Friday, 29 August 2014

Caroline Graham - a rock (star) physicist... by Hazel Gibson

Hi, I’m Hazel Gibson, a PhD researcher from Plymouth University, who is interested in what people think about geology and how that affects how we as geoscientists communicate it. During July I was up at the British Geological Survey speaking to the scientists about their work, what makes them passionate about it and why they think it’s important to us. The following is a series of short 'people posts' about the real faces behind the BGS.

Dr Caroline Graham is not your average geologist. For a start she spent most of her early career listening to rock music, but this isn’t the heavy metal kind, more the percussive sequence of low frequency sounds that a rock makes when it is forced to break under extreme pressure! In fact here at the British Geological Survey Caroline is described as the rock (star) physicist – kind of like the other one, but better because there are rocks. Caroline, you see, is a Geomechanics Specialist, someone who knows the way rocks break apart and why better than almost anyone else. Throughout her career she has been interested in lots of different aspects of how rocks break, from earthquakes to collapsing mine shafts. In fact if her career was album, it would probably be called ‘All about the fractures’.
Caroline was encouraged in her early career by her parents; her dad, who was an engineer, and her mum, who although mostly self taught, had a brilliant scientific curiosity, took Caroline fossil hunting and discussed archaeology, evolution and other scientific ideas with her. In fact Caroline originally wanted to study Archaeology at university, but realised how hard it would be to get an archaeology job without a special skill, so instead she decided to study Geophysics at Edinburgh University. It was during this course that her interest in how rocks fracture really blossomed. Her work eventually led her to study for a PhD examining what sounds rock make as they break apart. In fact whilst listening to the death rattles of granites, she discovered they actually make a specific sound just before they explode apart and by listening for this sound, you can tell in advance when the rock will break!

Caroline in a Salt Mine.
She still experiments with rocks breaking today, but now the rocks she works with are far more likely to be related to UK’s need for energy solutions, be they shale rocks for gas and oil resources or rocks that might one day house a radioactive waste repository. Caroline still really enjoys her work, but the experiments don’t always go the way she expects “It’s like working in a nursery of rocks!” she told me, “They do silly things the minute you turn your back, you have to always have your eye on them!” And it can be a lot of watching – some of the experiments that Caroline runs can last for several years! You also have to be pretty patient; one of Caroline’s proudest discoveries was an amendment to an equation. This might seem like a pretty small step to us, but is a huge achievement for a rock physicist.

Caroline has travelled all over the world with her work in Geomechanics. In March 2012, she went to China to represent the UK and the BGS to examine radioactive waste disposal solutions. She went to Montserrat to discover more about how rocks break during earthquakes under volcanoes and working for the BGS has visited most countries in Europe. “Sometimes” she says, “it feels like I am visiting a different country every week!” By working with scientists from all over the globe who are also interested in these problems, Caroline ensures that the BGS has the most up to date approaches in place to answer our important questions. One of the strangest places she has been, however, was BoulbySalt Mine in Britain. Well, at least she entered this mine in Britain, but by the time she had gone down 1.2km (0.75 miles or 364 stories - which is like going up the Shard in London five times) in an elevator and gotten in a car to drive 12km to the place she needed to look at the rock, she was miles out under the North Sea! The thing that made this such a strange place to be was the fact that the pressure is so high that the mine tunnels will collapse within a year of being tunnelled. Now the idea of being in a tunnel, miles under the rock (and under the sea), that is cracking apart, with bits falling off as it continuously collapses under the weight of the planet’s gravity is pretty terrifying, but for Caroline it was a brilliant experience – she was just excited to see giant rock mechanics experiments in action!

Caroline is also dedicated to talking about her science. She has made a number of videos for the BGS (see below and on YouTube), but finds the issues of language one of the biggest hurdles that we have to overcome as geologists – and she is not talking about jargon. “There is a big difference between prediction and forecasting” she says. And she has a point; the Met Office forecasts the weather all the time and we know that includes a degree of uncertainty. However geologists are often asked to predict things and that is much harder – a prediction suggest that you KNOW what is going to happen – but that is impossible. One thing though is for sure, we can forecast a bright future for this ground breaking Geomechanic. 

