Friday, 20 July 2018

Private Water Supplies in Wales: information to support public heath priorities - Louise Ander and Gareth Farr

There are about 15,000 recorded private water supplies in Wales, supplying approximately 77,000 people (DWI, 2017).  Whilst many people, especially in rural areas, use private water supplies and not ‘mains’ water, they can pose risks to health and well-being if they are not properly managed and monitored. These risks can be from poor chemical or microbiological quality, as well as vulnerability to insufficiency of supply.

Water quality can be directly affected by factors which include: the local environment, the chemistry of the local rocks; any corrosion of lead-containing pipes or solder; how the water source is protected from surface sources of contamination; and, maintenance of treatment systems used in properties. The year round availability of water to users can be influenced by one or more of the following factors: water consumption; weather patterns, such as drought; local geology; and, implementation of properly designed infrastructure including localised water storage.  

In Wales about 90 % of the public water supply is from surface water (e.g. reservoirs) and as a result there is a paucity of groundwater information in Wales. This lack of groundwater information becomes apparent when we consider that the majority of private water supplies, unlike public supplies, abstract from groundwater (springs, wells and boreholes) and explains why geology is so important to both quality and quantity of these supplies.

An example of integrating existing stream sediment Pb data (left) with private water supply testing failures (right). Private Water supply data (Drinking Water Inspectorate), Stream sediment data reproduced with the permission of the British Geological Survey ©NERC. Ordnance Survey Maps © Crown Copyright and database rights 2018
A recent NERC innovation project (NE/N01751X/1), focused on knowledge exchange and data-sharing to better understand risks to private water supplies.  NERC innovation aims to foster partnerships between scientists and government bodies to address challenges and opportunities that can both benefit societal wellbeing and the environment.

During this two-year project, Louise and Gareth visited representatives of each of the 22 Local Authorities across Wales and spoke to the environmental health officers responsible for private water supplies, as part of the knowledge exchange activities.  Meetings with local authorities, as well as key national organisations such as Public Health Wales, involved the discussion of common issues and concerns and where useful existing BGS/NERC data was highlighted. This knowledge exchange was successful, ‘opening up’ these data for Local Authority officers, being integrated into the Water Health Partnership for Wales website and highlighted in the Environmental Public Health Service in wales Annual Review.

Louise and Gareth will continue to work on private water supplies in Wales, by representing BGS on the ‘Water Health Partnership for Wales’ and liaising with Welsh Government, Public Health Wales Natural Resources Wales and Local Authority officers across Wales. We would like to say a huge thank you to all of these partners.  A future blog will update on the aspects of the project which have focused on gaining new knowledge through data sharing !

Each of the 22 local authorities in Wales visited during the project. Ordnance Survey Maps © Crown Copyright and database rights 2018. All photographs by Gareth Farr & Louise Ander (BGS). 

Further information
Water Health Partnership for Wales

BGS Geoblogy article on ‘the importance of water quality and treatment for private water supplies’

Tuesday, 17 July 2018

The Papua New Guinea Tsunami, 20 years on ... by Prof Dave Tappin

20 years ago today, on the evening of the 17th July 1998, 2200 people died when a 15-metre high tsunami devastated an idyllic lagoon on the north coast of Papua New Guinea (PNG).  The event was to prove a benchmark in tsunami science as the tsunami was generated, not by an earthquake, but by a submarine landslide. Most tsunamis are generated by earthquakes and, previously, submarine landslides were an under-appreciated mechanism in tsunami generation. This was because there had been no recent historical event to prove just how dangerous they could be.

The Sissano Lagoon devastated after the 1998 tsunami  (Image courtesy of Jose Borrero, University of Southern California)
The Sissano Lagoon devastated after the 1998 tsunami
(Image courtesy of Jose Borrero, University of Southern California)
Sissano Mission school carried 65 metres inland by the tsunami wave
(credit; NOAA/NGDC, Hugh Davies, University of PNG)

At a water depth of 1600 metres, on the landslide headscarp
we found slumped limestone blocks, together with cold water
chemosynthetic mussels and tubeworms feeding on the methane
rich fluids expelled when the seabed failed. 
Credit: Japan Agency for Marine Earth Science
Back in 1998, there had been few recent destructive earthquakes, they were to strike later.  Although earthquake mechanisms were generally well understood in tsunami generation, the mechanisms by which submarine landslides cause tsunamis, were not. In fact it was generally believed that submarine landslides could not generate destructive tsunamis.

PNG, changed all this.

The importance of Papua New Guinea

PNG was a ‘wake-up call’ for tsunami hazard. The tsunami was the most devastating event since Sanriku 1933, when a tsunami struck the east coast of Japan, leaving 1500 dead and the same number missing.

The massive death toll, generated a surge of scientific interest in non-earthquake tsunami mechanisms, which subsequently extended outside of convergent margins, where earthquakes are most common, to passive margins, and to volcanic collapse.

The tsunami struck at a time when new technology was being used increasingly to map the sea bed as well as topography was being mapped on land.  New numerical models of submarine landslide tsunamis were also being developed, but were still theoretical, and PNG allowed these to be tested in real life conditions.

At the time of PNG, tsunami science was dominated by seismologists because earthquakes were seen as the only major hazard. Research into submarine landslide tsunamis requires the contribution from geologists, so geologists became much more involved. The research on the PNG tsunami was therefore to prove seminal.

Papua New Guinea – the forerunner

As was later to prove, PNG was the first of a series of catastrophic tsunamis which over the next 13 years were to devastate the coastlines of the Indian Ocean (2004) and Japan (2011). These tsunamis killed over 250 000 people and caused billions of pounds worth of damage. These events would ‘rock’ the globe, bringing home to world populations the previously unrecognised hazard from these events.

