Saturday, 28 June 2014

Taking the pulse of Himalayan glaciers... by Ann Rowan

Morgan Gibson and Duncan Quincey digging a hole to find
out the thickness and to look at the thermal properties
of the supraglacial debris layer
Glaciers in the Himalaya are changing at a remarkable rate, but we know relatively little about how and why this is happening. BGS geologist Dr Ann Rowan and her team have just returned from six weeks in the Everest region of Nepal trying to find out more. Here's Ann to share her amazing adventure and some truly (and literally) breath taking photos.

I'm working with Dr Duncan Quincey (University of Leeds), Dr Tris Irvine-Fynn (Aberystwyth University) and Miss Morgan Gibson (PhD student at Aberystwyth University) to investigate how glacier volumes vary over time and to measure how influential the Indian monsoon is relative to Northern Hemisphere climate variations. Our field site is the highest glacier in the world—the iconic Khumbu Glacier in Nepal, a 20-km glacier flowing from the southern slopes of Mt. Everest.
The debris-covered ablation area of Khumbu Glacier
seen looking south from the summit of Kala Pathar
Meltwater from glaciers in the Nepalese Himalaya feeds into some of Earth’s largest rivers, including the Ganges and the Bramaputra, and millions of people rely on this water for agriculture and hydropower. Our team are collecting field data and developing computer models to discover how glaciers in this region could vary with future climate change. We arrived in Nepal just as the Everest climbing season had been shut down following a massive avalanche at the Khumbu Icefall on 18th April which resulted in the deaths of 16 Sherpa climbers. This tragic event illustrates how important it is to understand the mountain cryosphere and to predict what will happen in future to this region where many people live and work in the mountains.

Home for most of May. Camping at Lobuche on the true-right lateral
moraine of the glacier. The peak in the background is Pumori
Observations of large, high-altitude Himalayan glaciers are scarce, which makes understanding their behaviour in the future very difficult. The lack of data is mostly due to the remote location of these glaciers, but after our first field season at Khumbu Glacier I would add that the 10-day trek to get there, horrible altitude sickness, being woken up by hungry yaks at 5am, monsoon snow, and the sheer exhaustion of spending every day working on a debris-covered glacier at 5000 m above sea level may also have something to do with it!

Despite the challenges of working in such an extreme environment, we had a successful and enjoyable field season and are now busy working on writing up the first set of results. Myself and Morgan are looking forward to returning to the Khumbu in November to collect more data after the summer monsoon has ended. I'll be sure to update you on our adventures once im back but you can follow us live via our Twitter account @KhumbuGlacier.
The Khumbu Icefall and Mt. Everest seen from the summit of Kala Pathar

A hungry-looking yak checks out our camp at sunrise
Camping was less fun  once the monsoon snow started!

by Ann

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Teaching earthquake hazards in India... by Paul Denton

Me in the blue shirt bottom panel (thanks to GfGD blog
for this image, check out their blog for more!)
Paul Denton has just arrived back from the trip of a lifetime. He spent a week travelling through the Himalayas teaching school children about the natural hazards they're vulnerable to. The Mw7.6 Kashmir earthquake in 2005 which struck just over the border in Pakistan killed an estimated 100,000 people in Pakistan and over 1,300 in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. It's for this reason Paul, head of our School Seismology Programme, was asked to participate, alongside 'Geology for Global Development' (GfGD) who focused on landslide hazard. The aim was to explain to the children that not all natural hazards have to be disasters. By learning about process, sequence and mitigation of landslides and earthquakes through practical hands on examples these children could grow up to be an inspirational generation of geologists and geoengineers!

Here's Paul to tell us more about the adventure and the important work himself and GfGD are doing!

Earthquake hazard along the Himalaya margins is
high since this is an area of active tectonics
Taking the high road to Shangri-La… sometimes the journey becomes as important as the destination!!

The Geological Society of London and Jammu University have organised an international conference on “Sustainable Resource development in the Himalaya” to be held in Leh, Ladakh, Northern India near the Tibetan border.   Prior to the conference a two day workshop has been arranged for high school students from schools across the region on the theme of natural hazards. I'll be teaching about earthquakes while GfGD are delivering the section on landslide hazards.

