Wednesday, 27 February 2013

See the Moine Thrust in 3D just as a geologist sees it! by Dr Tim Kearsey

Fanfare please! We proudly introduce the latest of our free online products: the beautiful and brilliant Assynt Culmination Geological 3D Model -

navigation around the iMap

To tell us more about the iMap is one of the models creators, Dr Tim Kearsey.

Geologist Charles Lapworth first recognised the thrust structures in Assynt in 1882. He wrote in his diary his nightmares of being ‘bodily caught up in the Moine Thrust’ and being crushed under what he called the ‘great earth engine’.

Those of us who studied geology at university may remember, with mixed feelings, fieldtrips to Assynt, in the far northwest of the Scottish Highlands, and trying to get our heads around the geometric complexity that is the Moine Thrust and its associated structures. The geology of this area has often formed the 'yard-stick' against which aspiring geologists have tested their ability to see geological relationships in 3D.
The Moine Thrust is but one of the iconic fault structures that can be found in what is now the Highlands of Scotland, but was it once at the heart of the developing Caledonian Mountain Belt. Stresses generated about 420 Million years ago in the Silurian, during collision of the Baltica (modern Scandinavia) and Laurentia (essentially modern North America) tectonic plates, provided the driving forces for that Caledonian Orogeny and generation of the Moine Thrust.

Over the last decade, the BGS has revised the geological map of this area whilst constructing a series of cross-sections that show the geological structure below the surface. 

Now my colleagues, Dr Graham Leslie, Dr Maarten Krabbendam, Calum Ritchie and myself have created a 3D interactive model of this structure which hopefully means that non-geologists and geologists alike can get a feel for the geometric beauty of this classic area of Scottish geology.

It’s free to download from our website 

Any comments, queries or ideas on how we could improve this visualisation would be greatly appreciated.  Please email your comments to:

Tim Kearsey

A Core Story: packing, tracking and trucking

Back in February 2012 (before this blog was even a glint in my eye) I picked a box in the store at Gilmerton and decided to document its journey down south. Lucky Box S30000. This was all to illustrate how the BGS were moving the entire UKCS cores (at least 172,000 boxes) from our Gilmerton site (Edinburgh) to the new shiny purpose built facility at our Keyworth site (nr Nottingham).

I wanted to see how it was all being managed and what was actually involved day-to-day. In the end I travelled 300miles and 9 hours in a lorry plus encountered snow, very early mornings, balaclavas and lots of strong coffee!

Here’s the video of the journey  I made back in Feb/March, it’s been released now because the project is complete and all the UKCS cores have been successfully moved.  Well done everyone! I’ve popped other videos and information on our
website , there's also information on GeoScience Data blog, if you want to know more about the move and new store.

Fact alert!
There were over 172,000 boxes of core that needed individual care, packing, recording, photographing and transporting 300 miles down south.
End to end the boxes would've stretched a total length of 163,000 meters (102 miles) which is 40 laps of brands hatch, 4 marathons, just shy of the length of the M25 or just over the distance from Edinburgh to Inverness.
They had a total volume of 3200m3 more than enough to fill an Olympic size swimming pool and a total area of 26,500m2 enough to cover 3 football pitches.
Congratulations everyone. Big thanks to trucker John who put up with me in his cab for 9 hours!!

Keep on trucking

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Geology / Earth Science (delete where necessary) by Prof Iain Stewart

"What's in a name? that which we call a rose
      By any other name would smell as sweet" 

Prof Iain Stewart, today's guest GeoBlogger, takes a look at the 're-branding' of geology in Australia and explores how the subject is seen across the UK from secondary schools to universities. Is geology, as we know it, even featured in the new science GCSE? Will curriculum changes have a deeper effect in Scotland? Where the sector is becoming increasingly important for the Scottish economy, but career-skills in geology are in decline. In short, Iain explains that the best advert for our subject, is ourselves!

Over to Iain:   
Professor Iain Stewart guest blogging
for GeoBlogy
Follow him on twitter @ProfIainStewart

In 2006, something dramatic happened in geoscience education in Western Australia. That year, the long standing (and mandatory) provision to teach Geology at Year 11/12 (equivalent to UK Key Stage 5; A-Level) was terminated. A subject which for years had struggled with falling numbers among students and schools seemed to have been finally put out of its misery.

“Interest and awareness of geology in high schools in WA - the world’s leading mining and exploration province, is at a low ebb with only five schools currently teaching the Geology Course" lamented Jim Ross, the Chair of Earth Science Western Australia (ESWA) (1,2). With its demise, Geology in WA was destined to have its key components buried within a new module: ‘Environmental Science’.