Aerial view of Banda Aceh, northern Sumatra, where over 100,000 people died in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami
(Image U.S. Navy photo by Photographer's Mate 2nd Class Philip A. McDaniel)

In the case of the Indian Ocean, there was a realisation that geological hazards, such as volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and tsunamis do not just impact on ‘other people’ in far distance places. With ever increasing international travel made so much easier by a general drop in prices, an idyllic holiday in an exotic location could quite rapidly turn into a nightmare.

Earthquake tsunamis are not the only hazard

Sanriku, 1933 was an earthquake-generated tsunami resulting from a Mw 8.4 event. The scale of the tsunami from Sanriku earthquake, although devastating, was commensurate with the earthquake magnitude. Both Japan and PNG are sited along plate boundaries, termed convergent margins, where earthquakes are quite common. More recent events along these types of margins were in 2011 off the east coast of Japan and in 2004 in the Indian Ocean. The tsunamis from these events were also devastating, but in scale with their associated earthquakes.

The elevation of the tsunami which struck PNG, however, was completely out of proportion to the associated earthquake Mw of 7.1. Most earthquakes are caused by movement, or ‘slip’, along the interface between the plates which are colliding along convergent margins. Although there are ‘special’ types of earthquakes, termed ‘tsunami earthquakes’, which may generate tsunamis larger than their magnitude would suggest. Tsunami earthquakes are usually associated with heavily sedimented convergent margins, and the Papua New Guinea margin is not of this type.

There were several other aspects of the PNG tsunami which suggested that the earthquake was not the cause. There was a 20 minute delay between the earthquake and the tsunami striking the coast. The earthquake was located quite close to shore, so this was immediately anomalous. Field surveys conducted immediately after the event also found that the distribution of the tsunami elevations along the coast had the highest wave heights focused on the low-lying Sissano Lagoon.

Scientists confused and the generosity of others 

After the PNG event and as the results of the first field surveys were circulated, there was much discussion in science circles on why the tsunami was so elevated in relation to the earthquake magnitude. For example, at the AGU international scientific meeting in San Francisco in December of 1998 there was a special session during which the PNG tsunami was discussed.

Without further research the event would have remained an enigma. Except that, in response to a plea for help from Alf Simpson, the Director of the regional geoscientific organisation, SOPAC, which assisted PNG in mitigating their geological hazards, the Government of Japan funded four marine scientific research expeditions on state of the art vessels, to survey the area offshore of the devastated area. The USA diverted one of its vessels working in the region to acquire further marine data. This was the first time that marine surveys had been carried out in response to a major tsunami disaster, and the first time this region had been surveyed using these sophisticated technologies.

The JAMSTEC Kairei which in January 1999 was the first research vessel to research the PNG 1998 tsunami
(Credit Dave Tappin)

Marine surveys provide the answers

The first surveys took place in January 1999 and, from mapping the sea bed, discovered a submarine landslide just offshore of the area devastated by the tsunami.  Based on the mapping, the landslide discovered was used as the basis for numerical models of the tsunami. This was a major challenge as this had only been attempted once previously. The numerical models demonstrated that the landslide was the most likely cause of the tsunami.

The 1998 Papua New Guinea tsunami was triggered 12 minutes after the earthquake by a rotational slump,
~6km3 in volume, located 20 km offshore of the devastated area. Note the circular expansion
of the tsunami waves, characteristic of a point-source, submarine landslide tsunami. Credit: Phil Watts

Because landslides were considered not to cause hazardous tsunamis, this result on the tsunami mechanism was controversial, but gradually as other events were identified and more new numerical models were developed, they became more generally accepted.

The area offshore of northern Papua New Guinea mapped in 1999 by the Kairei (Credit. Tappin et al 2001).

The simulation is based on a dual, earthquake/submarine landslide mechanism,
with the landslide triggered three minutes after the earthquake.
Note the linear tsunami wave front from the earthquake in the south, and
the circular waves from the submarine landslide in the north. Credit: Stephan Grilli

Unforeseen downstream impacts

The generous investment made by Japan in funding the marine research on PNG was to be repaid in full in 2011, when the east coast of Honshu Island was devastated by a tsunami up to 40 metres in elevation which killed 18 000 people and cost 200 billion dollars in damage. Although the earthquake magnitude 9.0-9.1 could explain most of the tsunami, the elevated 40-metre-high run-ups along the northern Honshu could not. So, a submarine landslide was proposed and numerically modelled as the cause of these. Without the research carried out on the PNG tsunami, this would have been impossible.

Overview shot of Minamisanriku, northern Honshu, showing the destruction from the 2011 Japan tsunami (Credit Dave Tappin).
Overview shot of Minamisanriku, northern Honshu, showing the destruction from the 2011 Japan tsunami
(Credit Dave Tappin).

The destruction of Minamisanriku from the Japan 2011 tsunami (Credit Dave Tappin).

The future

Dave Tappin emerging after the first Shinkai
2000 submersible dive onto the tsunami 
landslide – November 1999 (Credit Horst Letz).
Since PNG, we have come a long way in understanding how submarine landslides generate tsunamis, but they are a major hazard which is still not fully understood or appreciated. Although mapping of the sea bed now demonstrates the almost universal presence of submarine landslides offshore of most coastal areas, there are still too few well studied events to form a sound basis for similar mitigation to that from earthquakes, which are addressed by warning systems in all the world’s ocean basins. In addition, the numerous different submarine landslide mechanisms means that ‘one size doesn’t fit all’ so the development of generalised models is still in its infancy.

As with all high impact – low frequency hazards, our experience from the recent tsunami events identified here is that memories fade fast after the immediate response. As memories fade, so does the investment needed to understand and mitigate the impacts of tsunamis in the future. Research into the submarine landslide hazard is ongoing, but is harder to fund as other research priorities take over. The next major challenge is to tackle dual earthquake/submarine landslide mechanisms, such as Japan, 2011, and to extend the ocean basin early warning systems, now operational for earthquakes, to include tsunamis from submarine landslides – because undoubtedly, at some time in the future there will be another event.