Leh is perched 3400m above sea level and anyone who visits is warned about the affects of altitude sickness. I knew that flying in could mean a day of  acclimatising (aka laying down and feeling terrible) so I decided it made more sense to travel by road from Jammu and acclimatise along the way. This also gave me the opportunity to meet with Professor Ghulam Bhat the head of the Geology department at Jammu University and discuss possible ways to develop educational seismology in this region.

A mountain pass traffic jam!
Professor Ghulam Bhat is an incredible man, not only is he head of the Geology department but Rector of Bhadarwah Campus, and Local organiser of the conference in Leh, and patron of a primary school in his hometown of Srinagar, and founder of the geology department at the University of Kashmir in Srinagar, and a saffron farmer … all in all an extremely well connected man.

To make the most of our journey Professor Ghulam Bhat arranged for a series of stop-overs where I was invited to give a lecture to students on the topic of earthquakes, firstly to high school students and local dignitaries at Bhaderwah campus just outside Jammu.  Then the next day a visit to his primary school in Srinagar, then the next day a lecture to graduate students at Kargil College (photo below left), each lecture also involving an appropriate amount of hospitality and a series of every larger group photos and in between each visit  a 5 or 6 hour drive over ever higher mountain passes and a night  in a different university guest house.  I began to feel as though I was attending a whole series of formal weddings.

Kargil College group photo
Our final arrival in Leh involved traversing the highest mountain pass at 13,479ft and almost seemed like an anti-climax… a whole day with no lectures, just an opportunity to do some last minute shopping in Leh for 120 lollipops for  a monster transverse wave machine - check out the video Post on the School Seismology Facebook page!

The main event - our workshops on Natural Hazard

landslide practicals
On Friday St Peter's School was buzzing with excitement as hundreds of students from all across the Ladakh province arrived.   After formal welcomes and introductions the students started work on creating posters to illustrate any topic of their choice in the theme environment, resources and natural hazards. You can see all these amazing posters on the GfGD blog here.

Joel Gill from GfGD led the first landslides practical workshop (photo above left). It was very fun and everyone had a great time but it contained a serious message. Following a massive cloudburst event in 2010 Leh town and much of Ladakh was severely damaged by flooding and landslides with at least 255 people killed. Understanding the processes behind landslides and the sequence of events that can lead a natural hazard into becoming a disaster were the key messages on day one of the workshop.

voting for the best student slogan on earthquake safety. The winner was
"Don't use the staircase or you will be a death case"
My own workshop (photo left) used some great tried and tested demonstrations which the children really enjoyed. Throughout the sessions on earthquake science, efforts were taken to relate the topic back to practical understanding of hazards and risks. Again with a key message that by understanding the nature of the hazards and what happens during an earthquake it is possible to mitigate the effects of earthquakes and hopefully prevent an earthquake hazard from becoming a disaster. For a really comprehensive look at the full teaching methods and aims please look at the GfGD post here.

Students from St Peter’s school presented a cultural show of traditional Ladakhi
dancing (with a couple of Bollywood numbers thrown in for fun).

On Sunday I had a rapid journey home, flying direct from Leh to Delhi, where the air felt thick and warm, almost soupy and yet invigorating after days spent in the thin breathless air of the high Himalaya. A bit sad to be missing the main conference (and especially the post conference field trips) but I managed to arrive back home in time for a  quick nights sleep and Monday morning’s school run.  

For more information on the work, area and project please follow all the links in the blog, the GfGD is a really great resource especially! Not to mention the excellent plate tectonic teaching resources on the GeolSoc website and our BGS notes on hazards.

You can follow me and the BGS School Seismology on Twitter @SchoolSeismo and Facebook


Tuesday, 24 June 2014

BUFI Science Festival... by Jack Lacey

Presenters all ready for the Science Festival
Last fortnight saw us celebrate the amazing work of over 80 post graduate research students at the annual BUFI (BGS University Funding Initiative) Festival. Their work represents £250,000 in financing and the equivalent of 6-years supervision and training by our staff each year. BUFI affords each student the opportunity to present and communicate their research at this annual festival which is attended by students, staff, A-Level pupils and even some famous faces! University of Leicester presenter Jack Lacey shares his experience.