ESTWA - a consortium representing the University of Western Australia, Curtin University of Technology, CSIRO, the Geological Survey of WA and the WA Museum - took up the fight. Alarmed by the possibility of Geology slipping under the radar of school students, they campaigned to help redesign and write the curriculum for the new course and successfully lobbied to change its name. The resulting ‘Earth and Environmental Science’ now delivers 50/50 geoscience and environmental science content.

The effect of this new branding of Geology has been truly transformative. As the graphs below show, the transfer from the old Geology course to the new Earth and Environmental Science course in 2007 saw a huge boost in the number of schools and students having access to geoscience. 

Figure 1: Plots showing the uptake of ‘Geology (green) and )’Earth & Environmental Science’ (Red) amongst students (left) and schools (right) in Western Australia

What’s more, this increase has continued apace with a rising engagement of schools in ESWA’s geoscience outreach programmes, not just at lower Secondary level but also at Primary too. Such is the remarkable reversal in fortunes for geoscience in WA that many of Oz’s east coast states - equally afflicted by dwindling geoscience school numbers - are thinking seriously about going down the same rebranding route.

Figure 2: Plot showing increasing schools engagement with
Earth Science Western Australia activities following the 2007
introduction of the Earth & Environmental Science course
The Western Australian experience in recasting a faltering Geology in the guise of Earth and Environmental Science is instructive because here in the UK we are having our own difficulties with Geology in secondary school education. The situation is arguably most acute in Scotland, where low uptakes mean that the old Geology Higher course is on its way out (along with Managing Environmental Resources), both to be replaced by Environmental Science.Teachers protest that the low uptake is driven by the low numbers of teachers supporting the subject because no new teachers in Geology have been trained since 1985.  That has a knock-on effect because “...the perception of Geology as a low uptake subject means that Head Teachers identify it as a subject to cut in times of financial difficulty which further reduces pupil enrolment in Geology qualifications.(3)

The concern amongst professional Earth scientists and Geology classroom practitioners north of the border is that any decline at secondary school level will quickly impact on the vitality of the university sector. “Uptake of university places in Geology, Earth sciences and Geosciences are related to the numbers enrolled in upper level qualifications in secondary school... Without Higher Geology, the numbers of Scottish pupils enrolling in undergraduate Geology or Earth science degree courses will drop, and the production of qualified Scottish geologists ready for careers in the biggest sector of the future Scottish economy will drop.(3). In contrast to Western Australia, Scotland’s new Environmental Science A-level is taking shape with minimal geoscience input, suggesting that any tartan resurgence in Geology is some way off.

At first glance, the situation in England & Wales looks far rosier. GCSE, AS and A-level numbers are climbing, reversing what had previously been a long and steady decline. At Advanced level uptake in Geology is even outpacing its nemesis, Environmental Science.

Figure 3: Plot showing UK student numbers for GCSE (top)
and A-Level (bottom):
Source: Chris King (Keele University)
But against a background of rising student interest in Geology in English and Welsh schools, some teachers are alarmed about a potential threat that might yet offset these gains. Ironically, that threat emerges from the very sector that is set to benefit from the hard-won successes in the classroom: the universities. That’s because many of the major geoscience departments in the UK are not exactly enthusiastic about A-level Geology as a core entry subject. According to the Russell Group, for example, the ‘essential subjects that secure entry to Geology/Earth Science are Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry and Biology; Geology languishes with Geography as one of two ‘useful’ subjects (4). Many of the 1994 group universities adopt a similar admissions stance. In the schools, the decision to exclude Geology from the top table of ‘facilitating’ subjects may already be having a detrimental effect. One teacher wrote to me warning of “...a considerable, and disturbing, amount of lack of confidence in our subject/discipline from both parents and students, as a result of reports in the media. The main concern is, their ambitions to study at a RG/1994 group university will be compromised by selecting geology as an A level. 

It is easy to speculate as to why Geology might be viewed by admissions tutors as not being especially facilitating. After all, having a Geology A-level probably means coming in to geoscience with one less Science, which could limit students in some aspects of the sprawling, inter-connected multiverse of Earth system science. Also, an entry cohort with a mix of students with and without advanced level geoscience is tricky to cater for at the introductory level. Finally, there could be concerns either that the A-level syllabus might not be adequate preparation for the rapidly evolving and ever more specialised geoscience curriculum at university, or that out-of-date thinking among A-level teachers may end up instilling misconceptions that are hard to shift later on.