Note. Professor Dave Tappin of BGS participated in the research on the PNG tsunami, taking part in all of the four marine surveys funded by Japan. At first, only a one-off opportunity, it led to a career in tsunami science as later events in the Indian Ocean and Japan proved the massive hazard from tsunami events globally.  Dave acknowledges all of his numerous colleagues and friends with whom he has collaborated on this research.

Further reading

The Sissano Papua New Guinea tsunami of July 1998 - offshore evidence on the source mechanism 

The Papua New Guinea tsunami of 17 July 1998: anatomy of a catastrophic event

Submarine Mass Failures as tsunami sources - their climate control

Did a submarine landslide contribute to the 2011 Tohoku tsunami?

Tsunamis from submarine landslides

The Generation of Tsunamis

The importance of geologists and geology in tsunami science and tsunami hazard

Monday, 16 July 2018

Connecting through PhD student Rebecca Couchman-Crook

What do I research?

I started my PhD with the University of Reading and BGS in September 2017, studying the pulsatory nature of Bagana volcano in Papua New Guinea. It is an andesitic volcano, with a persistent SO2 degassing plume, making it the third largest volcanic source globally. It has thick, slow lava flows 100 m high that arrive in pulses lasting a few months, and has ash venting from the dome at its summit crater. Roughly once a decade it has a VEI 4 eruption, and we want to understand better the processes that cause this cyclicity.

How do I use blogs?

I am the editor for the University of Reading’s Meteorology Department PhD student blog – The Social Metwork. This has been running for about 2 years, putting out weekly blog posts on a Friday, covering everything PhD students get up to, with a focus on Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences.

Topics covered are anything from conference summaries, such as the most recent Volcanic and Magmatic Studies Group conference in January, to fieldwork and summer schools in Sweden, to websites perfect for distracting you during your coffee break. We like to make science accessible and engaging, as well as cutting-edge.

Perhaps most importantly, the blog provides an outlet for PhD students to publicise their recent papers and research from their thesis. There are posts from students at every stage of their PhD journeys, just starting out at conferences, to those with multiple papers and international conferences under their belt.

Taking on the role of editor of the Social Metwork Blog allows me to engage in science communication to a wider audience, and enhances the skillset I get from undertaking a PhD. It also allows me to see what research people in the Department are doing, and allows for networking and interesting conversations and opportunities to arise.

How do we increase visibility?

We tie the weekly blog posts into a Twitter account that I also run. There is a post on a Friday that advertises the most recent post, but we also use it as a platform to engage with other institutions and individuals.

Twitter is a useful space to get summaries of new science research and initiatives in a concise way. It’s very easy to improve visibility of PhD students’ work on there, as students retweet each other, and other accounts that the Social Metwork is linked to will also retweet. We had great success with a Citizen Science project Solar Stormwatch and getting public engagement with it via Twitter.

It is also an informal space where the realities of PhD student life can be shared, such as coding troubles and the highs and lows of writing papers. It links PhD students from different institutions working on similar themes, and is a useful way of keeping in touch with academics you have met and their latest research output. It is also a great way to find the information you need quickly using a network of people who have faced the same problems as you, or know where to find the journal article you are after.

Rebecca Couchman-Crook is a PhD student funded through the BGS University Funding Initiative (BUFI) and is supervised by Prof Geoff Wadge (Reading) and Dr Julia Crummy (BGS). The aim of BUFI is to encourage and fund science at the PhD level. At present there are around 130 PhD students who are based at about 35 UK universities and research institutes. BUFI do not fund applications from individuals.

Building resilient futures: how climate change could affect subsidence hazards ... by Anna Harrison

New data from the BGS now available for testing 

Most people are aware that the climate is changing and will continue to do so into the future, which is why at BGS we have been looking at whether climate change, in particular rainfall, will affect subsidence in future years.

We have started to develop a new ‘GeoClimate’ data product as a result of this research that looks specifically at the most common cause of subsidence that occurs in Britain: shrinking and swelling clays.

What is shrink-swell?

Many soils contain clay minerals that absorb water when wet (making them swell), and lose water as they dry (making them shrink). We sometimes see this in our gardens when the ground becomes cracked during the summer, yet becomes 'heavy' in the winter. This shrink-swell behaviour is controlled by the type and amount of clay in the soil, and critically by seasonal changes in the soil moisture content. In other words, rainfall (either too much or too little) is a key factor in determining how much movement will be seen in clay-rich deposits.  Read more about ground shrinkage and subsidence.

Shrinking clay

Cracks formed in a house due to shrink-swell clay

BGS research and data look into the future conditions

GeoClimate, the first in a series of climate change outputs, looks specifically at shrink-swell subsidence.  By analysing historic weather trends, geological properties, soil moisture conditions and subsidence, we’ve been able to isolate key causal relationships and trigger thresholds. We have identified drought thresholds and aligned these with UKCP09 climate scenario projections. The results have been further validated with insurance claims data. The results confirm that subsidence hazards, on clay-rich deposits, are likely to increase in the future with increasing occurrence of longer drier summers and wetter winters.

Road in Lincolnshire showing subsidence

How can it help?

The data will inform the design-life of buildings and assets, help to predict life-cycle costs and ensure assets are future-proofed. The data is designed to feed into, and enable prioritisation of:
  • asset management & maintenance regimes,
  • project planning and costing
  • longer-term resilience planning strategies

Now available for trial: have your say

A focus group of key stakeholders have helped to inform the development so far, however we’ve reached a point where we’re keen to ask you to help us steer the final phase of this data development.

We are releasing two early versions as part of a beta trial and would like your feedback:
  • a coarse summary dataset for the 2050 and 2080 climate scenarios 
  • a more detailed version that presents the minimum, median and maximum climate scenarios in 10 year periods from 2020 to 2080

Please contact if you would like to review this brand new data set from the BGS.

