A potted history of geological survey in Northern Ireland...by 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.