Whatever the issue, the relegation of Geology A Level to simply being ‘useful’ for pursuing a career in geoscience means that students and parents are likely to be confused as whether or not it is worthwhile selecting at all. And yet, currently, it is that A-level that is underpinning our rising Geology numbers. According to Chris King at Keele University’s Earth Science Education Unit (pers comm), the latest UCAS figures show that last year 43% of applicants to UK geology courses had A-level geology, as did 30% of applicants to all UK geoscience-related courses. Any appreciable switch away from Advanced Geology in secondary schools is likely to have an immediate knock-on effect on university numbers.

One of the reasons to think that a loss of confidence in A Level Geology will be transmitted into university admissions is that, as geoscience retreats into the shadows of our school curricula, we will rely increasingly on other subjects to turn on students to Geology. Indeed, a disparate Earth science content is already scattered across the other sciences and Geography. But the latest National Curriculum for Key Stage 4 (GCSE) Science hardly inspires confidence that it will be of much service to Geology (5). According to that document - released on the 7th February 2013 - the explicit Earth Science is as follows:

  • carbon dioxide and methane as greenhouse gases 
  • carbon capture and storage 
  • common pollutants and their sources 
  • the Earth’s water resources 
  • calcium carbonate as a raw material for the construction industry

Geological flotsam and jetsam wash up elsewhere in the new Science GSCE - such as the evidence for evolution from fossils in Biology and sound waves in rocks in Physics - but, by and large, GCSE Science is a geology-free zone. No plate tectonics, earthquakes and volcanoes; for that, sign up to Geography. The big picture story of our planet’s past and how it works today is entirely missing. Instead, it is with a modest smattering of Geology amongst neighbouring disciplines that we will increasingly rely on to sell the glorious wonders of brand Geoscience. In a blog written a couple of years ago, Keele University geologist Ian Stimpson highlighted the nub of the problem with this reliance on teachers in other fields:

“The few bits of geology that are still taught in English schools are, in the main, now taught by chemistry teachers. I don’t want to disparage chemistry teachers but in general they don’t have the background knowledge in geology to allow them the confidence to teach the subject well. If the situations were reversed, and I had to teach chemistry, I’d give it my best shot but without that foundation in the subject I would struggle, and I certainly could not teach it with the enthusiasm that comes from really knowing one’s subject. (5)

According to Stimpson, the UK Geology Teacher is an endangered species. The irony is that, adept at cajoling countless students into the damp rigours of fieldwork or the intimate revelations of rocks, Geology teachers would seem to have been an integral part of Geology's resurgence in recent years.  To expect Chemistry, Physics, and Biology teachers to launch repeated waves of students into university Geology departments is short-sighted and naive. Our best advert for our subject, is ourselves. 


I'm grateful to Joanne Watkins at ESWA for introducing me to the remarkable turnaround in WA Earth Science fortunes during a recent visit to Oz, and for supplying the graphs above. Chris King kindly supplied the UK schools data. Email discussions with Peter Harrison, Keith Turner and others on the Scottish Geodiversity Forum helped crystallise thoughts with regard to the 'Scottish scene'.


(1) Earth Science in Western Australia
(2) Earth Science Western Australia
    (3)  Robinson, R., Harrison, P. & Banks, J.  Higher Geology and Earth Science Provision in Scotland. Post November 23rd 2012 Meeting paper.
    (4)    Informed Choices: A Russell Group guide to making informed choices on post-16 education.
(5) Department of Education. Draft National Curriculum programmes of study for KS4 English, maths and science.
(6) Geology Teachers in the UK - an endangered species. 01 June 2010.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Is this the most influential geological book of all time?

James Hutton’s ‘Theory of the Earth’ was presented to the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1785. As a major figure in the Scottish Enlightenment era, Hutton’s work introduced the key geological principle of Uniformitarianism, and he is often referred to as the ‘father of modern geology’. His work includes the famous conclusion ‘The result, therefore, of our present enquiry is, that we find no vestige of a beginning,--no prospect of an end’.
This volume of Hutton's Theory of the Earth also contains his less well-known paper read to the Society in 1784, ‘The Theory of Rain’.
So do you agree this is the most influential geological book of all time? What about Lyell, Darwin, Smith (here we're count maps as equal publications to book), etc?  What about Alfred Wegener who published The Origins of Continents and Oceans in 1912 ....
". . . It is only by combing the information furnished by all the earth sciences that we can hope to determine 'truth' here, that is to say, to find the picture that sets out all the known facts in the best arrangement and that therefore has the highest degree of probability. Further, we have to be prepared always for the possibility that each new discovery, no matter what science furnishes it, may modify the conclusions we draw."
Perhaps modern text books should be held in higher regard for are they not used to educate and instruct thousands of students each and every year, a massive influence on the future of all Earth Science and Scientists. The Dynamic Earth by Skinner et al as well as Principles of Sedimentology and Stratigraphy by Boggs are both on their 5th edition. Planet Earth by Emiliani is a best seller, not to mention An Introduction to Rock Forming Minerals by Deer, Howie and Zussman. Discuss what your Geology Bible was/is on facebook or below in the comments. Is it less, equal or more influential that the old greats of Hutton and Lyell? Which gets your vote for most influential geological book?