Sunday, 15 July 2018

Football Rocks: World Cup Geology Kirstin Lemon

The World Cup final day is finally here. It’s been a fantastic month of football with lots of surprises and of course, it’s also been a fantastic month of discovering a little bit about the geology of all 32 participating countries. In case you missed and of our World Cup Geology Tour we’ve put them all together in one handy blog.

Argentina: Argentina is famous around the world for its giant dinosaur fossils. These aren't just any old giant dinosaurs, these were the biggest dinosaurs to have ever lived! Discovered in 2013, fossils of Patagotitan mayorum, an extra-large titanosaur that lived during the Late Cretaceous period (100 million years ago) were found by a farmer in the Chubut Province. Over 200 bones have now been uncovered and these have been pieced together to get a true picture of what this dinosaur would have looked like, and we now know that it would have been 70m in length and 15m high.

Australia: We couldn't resist choosing one if its most famous, albeit predictable, geological icons, Uluru. At 3.6km long and 2.4km wide, this 348m high geological feature is made up of red/brown feldspathic sandstone. It is often described as a 'monolith' that literally means 'one stone' and can often be slightly ambiguos. Geologists much prefer to use the term 'inselberg' which is used to describe a prominent, isolated steep-sided residual upland surrounded by extensive flat plains. Uluru is part of the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park World Heritage Site, inscribed on the World Heritage List for both its cultural and geological significance.

Han-sur-Lesse caves, Belgium
Belgium: We've chosen the Lomme karst area located, near the city of Rochefort in the south of Belgium. The karst is located in a series of Middle Devonian limestones and is a major groundwater resource. The limestones display extensive cave development. Many of these have been developed as show caves included those at Han-sur-Lesse, a major Belgian tourist attraction. The Lomme karst area is located within the Famenne-Ardenne UNESCO Global Geopark, Belgium's first and only geopark.

Brazil: We’ve chosen the Paraná Plateau (or Paraná traps) a large igneous province that would have formed as flood basalts during the Early Cretaceous associated with rifting that would ultimately form the South Atlantic Ocean. The Paraná Plateau lies mostly in the states of Rio Grande do Sul and São Paulo in Brazil, it also appears in Uruguay, Argentina and Paraguay. A severed extension of the plateau is found in northwest Namibia and southwest Angola where it is known as the Etendeka traps. In Brazil where the Paraná Plateau is exposed at the surface it weathers to produce a fertile dark purple soil known as terra roxa that is famous as producing excellent coffee.

Costa Rica: Costa Rica is arguably best known for its volcanoes and in total there are nearly 70 active or extinct ones. Arenal is one of the best-known and most-visited volcanoes. It is located in the volcanic arc of Costa Rica that results from the subduction of the Cocos plate under the Caribbean plate.

Colombia:  One of the best known ‘geology’ tourist attractions is the Zipaquirá salt cathedral located in a disused salt mine in the town of Zipaquirá, 48km from Bogotá. The cathedral was carved by miners and sculptors in the mines out of the 70 million year old salt deposits found in the middle of the eastern Andean mountain range.

'Istrian stone', Croatia
Croatia: This time we’re not visiting a site but a building stone, specifically Istrian stone, or pietra d'Istria. This building stone is characteristic of the architecture of Dalmatia and perhaps more well-known as being used to build the foundations of Venice which had no building stone nearby. The limestone was quarried in Istria, between Portorož and Pula and is sometimes mistaken for marble which is actually metamorphosed limestone.

Denmark: The location this time is the Odsherred Peninsula, an iconic site for glacial geology in Northern Europe. Groundbreaking scientific research has been ongoing in the area since the early part of the 20th century when Odsherred’s hills were interpreted as being end moraines as opposed to eskers. This ‘new’ explanation was initially dismissed but since then, although more complex than initially thought, the glacial landforms are now accepted as being end moraines formed as a result of colliding ice streams that reached the fringes of the West Baltic Basin.

Egypt: Famous for its iconic pyramids, not many people really ever think about what they're actually made of. Many are constructed from Eocene limestone from the Giza Plateau. The limestone is known for its high content of Nummulites, a type of foraminifera, often used as a valuable index fossil. They can range in size from around 1cm in diameter to 5cm. The word 'Nummulite' is derived from the Latin word nummulus meaning 'little coin', with the ancient Egyptians actually using the shells for this purpose!

The White Cliffs of Dover, England
England: Out of all the amazing geological sites that we could have chosen we've gone for the White Cliffs of Dover which, together with Beachy Head and The Needles have welcomed many sea-faring travellers to southern England over the centuries. But there is more to the Cretaceous of southern Britain than magnificent chalk headlands for a wide variety of sandstones and mudstones occur in the Lower Cretaceous. It is these alternating hard and soft strata that weather into the hills and vales that perhaps epitomise the English landscape made famous by artists such as John Constable, Thomas Gainsborough and JS Cotman. Inland the chalk forms the rolling countryside of much of Dorset, the Hampshire Downs, Salisbury Plain, Marlborough Downs, the North and South Downs, the Chilterns and their north-eastwards continuation through Cambridgeshire and East Anglia. It underlies the Lincolnshire and Yorkshire wolds, and at Flamborough Head the chalk is carved into sea stacks, arches and wave-cut platforms.

France: With a country this size it was hard to choose one location but we’ve gone for the Rochechouart crater. Although the original crater morphology has disappeared this impact crater is part of the Réserve Naturelle Nationale de l’astroblème de Rochechouart-Chassenon because of its significant geological heritage value. The age of the Rochechouart impact is still the subject of debate but it is thought to have occurred between 207 and 203 million years ago. Although the morphology of the impact crater can’t be seen, certain features are seen that are characteristic of this type of event including a rock called suevite (seen below). This unusual rock is a type of breccia made up of shocked and unshocked rock fragments together with partly melted material.

