Monday, 30 July 2018

Participating and coaching at a 'pressure cooker' event...by Anna Hicks and Jim Whiteley

Anna Hicks (British Geological Survey) and BUFI Student (University of Bristol) Jim Whiteley reflect on their experiences as a coach and participant of a NERC-supported risk communication ‘pressure cooker’, held in Mexico City in May.

Jim’s experience…. 


When the email came around advertising “the Interdisciplinary Pressure Cooker on Risk Communication that will take place during the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR; World Bank) Understanding Risk Forum in May 2018, Mexico City, Mexico” my thoughts went straight to the less studious aspects of the description:

‘Mexico City in May?’ Sounds great!

‘Interdisciplinary risk communication?’ Very à la mode! 

‘The World Bank?’ How prestigious! 

‘Pressure Cooker?’ Curious. Ah well, I thought, I’ll worry about that one later…

As a PhD student using geophysics to monitor landslides at risk of failure, communicating that risk to non-scientists isn’t something I am forced to think about too often. This is paradoxical, as the risk posed by these devastating natural hazards is the raison d'être for my research. As a geologist and geophysicist, I collect numerical data from soil and rocks, and try to work out what this tells us about how, or when, a landslide might move. Making sense of those numbers is difficult enough as it is (three and a half years’ worth of difficult to be precise) but the idea of having to take responsibility for, and explain how my research might actually benefit real people in the real world? Now that’s a daunting prospect to confront.

However, confront that prospect is exactly what I found myself doing at the Interdisciplinary Pressure Cooker on Risk Communication in May this year. The forty-odd group of attendees to the pressure cooker were divided in to teams; our team was made up of people working or studying in a staggeringly wide range of areas: overseas development in Africa, government policy in the US, town and city planning in Mexico and Argentina, disaster risk reduction (DRR) in Colombia, and of course, yours truly, the geophysicist looking at landslides in Yorkshire.

Interdisciplinary? Check.

One hour before the 4am deadline. 
The possible issues to be discussed were as broad as overfishing, seasonal storms, population relocation and flooding. My fears were alleviated slightly, when I found that our team was going to be looking at hazards related to ground subsidence and cracking. Easy! I thought smugly. Rocks and cracks, the geologists’ proverbial bread and butter! We’ll have this wrapped up by lunchtime! But what was the task? Develop a risk communication strategy, and devise an effective approach to implementing this strategy, which should be aimed at a vulnerable target group living in the district of Iztapalapa in Mexico City, a district of 1.8 million people. Right.

Risk communication? Check.

It was around this time I realised that I glossed over the most imperative part of the email that had been sent around so many months before: ‘Pressure Cooker’. It meant exactly what it said on the tin; a high-pressure environment in which something, in this case a ‘risk communication strategy’ needed to be cooked-up quickly. Twenty-four hours quickly in fact. There would be a brief break circa 4am when our reports would be submitted, and then presentations were to be made to the judges at 9am the following morning. I checked the time. Ten past nine in the morning. The clock was ticking.

Pressure cooker? Very much check.


Anna’s experience….


What Jim failed to mention up front is it was a BIG DEAL to win a place in this event. 440 people from all over the world applied for one of 35 places. So, great job Jim! I was also really grateful to be invited to be a coach for one of the groups, having only just ‘graduated’ out of the age bracket to be a participant myself! And like Jim, I too had some early thoughts pre-pressure cooker, but mine were a mixture of excitement and apprehension in equal measures:

‘Mexico City in May?’ Here’s yet another opportunity to show up my lack of Spanish-speaking skills…

‘Interdisciplinary risk communication?’ I know how hard this is to do well…

‘The World Bank?’ This isn’t going to be your normal academic conference! 

‘Pressure Cooker?’ How on earth am I going to stay awake, let alone maintain good ‘coaching skills’?!

As an interdisciplinary researcher working mainly in risk communication and disaster risk reduction, I was extremely conscious of the challenges of generating risk communication products – and doing it in 24 hours? Whoa. There is a significant lack of evidence-based research about ‘what works’ in risk communication for DRR, and I knew from my own research that it was important to include the intended audience in the process of generating risk communication ‘products’. I need not have worried though. We had support from in-country experts that knew every inch of the context, so we felt confident we could make our process and product relevant and salient for the intended audience. This in part was also down to the good relationships we quickly formed in our team, crafted from patience, desire and ability to listen to each other, and for an unwavering enthusiasm for the task!
The morning after the night before. 

So we worked through the day and night on our ‘product’ – a community based risk communication strategy aimed at women in Iztapalapa with the aim of fostering a community of practice through ‘train the trainer’ workshops and the integration of art and science to identify and monitor ground cracking in the area.

