Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Do Shale Resources Have Any Place in a Green Great Britain? Joe Emmings

The world needs to efficiently phase-out its dependency on fossil fuels and bring in a balanced mix of sustainable energy sources, such as wind and solar renewables, and probably nuclear power. In the UK governments’ 2017 Clean Growth Strategy, three long-term technological ‘pathways’ were predicted in order to help us reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050. In reality, we will need to utilise a mix of these options. Pathway one, the ‘electricity pathway’, represents a straightforward replacement of fossil fuels used in electricity generation, household heating and industry, with renewables and nuclear power. This route is attractive because it potentially represents the most efficient and fastest way of substantially reducing emissions. However, a problem with this route is that natural gas is embedded in the design of our power plants, electricity distribution, heating and transport infrastructure. Electrification of this infrastructure will be expensive, but nonetheless perhaps offers the best way to reduce emissions, at least from a national perspective.  

The second option, the ‘hydrogen pathway’, utilises hydrogen for heating of homes and buildings, and as fuel for vehicles and in industry. Rather than replace our gas infrastructure, it is instead modified so that it can be used for hydrogen rather than hydrocarbons (e.g., natural gas). Hydrogen gas can be generated from water, biomass, natural gas or following coal gasification. Steam reforming of natural gas coupled with carbon-capture and storage (CCS) is a promising way to reduce emissions whilst, to some degree, avoiding the costly process of replacing our existing infrastructure. Given fossil fuels are not being replaced with renewables at the required speed globally, particularly in some developing countries, this pathway is perhaps a pragmatic and outward-facing approach to reducing global emissions. Substantial ‘inertia’ in the global fossil-fuel energy sector could mean coal and natural gas are utilised as a significant source of power generation for longer than expected.

The third option, the ‘emissions removal’ pathway, utilises biomass power stations coupled to CCS in order to remove CO2 from the atmosphere and store this in geological reservoirs. This route is possibly the only means which global emission reduction targets can be met, but is problematic because it will stress resources such as arable land, fertilisers, water and ecosystems.

So, do shale resources have a place in Green Great Britain? In order to completely switch to renewables and nuclear power (‘electricity pathway’), by definition, shale gas cannot have a long-term future in UK or globally. That said, locally extracted natural gas is potentially a short to medium-term ‘bridge’ between coal, oil and gas and sustainable sources of energy. In a global context, locally extracted gas is potentially preferable over imported gas, because in the UK we have strict regulations which protect the environment, and the fugitive emissions by long gas pipelines crossing parts of Europe is significant.

A key part of my research focusses not only on the hydrocarbon (oil and gas) prospectivity UK shale, but also understanding the broader resource potential of shales. UK black shales can contain high concentrations of metals (‘metalliferous’), which might be mined or even co-extracted during hydraulic fracturing or during remediation of waste water. The problem is no two shales are the same; the amount of gas and metals present in the rock varies substantially. This ultimately comes down to the environment of deposition – in other words – what did the environment look like millions of years ago?

We know Mississippian black shales in the UK were deposited in shallow seaways. By studying the geochemical composition of UK black shales, we know these marine settings lacked oxygen (termed ‘anoxic’), an environment that is similar to the modern Black Sea. Understanding when and how seawaters became oxygenated is important for understanding the resource potential of shale. The geochemical proxy record shows that seawaters were rich in hydrogen sulphide (H2S), a gas that is highly toxic to aerobic organisms. H2S is produced when other ‘electron acceptors’, such as oxygen, are absent. Anaerobes that live in the water instead respire using dissolved sulphate (SO4) and produce H2S as a product. This means UK black shales contain lots of pyrite (FeS2, ‘fools gold’) and are enriched in many ‘redox-sensitive’ metals, including Co and Ni. The required expansion of renewables and batteries used to store electricity (‘electricity pathway’) is increasing the demand for metals, such as Co and Ni. Steam reformation of natural gas, used to produce hydrogen as part of the ‘hydrogen pathway’, also requires metals as catalysts. So in this respect, shale resources, as gas or metals, might have a part to play in becoming Green Great Britain.

Joe Emmings is a Post-Doctoral Research Associate in Geochemistry at the British Geological Survey’s Stable Isotope Facility and Centre for Environmental Geochemistry. Please contact Joe if you are interested in his research field.

