Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Analysis fit for a King - Richard III gets the NIGL treatment

On February 4th 2013, the University of Leicester announced that the human remains uncovered beneath a Leicester car park in August last year are ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ those of King Richard III.

Dr Jo Appleby (university of Leicester) &
Dr Angela Lamb (NIGL/British Geological Survey)
examine the skull of Richard III
Second premolar of Richard III split in half

Professor Jane Evans (NIGL/British Geological Survey)
preparing tooth for analysis

One week after the press conference we were shown to a secret location at the University of Leicester by Dr Jo Appleby (School of Archaeology and Ancient History, University of Leicester), who led the exhumation of the remains.  The University agreed to allow us to take small samples of bone and teeth from the skeleton in order to further investigate the King’s diet, movements and exposure to pollution.

Sampling the bones and teeth

Once inside the clean room laboratory we were shown a rather ordinary cardboard box that contained the skeletal remains, and were able to examine the bones and assess their condition.  After a discussion about which bones and teeth would be the most helpful to our investigation and equally which would cause the minimal damage to the skeleton, we agreed to sample a small piece of rib bone, a small piece of femur bone (thigh bone) and 2 teeth.  Then came the rather nerve-wracking task of removing the pieces of bone with a dental drill (we have a portable dental drill for such circumstances!) and then very gently extracting two teeth from the skull without causing any damage to the remaining teeth or cranium, which thankfully we can say we did (apart from the damage to our rather fragile nerves!).

What we do

Here at the NERC Isotope Geosciences Laboratory, part of the British Geological Survey, we can measure tiny differences in the composition of elements such as oxygen, carbon, nitrogen and strontium.  These elements become incorporated into teeth and bones, and the measurements provide us with information about a person’s diet, and childhood environment.  The process involves the carefully cleaning of samples, the chemical extraction of the elements and then the measurement of their isotope composition using a machine called a mass spectrometer.  Once we have the results we can interpret them to find out about life in the past.

Progress so far

At the moment  we are  putting the pieces of bone and teeth, collected from Richard III, through various chemical extraction procedures.  This will  purify the elements in which we are interested so that we can  examine Richard’s diet over his lifetime; where he resided and may have travelled;  and enable us to look at the environment in which a Medieval King was raised.

More to this space for updates on the progress of the laboratory work.
by Prof Jane Evans and Dr Angela Lamb

The state of the art in geological information, but how certain are our models?

Here's your chance to find out....

Conventionally geologists have reported surveys as two-dimensional (2-D) maps, such as the one below.   A map like this might be useful to predict the surface geological unit at some location, but geological units are three-dimensional (3-D) subsurface objects.  Would a map be useful if we were planning to dig a tunnel along the route shown by the yellow line, and needed to know what units it might pass through?
In fact geologists have always understood rocks in three dimensions, and the 2-D map is based on 3-D understanding.  Computer software now allows the geologists 3-D understanding to be captured, stored and presented as a 3-D model.  The picture below shows an “exploded” view of some units in the region represented on the map (the colour coding is the same, the model is viewed from near the top right corner of the map).  

A 3-D geological model can be interrogated to identify the geological unit that is expected at a particular location in 3-D, or to compute the total volume of a unit within a region.  This may be useful for engineers, for the evaluation of mineral resources or for planning a tunnel. However, one might reasonably ask how confident we are in these predictions.  This is a growing area of research at BGS, and we will be presenting some results at the forthcoming meeting of the European Geosciences Union. 
Quantifying the uncertainty in 3-D models, from various sources, is of particular importance for BGS and for the geological profession as a whole.   Can we describe the uncertainty in a 3-D model quantitatively so that the risk can be rationally managed?  To address this question we have set up a Ph.D. project jointly with the University of Aberdeen.  The problem is exciting and demanding.  The student who undertakes it will participate in cutting-edge research and will gain experience that will position them strongly for a career in many areas of earth science.
Are you are an enthusiastic, highly numerate individual with an upper second or first class Honours degree in Geology, Geophysics, Physics, Statistics or Maths?  Do you have an aptitude for computing and statistical analysis, combined with survey design and communication?  If so then this opportunity might be for you. 
For informal discussion contact Dr Clare Bond at Aberdeen University or Dr Alison Monaghan or Dr Murray Lark at the British Geological Survey. 

