Saturday, 29 December 2012

Snow from BGS Scotland

As the UK missed out on a white Christmas this year here are some stunning snow photos of Scottish winters past. Thanks to Fergus (our Higher Photographer in Edinburgh) for showing me these. Hope you enjoy them too!

Murchison House

Hope you had a very merry Christmas and all the best for the New Year,

Thursday, 13 December 2012

BGS thin sections: 150,000th image taken! by Isla Simmons

BGS is currently running a programme to digitise the entire collection of rock thin sections. This consists of 100,000 thin sections in the Scottish Sliced Rock (S) Collection, 11,000 in the later Scotland and Northern England (N) Collection and 80,000 in the England and Wales (E) Collection. A number of minor collections will also be captured.

Sample number: S57865. Coarse-grained Metabasic Rock, Scourie dyke suite, W side of Loch Claidh, Scotland

Sample number: S3216. Quarry N of Stichill, 3.5 miles N by W of Kelso, Scotland

 Since March 2012 a team of volunteers in Edinburgh has been documenting, cleaning and photographing every thin section in the Scottish collection. Each section is photographed twice, in plane-polarised light and under crossed-polars, and last week saw us taking the 150,000th image!

When we’ve finished the Scottish (S) collection we’ll be moving on to the Scotland and Northern England (N) Collection. A team of volunteers is also being established in the BGS headquarters at Keyworth to begin digitising the England and Wales (E) Collection.
Sir Archibald Geikie

The origins of Petrology

Petrology was introduced in the Survey in the mid 1800s with the advance of the petrological microscope allowing detailed analysis of rock thin sections. Sir Archibald Geikie, then Director-General of the Survey created a slicing department in Edinburgh because of the relative abundance of crystalline rocks in Scotland, and it was here that most early thin sections were cut. Specialist petrographers were appointed in Edinburgh and in the Survey headquarters in London. Field geologists could send rock samples to one of the petrographers who would slice a thin section, examine it then send a report back to the geologist. The first thin section, numbered S1, was collected by Geikie himself around the early 1860s – a sample of dolerite taken from the Salisbury Crags in Edinburgh, though later renamed teschenite.

Sample number: S57774. Foliated tuff? Girvan-Ballantrae No. 6 bore (NX 18NE/5) at 288 feet, Scotland.
The thin section photography process

The first task in digitising the collection was to create a list, an inventory of every single thin section. Some sections were missing, either lost over the years or borrowed for examination and never returned. These had to be noted. Some had duplicates which had to be numbered individually as every section must have a unique number to allow us to link images to the correct thin section. As thin sections have been in the collections for up to 100-120 years they all have to be cleaned, and any broken slides have to be repaired. This second task is often a great social occasion with the volunteers sitting around a table cleaning sections while discussing recent field trips, coming exams or the latest hot topics in geology!

Photography of the thin sections
Once the thin sections have been cleaned we can start on the real business of the project – photographing them. A digital SLR camera with a 60 mm macro lens is permanently set up on a custom made jig and the thin sections are illuminated by a LED lamp.

To capture the images, all that is required is for the operator to follow the previously compiled inventory of thin sections, insert the section in a holder, take an image in cross polarized light (XPL), remove the analyser and take another image in plane polarised light (PPL). The camera image number must then be recorded against the number of the thin section in the inventory so that the images can be referenced back to the thin section they correspond to.

Sample number: S57855. Ultrabasic body in gneiss; Laxfordian? E side of Loch Claidh. Shieldinish? Scotland

Once the photography is complete, the next stage will be to link the images to Britrocks, the BGS database and web application for the rock and thin section collections: The overall purpose of the project will thus be achieved – to allow the public to view the images. Britrocks already has data for every single thin section in the collection – rock type, where it is from, who collected it and when it was collected. This project will supply the two images of each section to allow researchers and the public to search, browse and now view representative images of the thin sections.

