ore deposits and geothermal systems.

The course included a tour of the BGS Geological walkway (thanks to Steve Parry), the National Core Repository (thanks to Simon Harris), and the Centre for Environmental Geochemistry (including the stable isotope laboratories).

The responses from a Survey Monkey on the course were overwhelmingly positive, with the course being given an overall rating of 82%. When asked how clearly the course content was presented over 80% of the participants thought the background material and the application of stable isotope science content was presented either “very” or “extremely” clearly. Students were very happy with how their questions were dealt with, all respondents answering either “extremely” or “very” well. The students were also very impressed by the opportunities to network provided throughout the event. The comments about the course were positive: for example “Fantastic course with fantastic staff would like to be kept informed of other events hosted by the BGS” and “Enjoyable and useful course - locating it at BGS also useful for gaining insight to facilities and meeting staff”.

Thanks to all the students who attended (and gave 2 minute / 2 slide fast track presentations on their research which was extremely diverse!) and to the speakers: Adrian Boyce and Jason Newton (from SUERC); Jack Lacey, Angela Lamb, Melanie Leng, Andi Smith (Stable Isotope Facility, BGS)  and Kyle Taylor (Elementar). The course was sponsored by Sercon, Elementar, ThermoFisher and Elemtex. Next year the course will be held at SUERC in East Kilbride.  Check our web or social media or contact Adrian Boyce.

Twitter #stableisotopetraining
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Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Measurement and modelling human dermal bioavailability of potentially harmful organic soil Jack Lort

I am a PhD student who recently started a NERC and BBSRC funded studentship through the STARS Centre for Doctoral Training, working with Prof Paul Nathanail, Dr Christopher Vane and Dr Darren Beriro. Prior to starting my PhD, I studied at Aberystwyth University, gaining a first class degree in BSc Environmental Earth Science and then continuing onto study MSc Environmental Monitoring and Analysis, which I completed in September. These two courses focused heavily on geochemistry, laboratory techniques and contaminated land.

One aim of my PhD project will be to standardise an in vitro method for quantifying the dermal absorption of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) from soils. The project is currently very relevant to the UK, as PAHs are commonly found in elevated concentrations within the soils of brownfield land, especially sites such as former gasworks where PAHs are formed through the incomplete or inefficient combustion of organic materials. There is over 660km2 of brownfield land in England alone, which is larger than the area of the Greater Manchester Built-up area (630km2) which includes: Manchester, Bolton, Stockport, Oldham, Rochdale, Salford and Bury. The Government aims for at least 60% of new builds to be on brownfield land.

What is Dermal Absorption?

The skin is comprised of three principle layers: epidermis, dermis and hypodermis. The Stratum Corneum is the outermost layer of epidermis which is a protective layer to protect underlying tissues. There are four major pathways for a compound to be absorbed through the skin: intercellular (between cells), transcellular (through cells) and two fissure pathways, via hair follicles and sweat glands. There is a distinct difference between the bioavailability and bioaccessibility of a compound. Bioavailability is the proportion of the total concentration of an organic compound in soil that, following exposure, is absorbed into any part of the skin that then may remain local, or be potentially available for uptake by the blood compartment or tissues for storage, release and distribution to one or more target organs. Bioaccessibility is the total amount of a substance available for absorption, which can therefore be used to estimate bioavailability.

What is dermal absorption?

What Are PAHs?

PAH’s are hydrocarbons composed of multiple aromatic rings (organic rings with delocalised electrons) and are hydrophobic (repels or fails to mix with water) and lipophilic (dissolves in lipids or fats) in nature. Although they can be volatile and water-soluble as low molecular-weight hydrocarbons (< 3 rings) such as benzene. PAH have the tendency to bio-accumulate in plant and animal tissues and are a risk to human health as some are known to be mutagenic and carcinogenic. Although there are over 100 PAHs, the US Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) 16 are commonly analysed to assess PAH levels to reduce lab costs and to allow long term trends to be easily identified. Of these, benzo[a]pyrene is the most common marker, due to its highly carcinogenic nature.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

‘Killer facts’ supporting geology in schools and colleges... Prof. Chris King

What ‘killer facts’ will help you to ‘bang the drum’ when you want teaching geology in schools to continue in this climate of austerity, staffing cuts, course closures or you want to launch a brand new geology course in your school/college?

These may be the key ‘killer facts’ for you:

  • students perform better in geology than they do in other science subjects'
  • AS to A2 staying on rate is better in geology than in other science subjects
  • geology contains elements of all the STEM subjects – critical for those who want to continue studying a science 
  • geology is seen as a ‘relevant’ and accessible subject, often more so than other science subjects 
  • geology gives the school/college a ‘unique selling point’ (USP) 
  • geology interests both girls and boys 
  • geology is a popular subject 
  • the UK needs geologists! 
  • geologists are well paid 
  • geology plays a vital role in supporting the economy of the UK 
Download the full Killer facts article originally published in Teaching Earth Sciences, complete with supporting evidence.