My first sight of South Georgia by Melanie Leng

After 6 days of sailing on the Polarstern we saw our first glimpse of the island of South Georgia today rising through the fog. The 170 km long, narrow island has a mountainous spine rising to 3000m.

South Georgia (c) NERC
Half of the island is permanently covered with ice and snow. Glaciers have incised valleys and some still run into the sea, but where the glaciers have retreated they have left valleys and in some areas marginal hummocky ground with glacial moraines and hollows where peat bogs and lakes now occur.

Before we can disembark the ship we have to clear customs, and are currently waiting for staff from the British Antarctic Surveys King Edward Point base (which is situated in the old whaling base at Grytviken) to board the ship. We will then sail the raft (which is about 3 meters square), and two small inflatable boats, the remaining mile or so to shore.

Above: Little Jason Lagoon
(c) Mark Kenney South Georgia Journal 2012

Below: Satellite image of Cumberland Bay (E&W)
We have already chosen our landing point, a small lagoon (Little Jason Lagoon) within Cumberland West Bay, on the northeastern coast. We have camping gear but a small hut there will act as our emergency shelter in case of severe weather. As soon as we have made a base camp we plan to take a core from the lagoon. We expect a 10m thick blanket of sediments on the bottom of the lagoon which will have accumulated since the ice retreated from the coast about 10,000 years ago.

Through various chemical and biological analysis of the sediments we expect to be able to reconstruct sea level. Currently the lagoon is freshwater but we assume that at times in the past, especially during warmer periods, sea level would have been higher causing the lagoon to contain more sea water. By looking at the various biological remains we will also reconstruct variations in the amounts of plants and animals in the area through the last 10,000 years and see how these differences are associated (or not) with sea level and climate.

After taking the core from the lagoon we plan to move inland to collect samples from the various glacial moraines which can be dated using cosmogenic isotope techniques. The combination of the information we can derive from the sediments and the dating of the glacial deposits will allow us to reconstruct a detailed history of glacial retreat and minor readvancements which we then link to variations in climate.  
Mel onboard the Polarstern

As a side note we have heard that there are many teenager fur seals still on the island although it is late in the season for them. We are hoping our first issue is not moving a pack of teenagers on from our intended camp ground! 

On ship we have seen numerous albatrosses (some of which stop on the ship’s deck to rest) and some killer whales but in general the sea is too rough (for us at least) to spend too much time on deck! The swell is around 3m but the ship is sailing at a brisk rate (10 knots) and there is the ever present chilly (around zero degrees) westerly wind. 

  Melanie Leng is on an expedition to South Georgia, see her previous blogs, and follow her on twitter @MelJLeng. To learn more about South Georgia visit their website and webcams

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Southern Ocean Cinema Club by Mel Leng

Markos screening the original Shackleton
footage of his 1915-1918 expedition
to the Southern Ocean
On board the Polarstern we have our very own artist is residence, Markos Kern of MarkosMedia. One of the concepts Markos is interested in is the immediacy of  art and documenting people’s reactions to seeing and showing art in unusual situations. He has various projects on the ship but one that we had the privilege to witness last night was a showing of the original footage of Shackleton’s epic exploration of the Antarctic during the first world war. Markos does big art and he wanted to screen and document a bunch of modern day scientists sailing across the Southern Ocean watching  film footage of the early exploration of the southern pole. 

So after dark Markos set up deck chairs and invited us all to wrap up warm against the sub zero wind and watch the footage which he projected onto the side of the ship. It sounds chilly (it was) but it was an amazing experience, and the biting cold brought home a little of the truly terrible conditions that the expeditions members had to endure. We reclined on the heli deck in bright orange survival suits, sipped hot red wine and watched Frank Hurley’s film (the cinematographer on the voyage) of their epic adventure…  

The Endurance projected onto the side of the Polarstern while sailing across the Southern Ocean
 More information on Shackleton’s expedition to the southern ocean ending in South Georgia can be found on wikipedia.