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

From Canada to Clough... by Lauren Noakes

Charles Clough worked at the BGS for a whopping 41 years, right up until his untimely death on this day in 1916. He’s a famous face around our BGS Edinburgh office, photos of him can be spotted along the corridors and his skill for detailed geological mapping is legendary. So it was a fantastic honour to have his great granddaughter Trena, and her family, travel over 3000 miles from Canada last week to visit the place he loved and work.

These photos show Trena, her husband Ken and their daughter Sage (Clough’s great great granddaughter) looking through some of Cloughs field maps and artefacts from his time at the BGS.
Pouring over a small part of the work Clough contributed to during his time at the BGS

Members of BGS and Edinburgh GeolSoc with Trena and her family

Sage holding the Clough medal - an annual award given by the Edinburgh Geological Society to promote the study of the geology of Scotland and north England

Their story has also made the news in Huddersfield (article in the Huddersfield Examiner)where he was born as Trena and family continued their journey visiting other areas where memorials have been erected in Clough’s memory. He really was a great man much respected for his keen scientific mind and geological eye. We're very proud he spent 41 years sharpening these skills at the BGS and helped build its reputation (then and now!) for being a world class leader in geological mapping.
Thanks so much to Trena and her family for visiting us, it was a privilege to share with you our Clough collection. 

Friday, 22 August 2014

Counting success in the Baltic Sea ... by Carol Cotterill

It's time for bunting, streamers and excited faces all round as the operational phase of Expedition 347* comes to a successful close.  

Its mission: to discover if globally significant questions relating to climate forcing, climate systems and microbial responses could be unlocked from the deep sea sediments of the Baltic Sea Basin. As the mission enters the research phase we thought we'd ask BGS Expedition Project Manager Carol Cotterill to give us a glimpse into this monumental collaboration and super feat of engineering and science...

Nothing gives you a sense of scale like a list of ever increasing numbers, here's some I picked from the operations of 347 Expedition: 
6 drilled sub-basins
17 scientists from 10 countries sailed
24 hour operations with 2 shifts of 12 hours
51 days working offshore, 66 including mobilisation, de-mobilisation and transits
65 people aboard the Greatship Manisha including scientists, BGS, ESO staff, drillers and ships crew
206 feet of shipping containers! That's 13 boxes, 20ft each, converted into offices, core curation, petrophysical and clean geochemistry and microbiology labs
1,623m of core recovered totalling 91% overall recovery
9,300 offshore samples taken
373,000 km2 of areal extent of sediments feeding into the glacially eroded Baltic Sea Basin and investigated by IODP
But this is only half of it, the offshore half. Once recovered onto the ship the cores and samples were stored and then transported, back to the IODP Bremen core repository at MARUM, in temperature controlled units in preparation for the onshore phase.
This phase lasted 24 days, with 65 staff, including the full complement of 31 scientists from 12 countries, processing, recording and sampling the cores acquired offshore. In total over 38,500 samples were taken for post-cruise research encompassing disciplines including palynology, geochemistry, paleomagnetics, glacial deformation, deep biosphere communities, micropaleontology and physical properties of the sediments.
But why the Baltic and what were our aims? Summarised below are the four over-arching research themes (covered in more detail here):
1. Climate and sea level dynamics of marine isotope Stage (MIS) 5, including onsets and terminations;
2. Complexities of the last glacial, MIS 4–MIS 2;
3. Glacial and Holocene (MIS 2–MIS 1) climate forcing; and
4. Deep biosphere in Baltic Sea Basin (BSB) sediments.

The location of the BSB in the heartland of the recurrently waning and waxing Scandinavian Ice Sheet (SIS), has resulted in a complex development: repeated glaciations of different magnitudes, sensitive responses to sea level and gateway threshold changes, large shifts in sedimentation patterns, and high sedimentation rates. Its position also makes it a unique link between Eurasian and northwest European terrestrial records.
Therefore, the sediments of this largest European intracontinental basin form a rare archive of climate evolution over the last glacial cycle. High sedimentation rates provide an excellent opportunity to reconstruct climatic variability of global importance at a unique resolution from a marine-brackish setting. Comparable sequences cannot be retrieved anywhere in the surrounding onshore regions.
Furthermore, and crucially, the large variability (salinity, climate, sedimentation, and oxygenation) that the BSB has undergone during the last glacial cycle makes it optimal for new research on the deep biosphere and its evolution and biogeochemical processes in a changing environment.