For now though, we’re still cracking on with the cleaning and photography!

Isla Simmons
BGS Volunteer, Murchison House, Edinburgh.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Earthquake Risk Reduction in Bangladesh by Dr Susanne Sargeant

As a seismologist at the British Geological Survey, and a NERC Knowledge Exchange fellow, my work focuses on finding ways to ensure that our scientific understanding of earthquakes has maximum impact on decision-making (from government to community level) and people’s behaviour. In Bangladesh I’m working with Concern Worldwide to increase the way in which earthquake information is used in their operations.
Last month I was in Dhaka with Willie McMartin*, Operational Director for the International Rescue Corps (IRC), to deliver an earthquake risk management training course to country staff from Concern, Plan International, Oxfam, Save the Children, Islamic Relief and Action Aid.

Participants on the earthquake risk training course
Between us, we hoped that during the training it would be possible to:
·         increase general understanding of earthquakes
·         raise awareness of the earthquake threat in Bangladesh
·         consider the potential impact on these organisations, their staff and operations,
·         help the participants to be better prepared when an earthquake happens either at home or at work.
To be honest, it was a bit of an experiment. This is the first time that Willie and I have worked together (and the first time I had delivered any training) and we weren’t sure how our different fields of expertise would fit together. Luckily, we’re both happy to improvise and as it turned out, we (Willie, the participants and I) spent a really rewarding three days working together and learning from each other. In fact, we’ve now set up a working group so that we can continue to work together and share information.

Willie & I also visited pupils at Alhaz Abbasuddin High School where they gave us a first aid demonstration as part of an earthquake preparedness project facilitated by Concern Worldwide

Willie (centre) and me (far left) and the pupils and teachers at  Alhaz Abbasuddin High School

As a hazard scientist, I learnt a valuable lesson from my visit: living somewhere where a potentially devastating earthquake could happen is frightening – especially when you have no control over construction practices and compliance with building codes. That’s where someone like Willie comes in, with the experience and understanding to give people hope that there is something they can do to protect themselves and their families if an earthquake happens tomorrow.  Implementing building codes and issues around non-compliance are tougher nuts to crack.
Typical construction in Dhaka
by Susanne
* IRC do amazing work. Their dedicated volunteers regularly respond to a whole range of international disasters and since 1985 Willie has been involved in the response to 24, including many earthquakes (e.g. Armenia 1988, El Salvador 2001, Gujurat 2001, Muzaffarabad 2005). Willie kept a daily blog of the  Bangladesh training trip that you can read here, lots of great photos!

An extra word from Lauren
For Dhaka travel tips, earthquake history and facts about the hazard and vulnerability of Bangladesh and it’s people keep an eye out for Susanne’s guest post on the Geology for Global Development blog. This [Geology for Global Development] is a wonderful organisation founded by geologist Joel Gill in 2011 and Susanne sits on the advisory group. I can’t say it better than they say themselves….
Geology for Global Development (GfGD) recognises the significant contribution good geoscience can make to international development and fighting poverty by reducing risks from geological hazards, sustainably exploiting the Earth's resources, and improving environmental conservation. We therefore aim to encourage and support young geoscientists in the growth of appropriate skills and knowledge in order that they make a positive, effective, and greater contribution to international development throughout their careers.”

Crowdsource mapping for disaster management by Dr Charlotte Vye-Brown

Last week BGS was in Vienna at the UN for a three-day international expert meeting on ‘Crowdsource mapping for disaster risk management and emergency response’.