The Eyes of the Eifel, Germany
Germany: We’ve chosen Eifel highlands in the northwestern part of the ‘Rheinish Slate Mountains’. This area is famous for its volcanoes, with 350 known eruption centres. There were two volcanic phases: the first was active between 45 to 35 Ma; the second was around 1 Ma and ended with the most recent eruption 10900 years ago. This area is the international type locality of maar craters, broad, low-relief volcanic craters caused by eruptions that occurs when groundwater comes into contact with hot lava or magma. In some craters, bogs and lakes have formed, while others remain dry. This landscape is sometimes referred to as ‘The Eyes of Eifel’ and is one of the main features of the Vulkaneifel UNESCO Global Geopark.

Iceland: This was a tough choice as there are so many fantastic locations to choose from. Situated on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, Iceland is located at the tectonic plate boundary between the North American plate and the Eurasian plate, something that probably every single secondary school pupil is taught as part of their geography lessons, albeit in an oversimplified way. For that reason we've gone for the 'Bridge Between Continents' located on the Reykjanes peninsula and not that far from Iceland's main airport at Keflavik. It is also part of the Reykjanes UNESCO Global Geopark. However, it should be pointed out that the rift between the two tectonic plates is actually a zone of sub-parallel fissure swarms, often tens of kilometres wide and not as straightforward as North America on one side and Europe on the other.

Iran: The southern part of Iran is known for its numerous salt domes, many of which have been eroded into fine salt karst landscapes as well as containing the world's longest and largest salt caves. One such cave is located in Qeshm Island, in the Persian Gulf, where the 6.5km long Namakdan salt caves are thought to be the longest. There are numerous salt karst features associated with the cave including a salt spring resurgence where the stream channel is floored with crystalline salt.

Mount Fuji (or Fujisan), Japan
Japan: One of its most famous landmarks is undoubtedly Mount Fuji, the highest mountain in Japan at 3776m. Fuji is also a large composite stratavolcano that consists of alternating lava flows and pyroclastics. It is actually composed of three cones; Komitake, Older Fuji and Younger Fuji, put in order of decreasing age. Mount Fuji (or Fujisan) was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 2013 but as a site of cultural heritage significance and not because of its geological heritage.

South Korea: The Jeju Volcanic Island and Lava Tubes is a World Heritage Site and a UNESCO Global Geopark. Its central feature is Hallasan, the tallest mountain in South Korea and also a volcano. In addition to this feature there are 360 satellite volcanoes. But what the area is perhaps best known for is its extensive network of lava tubes. These are natural conduits through which lava travels beneath the surface of a lava flow. The tubes form by the crusting over of lava channels.

Mexico: We’ve chosen the Yucatán Peninsula and its karst landscape, particularly the features that are referred to 'cenotes'. Derived from the Yucatec-Mayan word 'ts'onot', it was a term used to describe any location with accessible groundwater. Cenotes are a type of sinkhole and formed by dissolution of rock (typically limestone) and the resulting subsurface void, which may or may not be linked to an active cave system. They are commonly found in low latitude areas, typically on islands and coastlines with post-Palaeozoic limestone. In the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico, cenotes were sometimes used by the ancient Maya for sacrificial offerings.

Atlas Mountains, Morocco
Morocco: Mount Toubkal in Morocco is the highest peak in the Atlas Mountains, that stretch for 2500 km through Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. The Atlas Mountains are divided into a number of subranges and formed as a result of several phases of tectonic activity that began during the Palaeozoic era and ended during the Neogene period.

Panama: For this one we're not focusing on a particular site but an event. In this case it's the formation of the Isthmus of Panama believed to be one of the most important geological events to happen on Earth in the last 60 million years. The Isthmus of Panama is the narrow strip of land that lies between the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, linking North and South America. But even though it is only a tiny sliver of land, its formation 2.8 million years ago as the Cocos plate slid under the Caribbean plate, had a huge impact on our climate and environment as it shut down the flow of water between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

Peru: We've chosen Vinicunca, or the Rainbow Mountain located in the Peruvian Andes. It gets its name from the mineral rich layers of Permian sedimentary rocks that have weathered to give the vivid colours of ochre, red, yellow, and sometimes even turquoise.

Poland: Salt deposits are making another appearance on our tour and this time its the turn of the Wieliczka Salt Mine located in the town of Wieliczka within the Kraków metropolitan area. The mines were opened in the 13th century, and produced table salt continuously until 2007. The salt deposits formed during the Miocene period and stretch for about 10km beneath Wieliczka, with the salt being between 500 and 1500m thick. The salt mines have now been developed as a tourist attraction are have been inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List since 1978.

'Giant' trilobite, Portugal
Portugal: We’ve chosen Arouca UNESCO Global Geopark, famous for, amongst other things, fossils of 'giant' trilobites. Often found in large quarrying surfaces of roofing slates, this otherwise waste material has yielded several of the world's largest trilobite specimens, with some reaching up to 70cm.

Russia: Russia is home to Mount Elbrus, the highest peak in Europe. It has two peaks, one of which is 5642m and the other is 5621, both of which are volcanic domes. Mount Elbrus formed more than 2.5 million years ago and its last eruption took place about AD 50. The area also contains numerous hotsprings.

Saudi Arabia: We've chosen Mada'in Saleh an archaeological site located in the the Al Madinah Region.. The fabulous rock-cut architecture dates back to the 1st century and is characteristic of the Nabatean kingdom which also included Petra, in modern day Jordan. The settlement is carved out of the Ordovician Quweira sandstone, perfect for creating monuments and sculptures.
Serbia: We're off to the Djerdap National Park and more specifically the Djerdap Gorge, also known as The Iron Gate and is one of the longest river gorges in Europe. This complex river gorge comprises four smaller ones: Gornja Klisura, Gospodjin Vir, Kazan and Sipska Klisura and is over 100 km long.