The science party are currently busy processing their samples and coming up with preliminary results. We hope to see some of the initial results presented at the AGU Fall Meeting in San Francisco. However, when asked for possible titles for papers at the end of the onshore phase, the enthusiastic science party gave me 73 potential papers!! This could be the most successful MSP to date for ECORD, IODP and BGS.

Thanks for reading and special thanks to those of you who followed us through GeoBlogy and the IODP expedition online logbook.


* [editor] being that the full expedition name and accreditation is almost as long as it's recovered core we popped all this info to the end of the blog. Of course without the excellent collaboration between all these good people and partners the expedition would've never got afloat so a humble thanks from BGS to those friends mentioned below: 

The 'IODP Expedition 347 Baltic Sea Paleoenvironment' was the fifth Mission Specific Platform project organised and carried out by the European Consortium for Ocean Research Drilling (ECORD). As the one of the lead partners within the ECORD Science Operator, BGS were tasked with the logistical planning and vessel contracting, scientific staffing and operations for both the offshore and onshore phases of the Expedition, along with colleagues from the European Petrophysics Consortium and the IODP Bremen Core Repository, MARUM.

Monday, 18 August 2014

Tim Kearsey - a curious sedimentologist... by Hazel Gibson

Hi, I’m Hazel Gibson, a PhD researcher from Plymouth University, who is interested in what people think about geology and how that affects how we as geoscientists communicate it. During July I was up at the British Geological Survey speaking to the scientists about their work, what makes them passionate about it and why they think it’s important to us. The following is a series of short 'people posts' about the real faces behind the BGS.

 Dr Tim Kearsey is interested in history. So much so, that initially he didn’t want to be a geologist at all. “I was interested in archaeology first” he told me. “I even worked as a volunteer digger when I was at school!” But while studying for his A-levels in history, biology and geography, he was lucky enough that his school offered an AS Level in geology. “I realised everything that I liked in geography was actually geology, so I switched.” After completing his A-levels he started a degree in geology, reasoning that he could always transfer those skills to archaeology, but that archaeology wouldn’t transfer to geology. It was during his undergraduate degree that he realised that geology and specifically sedimentology, helps you to look at a landscape and see something completely unexpected – the past!

Tim is now  a sedimentary geologist at BGS’s Edinburgh office. This means that he has a very varied job, which includes traditional geological mapping; looking at mathematical uncertainty in geological 3D models and maps; working with scientists overseas to improve their national geological maps and getting stuck in to some really interesting research of his own. At the moment Tim is looking at Tetrapods, which if you don’t know, are the group of fossils that represent the very first four limbed creatures. Tim is a part of a research group called the TW:eed (Tetrapod  World: early evolution and diversification) consortium that also includes palaeontologists from Cambridge University and the NationalMuseum of Scotland; sedimentologists from Leicester University and palynologists (scientists who look at pollen) from Southampton University. It’s a really exciting project because the people involved are looking at the early evolution and diversity of these amazing creatures, but not just at the organisms themselves – they are trying to discover the whole picture of what it was like when the tetrapods were alive! This is where Tim comes in. His speciality is looking at past environments using fossilised soils, which is a really tricky thing to do! Tim uses fossilised soils contained in sedimentary rock to help him reveal lost terrains, by examining how the sediment that was deposited at the time has been recorded in the rocks, and what clues that can give us to what it was like. “Sedimentology is the archaeology of the landscape” Tim says, and it can tell us a surprising amount of things that you may take for granted...