Students perform better in geology than they do in other science subjects 

An Ofqual analysis in 2015 showed that A-level geology candidates achieved between 0.6 and 1 grade higher than students of an equal general ability who took other science subjects i.e. biology, chemistry or physics. 

The AS to A2 staying on rate is better in geology than in other science subjects 

Data produced by the inter-board Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) shows that the ‘retention’ (or ‘staying on’) rate for geology from AS- to A2-level for the past three years was significantly higher than for biology, chemistry or physics.

Geology contains elements of all the STEM subjects – critical for those who want to continue studying a science 

Nikki Edwards, ESTA Chair, has recently carried out an analysis of GCSE geology which clearly showed that the geology specification contains significant elements of biology, chemistry, physics, maths and engineering (the STEM subjects). 

Geology is seen as a ‘relevant’ and accessible subject, often more so than other science subjects 

Experience has shown that geology can explain the physical outdoor world in ways not readily accessed by other science subjects. 

 Geology gives the school/college a ‘unique selling point’ (USP) 

Teaching geology gives a school/college many strong selling points that can be used to promote the institution. A particular case study is Truro School, which employed a company to identify its strengths and weaknesses in terms in attracting students and parents – the results showed that the fact that geology was an excellent department, and achieved higher grades and success than other subjects, was a major factor. 

Geology interests both girls and boys 

Candidate data in recent years has shown that A-level entries have been around 2/3 male and 1/3 female. However, in the past two years, whilst male entry has declined, female entry has remained stable. See Figure 2.

Probably the ‘killer facts’ discussed so far are the most likely to persuade senior management of the importance of continuing/launching a GCSE or A-level geology course.

Geology is a popular subject
Morocco fieldwork

Geology is usually a popular subject in institutions where it is offered, and in some school/colleges, it is the most popular science subject.
Chae Cruikshank, Science Subject Advisor and Geology Subject Officer for the Awarding Body OCR, has written:
‘In centres which offer A level geology, it competes very well with the other sciences, and attracts students who may not otherwise take a science A level; an analysis of A level entry data by OCR showed that in 1:10 centres of all sizes, geology was the most popular science by entry, and in most other centres, competed with chemistry as the second science, it was only in those centres where other factors were imposed (such as a limit numbers or reduced time allocated) that geology was less popular.’
Students on geology courses are the happiest with their degrees. Discover why Geology rocks.

The UK needs geologists 

That the country needs geologists is evidenced by the fact that the latest published UK government ‘Shortage Occupation’ lists ten geoscience-related shortage jobs (including geologist) and only one physics-related job (geophysicist), one chemistry-related job (geochemist), one biology-related job (bioinformation technician) and no geography-related jobs.

More than 40% of applicants for undergraduate geology degrees have A-level geology (UCAS data 2010 and 2012).

Approximately 44% of students who gained A-level geology that went on to university studied for a geoscience degree (Earth Science Teachers’ Association, ESTA, data 2009-2014).

Geologists are well paid

The salaries of geologists are higher than those of many other professionals. Geologists at Imperial College London have emerged as the top earners in a league table of graduate salaries published in the Sunday Times Good Universities Guide, 2017. Their average wage of £73,267 six months after leaving university surpasses that of medics and engineers. What do graduates earn’ section of the Complete University Guide lists mean professional starting salaries for subject groups for first time graduates who completed their degrees in 2014-15. This shows that, of the 70 subject areas listed, geology is 17th at £24,818.

Geology plays a vital role in supporting the economy of the UK 
Construction minerals map

A recent Council for British Industry (CBI) report has highlighted the key role played in particular by the minerals industry, in supporting the UK economy.
The UK Mineral Extraction Industry report carries the following comments:
‘Minerals directly contribute to the UK economy by generating £235bn in gross value added, representing 16% of the total UK economy.’ (p5)
‘Excluding oil and gas, mineral extraction employs 34,000 people and is 2.5 times more productive than the UK average.’ (p6).
The economy simply could not function without minerals; without them, life as we know it could not be sustained on its current scale. The message is clear: minerals underpin everything in the UK economy.

A longer version of this article was originally published in Teaching Earth Sciences, Vol. 42 No. 2 2017. 

Monday, 13 November 2017

ISOcycles – conference Monte Verita, Andi Smith and Angela Lamb

Andi Smith and Angela Lamb.
In October 2017 a small group of researchers descended on the Monte Verita conference centre in Ascona, Switzerland. This fantastic conference centre is the venue of choice for Congressi Stefano Franscini, the international conference platform of ETH Zurich. The conference was aimed at bringing together experts from a range of scientific disciplines to discuss the topic of “Reaching an integrated use of stable isotopes to constrain biogeochemical nutrient cycles.” Andi Smith and Angela Lamb attended from the NERC Stable Isotope Facility at the BGS and here Andi discusses the conference in more detail...