Tuesday, 16 October 2018

Clean coal is a myth. Clean heat from coal mines isn’t! Corinna Abesser and Ashley Patton

Coal is often referred to as the dirtiest of fossil fuels. It produces 40% of the world’s electricity demand, is responsible for 39% of CO2 emissions and causes big problems with air pollution worldwide. In 2012, the use of fossil fuels, in general, has resulted in 34.5 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide being emitted. These emissions need to be dramatically reduced. Earlier this month, we were reminded by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) of the urgency of this task to reduce emissions and to end coal-fired electricity by 2050 in order to cut the risk of experiencing extreme heat, drought, floods and poverty in the future.

Therefore, alternative, low-carbon  sources of energy are urgently needed for the world to be able to reduce CO2 emissions and limit global warming temperature rises as well as to increase energy security and eliminate fuel poverty.

Coalmines are just the place to help with this, despite their ‘dirty’ past. They can provide a low carbon alternative for heat production, and here is how.

Heat beneath our feet

There are vast amounts of energy stored in the Earth beneath our feet, which are ultimately provided from two sources: the earth and the sun. Decay of radioactive elements in the Earth’s core provides a constant supply of heat within the earth that dissipates up to the crust. As a result, the deeper we drill into the earth the warmer it gets, with temperatures rising by about 2.5°C for every 100m of depth.

At the same time, the insulating effect of the shallow subsurface is able to store heat from sunlight as well as that lost to the subsurface from the basements of buildings and from other subsurface infrastructure in cities, such as sewers or tunnels . This heat resource is typically distributed by natural groundwater systems and through man-made structures such as the abandoned coal-mines that underlie many of the UK’s cities and towns.

Abandoned coal mines comprise networks of flooded voids with water flowing at depths of a few tens of metres to several hundred of metres below the surface.  Even in the shallower mines, temperatures of mine water are elevated, typically around 12-16°C and often higher, especially where mines are deep.

It is this resource that can be exploited for space heating through use of a simple, but ingenious piece of technology:  Ground Source Heat Pump systems. These systems take the  energy from the thermally-enhanced mine water and upgrade it to higher temperatures, e.g., around 40-50°C, for use in domestic heating.

How is geothermal energy stored?

How does it work?

The “heart” of the ground source heat pump system is the actual heat pump.  It works in the same way as a fridge that cools your food by absorbing heat from the food in the fridge and, using a heat exchanger, releases it to the surrounding air via the condenser coils at the back of the fridge (which are always warm because of this). Heat pumps do exactly the same. They absorb the heat from the mine water, upgrade it and release the “concentrated” heat via the home heating system.

Heat pumps require a small amount of external power to accomplish the work of transferring energy. However, for each unit of energy input, the heat pump provides 3-4 units of heat energy output, and hence these systems are much more efficient than conventional gas- or oil-burning heating systems. Because of this high efficiency, minewater-based heating is almost carbon-neutral, especially when the pumps are powered by “green” electricity, e.g. generated by wind turbines or solar panels.

How to extract heat from mine water to heat houses.

The future of Minewater heating in the UK

Small minewater heating schemes have already been successfully developed at different locations in the UK, e.g. at the Markham Colliery, Derbyshire, for heating the offices of Alkane Energy and at Dawdon, County Durham, where heat from mines is extracted for heating buildings at an existing Coal Authority pumping station. The potential for building a heating network for 150 homes using the minewater   from the former Caerau colliery, in the Llynfi valley, South Wales, is currently being investigated by Bridgend County Borough Council and the BGS. Similar investigations are underway in NE England, involving Durham University and local councils, looking at the potential of abandoned mines in for heating homes near Bishop Auckland and Spennymoor, County Durham.

BGS is also in the process of delivering the research infrastructure for the UK Geoenergy Observatory in Glasgow – a research facility equipped with the newest scientific technologies for investigating the potential of mines for heating homes and buildings. Glasgow was once home to some of Scotland’s biggest coalmines, which, post closure, have flooded with water of around 12°C in temperature. Scientists from across the UK will have access to the observatory and their research and experiments will yield a better understanding of how to harvest the heat in abandoned mines in the UK and elsewhere.

Considering that many UK towns and cities grew up around areas where coal was mined, there are many parts of the country that could benefit from this research and from further developing and applying this technology in the UK.

Friday, 12 October 2018

Celebrating and Reflecting: UN International Day for Disaster Risk Joel C Gill

October 13th is the UN International Day for Disaster Reduction, with the specific theme of reducing the economic losses resulting from disasters. It is a day to remember those communities impacted by disasters, including the recent June 2018 eruption of Fuego volcano in Guatemala and the tragic earthquake and tsunami occurring in Indonesia just weeks ago. It is a day to celebrate the actions that people and communities around the world are taking to reduce their exposure and vulnerability to disasters, and the progress we have made to reduce fatalities from disasters in some countries recent decades. It is also a day to reflect on the research, innovation, training and technology transfer needed to advance this work and ensure sustainable and resilient communities.