Senegal: We’ve gone for the Senogambian stone circles found in Senegal and Gambia. These monuments are found at four large sites are believed to have been constructed between the third century BC and the sixteenth century. The stone circles consist of upright blocks or pillars made mostly of laterite a rock that is rich in iron and aluminium and formed due to intense weathering, such as that common in hot and wet tropical climates, of underlying parent rock. The laterite for the stone circles would have been quarried locally and worked using iron tools. The stone circles are part of the Senogambian stone circle World Heritage Site and are the largest group o megalithic complexes recorded in any region of the world.

Flysch deposits, Basque Coast, Spain
Spain: We're heading to the Basque Coast UNESCO Global Geopark where a 5000m thick flysch deposit reveals a practically continuous record of 60 million years of Earth history. Within this sequence is evidence of the last of the five mass extinctions to have taken place over the course of the Earth’s history. This event (also known as the K/Pg extinction event), which was probably caused by a large asteroid striking the Earth some 65 million years ago in Chicxulub (Mexico), also led to the demise of the dinosaurs.

Sweden: Fossils of Orthoceras, an exitinct genus of nautiloid cephalopod are common in the many quarries on the Baltic island of Öland off the southern coast of Sweden. Quarries from Öland have supplied Europe with material for floors, stairs and gravestones for centuries as the hard limestone in which the fossils are found is very durable and the fossil inclusions make it even more desirable.

Switzerland: Switzerland is located right in the centre of the Alps, a mountain range that formed due to orogenic activity, and put very simply as a result of the collision of the African plate with the Eurasian plate. The Alps span France, Germany, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Italy, Austria and Slovenia, but Switzerland is often described as being the most spectacular part!

Tunisia: We’ve chosen the Sidi Bouhlel Canyon, made famous in Star Wars . It was used during Episode IV and is where Luke Skywalker meets Obi-Wan Kenobi for the first time. The canyon is carved out of Middle Miocene sandstone and contains fossils of a number of vertebrates including crocodiles that provide vital evidence for changing palaeoclimate in the region.

Uruguay: The site we’ve chosen is the Grutas del Palacio or the Palace Caves. These unusual caves have been formed out of Late Cretaceous sandstone and get their name from the nearly 100 columns, each around 2m high that resemble those of a palace. The caves are part of the Grutas del Palacio UNESCO Global Geopark, located in the Flores Department near Trinidad in Uruguay.

Friday, 13 July 2018

Accordions, the Adriatic and Analytical Chemistry ... by Charles Gowing

Dr Charles Gowing, BGS
Dr Charles Gowing,
Analytical Geochemist at BGS
My name is Charles Gowing and I have recently attended a workshop in one of the most beautiful locations in Slovenia.

It was the 9th Workshop on Proficiency Testing (PT) in Analytical Chemistry, Microbiology and Laboratory Medicine, held in the coastal town of Portorož. This three-day workshop attracted 200 delegates from 53 countries, with wide ranging attendance from most European countries and extending from sub-Saharan Africa, north Africa and the Middle East across Asia as far as Australasia, and the Americas.

The location of the workshop was idyllic, on the shore of the Adriatic over which the sunsets made beautiful backdrops for end-of-the-day deliberations. One evening we were treated to a guided tour of the beautiful old city of Piran.  A centuries-old city in a protected bay, it has been inhabited variously by the Roman, Venetian and Austria-Hungarian empires and is nestled on Slovenia’s coastline, just 46 km long.

The Slovenian coastal town of Piran
The Slovenian coastal town of Piran
Slovenian hospitality was very generous.  Following the tour we were welcomed by an energetic dancing accordion player and were then taken to a local vineyard for a tasting of local sausages, cheeses and wines (including a most unusual chocolate wine).

A Slovenian sunset
The workshop considered six key topics:
  • the importance of interpretive PT schemes
  • changes to PT schemes in developing countries over the last 10 years
  • implementing the ISO/IEC Standard 17043 for sampling PT schemes 
  • traditional vs virtual PT schemes
  • guidance on the levels and frequency of PT participation
  • the use and treatment of measurement uncertainty in PT schemes
Each topic was discussed in working groups to provide feedback to the European Analytical Chemistry community. It was somehow refreshing to hear that similar issues caused concern across the globe and refreshing to be able to discuss such issues with colleagues from countries as diverse as Egypt, India, Palestine, Greece and Sweden.  I was honoured to be asked to provide feedback on behalf of my discussion groups in the sampling and measurement uncertainty working groups.

Discussions at the workshop
The meeting was further enhanced by 16 oral presentations and 57 posters presenting experiences of PT providers from every continent and useful advice on statistical methods for describing data distributions. Specific points of concern highlighted the incorporation of laboratory measurement uncertainty into PT reports and the logistical headache of having to get PT samples delivered into countries through local customs, that were not always able to respond in a consistent manner.

I was especially enamoured by presentations on the handling of datasets with multiple censored results, on water testing schemes across sub-Saharan Africa run out of Namibia and the difficulties in maintaining homogeneity in samples of manure (which appears to be even more heterogeneous that geological materials).

Delegates at the 9th Workshop on Proficiency Testing (PT) in Analytical Chemistry, Microbiology and Laboratory Medicine 
Building on a legacy of Reference Material production over recent decades, we currently have a project under the innovation initiative for the production of reference materials. Further developing existing links with the Geological Survey of Ireland, we are producing a series of soil Reference Materials. The series is designed to provide significant concentrations of a comprehensive suite of environmentally important elements which can be used to underpin Quality Control of national scale geochemical mapping while being sufficiently specialised to provide targeted materials for individual research projects. Lessons learned from discussion of robust statistical procedures at the Eurachem meeting will be of great use when determining reference values and confidence limits.