The following morning, after only a few hours’ sleep, the team delivered their presentation to fellow pressure-cooker participants, conference attendees, and importantly, representatives of the community groups and emergency management teams in the geographical areas in which our task was focused. The team did so well and presented their work with confidence, clarity and – bags of the one thing that got us through the whole pressure cooker – good humour.

It was such a pleasure to be part of this fantastic event and meet such inspiring people, but the icing on the cake was being awarded ‘Best Interdisciplinary Team’ at the awards ceremony that evening. ‘Ding’! Dinner served.


Friday, 27 July 2018

Learning to Code: the benefits of taking a BGS sabbatical...by Rachael Ellen

A photo of me with the instructors at CodeClan on
Graduation Day: smiles all round!
Hi, I’m Rachael Ellen, and I work as a geologist at the British Geological Survey (BGS). I recently took a break from the world of geology to do something completely different and outside my professional comfort zone: learn how to code. This adventure into the world of software development was supported by the BGS Sabbatical Scheme (more info on this for BGS staff at the end of this post), and an experience I found greatly rewarding. BGS are an incredibly supportive organisation to work for, and I am grateful for the opportunity to learn new skills and advance my knowledge. Here, I’ll share my experiences of taking a BGS Sabbatical. 

Motivations for taking a sabbatical

In today’s modern world, we are surrounded by ever-growing technology and applications, making life and accessing information a little easier. It’s therefore no surprise that the digital sector is a growing and increasingly important element in our day to day lives, and one which we rely on to access, share or view information. The BGS recognise this, and it is a part of their strategy to engage more with the public via digital means (for example, their awesome iGeology app). I have always had an interest in new technology and thinking of ways to implement this professionally to communicate the work I do at BGS. However, I lacked the necessary coding skills to be able to create mobile or web applications to achieve this, and so I took a sabbatical to train as a software developer.

The sabbatical itself

Between February and July this year, I was hard at work learning how to code at CodeClan, a digital skills academy in Edinburgh. Initially, I found the course very challenging as it was so fast-paced and intensive: especially for me having little prior experience of coding. I’m a visual learner, and at first found it hard to visualise how different parts of the code were communicating with each other.

From L-R: Planning and coding for Project Week 2: a geology based Android AppGetting my head around the concept of
 multiple classes in Week 3: for me, colourful note taking was essential to reinforce the concepts!
It had been so long since I was in a learning environment that it took a while for me to adjust to deep learning again. I swear I could feel my brain ‘muscle’ screaming at me, asking for rest for most of the course, much like I would expect my leg muscles to feel if I were to take part in a marathon without any prior training. This feeling was particularly strong in the first few weeks, with my mind trying to keep up with coding concepts which were new for me - methods, classes, arrays, hashes, for loops, if statements - but because I was coding every day, evening, and weekend, the fundamentals soon set in and I got the coding bug. It was so satisfying to look back even after a few days of the course and realised how much I’d learned in such a short time.

By the end of the course, I had multiple projects under my belt (for interested coders out there, these were built in either Ruby, Java or JavaScript). Project weeks gave me the opportunity to design and develop my own ideas from scratch, and have the satisfaction of seeing my creations brought to life.

Projects

My first project had nothing to do with geology (cats instead, almost as good!), and so I won’t include it in this blog: it was in those first few weeks where I was feeling lost with learning how to code that I had no brain energy to dream up a geology project. However, by the time the next project week came around, programming and I were getting on better and agreeing with each other more, and so I felt more confident to come up with my own projects.

Screenshots of the app I designed for Android, allowing you to find and track geological excursions: with the added bonus of
 viewing a beautiful BGS geological map!
I built my first Android app, ‘GeoTrax’, an app allowing amateur geologists or outdoor enthusiasts to view a list of geological excursions on the island of Mull, and to save completed excursions to a list, allowing them to keep track of their progress. I also incorporated functionality to view a geological map of Mull from BGS archive scans. The app was a firm favourite with my fellow classmates, none of whom have a background in geology, with a lot of them asking me when would this be available to download from the App Store so they could start using it to learn about geology!

Screenshot of the web application I built with JavaScript,
incorporating BGS data
The final project was for JavaScript…which I found a beast to learn, but it is so so so powerful that my initial loathing of it turned to respect and even admiration!  So for my final project, I grabbed the JavaScript bull by the horns and challenged myself to build a web application that shows on a map the locations of East Lothian Geodiversity sites, which I field-audited with BGS a few years ago.  The map is interactive and allows users to click on any site to find out more about that particular site.  This project was also a favourite with my classmates, with comments that my creations made them want to learn more about geology, which was really good feedback to have and great to hear.

Now that I am back from sabbatical, I am looking forward to continuing to develop my skills in software development, and making my work more accessible to the public via digital platforms. I have not only acquired new digital and software skills to allow me to achieve this, but have also heightened my resilience, problem solving, communication and team working skills. I feel more confident with my ability to pursue a complex and new subject, and have learned that as long as you don’t fear failure, have a growth mindset and a passion to learn, anything is possible.