I am currently in the second year of my PhD and so have now had the chance to present my work at the BUFI Science Festival on two occasions. The Festival incorporates a wide range of research, showcasing the breadth of projects that BUFI funds – from studying impact craters on Mars to reconstructing 560 million-year old fossils. This makes the whole day a great experience as not only do you get to present your own research to specialists and non-specialists alike, but you get to discuss a whole range of interesting topics with students at the forefront of their fields – who are at a similar stage in their career to you.

Very busy day for the
This year I decided to present some work on how we can study the impacts of volcanic super eruptions using lake sediment records. The Toba eruption (74,000 years ago) in Indonesia is one of the largest ever known – bigger than Yellowstone – and is thought to have caused a severe period of global cooling. The signal for this ‘volcanic winter’ is recorded in sediments from Lake Prespa (southern Mediterranean), which suggest a major drop in lake level, less rainfall and a decrease in tree cover surrounding the lake. This information helps us understand how super eruptions influence different regions, how cooler temperatures and less rainfall can effect lake processes and vegetation and also can be linked to human population and migration patterns.

My award presented by
If enhancing communication and presentation skills is not enough of an incentive, there are also several prizes available. This year my poster was awarded the Sixth Form Students Prize – a new category where local sixth form students are invited to attend and judge posters. This is a great new addition to the Festival (not only as they chose my poster!) as you can make your research accessible to a wider range of people and hopefully inspire the next generation of researchers.

The skill of being able to interest and engage with every member of an audience is no easy task. Discussing complex scientific principles, methodologies and results with someone who may have no scientific background is difficult. Yet it is highly important that we, as scientists, are able to and is perhaps one of the most vital components of research training. The guest speaker for the Festival was Professor Iain Stewart who gave a fantastic presentation on ‘Communicating you Science’.

Presenting my poster on 'Super eruptions and lake sediments'
The Science Festival is great fun and a worthwhile experience – if you are a BUFI student I would highly recommend getting involved. If not, come along next year anyway to see all the posters and talk to some keen research students!

Jack Lacey

Follow BUFI (@DocBGS) and Jack (@jackHLacey) on twitter

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Deep drilling and wedding proposals by Lauren Noakes

If you want to understand the past climates, future hazards and potential resources of our planet then you need a group of excellent scientists with a plan and a really big drill. And a lot of money. The International Continental scientific Drilling Program (ICDP) has an annual budget of $5million with which it funds cutting edge research and provides operational support and drilling facilities. 

Collaborations and investments like this mean that scientists can start to understand and unravel the effects of natural and human process happening today. Funding is highly sought after and every January proposals from all over the world are submitted to ICDP to help start drilling projects from the equator to Antarctica.

BGS pays for the UK's membership to ICDP and as such we have scientists on each of the the committees that chose which projects get funded. It's a responsibility they take very seriously because the discoveries this research could lead to has wide reaching implications for the planet and each of us living on it.

The dynamic planet: areas ICDP are helping drill into and understand
The proposal
As I understand it, and I’ve just interviewed Mel Leng who sits on one of the committees, the research proposal might as well be called a wedding proposal. There are just so many parallels! After all it’s just a person with an idea they believe in, who’s got to get permission from several other people for something ultimately life changing and very very expensive! So let’s use that analogy as I try and explain the funding process.

Step One.
You’ve had the idea, you want to marry them, you’ve taken advice and you’ve chosen the best ring. With ring in hand you now need permission from their father-in-law. In our case it’s the Science Advisory Group (SAG). They meet once a year, in April, to evaluate all proposals for their scientific merit. Dr Kathryn Goodenough (BGS) sits on the SAG for her expertise in igneous petrology, geochemistry, and basement terrains.