What is crowdsourcing?
It is a process that involves gaining data from a distributed group of people and translating the real-time information into maps to assist in disaster management. For example, during flood events people could contribute photos, water heights, the extent of flooding or road closures to a central body to improve the abundance of data about the event and assist in the response to help those affected.
A group of 81 experts representing:  crowdsource mapping networks, researchers,
humanitarian aid groups, space agencies and UN organisations attended the meeting.
Our vulnerability to natural hazards is increasing due in part to population growth, reliance on infrastructure, and climate change. So, the potential for disasters is also increasing and more people than ever are vulnerable to hazards. Crowdsource mapping is one way that communities can contribute data and add value in real-time to satellite data that is used during an emergency to reduce the impact of an event. We see increasing use of social media and tweeting, e.g. during the Japan earthquake and tsunami in 2011, that contain vital information about an event. This meeting brought together the communities involved in space-based information for disaster and risk management to exchange ideas and establish networks to increase the use of this valuable information in the future.
Charlotte Vye-Brown (Volcanologist)

See how Charlotte and her colleagues use crowdsource mapping (and citizen science) during volcanic eruptions. During the 2010 Eyjafjallajokull and the 2011 Grimsvötn eruption this data proved invaluable and helped not only researchers from BGS but many UK universities and the MET Office.

We'll be following this post with more information about all crowdsource opportunities and future initiatives but for now see our crowdmap and find out more about citizen science! Lauren

Monday, 10 December 2012

Core sampling in Windermere - meccano, cheese wires and liquid nitrogen

On Wednesday Carol explained why the work on Windermere is so important. Read all about that here.

But I wanted to know more about the nitty gritty and the hard graft. How do you collect sediment from the middle of a lake, how do you sample it and what's liquid nitrogen got to do with it? Plus why has it taken until now to finish the sampling?! Well here's Carol and her camera to illustrate.....

The journey begins in April

To collect core from the bed of a lake you first have to get out on it. For this you need a coring platform, and this can be a bit like building a giant meccano project - and no we didn’t have any parts left over!!  
The fully built Uwitec coring platform on a serene Windermere
We used a 'piston coring' system with a 'seabed re-entry cone'. What this means is that as each 2m section was pulled out on deck we could guide the next core barrel down the guide wires and through the cone into the exact same hole. 
Deploying the re-entry cone prior to coring
The cores were collected inside plastic liners that were immediately “curated” on deck ..... assigned a unique identifier that included the Latitude and Longitude of the core, the type of coring (piston), the core number and what section number that 2m liner represented.

Daniel Niederietter (Uwitec) and Helen Miller (BUFI student) pose beside a 2m core section in its plastic liner

Me labelling the recovered core section

But what happens to the plastic liners full of mud?!

We transported all the cores back to Edinburgh, and in October Helen Miller, a BUFI PhD student, and myself got together and spent a week splitting and logging the cores at our Marine Operations building in Loanhead. We started off by cutting the plastic liner and end cap with a router and hacksaw, and then using a cheesewire to run down the core.

Me splitting the core using a cheesewire

This divides the core into a working half and an archive half. The working half is cleaned up and then described in terms of grain size, colour, any organic material in it, the type of boundaries between different sediment units such as erosional or graduated, the size and frequency of glacial varves.....and anything else that Helen and I spot!

Helen Miller cleaning off the core surface prior to logging

The archive halves are left pristine as a legacy record for other scientists to use. Once described, the cores were then photographed for a visual record, both in the splitting workshop and later using a 32 megapixel camera for detailed images in our photographic suite.

Now for the science bit!

We recovered one core that appeared to show, condensed into just a 10m section, most of the sedimentary processes and units observed in all the others cores! We decided to concentrate on this core to start with, and so the working halves were transported to Southampton to the National Oceanographic Centre (NOCS). It was here in mid-November that a group of scientists with different specialties met to discuss how we would start sampling this unique core.

The first step was to take a U-channel sample from the centre of the core. This sampled pristine sediment that was hopefully least affected by any coring disturbance or contamination due to contact with the air or water at the edges of the core.

Overview of the U-channel (labelled plastic tube) and slabbing instrument in one of the sections

This is right now in the process of being run through an ITrax system to determine the chemical, density and optical composition of the core. It will then be run through a paleomagnetometer to determine paleointensity and secular variation as recorded by the magnetic minerals within the sediments. If you're interested in this we'll post more as it become available.