Melanie Leng is on an expedition to South Georgia, see her previous blogs, and follow her on twitter @MelJLeng

Monday, 25 March 2013

Sail Away, Sail Away, Sail Away by Mel Leng (from aboard the Polarstern)

Mel's route so far (final destination
next week - South Georgia(F))
Melanie is en-route to the Island of South Georgia in the southern Atlantic Ocean, she sent this post Saturday night (our time) to paint a picture of the lengths (and detours) she'll undertake for science!.....

In my leaving blog I mentioned what a huge journey it was going to be to undertake fieldwork on  South Georgia in the Southern Ocean…that statement was made assuming that flights went to plan, connections were made and bags arrived. As it happened my trip from the UK (A) to Chile via Frankfurt (B) unraveled as early as Europe. The flight to Chile from Frankfurt was cancelled leaving about 50 scientists from all over the world stranded with a deadline to meet the ship in 2 days. The airline then sent scientists all over South America. Fortunately for me Hogg Robinson Group (our travel agent) were brilliant, I called their 24 hours emergency line and they were able to rebook connections, find out where my bags were, and by the time I arrived in Sao Paulo (C) I had a text message with my new flight connections. 

Amazingly despite the extra stop over in Brazil I appeared to travel while time stood still. Twenty four hours after setting out I arrived in Punta Arenas (E) via Santiago (D)  to plan where I met the German Research Foundation vessel the Polarstern.

The flight from Santiago in Chile to Punta Arenas was amazing, with the Andes to the east covered with snow and topped by cotton wool like blobs of clouds. To the west were the deeply incised coastline boarding the Pacific Ocean. Gale force westerly winds constantly batter Punta Arenas causing the Pacific to appear to be topped by white foam. The onshore winds are so fierce that there are few trees, and those that manage to grow strain against the wind at acute angles. The landscape is rocky and barren littered with the sprawling metropolis of Punta Arenas, oil refineries and army barracks.

German polar research vessel POLARSTERN in Atka Bay,
Antarctica during supply of Neumayer-Station
Hannes Grobe, Alfred Wegener Institute
Commerson's Dolphin (Cephalorhynchus commersonii) in the
Strait of Magellan. (c)
Mirko Thiessen

I am now traveling on the Polarstern from southern Chile to South Georgia (F), we have just passed the Falkland Islands and the Scotia Sea has amazingly been rather quiet (with only a 2-3m swell), although approaching weather systems are catching us up from the NW. The ship’s doctor is issuing sea sickness tablets…Tomorrow we will be in 4000m deep open water and other scientists’ on board will start to scan the ocean floor looking for signs of the massive fractures that occur in this region. 

My South Georgia team are now building rafts and preparing for our land based expedition. We expect to be dropped off on the Island early next week......and by the way I saw a pod of Commerson´s dolphins today! Blog again soon, Mel Leng.

[See Mel's previous blog to find out more on the South Georgia mission, and follow her on twitter @MelJLeng.  Also, to see exactly where the POLARSTERN is right now follow this link to a live map!!]

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

100,000 Scottish thin sections completed! by Rachel Whitty

Since early 2012, a group of volunteers have been working flat out in Murchison House, Edinburgh to photograph the British Geological Survey’s rock thin section collection.

From the mid-1800s, thin sections have been created from rock samples taken from all over the UK. Today the collection includes about 100,000 sections from Scotland, 11,000 from Northern England and 80,000 in the England and Wales collection. BGS has been aiming to photograph these thin sections, to make them available to the wider public.

 S24582  Diopside in marble

Last week, the last thin sections from the Scottish Sliced Rock (S) Collection were photographed! All of the 100,000 thin section samples from around Scotland have now been photographed (two photographs of each) and will soon be available for public access on Britrocks, the rock sample database.