Natural hazards (e.g., landslides, earthquakes, volcanic events) have a significant impact on lives, livelihoods and economic growth, disproportionately affecting the most vulnerable in society and threatening social and economic development progress. A report published this week by CRED/UNISDR estimate that disasters between 1998 and 2017 resulted in direct economic losses of US$2,908 billion, 1.3 million fatalities, and 4.4 billion people injured, rendered homeless, displaced or needing emergency assistance. Disasters place an additional demand on already stretched budgets, diverting resources away from improving education and healthcare, or developing infrastructure and jobs. The UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) estimate that disasters drive 26 million people into poverty every year. It is therefore imperative, if we are to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), that we accelerate efforts to reduce disaster risk. The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR, 2015) has put disaster risk reduction (DRR) at the centre of the UN development agenda, with an important role for geoscientists.

Credit: UNISDR (used with permission)
Disasters, however, are a complex challenge requiring many disciplines to work in close partnership if we are to ensure sustainable and resilient communities. Disasters are not an inevitable consequence of geological or meteorological hazards. It is the spatial and temporal coincidence of hazardous phenomena with exposure (i.e., things we value being located in hazard-prone areas) and vulnerability (i.e., conditions that increase the susceptibility of people/infrastructure/systems to the impacts of hazards) that results in the generation of risk and the potential for devastating effects. In this context development challenges of poverty, inequality, lack of access to and overconsumption of resources, climate change, and uncontrolled urbanisation can all change exposure and/or vulnerability, thus contributing to disaster risk. So called ‘natural disasters’ really are not natural at all, and that means we can do something to address them and stem the economic losses that so badly impact communities.

BGS has a global portfolio of projects aiming to better understand natural hazards, and reduce disaster impacts. For example, through our Official Development Assistance programme, Geoscience for Sustainable Futures, we are coordinating work on ‘global geological risk’ aiming to improve the lives of some of the world’s most vulnerable communities. Through this work, we cooperate closely with a range of partners (e.g., governments, academics) and disciplines (e.g., geoscientists, social scientists, engineers) in the UK and overseas.

A key theme within our hazards work is ‘multi-hazard resilience’, recognising that many communities are affected by multiple hazards that do not always occur independently. Hazards may occur simultaneously, or in quick succession with one hazard triggering multiple secondary hazards. Building on the success of the myVolcano Mobile Application, we are collaborating with partners including the University of the West Indies Seismic Research Centre and the National Emergency Management Organisation of St Vincent to develop a multi-hazard app. This will capture and disseminate data and information about multi-hazards and impacts (e.g. road closures, shelter locations), and enable local management of observations in real time.

Our multi-hazards engagement also extends to Guatemala, ranked 4th globally in the 2017 World Risk Index in terms of the risk of becoming a disaster victim due to an extreme natural event. We are working with hazard and disaster risk reduction professionals to characterise the relationships between the many natural hazards affecting the region, aiming to develop new and more holistic approaches to hazard management and disaster risk reduction.

Eruption of Santiaguito, Guatemala in 2014 (Credit: Joel Gill, BGS)
Our expertise in multiple hazards is also being applied within a complementary project, funded by the UK Space Agency. METEOR (Modelling Exposure Through Earth Observation Routines) uses Earth Observation approaches (e.g., satellites) to understand exposure to multiple hazards in Nepal and Tanzania, with the approach being extended to all 47 least-developed countries on the DAC list of ODA recipients. Poor understanding of the population exposed to natural hazards causes major challenges to disaster risk management. METEOR will help to address this, providing open and free, consistent data to NGOs, governments, town planners and insurance providers to promote welfare and economic development in these countries and better enable them to prepare for, and respond to hazards when they occur.

Through our sustainable development work, we continue to have a leading role responding to requests for humanitarian assistance in the aftermath of disasters, such as the 2015 earthquake in Nepal or the 2017 landslide in Sierra Leone. Our volcanology team regularly provide advice during volcanic crises, often associated with multiple hazard types. We work closely with organisations such as the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR), the Food and Agricultural Organization, NASA and MapAction to provide support and geohazard advice during emergency situations, including response to landslides, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes and earthquakes.
Through these projects, and many others (have a look through the web links below!), BGS are taking seriously the call of the UN Secretary General to help tackle disaster risk, contributing to global efforts to ensure a resilient and sustainable future for communities around the world. 