Hutton's book is currently on show in the foyer of Murchison House, and is loaned from the BGS library collection here in Scotland. You can visit the BGS Shop and view Hutton's book in the new exhibition space from Monday to Friday during office hours. 

Thanks for reading,
Marcus Mulcahy,  Manager of Bookshop and Sales Edinburgh & your friendly neighborhood press officer Lauren Noakes

Monday, 11 February 2013

Confessions of a rock junkie (novelist!) by Judi Hendricks

My name is Judi Hendricks and I'm a novelist. I have a confession to make; I'm a hopeless rock junkie.

Hiking girlWhen I was a child my pockets were always bulging with interesting stones that called to me on my peregrinations. I recall once running to catch up to my sister and having my little hiking shorts shimmy their way off of my hips and surrender to the pull of gravity because I had so many fascinating chunks of granite in my pockets. 

When taken to the museum on school outings, I'd be the lone child examining the marble plinths while everyone else was dutifully following the guide to learn how steam engines worked. And when I cracked open a geode and found it lined with fairy crystals, my whole world changed forever.

Judi Hendricks

The Global Silicon Cycle by Prof Melanie Leng

The global biogeochemical cycling of silicon (Si) is a hot topic. 

By this (cycling) I mean the transfer of biogenic silica (silica deposited in plants, algae and animals) through Earth processes. Understanding how this cycle works, especially how it results in the eventual storage of silicon (and atmospheric CO2) on the sea bed, allows us to better forecast the future global effects of rising atmospheric CO2 levels and estimate how well the Earth is able to self-mitigate these changes.

Lets take a look at the process in detail-

  • Silicon starts in rocks (where is gets dissolved out by acid rain), 
  • It is then taken up by plants (as it is an essential nutrient and used to form silica“bones” that enable plants to keep upright),
  • Then dissolves in soils (once the plants die they form the organic matter in soils, in soils the “bones” dissolve),
  • Then the silicon gets washed into the oceans via rivers,
  • In the oceans silicon and atmospheric CO2 are used by a type of algae called diatom to form their very tiny but highly ornate skeletons. Within the skeleton tiny amounts of organic carbon are trapped,
  • Diatoms form at the surface of the ocean but sink and accumulate on the sea bed,
  • Once the diatom is deposited on the sea bed the carbon trapped within the skeleton is essentially locked up (sequestered). 
  • The CO2 can potentially be sequestered for millions of years.
Microscope image of diatoms which accumulate on ocean
and lake beds forming thick blankets which capture atmospheric
CO2. The tubular forms are the width of a red blood cell

To understand the global silicon cycle we need to undertake many individual local scale studies to understand each step in the cycle. For example, over geological time the amount of silicon in the oceans gets replenished by the weathering of rocks, so it is important to understand how much climate change affects this weathering, particularly when levels of atmospheric CO2 are high, and how ultimately this may lead to greater storage of CO2 in the diatom skeletons on the sea bed.
To this end a working group was set up in the UK a few years ago, the Isotopes in Biogenic Silica (IBiS) group tackles ecosystem-scale experiments from catchments, through rivers to the oceans. Recently a volume of papers was published which looks at  weathering, transport, and deposition of silicon. Understanding the silicon biogeochemical cycle, and especially its association with the global carbon cycle helps us better forecast the world as a result of rising atmospheric CO2 levels and how well the Earth is able to self-mitigate these changes. 

The IBiS group in the UK is convened by myself along with Prof Philip Barker  (University of Lancaster) and Prof Alayne Street-Perrott (University of Swansea). The latest IBiS volume – a collection of papers – on silicon cycling was recently published in the journal SILICON (The Biogeochemical Silica Cycle from Land to Ocean, volume 5, issue 1, January 2013 -link). 