The process of photography of all these thin sections is mainly carried out by volunteers. Each thin section is individually cleaned, a necessary step since some thin sections have collected over 150 years of dust! Once cleaned, the sections are organised by collection number and the process of photography begins.

 S97329  Gneissose semi pelite + magnetite. 1km NNE of Meall na Bracldlach. SCOTLAND. Dalwhinnie (63E)

In order to ‘capture’ each thin section, two photos are taken; one using plain polarised light (PPL) and one in crossed polarised light (XPL). Officially, the reason for this is that different mineral properties are shown under different light settings, and this enables more close analysis of the samples. Unofficially, very plain-looking samples in PPL usually look a lot prettier in XPL. The surprise of improved appearance keeps the volunteers guessing, and can be helpful after several hours of photography.

A digital SLR camera with a 1:1 macro lens is permanently set up to complete the photography process. A custom-built frame places the camera in line with a stage for the thin section, analyser for light changes and LED lamp for illumination.

 S34093  'Original entry: Dyke'. Allt Laire. SCOTLAND. Glen Roy (63)
Once each thin section has been photographed, the Collection number and corresponding photo numbers must be matched for the database so that geological information about each rock thin section can be matched to the correct images.

All of the thin sections from the S Collection have been processed in this way, and the huge size of the collection which has now been finished is a definite accomplishment. However, no rest for the wicked, and the volunteers have now started on the Scottish & Northern England (N) Collection, which although smaller, still contains 11,000 sections.

Rachel Whitty, BGS Volunteer

NB: For more info on the thin sections and their image capture see Isla's Blog Post. To search more images go to our Geoscenic website, or to search through collections search our Rock Collections Database

Friday, 15 March 2013

LaMEVE erupts onto the scene

LaMEVE is no ordinary database. It's a spatially enabled relational database.

LaMEVE stands for ‘Large Magnitude Explosive Volcanic Eruptions’ and contains data on all eruptions worldwide of magnitude 4 and greater, reaching back to the beginning of the Quaternary (almost 2.6 million years). The database is searchable via a spatial tool and/or a series of attributes, the results of which can be downloaded into a spreadsheet format. The database is accessible to all and it is hoped that the data contained within will be beneficial both to volcanologists and to disaster managers, as eruptions of the magnitudes concerned can have local, and in some cases, global catastrophic consequences. 

Montserrat. Vegetation damage and crack
on crater rim. (Date: 01/11/1996)
The creators hope that the volcanological community will contribute updates to the database so that it's a continually evolving and sustainable resource. It's because of this that the team behind LaMEVE welcome comments and/or additions to the database content. If you can collaborate then please contact Database Co-ordinator: Dr Sian Crosweller, from VOGRIPA (the parent group of LaMEVE). For more information about version updates please visit the LaMEVE website.

The VOGRIPA project is an international collaboration led by the University of Bristol with partners including the BGS, the Smithsonian Institution and the Geological Survey of Japan, that aims to develop accessible, searchable global volcanic hazards databases.VOGRIPA in turn is an integral part of the ‘Global Volcano Model’ network, an international partnership currently led by BGS and the University of Bristol which will create a sustainable, accessible information platform on volcanic hazard and risk.

Montserrat. Vulcanian explosion. View from
near Bugby Hole. (Date: 06/08/1997)
The international effort to collate the data for LaMEVE, and the creation of the spatially enabled relational database and web system, is described in an accompanying paper by Crosweller et al. (2012) published in the open-access Journal of Applied Volcanology.