The Monte Verita conference centre is perched on the top of a hill in the Swiss Alps not too far from the Italian border and offers an idyllic spot for a scientific conference. In the early 1900s this hilltop sanctuary was home to a vegetarian colony, nudist retreat and then sanatorium. More recently, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich have adopted the venue as their main conference centre and host a range of events throughout the year.

ISOcycles 2017 was aimed at bringing together researchers who were currently using stable isotope science to help understand nutrient cycling within the environment. The conference was filled with a number of diverse keynote talks and shorter presentations by PhD students, as well as several dynamic poster sessions. One key difference from many conferences was that time was set aside for breakout discussions.

From L-R: The view from the balcony at Monte Verita: at the far side of the lake you can just about see Italy; Even during
 the day trip away from the conference centre there were lots of discussions about isotopes and nutrient cycling,
between enjoying the view and taking some photos that is…
Once broken up into teams we were given a series of “homework” assignments all of which aimed towards us becoming a more integrated group of researchers and asked the question “can the integrated use of stable isotopes help to constrain biogeochemical nutrient cycles in more detail than is currently possible using one isotope approach”. This topic was hotly contested, but the general consensus was that we should become more integrated, using multiple isotopic systems to help understand nutrient cycling as a multidimensional process rather than a diverse set of stand-alone processes. Hopefully by starting these discussions the community will work more closely together in the future to tackle some of the remaining questions in nutrient cycling and dynamics. We are already looking forward to the next ISOcycles in 5 years’ time.

Andi Smith and Angela Lamb are part of the Stable Isotope Facility at the BGS.


Thursday, 9 November 2017

Stable Isotope Geochemistry Training course at Charly Briddon

A bit about me…

Hi, my name is Charly and I am a second year PhD student at the University of Nottingham in the School of Geography and part of the Centre for Environmental Geochemistry at the BGS. Let me start by introducing what I do. I am investigating the impact of aquaculture (in this case, the high intensive farming of fish in cages) in freshwater lakes on the island of Luzon, in the Philippines. I will be using the physical, chemical, and biological information (i.e. proxy data or indicators) preserved in sediment profiles to help me reconstruct how past environmental conditions have changed within these lakes.  Stable isotope analysis is an important part of my research as I will be using carbon and nitrogen isotopes to determine changing levels of productivity and sources of organic matter (terrestrial vs. algal) within these lakes. This will help to disentangle the impacts of aquaculture from other catchment effects such as climate.

So  a bit about the stable isotope course…

On the 31st October I joined 29 other PhD students for a two day Stable Isotope Geochemistry Training Course held at the British Geological Survey.  Since we all intended to use stable isotope analysis as part of our research it was an ideal opportunity to learn more about this technique and its many applications. Over the next two days we were treated to a number of very informative lectures starting with an introduction to stable isotopes (Dr Jack Lacey, BGS) and how a mass spectrometer works (Kyle Taylor, Elementar) to the palaeoclimate applications of oxygen isotopes (Prof Melanie Leng, BGS) and nutrient cycles (Dr Andi Smith, BGS).  We also got to appreciate the diverse uses that stable isotope analysis can be put to. For example, in the field of archaeology stable isotope analysis by Dr Angela Lamb (BGS) on the remains of Richard III has been used to give an insight into his life. This has ranged from using oxygen isotopes to determine where he lived at different stages of his life to using carbon and nitrogen isotopes to see changes in his diet after he became king. Other interesting applications are the use of a range of different isotopic ratios from animal tissues to understand changes in food web structures and animal diets (Dr Jason Newton, SUERC) and isotopes in geological applications (volcanic hazards and mineral deposits, Prof Adrian Boyce, SUERC).

Guest speaker Adrian Boyce (University of Glasgow and SUERC) lecturing
on the geological applications of stable isotopes.
One of benefits of attending the course was to make contact with other students and on the first day each of us was called on to give a speed talk on the subject of our research. It was fascinating to see the wide range of projects being undertaken using stable isotopes from using carbon and sulphur isotopes to determine flame retardant contamination from land fill sites in the UK gull populations to the use of strontium to help find people missing in Guatemala.

One of my personal highlights of the course was a tour of the geological walkway and the geological repository.  The geological walkway is a selection of different rocks from each of the geological periods in the Earth’s history from the Precambrian to the Quaternary. Here we got to see Lewisian gneiss, the oldest rock in Britain! On our second day a tour of the National Geological Repository included a stop to see 500km of sedimentary core archives, its sheer size making you realise the huge amount of scientific research that is carried out at the BGS.  We also got to see the isotope facility, 16 different mass spectrometers (!) that are used in analysing the different isotopes such as oxygen, silicon, carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen and sulphur (and then there are all the heavier mass isotopes in the radiogenic part).