The cores were then “slabbed” – extracting a 2cm deep and 1cm wide sample for detailed analysis of any cyclical laminations and glacial varves. The slabs are run through an X-ray initially, and then later a sub-sample is flash frozen in liquid nitrogen and then embedded with resin to bind all the grains together. 

Flash freezing a sediment sample in liquid nitrogen
This process allows thin sections to be taken which can reveal the micro structure of the sediments, including glacial varves and any lithological boundaries.

Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) image of a lithological boundary

Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) image of glacial varves
So what's next?

The next stage is to begin to collate the results as they come in. This will probably take a number of months as the various scientists involved work on research as varied as dating organic matter to identifying microscopic diatoms and pollen grains to counting sediment laminations and varves! We will then gather together again and look at how the various results answer the questions that we have, and indeed what other questions they raise!

Thanks. Dr Carol Cotterill

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Cores to Climate – Do our lakes hold a clue to the past? by Dr Carol Cotterill

Windermere is a beautiful part of the English Lake District and the BGS have been working here for many years, discovering lots about the glacial and post-glacial history of the region. This April, a team went back for a further two weeks of intense and dirty fieldwork collecting cores of the lake bed sediments. Last week they finished sampling on one of the cores (more coming about that process later in the week). So why exactly is this lengthy study necessary, why is all this hard graft essential?

 Hard graft on and after Windermere

Dr Carol Cotterill explains:

Taking cores of the lake sediments will allow us to carry out a full suite of investigative work, looking into a number of different areas including:
  • Detailed analysis of glacial / pro-glacial varves, enabling us to accurately track seasonal climate fluctuations such as winter ice freezing and summer thaws and glacier advance and retreat pulses.
  • Detailed analysis of anthropogenic pollution signals, both in their distribution across the lake and whether the signals tie into specific catchment drainage areas, but also in  the depth downcore. Dating of these upper sediments will help us establish when the pollution signals began to influence the lake.
  • Pollen and diatom analysis – can we spot significant events such as Heinrich Events and the introduction of “exotic” plant species by the Victorian gardeners? We also hope to get a series of dates that will help us tie down these events.
  • Paleomagnetic analysis including paleosecular and intensity values  – what was the Earth’s geomagnetic field doing over the UK and can we use these cores to refine the UK master curve?
  • pH, bulk carbon and deltaC13 analysis to help guide our understanding of reservoir effects in freshwater lakes.
  • The micro and macro deformation observed within lake “flows” – how can flows be triggered; do they move as a cohesive de-coupled unit or as a mass flow; why are they often limited to a specific time period within Windermere – what triggered this mass behaviour across the lake?
  • Does the pollution signal help explain why certain fish species are now under threat, and how their spawning behaviours have changed between the two sub-basins of Windermere?  
These are some of the questions arising from the integrated datasets so far, and I expect more is to come as we delve deeper into the natural laboratory that Windermere is proving to be! As you can see the list above covers a wide range of disciplines and experts – a fantastic chance for BGS to collaborate on a wide range of science, and fully exploit the potential from this integrated lake surveying programme.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Flashbacks to Iceland - visit our YouTube Channel

The latest videos to be uploaded to our youtube channel are those Jez Everest popped on facebook whilst he was out in Iceland during the September fieldwork season. Now these glimpses into science and life at the BGS Virkisjökull Glacier Observatory are avaliable for everyone to enjoy:


The Dundee /BGS PhD student, Verity Flett takes control of the new steam drill as part of her project. She will be measuring the amount of glacier surface lowering, ie 
melting, by inserting 12m long stakes into the ice, and then measuring the amount that has re-emerged at periodic intervals throughout the year. With the help of one of her supervisors, Martin Kirkbride from Dundee University Geography, Verity is establishing a network of these ablation stakes across the glacier.