Read more about BGS hazards and disaster risk reduction research:
Joel Gill is an International Development Geoscientist at the British Geological Survey, and an interdisciplinary researcher, integrating natural and social science methods to address issues relating to sustainable development and disaster risk reduction.

Sampling on the Skerne: highlights of an ENVISION research Pyar Pandit

Dan Martin-Mallin and I preparing the samples with some curious onlookers!
When I sent off my application for an ENVISION research placement at BGS, I didn’t think I would be using liquid nitrogen, running a mass spectrometer, going out in the field to collect my own samples and I certainly didn’t think I would get accepted, but fortunately here I am, writing my first blog about my time at BGS and what an amazing experience it has been! My name is Pyar Pandit, and I’m a 1st year undergraduate chemistry student from the University of Nottingham. I have been working at BGS for about 8 weeks now on the Skerne project, under the supervision of Dr Barbara Palumbo-Roe and Dr Angela Lamb, aiming to determine the origins of high sulphate in stream waters in north-east England.

If you were to ask me to sum up everything I did within those 8 weeks in just a few sentences I simply couldn’t since every week I ended up working on a different aspect of the project in a different location. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I first started working here and I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t a bit nervous, but I quickly settled down thanks to the help of my supervisors and colleagues and was ready to tackle any challenge that came my way. The first week largely comprised of desk work in the James Hutton building, which involved managing past records of borehole data from the target region and reading through several articles for me to get me to grips with the basics of geology, the latter being very interesting since I had no prior knowledge regarding this subject. I was also taught how to use a HACH colorimeter to test for sulphate concentration and how to take field readings and calibrate all the field probes.  

The aftermath of the flooding
Soon after, I was sent on my first field expedition to a town in County Durham called Darlington to collect water, rock and soil samples for analysis back in the Stable Isotope Facility. As we arrived at the first site, a large quarry, we soon realised that a huge storm had hit the area and had flooded large parts of the River Skerne. Later that day we also travelled to the main site on which we would be working on (a small farm which the river passed through) to assess the situation, and to our surprise, a few piezometers with data loggers that had previously been installed had been damaged due to the intense flooding. Although this was a setback to the project, we were able to recover most of the data loggers and made quick work of meeting our primary objectives for that expedition. I was able to observe how a typical groundwater field expedition was carried out and taught how to auger (ranging from a depth of 0 - 1.75 metres) and sample the material we collected. Furthermore, I was also given more insight into the geology of the area and what it could tell us about the different processes occurring such as surface water and groundwater interaction in the river or predict where areas of acid mine drainage could be happening, leading to an influx of sulphate. The next day we travelled to 3 different sites and collected surface water samples whilst taking measurements of the field parameters, followed by a collection of 28 groundwater samples from various borehole sites across Darlington in collaboration with the Environment Agency.          

A couple of weeks later, I was part of another expedition at the same location in which we collected groundwater and porewater samples at different depths alongside constant monitoring of the field parameters. Aside from some curious cows, field probes that refused to stabilise, and a terrible case of hay fever, fieldwork was definitely one of the more exciting parts of the placement and it was quite satisfying to be able to help collect the samples that I would be analysing back in the lab. Even though it could get quite challenging at times, the trip to the pub for food every night definitely made up for it.

With the samples safely collected and stored, I was sent to the Stable Isotope Facility to process and analyse them for their sulphur isotope composition (a method that can help to determine the origin of the sulphate). I was looking forward to this part of my placement the most as it would involve improving my skills as a chemist. As soon as I put on a lab coat and a pair of nitrile gloves I felt right at home and soon began processing the samples. I was taught several experimental techniques by Dr Angela Lamb and Dr Andrew Smith to help support me to prepare the water samples for mass spectrometry. Before using the mass spectrometers, I was taught how to weigh out my samples (between 0.6-0.7 milligrams), a tedious process which could either be quite relaxing or incredibly frustrating depending on how the day was going. I then loaded my samples onto the mass spectrometer and learned how to analyse the data it produced. This gave me an insight into normalization procedures and reference material selection, all being extremely fascinating and hopefully giving me a head start with analytical chemistry next year!  

As part of my time in the labs, I was given a tour of all the stable isotope labs which was very useful as I gained insight into different types of mass spectrometers. I also had the opportunity to carry out a small project - analysing carbonate samples for carbon and oxygen isotopes from a sediment core taken from a Scottish Loch which had experienced periods of sea water inflow. The aim of the project was to generate an accurate depiction of how the water chemistry in the loch developed overtime. This project further helped to demonstrate the importance of isotope analysis and was a great change of pace to the usual lab work. 