Data contributions have come from the Smithsonian Institution’s Global Volcanism Program (both their online Holocene database and an unpublished Quaternary dataset), the Geological Survey of Japan ( Quaternary and Active Volcanoes of Japan databases), as well as from the published literature. A large number of people have been involved in compiling the data over a number of years, mostly at the University of Bristol, UK: Natalia Deligne, Natalie Ortiz, Laura Hobbs, Hayley Dunning, Sian Crosweller, Sarah Brown, Koji Kiyosugi (University of South Florida), Michael Hodge, Emily Bowyer, Lucy Harper, Jenny Pooley, Sam Mitchell and Alex Clarke. The database was designed by Martin Nayembil and Baneet Arora (British Geological Survey) and Sian Crosweller (University of Bristol), with the web design and development carried out by Jonathan Lowndes, Karen Kilpatrick, Diego Diaz Doce and Baneet Arora (British Geological Survey).

Cook, Shackleton and now Melanie Leng: Preparing for an expedition to South Georgia

Image comprising a series of pictures stitched to show Myviken Bay looking along the Bore Valley from the North, South Georgia.
British Antarctic Survey © NERC
In a few days I'll be following in the footsteps of James Cook (1775) and Ernest Shackleton (1916) and embarking on an adventure in the South Atlantic. I'm bound for fieldwork on South Georgia, a remote and inhospitable island with no permanent inhabitants, approximately 200km SE of the Falkland Islands.   

 The Geology (& wildlife!) Bit

The Island has a complex geological history; it is part of a small block of continental crust bound to the north and south by inactive faults against the Antarctic and South American continental plates. The rocks that comprise the island are of Jurassic to Cretaceous age, largely formed of volcanic and sedimentary rocks which were subsequently metamorphosed. The hard metamorphic rocks form towering mountains on the island rising to in excess of 2000m. Fringing the island is a low lying zone which has been eroded by the retreating glaciers around 10,000 years ago. This relatively low lying coastal zone is home to tundra type vegetation, mostly grasses, mosses, lichens, ferns and an abundance of wild life. South Georgia is one of the most densely populated wildlife regions on the planet with vast colonies of penguins and seals as well as the non native reindeer, rats and mice which were introduced by man.

The Expedition Bit 

Once there I will be taking cores (tubes) of sediments from peat bogs, lakes, lagoons and in the shallow marine environment. The sediment that has accumulated in these environments has done so in a time ordered sequence, the oldest being at the bottom and the most recent at the top. By pushing tubes into the soft sediments we retain that time sequence of sediments. 

I plan to look at fragments of plants, tiny insects and the chemistry in the sediments to reconstruct the past environmental conditions since the glaciers retreated from the coastal zone. I expect to see warmer conditions (and retreating glaciers) around 9,000 years ago when the ice shelves collapsed in Western Antarctica, and cooler temperatures (and re advancement of glaciers) around 7-3,000 years ago when the ice shelves reformed in Western Antarctica. 

On South Georgia I will be taking cores of sediments
from different environments including lakes (using a
raft like colleagues on Lake Windermere)

By also looking at rates of warming and match those to recent ice shelf collapse I hope to be able to forecast what will happen around South Georgia in the future. By reconstructing climate and environmental change at different places around Antarctica I hope to unpick natural from anthropogenic global warming, and show how different areas are affected in different ways by the same global change. Our planet is an amazingly fragile place and understanding future impacts of higher atmospheric CO2 is paramount.

This expedition and research is in collaboration with the German Research Foundation, and I will be part of an international team of scientists travelling to South Georgia on board the German research ship, the Polarstern. We embark from Punta Arenas in southern Chile, will be dropped off on the NE coast of South Georgia, from where we hike inland with all our gear to make a base camp, we will be collected a few weeks later and taken to the Falkland Islands where the RAF are flying me home. Even today it is amazing how travel to and from South Georgia is difficult; imagine what Cook, the 19th century Norwegian sealers, and Shackleton had to endure! 
Chinstrap Penguins (Pygoscelis antarctica) on brash ice
in front of the Neumayer Glacier, Cumberland West Bay,
South Georgia. British Antarctic Survey © NERC
The weather of South Georgia during March and April will be autumnal, with average day time temperatures of around freezing, with squally showers from the westerlies that constantly thrash the island. Communication while I am away will be patchy, but I hope to update you when I can. Wish me luck!
Melanie Leng
Follow me on twitter @MelJLeng