Dr Charles Gowing, is Quality Manager in the Inorganic Geochemistry team within the Centre for Environmental Geochemistry and works with the International Association of Geoanalysts on the Steering Committee of the GeoPT Proficiency Testing Scheme for the analysis of Geological materials.

Wednesday, 11 July 2018

Sensing the Earth: UKGEOS, statistics and streaming data by Mike Stephenson

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a workshop on streaming data organised by the Turing Gateway to Mathematics, at Cambridge University[1]. The meeting brought together some formidable mathematical brains with the sorts of people that might want to use those brains. People with data.

I was one of those visitors. I gave a talk about the BGS’ new UKGEOS project[2] which aims to collect data from a whole range of new sensors at two sites: in England near Chester, and in Scotland, on the east side of Glasgow. The sites will collect data from boreholes on groundwater, seismic activity, ground motion, and a range of other variables. The sites will be observatories that will match the ambition and science presence of some of our more famous observatories such as Jodrell Bank and the Royal Observatory at Herstmonceux – only the UKGEOS observatories will point down into the ground rather than up into the sky.

UKGEOS - instrumenting the Earth

The reason I wanted to talk at the meeting was that I was sure that the UKGEOS data and the way it will be collected will be of interest to statisticians– mainly because it represents a new realm for data. Oil companies collect data on subsurface reservoirs, and volcanologists and seismologists collect data to assess hazards, but comprehensive data on the subsurface isn’t collected. It’s the last great frontier – we have ‘macroscopes’ for the atmosphere and oceans, but so far nothing for the subsurface.

Two trends have prompted this. One is the need to understand the subsurface better – because we build on the ground and tunnel through it, and because we extract things from the ground and store things in the ground. It’s clear that to do this sustainably we need to understand the subsurface better.

The other trend has been in technology. A ‘geological macroscope’[3] is now within our grasp because of the technology that’s available – more sensors that are capable of withstanding the challenging conditions in the deep underground, better visualisation technology – and most importantly - bigger computing capability.

In the end we’ll want to use the UKGEOS sites to understand the subsurface – the fluids that flow through it, and the way that it changes day to day and hour to hour. Of course like meteorologists, we geologists would also like to be able to predict what’s going to happen – not in the atmosphere but in the underground. How does groundwater quality change from day to day? How do the shallow geothermal resources change with the seasons? How sustainable is shallow geothermal for the UK? How do we know when sinkholes or landslides are going to happen?

So a big draw of collecting all this subsurface data is the ability for geologists to forecast change. And this was the main reason why I attended the Cambridge meeting. To meet lots of clever people who are used to looking at data and who are interested in looking for trends that presage change.

At the beginning of the event, the audience was treated to an anecdotal story and cautionary tale exactly on those lines – the perils of prediction. The story detailed a bank that almost went out of business because of the inability of its computer systems to tell between anomalies and so called ‘change points’. The latter are more structural changes, while the former are essentially ‘blips’. Statistical algorithms that controlled an automatic buying and selling strategy at the bank, misidentified a change point as an anomaly and continued trading at highly unfavourable terms. So the bank took a big hit.

Discussions at the event also considered the ways that personal medicine – streamed data on personal health - could be used to discern dangerous trends and predict catastrophic health failures in individuals.

The implications for subsurface data are obvious. Complex statistics are used in earthquake seismology aiming for the holy grail of earthquake prediction or at the less difficult game of predicting aftershocks – but how could some of the techniques being discussed be used for more low key subsurface natural processes like subsidence or groundwater drought prediction? Clearly better process understanding is needed – but perhaps some of the statistics that aim to distinguish change points and anomalies could be useful too for forecasting, but also perhaps more mundanely to just spot imminent sensor failure.

The Cambridge event ended with a talk from Jeremy Bradley of the Royal Mail Data Science Group – which took a different tack. It seems that some of our long standing institutions are beginning to realise the value of their infrastructure in the new world of environmental sensors. The physical infrastructure that the Royal Mail controls in order to deliver its parcels and letters is huge. The service delivers 50000 letters per day to 24 million addresses. It has 115000 postboxes visited regularly - and 40000 post vans – as well as 20000 hand trolleys. Most of these follow the same route every day. The Royal Mail Data Science Group wonders if sensors could be mounted on this physical infrastructure – for air quality monitoring for example – or traffic. The Royal Mail’s infrastructure can’t offer a clear geological angle, but there is a lot of other subsurface infrastructure.  I wonder what geological use sensors in our subsurface water pipeline network might be put to? What other subsurface physical infrastructure could be used for gathering underground data? Time will tell!


Friday, 6 July 2018

Past climates of the western Tibetan Plateau…by Yuzhi Zhang

Hi. I am Yuzhi, a PhD student from Lanzhou University (China) currently on secondment to the School of Geography (University of Nottingham) and the Centre for Environmental Geochemistry at BGS. I am working on reconstructing the climate and environmental change in the western Tibetan Plateau over the Holocene period from lake sediments. In the UK my placement is specifically to gain experience with geochemical proxies including stable isotopes at the BGS.

Yuzhi undertaking fieldwork in the alpine region of the Tibetian Plateau.
There are more than 1000 lakes located in the Tibetan Plateau, and its fragile ecosystem is very sensitive to climate variations.  Therefore, it is important to look at past changes in the environment to understand how climate change will impact the region in the future.

Although a lot of work has been done in the eastern and southern Tibetan Plateau, little has been done in the west. Different regions across the Tibetan Plateau are influenced by different atmospheric circulation systems (ie Indian Summer Monsoon and Westerlies) so it is essential to know the palaeoclimate change in the different regions.  This will give us a better understanding of the variability of the Indian Summer Monsoon (ISM). Water resources on the Tibetan Plateau are of great importance in understanding the history of human civilization in this region.