These past 8 weeks have truly been an amazing experience and I’m incredibly grateful for being offered a research placement here. This placement had a huge impact on my life as living on my own, working with new people, tackling difficult challenges and delving into a new field of research has allowed me to reflect on myself, develop my independence and gain a better understanding of which direction I want to lead my career into. I have also developed a new-found respect for geology, geochemistry and the importance of isotopes and look forward to working with these areas a lot more in the future. I would like to thank everyone who helped me out throughout these 8 weeks and really appreciate the patience they had with me.

Pyar Pandit is currently starting his 2nd year of an undergraduate chemistry degree at the University of Nottingham

Sunday, 7 October 2018

Finding my feet as a digital marketing Josh McIntyre

I’m Josh McIntyre, a digital marketing apprentice at BGS. I’ve been here now for around 3 months, doing all sorts from product promotion at events like FloodExpo to graphics and illustration for various presentations and projects.

During my first week at BGS I must have met around 100,000 people (at least it felt like that many) while being whizzed around from department to department, all of whom were incredibly friendly. I quickly learned what a wide range of products BGS work on and how much I was going to have to get my head around if I was going to help market all this.

The variety of tasks I have been set has allowed me apply my interests into my work, making my time here so far very enjoyable. My most recent project has been attending FloodExpo and using that experience to create a guide for people attending future events. I had a great time at the event, getting to walk around and see what the flood community has to offer as well as sitting down with people to explain what our SuDS data product is and how it can be used in their industry. This was my first taste of presenting to people outside of BGS and it was no way near as scary as I expected!

Recently I went through my first week of online seminars for my apprenticeship ran by inTraining which covered the fundamentals of digital marketing. Being an apprentice is a strange mix of doing and learning, having been out of education for over a year it was quite strange to go back to a classroom format, even if it was just a virtual one. Over the next year of working here I will have to complete modules on 7 main topics including web development and data analytics.

I’m excited to see how well the knowledge from my apprenticeship and my experience working here will merge together to give me a proper understanding of my field of work.

Friday, 5 October 2018

Climate, dispersal, civilisation and collapse…by guest blogger Dr Jonathan Dean

Dr Jonathan Dean is a Lecturer in Physical Geography at the University of Hull. Here he draws on stable isotope work carried out with Prof Melanie Leng at the Stable Isotope Facility at the British Geological Survey to investigate the links between climate and humans…

Why did some Homo sapiens, after evolving in eastern Africa and living there for tens of thousands of years, decide it was time to up sticks and move to Asia? Why did cities and vast empires in the Middle East collapse suddenly around 4,000 years ago, and again 3,000 years ago? People have often proposed a link between climate change and the course of human history, but to test these theories we need to know exactly how the climate changed back through time. That’s where people like me come in. My job is to work out how climate changed in the past. Because there are no meteorological records going back more than a few hundred years, we have to come up with clever ways to reconstruct past climate. I use lakes as a historical rain gauge. In some lakes, carbonate – which is like the limescale in your kettle at home – forms every year in the surface waters. In this carbonate, there are different types of oxygen, and the ratio of one type of oxygen to another varies depending on factors such as how deep or shallow the lake was at the time it formed. This carbonate then falls through the water to the lake bed and is locked away as an archive of lake level change…until scientists come along. We drill into the sediments to take cores. We then analyse the ratio of one type of oxygen to another at different points back through time from the carbonates in these sediments, and from that can reconstruct changes in lake level, and hence climate changes between wet and dry, back through time.

A dry lake bed in Ethiopia that we drilled to retrieve sediment
Let’s consider two examples of how climate change might have changed the course of human history. Firstly, why did our species, Homo sapiens, leave Africa after evolving there? Scientists have found evidence of Homo sapiens in the Middle East as far back as 130,000 years ago. However, other researchers have analysed the DNA of modern humans and concluded that modern non-Africans are likely to be descended from people who left Africa via Egypt around 60,000 years ago, suggesting the people who left 130,000 years ago died out before they could successfully populate the rest of the world. But why did Homo sapiens leave Africa? Maybe climate change played a role. We have used sediments taken from an old lake on the border between Ethiopia and Kenya. We showed in a paper that has just been published that there was a climate shift in eastern Africa at the time the successful dispersals out of Africa occurred around 60,000 years ago – the climate was changing from being very variable with multiple fluctuations between wetter and drier conditions, to a more stable climate where there was less change. During the more variable times, it was difficult for Homo sapiens, and only those who adapted to each climate change survived. This led to natural selection for the most flexible, highly skilled individuals and populations. When the climate then became more stable, it was easier for Homo sapiens to survive so populations increased. This led to pressure, as more and more humans tried to survive on the food and water resources of eastern Africa. This may have therefore pushed some people out of the region in order to try to find new lands to live on, and because of the natural selection during the times of variable climate they had the skills required to migrate out of Africa.