She will also be investigating the linkages between the mass balance of the glacier, and the hydrology of the wider catchment, including the groundwater monitoring already established this summer.

The steam drill is a custom build from Erich Heucke in Germany. It is certainly very effective at drilling through the ice, each 12m hole taking less than 30 minutes to complete. Apparently you can also brew up a cuppa and heat sausages on it. Result!


Well ladies and gents, this may well be the last trip we get on the ice from the front. The meltwater drainage system that we have been studying, is now starting, finally, to enlarge and collapse the caverns and tunnels in the ice buried under the sandur beyond the active glacier margin. The 'buried ice foreland' is changing on a daily basis, and changes are even visible from one minute to the next, as 
what was previously flat ground suddenly drops and reveals a sink hole.

We are being very vigilant, and staying to the ground we know is safe. This is helped by the experienced guys from the Glacier Guides company, who are escorting tourists onto the ice. We follow their footprints for the safe route to the ice front.

The video here will give you some idea of what it looks like- believe me on the ground it is pretty exciting!

Friday, 30 November 2012

Staff raise thousands for Framework charity

The staff in our Keyworth HQ have once again voted to keep Framework the official charity of the office, already having raised over £2000 there seems no limit to their passion for fundraising. The latest effort is the publication of the Billy’s Basement Bakers Cookbook- this bunch of keen bakers provide staff with delicious cakes and treats all year round for a small donation.... now the bakers have collected their treasured recipies and made a cookbook that's ON SALE NOW! To order a copy and read more about the Bakers see the Framework Blog. Copies are also avaliable at both our Keyworth and Edinburgh offices.
Billy's Basement Bakers - named after the BGS William Smith Building
(Smith being a renowned 19th Century geologist) 

Not only is it Billy's Bakers that raise the cash it's individual staff and their families. One such example is TeamPatz made up of Dr Mike Patterson (our Chief Operating Officer ) and his daughter Tilly. Here's his email to staff thanking them for helping him and his daughter raise £184 (current total) for Framework's Big Sleep Out. 

"Dear all

I was in Malaysia two weeks and when I landed home it became apparent that my luggage had decided to spend a few extra days with a very nice suitcase from Thailand in Kuala Lumpur. This on its own was not a major issue, however on my journey back up from Heathrow I started to mentally note the things that I absolutely needed to find quickly in order to function normally again, such as a charger for my IPhone, an alarm clock, aftershave, face cream etc..... 

Last Thursday night was mine and my daughter’s second attempt at both raising money for the very worthy homeless charity Framework and at the same time enjoying a snug, comfortable and peaceful night sleeping out rough on the concrete floor of Belero Square in Nottingham....well we achieved 50% of that and the fact that we were sleeping out in temperatures down to -3deg C, on concrete should be a clue as to which half of the challenge, we didn't accomplish... Here's Tilly's story of our night sleeping rough. 

" We got there at 9.00pm,  dad was twitching as it was a bit late, and were handed some boxes and got to work. We started with bright eyes and bushy tails but finished building our den utterly exhausted. We were desperately in need of a coffee for dad and a hot chocolate with huge marshmallows for me. We walked around looking at other people's box contraptions and lots of them were much more extravagant than our basic hut. Some had fairy lights and one was, and I'm not joking, an actual castle. As we sat and watched people struggle and build it got colder and colder until eventually dad pulled out his fluffy moose hat, as I call it. We then went up to listen to a man talk about the difference we'd made in Nottingham and found out that Dino and Pete from Capital FM and the mayor and sheriff of Nottingham were there! Daddy got very excited and started tweeting. Finally, at around 11.30pm we snuggled down and tried to go to sleep. Dad got to sleep fairly quickly but I was up for ages as it was a bit, ok, very uncomfortable. When we woke up we started to pack away our house and we gathered all our stuff up and started to walk round to the bacon sandwich stand. Then we got a warm taxi to our nice, warm and dry house. Dad didn't have to go to work, but I had to go to school and was a bit dopey. The drive back to my house made me think that not everyone has the luxury of having a house. And although we did it for one night, for others that's their life. So, our uncomfortable, cold, loud and sleepless night out was completely worthwhile and really really fun".

