Why we need a geological macroscope...by Prof Mike Stephenson

An automated weather station at Allt a Mharcaidh (Source: geograph.org.uk)
A microscope is a device to help us see small things easily, but a macroscope is a network of sensing devices and detectors that allows us to see big things – and how they change and evolve. Macroscopes will become more and more important in helping us manage and sustain the planet we occupy. Their development is partly driven by the need to understand planetary processes, but also by the supply of ever cheaper and more sophisticated sensors, better telemetry and raw computing power.

Atmosphere and ocean macroscopes

Perhaps the most obvious macroscopes in use at the moment are those that sense the atmosphere and the oceans. The sensitivity of the meteorological macroscope – the network of sensors that keeps track of the changing atmosphere - and the powerful computing and models that crunch the data - provide us with more and more accurate weather forecasts. The UK’s Met Office produces forecasts using software known as the Unified Model run on one of the world’s most power computers. A 36 hour forecast for weather is produced for the UK and surroundings, a 48 hour forecast for Europe and the North Atlantic, and a 144 hour forecast for the globe.

Ocean monitoring is also well-established. Ocean-scanning satellites map ocean-surface topography caused by ocean currents, and ocean warming and cooling. Other satellite instruments measure the direction and magnitude of the effect of wind on the sea surface, surface water temperature, the distribution of chlorophyll, and precipitation over the ocean. Ocean research vessels and drifting and anchored buoys measure temperature, salinity and currents in the upper water layers. Tide gauges measure variations in monthly and shorter-period mean sea level. These measurements and observations help us to understand the changing oceans, for example variations in the Indian Ocean monsoon and droughts, connections between oceanic and atmospheric processes, and the ocean carbon cycle. They also help us to keep track of debris including the ever-increasing amounts of plastic in our oceans.

The internet of things

Macroscopes are also appearing in the built environment through the ever-increasing numbers of sensors in buildings and human infrastructure. The internet of things is a macroscope of physical ‘smart devices’ including buildings, vehicles and other items containing electronics, software, sensors, and network connectivity. These can collect and exchange data, and be controlled remotely across networks, so data about the physical world can be recorded without human intervention. In practice this means, for example, that smart electric power grids can manage themselves to adjust to power demand; similarly ‘smart homes’ can manage power use better.

The geological macroscope

The Cheshire Energy Research Field Site as part of UKGEOS
Geologists have been slower to take up the technology of sensors, telemetry and related computing, except in specific fields such as volcanology, seismology and hydrocarbon exploration. But geoscience is poised to develop more comprehensive macroscopes that could monitor groundwater supply, groundwater flooding, coastal salt groundwater intrusion, cliff falls and erosion around our coasts - as well as effects that climate change might have on the landscape or such built infrastructure as railway embankments. Geological macroscopes will help us build better models for subsurface developments in cities and rural areas, for example geothermal for heating and air conditioning, gas storage, compressed air energy storage, and carbon capture and storage. They may also help us
understand the ecologies that exist below the surface and the contributions that the subsurface biota make to the atmosphere, hydrosphere and biosphere.

The technology is getting better all the time: sensors better suited to the underground, better computer visualisation of the underground, and better telemetry. The BGS’ UK Geoenergy Observatories (UKGEOS) project is, at this very moment, establishing two sites with sophisticated subsurface equipment to keep track of groundwater, seismicity and ground motion amongst many other things.

Why is the geological macroscope so important?

Over the last few centuries, technology has lifted living standards and health, but has also placed humankind at odds with its environment, perhaps most notably with the large-scale adoption of fossil fuels. But it has also recently delivered the means to help us to adapt better through helping us monitor, measure and understand the environment. The ability to intervene in an intelligent way to reduce climate change, or better adapt, can only come from a greater understanding of Earth processes. Meteorological and oceanographic measuring help us understand only parts of the system. For example, understanding rainfall processes is critical, but understanding how rainfall becomes groundwater is just as important and how groundwater behaves is important too. As sea level rises with climate change, being able to measure and understand coastal salt groundwater intrusion will be vital for the millions of people that live along coasts. For those that may rely more heavily in the future on groundwater because of reduced surface flows due to climate change – for example in sub-Saharan Africa - this understanding may be a matter of survival. Climate change may also affect the integrity of human infrastructure such as embankments, cuttings and foundations. Stray gases from underground hydrocarbon extraction need to be monitored. If low temperature geothermal is extracted below our cities for heating homes, we will need to know how sustainable that heat is.

Coupled models

I think geoscientists and organisations like geological surveys will play an important part in establishing the geological macroscope. This will extend the concept of volcanological and seismological monitoring and critical zone observatories to a wider range of subsurface monitoring and observing and, critically, work towards coupling subsurface computer models with those of the atmosphere and oceans.

If you are interested in the wider geology – energy – climate nexus, including the geological macroscope, read my new book, available from Elsevier, Amazon and (shortly) online through Elsevier’s ScienceDirect.

Prof Mike Stephenson is the Director of Science and Technology at BGS.