Wow, the National Geological Repository at BGS, showing the storage of both
onshore (left) and offshore (right) sedimentary cores from different geological
periods from in and around the UK.
I would like to thank Prof Melanie Leng and all the other educators (from both BGS and SUERC)  that made this course so informative and useful. On a personal note I made many new friends who I am sure I will keep in touch with throughout my academic career.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

How to draw pictures in the sand on a sunny(ish) beach Catherine Pennington

Dr Jon Lee helping us interpret the geology at Happisburgh, Norfolk
Dr Jon Lee helping us interpret the geology at Happisburgh, Norfolk
I've just got back from a new field-based BGS training course that I enjoyed so much I want to tell you all about it.  It's called Quaternary Deposits, Processes and Properties (catchy title) and is designed for geoscientists who undertake geology-based fieldwork or 3D geological modelling who want to gain experience in describing Quaternary deposits.

It was four days in total.  The first day was at our headquarters in Keyworth where we were given an introduction to the geology of East Anglia, human evolution in the area and an overview of current coastal management issues.  After this followed the nitty gritty of how you describe, interpret and classify Quaternary deposits according to the most recent British Standard. 

Then it was off to Sunny Norfolk for the next three days to put all this into practice.


We started in Happisburgh, a site well known for its coastal erosion and somewhere we have monitored as part of our Slope Dynamics Project since 2001.  The beach here is around 900 metres long and we were tasked with interpreting the entire cliff section to understand what's there and how it got there.

Starting the cliff section at Happisburgh, "draw what you see...."
Starting the cliff section at Happisburgh, "draw what you see...."

Over half of the bay had geology that looked like this, a nice gentle layer-cake affair:

The cliff section at Happisburgh. From top to bottom: Happisburgh Sand Member, Ostend Clay, Happisburgh Till
The cliff section at Happisburgh. From top to bottom: Happisburgh Sand Member, Ostend Clay, Happisburgh Till

But then the further south we went, the more complex it became.  There was quite a bit of head-scratching, debate and even argument (!) about the palaeoenvironmental conditions (what the environment was like when the sediments were deposited).

tting stuck-in at understanding the geology and Happisburgh
Getting stuck-in at understanding the geology and Happisburgh
And then we all drew our different theories in the sand:

Professor Emrys Phillips drawing his interpretation of the Happisburgh cliffs
Professor Emrys Phillips drawing his interpretation of the Happisburgh cliffs
Another sand drawing of the cliffs in front of us.  No idea who drew this.   It definitely wasn't me.
Another sand drawing of the cliffs in front of us.  No idea who drew this.   It definitely wasn't me.
My first attempt to interpret the 900 m cliff section at Happisburgh
My first attempt to interpret the 900 m cliff section at Happisburgh

East Runton

The last morning was spent at East Runton where we were again asked to interpret the cliff section.  This time, we were more confident and were able to use everything we had learned over the previous two days at Happisburgh.  Again there was debate and a lot of drawing in the sand but we came to an agreed interpretation that I would like to tell you all about here but that would spoil it for those going on the course in the future!  Instead, here are some pics...

The cliffs at East Runton, Norfolk
The cliffs at East Runton, Norfolk
Field sketch of the cliffs at East Runton, Norfolk
Field sketch of the cliffs at East Runton, Norfolk

So how exactly do you describe, interpret and classify Quaternary deposits?

Dave Entwisle teaching us how to tell the difference between a silt and a clay by their behaviour
Dave Entwisle teaching us how to tell the difference
between a silt and a clay by their behaviour
After drilling or mapping, often the only remaining evidence of what was discovered is the description provided on the borehole log, section or notebook.  This can vary enormously depending on who made the description and which classification they were following, if any.  High-level decisions can be based ultimately upon these descriptions as, for example, structures are build or tunnels dug.  So what might seem like a small part of the work on the day is actually very important to get right.

BS5930 : 2015 is a description of the behaviour of engineering soils based on material and mass characteristics.  An engineering soil is an aggregate of mineral grains that can be separated by gentle agitation in water.  Most Quaternary deposits are engineering soils.  BS5930 : 2015 aims to standardise description and terminology to reduce ambiguity and error, no matter who describes them. 

Sounds easy right? Well, once we'd got the hang of it, it was actually.  It's a systematic examination process where everything is considered in a logical sequence so you are guided through your description from beginning to end.  Whilst a more sedimentological description may have been what some of us are more used to, everyone could see the merit of the engineering description.

Getting to grips with the Munsell Colour Chart...