Some of the lake sediment from Chew Bahir
Our second example brings us much closer to the present day. Between the time of the migration out of Africa and 5,000 years ago, humans had started playing musical instruments, developed farming and invented the wheel. But at approximately 4,000 years ago and again at 3,000 years ago it seems big civilisations ‘collapsed’ – the archaeological evidence suggests they either went into decline or ceased to exist all together. Again, climate change has been used to help account for these sudden events. A drought lasting several hundred years has been identified ~4,000 years ago in climate records from lakes in the Middle East – for example in our record from a Turkish lake that was published in a paper in 2015. In Egypt, the Nile floods failed, leading to famine and political upheaval, and they even stopped building pyramids for a few hundred years. Around 3,000 years ago we identify another drought, at the time the Hittites, who lived in central Turkey, went into decline. Nowadays in central Turkey, there is only roughly 300 mm of precipitation a year and even with modern technology agriculture is difficult. But at the times of these ‘collapses’ we have shown it would have been even drier. These droughts may have weakened civilisations and combined with civil conflict, invasions and population pressures to cause the ‘collapses’. We will never know for sure what killed off these civilisations, but what we can say is that it would have become much more difficult to grow crops, and hence for people to feed themselves, during these droughts.

Therefore, climate seems to have been a major force in shaping the course of human history – from explaining the migration of early Homo sapiens out of Africa, to contributing to the collapse of civilisations. There are important lessons for the future here. The Middle East is likely to bear the brunt of climate change this century, with drier conditions due to falling precipitation and increased summer evaporation. Eastern African is predicted to see some large climate changes too. Already politically volatile regions, fighting over water resources is likely to intensify conflicts this century. In the Middle East, it may become as dry as it was at the times of the droughts 4,000 and 3,000 years ago, and the question is whether modern technology and politics will prevent the ‘collapses’ of civilisations that we saw in the past.

Dr Jonathan Dean is a Lecturer in Physical Geography at the University of Hull, he works with Prof Melanie Leng at the Stable Isotope Facility at the British Geological Survey to investigate the links between climate and humans…

Twitter @jrdean_uk and @MelJLeng

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

PODCAST: Geology is boring, right? What?! NO! ... by Catherine Pennington

Cath Pennington, BGS, at the Geological Society of London

Download this podcast
This is really starting to get on my nerves now.  For the umpteenth time, I have heard reference made to the world's definition of boring: geology. What?!


Talk to anybody at BGS about their science and they will be hopping about with enthusiasm.

So why doesn't the rest of the world see this?  Is it because us geologists are really boring, or is it actually that we need to be better at talking about what we do?

I went to London to a conference run by the Petroleum Group at the Geological Society where Communicating Geoscience was the topic.  Have a listen to the podcast to hear all about it.

Thank you!

Thank you to all the speakers and organisers at the conference.  I have used extracts from talks and interviews given by:

Professor Iain Stewart, University of Plymouth 
Dr Laura Roberts, Petrotechnical Data Systems
Dr Jen Roberts, Strathclyde University
Dr Hazel Gibson, University of Plymouth 
Professor John Underhill, Heriot-Watt University
Dr Anna Szolucha, University of Bergen
Stephen Harris, The Conversation
Dr Stephanie Zihms, Heriot-Watt University
Jan Freedman, Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery

Thanks also, of course, again to the Petroleum Group of the Geological Society, particularly Dr Kirstie Wright, Heriot-Watt University.

Monday, 1 October 2018

Cores reunited: surprising secrets from the GSNI core Rob Raine and Kieran Parker

The Geological Survey of Northern Ireland (GSNI) has its own core store located on the shores of Belfast Lough, about 5 miles away from the main GSNI office. We are currently in the process of curating all of our historic core and whilst doing so we were contacted by a relative of the person who drilled these very cores and were fortunate enough to get the chance to examine their recent discovery of a family archive dating back to the 1950s.

The GSNI core store contains around 20 km of rock core from boreholes across Northern Ireland and conserves cores and rock specimens as an archive for research, industry and educational use. A number of cores come from boreholes that were from 1949 to 1960 in a program of drilling carried out by GSNI shortly after the inception of the survey in 1947. The boreholes were mostly drilled in search of coal, gypsum/anhydrite or perlite in the areas around Stewartstown, Dungannon and Coalisland in Co. Tyrone, Newtownards in Co. Down and Ballycastle and Sandy Braes in Co. Antrim.