Mel Leng 

N.B See Mels BGS staff profile and follow her on twitter @MelJLeng

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Drill Team on the Bog (Final Update)

Sorry to keep you all waiting (“all” being a generous estimate of the audience following our drilling exploits!), but the last two days of the drilling campaign in Wales have been hectic, and left little time in the evenings for me to update you. To conclude the Eastenders-style nail-biter...yes we did manage to break our record by finishing at 16m. Regrettably the final metre also resulted in MORE blue sticky clay and the hole showed little sign of any bedrock, so we were still left wondering how deep the borehole could have gone before finding anything solid.

The second photo below shows our triumphant core recovery!

 After the exultations were over, we moved our drill site further to the north, and started anew. The amount of time left in the week meant that we wouldn’t get quite as deep as the first borehole but we made it to 7.80m. The general consensus was that the geology would be roughly the same as borehole one, but once we kicked-off we began to find some interesting stuff. The core returned only 2m of soil and peat, with some gravels coming out in the base of the second metre. The third metre bought back some stiff Till, and we drilled this until we terminated the hole at 7.80m by which time the drilling was quite slow due to the stiff and cobbly nature of the Till. We managed to smash through some of the cobbles and returned this particularly nice example of a piece of mudstone showing the typical striations associated with glacial transportation.

So there you have it, a rather interesting week. The drilling went a bit too smooth according to our colleagues back in the office, and I have to admit that we have had an excellent time. The weather has actually been good to us, with only a small bit of rain Wednesday evening and some spots on Thursday. The location of the drill site is possibly one of the best parts of Wales I’ve ever visited and the bonus of watching Red Kites, Ravens and Buzzards circling over us whilst drilling has to be a big perk of my job! Hopefully it won't be long until we're back...

Until next time, keep it greased

Steve T

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Drill Team on the Bog (Day Two) by Steve T

After the euphoria of completing 10m in one day (this is twice the daily average!) the team struck out this morning for the bog to try and complete this borehole.

The weather overnight had brought a little snow to the hills, and the morning started with a spot of rain. By the time we got on site this had cleared up and the sky even cleared a couple of times during the day. This didn’t help with our progress, the greater depth increases the amount of labour involved. Having to lower the barrel to the bottom of the borehole in one metre lengths and retrieve it the same way takes a lot longer the deeper you get! We also had quite an audience today with staff from Aber University and BGS Cardiff visiting us. Due to the slow progress I hope that they weren’t too bored, or too cold.

 By 4pm we had managed a further 5m (taking the borehole to 15m). The material we were pulling out was still the blue-grey clay from yesterday which was a) very sticky and b) needed washing off all the drilling equipment before it could be sent back down the hole for the next run. This all adds to the time it takes to drill just one metre! The prognosis for the hole was somewhere between 15 and 20m, but it was becoming clear by the amount of time taken to drill that 20m with our rig was not going to be possible. We chose to stop tonight at 15m as this is the furthest we’ve drilled with casing and we still have to pull all that metalwork out of the ground tomorrow.

So, tomorrow will be the end of the hole. Hopefully we’ll hit bedrock, but if we don’t we will have a record depth. The furthest the team has drilled to date is 15.85m. Tomorrow we will drill our 16m, so I guess even if we can’t get to the bottom of the bog, at least we’ve broken a record!

Till tomorrow...keep it greased!

(Posted by Steve T)

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Drill Team on the Bog (Day One) by Steve T

Day one of a drilling job is always an interesting one. It usually determines how well the week is going to go. It can give you a good idea of the ground, what you’re trying to get through, the goals that are achievable. So I’m glad to report that our first day at Tregaron went well with the day ending at 10m. Despite most of Britain reporting cold and windy weather, our corner of Wales was mild (depending on whether you were doing the drilling or observing!).

 The drill site was only just off the main track so we were able to get started fairly quickly this morning. We are using our percussion Terrier rig to attempt to drill through the peat bog, into the glacial clays underneath.  We’ve decided on the 87mm size barrel and because of the soft material being drilled we are having to case the hole as we progress. This means drilling a metal sleeve into the ground with the barrel and although this makes the drilling slower, it ensures that the hole doesn’t collapse whilst we’re recovering the core. The first five metres drilled were through the peat and then at 5.80m we found something different - a blue-grey clay with some mudstone fragments.  The bedrock is likely to be greater than 20m and as we are trying to get the whole sequence we may have another big day ahead tomorrow.

We’re now sat in the hotel with the wind whistling through the windows and making the most enormous waves crash on the beach opposite. Hopefully the wind will abate by the morning...

 Till tomorrow, keep it greased!

(Posted by Steve T)