Step Two.
Even if dad says yes, we all know who’s most influential, the mother-in-law! So reviews from SAG are then passed to the Executive Committee (EC) who review and evaluate the operational plan and funds requested. Prof Melanie Leng, BGS and University of Nottingham, sits on the EC. The workshop and pre-proposal decisions are also made by the EC but there's still one more hurdle before the full drilling proposals are accepted…

Step Three.
 … and that’s your own one true love, the Assembly of Governors (AoG), if they don’t like your proposal it's all over. The AoG consists of representatives from the major funders from all over the world and it's Prof John Ludden who takes the seat for the UK. The AoG reviews all decisions at a meeting held immediately after the EC and only with their agreement do you get your proposal accepted, a ring on their finger and a deep borehole drilled.

read Jack's blog here about drilling through 3
million years of Earths history in Lake Ohrid,
on the Macedonia/Albania border
A successful proposal could mean a future of exciting discoveries, just as some of our PhD students and scientists have found out from their involvement in ICDP.

This year the Science Advisory Group (SAG) was held in China in April, and the Executive Committee (EC) and Assembly of Governors (AoG) were held in Prague in early June. Rumour has it that many workshops and several full drilling proposals were approved, including several with UK collaborators! The funding announcements and calls for workshop participation will be over the next few weeks so keep an eye on the ICDP website for details of the proposed projects.

The proposals comprised
• 5 multi-million pound full drilling proposals,
• 2 pre-proposals (that will likely be submitted as workshop proposals next year) and
• 12 workshop proposals (to gather researchers together to write the full drilling proposals to achieve the best and most important science).

If you have any questions about the ICDP funding, or if you are interested in deep drilling and research, please feel free to contact our UK (BGS) reps: Dr Kathryn Goodenough (SAG), Prof Melanie Leng (EC), and Prof John Ludden (AoG).

By your friendly neighbourhood BGS press officer,
Lauren Noakes

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Eruptions on Ascension Island by Charlotte Vye-Brown

Dr Charlotte Vye-Brown, BGS volcanologist, is packing her bags ready for Ascension Island fieldwork next fortnight. Here she explains what she'll be doing, why it's important and also how you can follow their work during the trip! ...
Ascension Island viewed from the south; the island is
approximately 91 square km. Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0
Ascension Island has no records of historical volcanic activity but does this, as in many other places worldwide, simply reflect a lack of data?

To explore this question I'm travelling to Ascension with partners from the Universities of East Anglia, Durham and The Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre (SUERC) on a Leverhulme-funded research project.

We will investigate the sub-surface processes that have controlled the style, size and frequency of volcanic eruptions over time and establish the frequency-magnitude distribution of past eruptions. This detailed study will enable BGS to establish the threat from volcanic eruptions, consider what an appropriate volcano monitoring network on Ascension might look like and inform long-term planning decisions.

Ascension Island Comfortless Cove. Wikipedia CC BY 2.0
Our team objectives are to:

[a] collect new samples for age dating to identify: (i) the timescales on which eruptions have occurred and (ii) the timescales over which processes generating magma have occurred.

[b] examine the cause and effect of magmatic processes by using the dating results, geochemistry, and field data.

[c] assess current volcanic threat on the basis of new data and discuss with local and UK decision-makers.

Ascension Island Lava fields. Wikipedia CC BY 2.0
I'll be tweeting and posting here during the trip, so make sure you're following me and the team via @BGSvolcanology and @BritGeoSurvey .

This project builds on recent work at another UK Overseas Territory Tristan da Cunha by BUFI student Anna Hicks:

Hicks, A. Barclay, J., Simmons, P. and Loughlin, S. 2013. An interdisciplinary approach to volcanic risk reduction under conditions of uncertainty: a case study of Tristan da Cunha. Nat. Hazards Earth Syst. Sci. Discuss., 1, 7779-7820.

Hicks, A., Barclay, J., Mark, D. F., and Loughlin, S. 2012. Tristan da Cunha: Constraining eruptive behavior using the 40Ar/39Ar dating technique, Geology, 40, 723–726, doi:10.1130/G33059.1.