The BGS Staff Sabbatical Scheme

BGS offer their own Sabbatical Scheme (for BGS staff, details can be found via the BGS Intranet here), different to that described in the RCUK Career Breaks and Sabbatical Policy. Examples of strong cases for consideration of sabbaticals include:

  • Developing new skills
  • Experience of new technologies/methodologies
  • An opportunity to work with an expert in their field

There is a short application form to fill in to be considered for the BGS Staff Sabbatical Scheme, which asks the staff member to explain their reason for a sabbatical, the duration planned, a breakdown of any additional funding requested and a business case which should link into the BGS strategy.

Tuesday, 24 July 2018

Using geochemistry to study ancient glass...by Camilla Bertini

Me working with the LA-ICP- MS instrument
at BGS Keyworth. 
Hi, my name is Camilla Bertini, and I am a PhD candidate from the University of Nottingham. During my PhD, I have been supervised by Professor Julian Henderson and Professor Christopher Loveluck, and I have just submitted my PhD with a dissertation titled “Trade and glass production in Early Medieval Italy, England, and Denmark (late 6th - 11th century AD): compositional and isotopic analysis”. My main expertise area involves the study of ancient glasses, and more in particular the analysis of their chemical composition. 

Before moving to the UK, my main academic background was focused on the archaeological aspect of glass, hence mainly typology (the study and comparison of artefacts shape and decoration). I then discovered a whole different approach to the subject: I have learned that through chemical analysis it is possible not only to understand what raw materials have been used to make the glass, but also to assess where they were made. The technological aspect of glass-making fascinates me and at that point I decided to move to the UK to get an MSc in Archaeological materials at the University of Nottingham, and then go onto study for a PhD.

My current PhD project involves the study of three different glass datasets dated between the late 6th and the 11th century AD: Comacchio (Northern Italy), Barking Abbey (Southern England), and Ribe (Denmark). I started to collaborate with Dr Simon Chenery (BGS) in July 2016, when I analysed my first batch of samples with LA-ICP-MS: this technique which measures the concentration of trace elements in the glass samples is still scarcely applied to glass studies, even though has showed much potential. In fact, most of the published studies still rely only on significant elements (EMPA) to assess the compositional nature of ancient glasses, although trace elements data can give a better complete knowledge of the nature of the recipe itself.  My first aim was to use LA-ICP-MS not only as a mean to characterise further each chemical composition of glass, but also to understand mixing and recycling practices in glass manufacture by measuring the concentration of specific “recycling markers” (Sb, Sn, Co, Cu): understanding when glass has undergone through repetitive recycling cycles and when its original composition has been mixed with other recipes is crucial to understand the degree of manufacture processes occurring in any workshop.

Glass fragments from Comacchio and Barking Abbey. From sx to dx: glass vessel with yellow band decoration; mosaic
 tesserae; fragment of a glass lamp; soapstone crucible with a layer of green and red opaque glass. 
With the help of a NERC Isotope Geosciences Facility grant, I was able to analyse three different isotopes (strontium, neodymium, and lead) for 67 samples from two Early Medieval sites: Comacchio (Northern Italy), and Barking Abbey (South-Eastern England) in collaboration with Professor Jane Evans (BGS). One significant gap in glass studies research up until now is that few isotopic data have been published on Roman glass and no isotopic data has been acquired for glass artefacts after the 7th century for Western glass.

Looking at Barking Abbey glass through the microscope.
We know from previous analytical studies that the main area of production of glass during the Roman and Early Medieval period were Palestine and Egypt. The same isotope analysis confirmed that raw materials for glass from the Levantine area have been used to make Roman and Early Medieval glass, therefore, my main hypothesis was to understand if samples from Comacchio and Barking Abbey have been indeed produced with raw materials harvested in the Levant. For example, was plant ash glass found in Comacchio (Northern Italy) made in Islamic primary production centres? Could we potentially finally confirm the trade of glass between the Islamic glass-making and the Venetian area? My second objective was to examine mixing and recycling practises by looking at Sr and Nd isotope data. I submitted my PhD in April: while I cannot reveal the results of my research just yet, all I can say that the data acquired is very promising and I cannot wait to finally publish my findings!

(NB Camilla successfully defended her PhD on 13th July)

For more information then you can contact Camilla here or follow here on Twitter

Friday, 20 July 2018

Private Water Supplies in Wales: information to support public heath priorities...by 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). 

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 communication...by 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 digitaldata@bgs.ac.uk if you would like to review this brand new data set from the BGS.

Sunday, 15 July 2018

Football Rocks: World Cup Geology Tour...by 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.