Lake A’ong Co in Western Tibetian Plateau.
I have been working on an alpine lake, A’ong Co, which is a glacier-fed lake. In 2015, I took a 4.5 m long core from the central part of the lake. Palaeolimnological proxies, including stable isotopes and ostracode species, are being used to reconstruct the climate change (mainly wet-dry variations) through the Holocene. Specifically I want to investigate the past influence of the Indian Summer Monsoon. As A’ong Co is a glacier-fed lake, I am also investigating the source of the lake water and how sensitive it is to variations in glacier melt, as well as carbon cycling in the lake and its connection with climate change.

Yuzhi Zhang is a PhD student currently on secondment in the School of Geography, University of Nottingham working within the Centre for Environmental Geochemistry in BGS.

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

World Heritage Sites under threat! BGS scientists strive to protect them … by Catherine Pennington

The climate is changing.  We know this.  And while many dedicated scientists, researchers, activists, politicians and people in their own homes are trying to understand, tackle and find ways we can be more resilient to it, we have also been looking at how the changing climate may affect geohazards such as landslides, sinkholes and shrinking and swelling clays.

Will more landslides happen?  Will previously stable landslides reactivate?  Will there be more sinkholes appearing?  Will the London buildings subject to the shrinking and swelling of underlying clay suffer even more damage in the future?

What about all the buildings, roads, railways, utilities and other assets on and around these hazards?  How could they be affected?  It’s perfectly sensible to wonder about your own home and surrounding area, but what about those assets that we all love and identify our location by?  Such a place might be your local stately home or another famous monument like a castle or a river valley teaming with wildlife.  These sites are collectively known as Cultural Heritage sites.  In fact, these sites are being celebrated right now as part of the European Year of Cultural Heritage.  How might these places be affected?  Does anyone know?  Is anyone thinking about that?

Well, in short, yes.  Yes we are.  And we’ve been to the UNESCO headquarters in Paris to talk about it.

(Left to right) Alessandro Novellino, Emma Bee and Anna Harrison at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris for the PROTHEGO project meeting


Scientists (pictured) at the BGS have been working with European partners from Italy, Cyprus and Spain on the Protection of European Cultural Heritage from Geohazards (PROTHEGO) project.  The meeting at UNESCO presented the findings from this work.

Emma Bee, PROTHEGO project manager at BGS explained the aims: “Focusing on selected pilot sites on the UNESCO’s World Heritage List, the PROTHEGO project identifies geohazards that may impact the sites and then develops ways of detecting and monitoring them”.

Such geohazards may include volcanoes, earthquakes, landslides or sinkholes as well as flooding from rivers or groundwater, or shrinking and swelling clays.  Emma added: “By understanding the likely threats from geohazards, the owners of the heritage sites can adapt their management practices to reduce potential damage to these culturally important sites, helping to protect them for future generations”.

Part of the project was also to create the PROTHEGO Map Viewer.  For the first time, you can now view hazard fact sheets for World Heritage Sites.

PROTHEGO World Heritage Site Map Viewer

How do we monitor geohazards? The Eye in the Sky

Satellites whirl round and round us all the time.  As they’re doing this, they’re streaming radar images of our planet back to us.  Some of the data are freely available and allow us to monitor large areas for small movements in objects that reflect the radar well (such as buildings and roads).  For the full title, this technology is called Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Radar (InSAR) analysis and can detect movement accurate to around one millimetre.

By combining InSAR analysis with information from geological data and expertise, any geohazards affecting heritage properties can be detected, monitored and understood.

Our test site: the Derwent Valley

At least one site in each PROTHEGO project partners’ country was selected.  For the UK, this is the Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site.  

This site is near Derby in the East Midlands and is on the southern edge of the Pennines.  It is a largely rural, industrial landscape containing a number of historic cotton and silk mills, watercourses that powered them, railways, housing and other facilities developed for the mill-worker communities during the 18th and 19th centuries.  You can find out more about this site on the Derwent Valley Mills website.

Core Area and Buffer Zone boundaries of the Derwent Valley Mills UNESCO WHL site with indication of key World Heritage buildings and mill complexes, overlapped onto aerial photography (a). Photographs of: Masson Mills (b), Cromford Mills (c), North and East Mill in Belper (d), River Derwent in Milford (e) Darley Abbey Mills (f) and Derby Silk Mill (g). WHL site boundaries © Historic England 2015; Contains Ordnance Survey data © Crown copyright and database right 2015.

The upshot?  Landslides and flooding…

The Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site is vulnerable to certain geohazards due to its geographical setting and the close location of buildings to the river.

We used information from our National Landslide Database and landslide susceptibility maps, InSAR analysis, expertise in engineering geology and geohazards, and fieldwork and we were able to identify two active landslides in Starkholmes and Ambergate that could affect the Derwent Valley.  Fortunately, they are not a threat to the historic buildings in the area.  The type of geology means that sinkholes and shrinking and swelling clays are unlikely to be present in this location.

Left: Starkholmes landslides. RIght: Ambergate landslides.  These are taken from our free GeoIndex.  The black points are from the National Landslide Database and the hashed polygons are from our geology maps.

Flooding simulations based on different climate change scenarios in the Derwent Valley catchment area also identify the potential for flooding, mainly over the west riverbank.

We can also expect to see an increase in these geohazards in the coming decades due to changes in climate.

The Future

The managers of the Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site are now armed with information about what they are likely to expect to see happening to the valley over the next few decades.  David Knight from Derwent Valley Mills Partnership said: “The data and methods developed by PROTHEGO will help us target resources and improve our long-term strategies to preserve the Derwent Valley in the face of climate change”.

The method we have established means that this approach could be rolled out to other World Heritage Sites or, indeed, other Cultural Heritage sites where owners need to assess the long-term stability.


For more information about this project or any of the scientific methods used, please contact Emma Bee.

PROTHEGO is a collaborative research project funded in the framework of the Joint Programming Initiative on Cultural Heritage and Global Change (JPICH) - Heritage Plus in 2015–2018.