Whilst I was not going to get any sleep, I had an opportunity to reflect on the real importance of the things that I had spent time fretting over that had stayed in Malaysia.... and how they really are insignificant relative to some of the hard, hard conditions that a really unfortunate and unseen few find themselves in. So I didn't have aftershave for a couple of days, or a phone charger and I had to use one of my Daughters Disney princess alarm clocks but, you know what, in the real big scheme of things this was such a very trivial thing to have been vexed by. 

I certainly didn't enjoy our experience as it was cold and really quite grim.... But, we will do it again next year, as Tilly said when she was asked why she was doing it "because we want to make a difference” and my number two daughter has signed up to join us too.....

Thank you 
Me and Tilly"

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Photos from the Archives… The Geologists' Association 'Carreck Archive'

Field trips have always been an essential and fun part of geology, but what were field trips like 100 years ago? Now we know! A recent deposit to the BGS archives is the Geologists' Association (GA) 'Carreck Archive' ‒ an amazing collection of field trip photographs dating back to the 1890s. Named after Marjorie Carreck, a long time contributor of photographs and custodian of the collection, the collection consists of a series of photograph albums, loose photos and ephemera relating to the GA and their field trips. Scanning the photographs has just begun and the captions are being keyed by a small team of volunteers. All images will eventually be delivered through the BGS image service 'GeoScenic'. None are available just yet but we'll be updating you with the progress through this blog so stay tuned.

The GA were very active. Their short trips were focused around London and its environs, while the longer trips go to all parts of the UK as well as overseas.

Motor excursion in Surrey, June 6th 1914. Newlands Corner

Descending a Denehole at Hangman's Wood. 1908

The Geologists' Association were clearly adventurous, with photographs in one volume from Norway, Sweden, Belgium, Spain, France, Switzerland, Italy, Austria, Montenegro, Germany, Egypt, Canada, and the Atlantic Islands (Canary Isles, Madeira and Trinidad).

Josterdals Snowfield, Norway. H.W.M

New lava flow from Vesuvius. 1906.

Houses destroyed by volcanic dust, Vesuvius eruption. 1906
Here we are in November, at the close of the field season, so, let us reflect on the trips undertaken throughout the year… but 100 years ago! For 1912, the GA held a total of twenty-nine excursions. Twelve half-day, seven whole day, four long excursions and six museum visits. Photographs have been found for the following trips and we are sure more will be found as we go through the collection:

Excursion to Erith, March 30th 1912.
Excursion to Greenhithe, April 20th 1912.
Excursion to Clandon, May 11th 1912.
Excursion to Princes Risborough, May 18th 1912.
[Excursion to the North East of England, May 25-29th 1912].
Excursion to Claygate, June 15th 1912.
Excursion to Borstal, June 22nd 1912.
Excursion to Ewell, July 6th 1912.
Excursion to Henley, July 13th 1912.
Excursion to Reculvers, Herne Bay, July 20th 1912.
Excursion to Aylesbury, Hartwell and Stone, July 27th 1912.
Excursion to Mount Sorrel, August 29th 1912.

2865-2 Section in the Reading Beds – Nonsuch Pottery Clay Pit Excursion to Ewell, July 6th 1912. Note, no hard hats, only straw boaters
To finish here is a magnificent panorama of the Pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx taken in 1913.

Gizeh Pyramids

 From Robert McIntosh, BGS Information Manager

(If you wish to contact the GA Archivist please email Jonathan Larwood )

Friday, 2 November 2012

London Calling!! Lets shake rattle and rock!

Remember Remember the 5th of November... Why?