The process of repackaging the core has helped to catalogue the core and preserve it from abrasion. The box on the left
 contains newspaper from 1951 when the Kingsmill borehole was drilled and is seen scrunched up beside the rocks. The
right hand image shows the core in its new state.
Some of the cores are only now seeing the light of day since being drilled and are being curated to preserve them and make them available for future research. Often when unpacking the core there are things that take us back to that era, wrappers from the food the drillers were eating, newspapers from the day they were packaged up or even unused WWII army billboard posters (see below), but we rarely have much more to link with the people who drilled the core.

It came as a surprise then to receive a phone call that led to a chance to meet a relative of one of the men who drilled the boreholes. Sorting through old family documents him and his wife had found a number of old photographs, papers and notebooks detailing the meticulous work of life as a driller in the 50s.

The driller was Patrick Hall of Ardrahan, Co. Galway who worked for Fahy of the Irish Diamond Drilling Co., based in Lucan, Dublin. The Government contracted them to drill the boreholes and Patrick Hall carried out the drilling of many boreholes for the survey during this time.
Unpacking crates (left) from the Ballyloughan Bridge boreholes drilled in 1950. The cores were arranged into depth order
 (middle) before being re-boxed. The wrapping material for the core turned out to be copies of an army billboard poster that
 was provided by the stationery office (right).
Patrick Hall drilled 27 boreholes for the GSNI and from many of which core was recovered. And is still in the GSNI archive. Besides all these detailed notes, we were shown books detailing the wages paid to workers on the drill rig, expenditure on replacement parts and drilling muds, even receipts and costs for the laundry. Drilling is still a mucky job, although the drill rigs have improved somewhat.

Images clockwise from top left: 1 & 2. Notebooks from the borehole drilling.The contents meticulously detail the depths
 drilled and the rocks encountered. 3. One of the samples of core from Ballyvoy No 1, Ballycastle, drilled on 26th March
 1952. 4. Laundry price list. 5. Wage books for the drilling. 6. Manual for the diamond core drill.
Some of the kit used in recovering core and even the manual for the drill rig itself was contained in the archive. Then we looked through the photographs that took us back to a bygone age of smartly dressed workers who took pride in what they did and the machinery that they operated.

Patrick Hall operating the Longyear diamond core drill (left) and drillers posing for a phtograph on the drill site (right).
The gentleman with the tie is possibly the district geologist (GSNI) Alexander Fowler. Patrick Hall is seen on the far right.
The cores and the results of the drilling were pivotal in developing our understanding of the subsurface geology of Northern Ireland and have gone on to be used in a variety of geological publications. For more on GSNI's history and the role that drilling has played in our success then just click here.

We would like to thank the relatives of Patrick Hall for taking the time to show us this material and allowing us to photograph the archive for use in this article.

Rob Raine is a sedimentologist at the GSNI with responsibility for the curation and management of the GSNI core store. Kieran Parker is an environmental geologist with GSNI with responsibility for abandoned mines and geohazards.

Monday, 24 September 2018

Getting that sinking feeling: engineering geology in the Vale of York and Hannah Gow

3D Geological Model of Ripon that was presented by Hannah
At the start of September, the Engineering Group of the Geological Society (EGGS) had their Annual Field meeting organised by David Giles (University of Portsmouth). Staff from BGS and TSP (Technical Solutions in Partnership) Projects went along to present and lead the group. Over 40 delegates from a wide range of backgrounds from engineering geologists in industry to consultants to students were in attendance, to learn all about the geological history of the Vale of York and sinkholes in Ripon.

The Friday evening kicked off with an evening reception meal and talks given by Holger Kessler, Callum Irving (TSP Projects), Dr Vanessa Banks and myself (Hannah Gow). We gave an overview of the Quaternary history, mapping and modelling of the areas we were going to be visiting over the next two days. The talks went on quite late into the evening and some think we may have beat a BGS record, anyone else given a presentation later than 11pm on a Friday evening?!
Even after a late evening, we were all raring to go on Saturday morning and we started off the day with site visits to overlook the Escrick Moraine. The day was led by Jon Ford, Holger Kessler and Callum Irving, providing an in-depth narrative of the geological history and engineering properties of the ground in the area.

As typical for a field visit, it rained for most of the day and we came away with an extra couple of inches height due to the clay that stuck to the bottom of our wellingtons at Wilberfoss Quarry! It is a good job us geologists are a hardy lot!

