Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Touring America on the cheap – as told by a skint student! By Rob Smith

Rob Smith, a student at the University of Nottingham, recently completed a month of work experience at the BGS in Keyworth. Here he talks about experiencing a part of the world well beyond his usual reach...

Here is one for all you money savers… I have just completed a four-week tour of the North Fork Toutle River (NFTR) catchment system, in Washington State, USA. The aim of the tour was to aid my understanding in the influences of the eruption of Mount Saint Helens as well as the deposition of enormous levels of sediment onto the river plain, and the implications that followed.

I am sure many of you will know that Mount Saint Helens erupted in 1980, with the stratovolcano erupting laterally. This lateral eruption blew around 25km2 of ash northward, settling at least one metre thick and resulting in lahars through the NFTR valleys, destroying vegetation and clogging up the river system.

During the tour I was able to travel through time seeing the recovery of vegetation in the surrounding areas.  I investigated the types of vegetation and the stability of sediment, and the impact of the large retention structures put in place by the USGS, US army engineer corps and University of Portland in order to protect the sediment and reduce flooding in large settlements downstream.

As well as being very interesting to me (as this work will provide the basis of my dissertation thesis) the whole tour did not cost me a penny!


This is the magic of the digital and virtual reality technology used by the BGS today. Using GeoVisionary, ArcMap, Groundhog Desktop, HoloLens and other BGS virtual reality tools, I got to experience, analyse, and conclude various questions about the area. I saw these changes in a way that traditional 2D imagery cannot even begin to show, and can even be difficult to comprehend in reality. These systems allowed me to investigate the surrounding area remotely prior to the eruption as well as the result and recovery of the event.

My area of work involved monitoring various changes over time, observing vegetation and the changes following through from succession of new pioneer species, in addition to monitoring whether management strategies were having any of the effects they aimed to achieve. Further to this I was aiming to predict landslides in areas which may increase the river sediment load; identifying areas of high risk.

The work I did barely scratched the surface of what can be achieved by the various visualisation systems used by the BGS. With the help of the specialist teams at the BGS (3D Visualisation Systems and Remote Sensing) it is possible to produce detailed maps worldwide, some of which are inaccessible in the field, and have the tools and know-how to explore both the above and below ground, providing the basis for arange of exciting new research to be undertaken.

Fortunately, I do get to do the tour in reality in August where I can ground truth my results from the above virtual investigation! I would just like to thank Ricky, Bruce and Alessandro who made the virtual tour possible.

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