Because Roger Musson is visiting London to do a book signing. He'll be sat in the BGS office (not only is it our Information Office but a great shop as well) based inside the Natural History Museum from 2-5pm. His new book MILLION DEATH QUAKE is great, i know because i read it last weekend. Here's the proof and a glimpse at the chapters!

Now i'm a fast reader and i did have a lot of time on my hands travelling nearly the length of the country but it's such a page turner i think anyone would find it difficult to put down. It's a quick fire jaunt through the history of seismology and although it didn't impart the full 30 years of Rogers career it did make me more aware of (and awed by) the fiery and fragile planet we live on. It's packed with funny anecdotes and glimpses back through time, it's a fascinating read....... so if i hadn't already had my book signed and quizzed Roger about some of the chapters I'd be coming along on Monday to meet him.

Rogers book will be on sale, you can buy it and get it signed if you want, or just ask Roger any burning questions you have about seismology. There will be members of the press getting interviews so if you don't see Roger at the stand please wait or ask me if he'll be long! I'll be easy to find, I'm the big ginger girl taking photos all the time! Hope to see you there, here's the details.....

Find us at the NHM
Turn right at Dippy in the central corridor and follow signs to the red zone. We're just right of the massive ammonite!
See you Monday

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Searching for the origins of Life on Land by Tim Kearsey

How our ancestors (4 limbed vertebrates) came out of the swamps and adapted to life on land some 360 million years ago is still poorly understood, despite what adverts for Irish Stout may suggest! We don’t know how lungs, ears and other adaptations for land evolved (it appears legs evolved in the water).The main reason for this is there is a gap in the fossil record covering this critical interval in our evolution, known as Romer’s Gap.

Over the last two weeks I have been doing the first bit of fieldwork as part of a large 4-year project with scientists from the Universes of Cambridge, Leicester, Southampton, and the National Museum of Scotland on a set of unique locations in the Scottish Borders which are yielding fossils which could fill in this gap.  Some tantalising glimpses have already been found but in the next 4 years we hope to shine a torch on this pivotal stage in the evolution of life.

My job over the last two weeks was, with Carys Bennett from Leicester University (see her blog at, to measure and describe the sedimentary rocks in which the fossils were found.

Dr. Sarah Davies, Dr. Carys Bennet and Prof. John Marshall Sampling at sunset – a must on tidal sections.

Hang on - I thought you were looking for fossil! Why do you need to look at the rocks as well??

Yes, the fossils are being looked at (by the team from Cambridge University) but to understand the evolution of these animals the context has to be understood too.
What I was doing is very similar to what an archaeologist does; a ancient piece of jewellery may be interesting on its own, but only by understanding the buildings and layers that it was found in can you work out how old it was and what it can say about the type of people who may have owned it.
The same is true of sedimentology;   by understanding the sediments we can firstly work out fundamental things like which fossil is older than another. This will then allow us to track the evolutionary changes as these creatures adapted to life on land. Secondly, through reading the rocks we can understand the environment in which these vertebrates were living, and how it changed through time.  This may help to explain why they came on to land rather than just how.

Fossilised roots (the black lines in the white sandstone) – key to building up a picture of the environment the fossils lived in

So what were you doing?

To start off with I have been sedimentary logging. A sedimentary log is an illustrative representation of the sedimentary rocks in the sequence you are studying. It is in effect a column that is drawn from oldest rocks at the bottom to youngest at the top, with the rock units stacked on top of each other in sequence (see Cary’s blog for more details Also we have been sampling for a range for fossil plant spores (palynology) and to understand how the rocks formed better using a range of microscopic and chemical techniques which will help us understand the environment the rocks were formed in.

Me (left with a dGPS) and Sarah Finney collecting specimens (courtesy of Rob Clack)

This is only the first stage in a large programme of investigations. In 2013 we will be drilling a 500 metre borehole as well as doing many more fossil excavations to hopefully finally understand how, and why, our ancestors came on to land some 360 million years ago – Watch this space for more updates.