|GSNI staff on Curran Strand, Portrush in October 2016|
The first geological survey
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.
Seven decades of subsurface science
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|
2010sThe 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.