The Sunday was led by Dr Tony Cooper and he took us to various sites around Ripon to look at sinkholes. Our first stop of the day was a sinkhole that had opened up very recently, within the last five months, one to add to the BGS records! At first glance, you could mistake it for a lovely village pond, if it were not for all the orange fencing around it and the fact that holes like that seem to appear quite a lot in Ripon!  Ripon has a history of sinkholes due to the gypsum under the ground. Gypsum dissolves in water causing cavities to open and the ground above it can collapse to form a sinkhole. It is believed that the sinkholes in Ripon, may have even been the inspiration behind Alice in Wonderland falling down a deep hole following the white rabbit! In the afternoon, Dave Morgan gave us all a demonstration of the passive seismic techniques being used to give us a better understanding of how and why sinkholes form.

It was an interesting and informative weekend with lots of discussion surrounding the engineering geology of the region. I think we have all come away with new friends in the geology world and ideas that we can apply to our own work/research.

Click here to find out more about the EGGS.

Click here for further information on gypsum and Ripon.

Photos courtesy of Craig Parry (Atkins) and Hannah Gow (BGS)

Thursday, 20 September 2018

Geochemistry for Sustainable Development: SEGH 2018, Olivier Humphrey

Sunset over Victoria Falls
In July 2018, scientists from across the globe met in Victoria Falls, Livingstone, Zambia for the Society for Environmental Geochemistry and Health (SEGH) 34th International Conference focussed on ‘Geochemistry for Sustainable Development’. The society aims to bring scientists from various disciplines to work together in understanding the interactions between the geochemical environment and the health of plants, animals, and humans.

During the conference, I presented some of my PhD research on ‘Iodine uptake, storage and translocation mechanisms in spinach (Spinacia oleracea L.)’. The aim of my PhD is to investigate iodine geodynamics and plant availability. Iodine is an essential micronutrient required for the production of thyroid hormones, which are critical for regulating energy metabolism, growth and brain function. Approximately 1.9 billion people are at risk of developing an iodine deficiency disorder (IDD). The most widely-used method for reducing IDD is dietary supplementation with iodised salt; however, poor salt treatment and food processing can reduce its effectiveness. As such, additional iodine delivery schemes are required; including iodine phytofortification. However, one of the underpinning issues associated with phytofortification is the general lack of understanding regarding plant iodine interactions. In my talk, I discussed a series of experiments I had conducted which aim to clarify the current misunderstandings within the literature. In addition to presenting my work at the conference I also co-chaired two sessions. This involved working with the chair, organising presenters and ensuring that they kept to the strict time schedule; even when the power did go out!

Group picture at the end of the epidemiology training course
As well as oral presentations and flash presentations/poster sessions a varied programme of training sessions were also available for delegates to attend including: how to use GIS, an introduction to R, and embedding ethics in geochemistry. For the morning training session I elected to attend the ‘reviewing manuscripts and getting published’ course by Professor Jane Entwistle, University of Northumbria. During the course we discussed the importance of reviewing our work, the processes involved in peer-review and the role of the reviewer. The aim of this course was to get both young and experienced researchers who are part of the society to start reviewing manuscripts submitted to the society’s journal: Environmental Geochemistry and Health.

Between training courses there was an Early Career Researcher lunch offering a networking opportunity for young researchers to meet and mingle with other young researchers as well as seasoned scientists from the SEGH community. The aim of this lunch was to start an Early Career Researcher Group which will provide a mentorship programme within the SEGH. Check out the SEGH website for more information coming soon.

During the afternoon training session I decided to attend the: ‘epidemiologic study design and interpretation- with application to cancer, health and the environment’ course run by Dr Joachim Schuz and Dr Valerie McCormack from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC-WHO). We were introduced to two study designs: cohort and case-control, commonly used in the field of epidemiology. This training course consisted of a taught lecture to introduce us to the science of epidemiology before we were given the task of designing our own case-control study in a simulated scenario in which a mine site was thought to be causing liver cancer. At the end of the course we presented our designs to the group. The course provided a fantastic opportunity to gain a valuable insight into how epidemiological studies are conducted.

Overall, the conference was very successful! It was great to share my research with the wider scientific community and engage in some wonderful training courses. I look forward to being more involved with the SEGH early career research group in the future.

The PhD is supervised under the umbrella of the Centre for Environmental Geochemistry: Dr Scott Young, Dr Liz Bailey and Professor Neil Crout (University of Nottingham) and Dr Louise Ander and Dr Michael Watts (BGS).