                              Tim loves looking at fossilised soils...                           
For example – when we think of dinosaurs, I’m sure many of us picture a herd of gigantic creatures wandering a grassy plain, but that is impossible, because grass didn’t evolve until the dinosaurs had become extinct. And did you know that before trees evolved there were no meanders in rivers?! It boggles the mind. But it’s not all delving into lost landscapes for Tim. One of his favourite things about working for the BGS is the way that his job combines academic style research, with practical work – that makes you feel that you are making a difference. Another of his primary projects is to do with how other people – especially engineers – use geological maps and the problems that they can have with them. One of the things he told me about recently is how he wants to figure out a way to help engineers use geological maps more effectively and thinks that this has a lot to do with how non-geologists use maps. Think about it, if you wanted to go to London, you would look on a map, follow the directions and London would be there at the end of your journey. But a geological map doesn’t always show you where things definitely are, just where they PROBABLY are based on the current available evidence. They don’t even show you where one type of rock is sometimes either – most maps use formations, which are a group of rocks. It can make things pretty confusing!!

This video shows one of the 3D models that Tim has helped to create.

Luckily Tim is not alone in wanting to find a solution to this problem; many scientists at the BGS are trying to diversify our geological maps for whoever wants to use them. Tim has said to me in the past; “one of the hardest things is trying to explain some ideas to a non-geologist we can forget that, like me before I did geology A level, most people don’t really know what ‘geology’ is. We must also remember we talk about a world underground and a time long ago that is outside many people's experience and is quite alien to them.” But with his work unveiling the vanished environments of millions of years ago, helping other scientists to improve their maps or developing new ways for us to look at the geological information we already have, I think Tim will show many more people how to access our vast stores of geological knowledge in their own way.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Isotopes add to ‘Anthropocene’ debate... by Jonathan Dean

A 2013 art installation at Edge Hill University near Liverpool, 
by Robyn Woolston included this mock sign
Are we in a new geological age?
Have we really altered the global environment?
When did these impacts reach a critical point?

These are just some of the questions that Jonathan Dean, Melanie Leng and Anson Mackay have attempted to answer in a major new piece of research. Here Jonathan tells us more about their research and why you might have been born in a different geological age to your grandparents…

Our paper has just been published in The Anthropocene Review, which is available for free here. It stemmed from the increasing debate in the geological and wider scientific communities regarding whether a new geological age called the Anthropocene should be defined.

At the moment, the Anthropocene is an informal term that denotes the impact humans have had on the Earth. It is argued that, since humans are the dominant force of global environmental change, it is no longer appropriate for us still to be in the same geological age as when humans were living in caves and not flying round the world emitting vast amounts of CO2.

A working group of the International Commission on Stratigraphy is set to present its preliminary findings in 2016 on whether a change should be made to geological time. The major sticking point is likely to be where to set the beginning of the Anthropocene, with some people arguing for thousands of years ago when humans started chopping down forests and farming, to the last few centuries with the Industrial Revolution, to sometime in the future when greenhouse gas emissions are predicted to lead to large temperature increases. As isotope geochemists, we decided to review how isotope records can help with this debate.

Some details if you are still with me! Isotopes are different types of an element: they have the same number of protons but a different number of neutrons. The ratio of one isotope of an element to another will change in response to human impacts on the environment, so isotope ratios can be used to establish how humans have altered the global environment and when changes began to be momentous. We can use carbon isotopes (carbon-13 and carbon-12) to investigate human impact on the composition of the atmosphere. Fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) are the remains of organisms that lived millions of years ago, and because organisms preferentially use carbon-12 rather than carbon-13 when they grow, when we burn fossil fuels this releases large amounts of carbon-12 into the atmosphere. The increase in carbon-12 in the atmosphere over the last few centuries as we have burnt large amounts of fossil fuels can be reconstructed by analysing gas bubbles that are locked away in ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica. They show there was a trend to increasing carbon-12 (indicating increased CO2 emissions due to humans burning fossil fuels) since the Industrial Revolution, but that there was a big acceleration in this trend after the Second World War when economic growth took off.

Another example is that of lead isotopes. These can be used as a fingerprint to trace the sources of lead pollution, since human mining and smelting release lead with different isotope ratios to natural processes. This has allowed researchers not only to show that lead pollution found in ice from Greenland dating to 2,000 years ago was due to human, not natural processes, but that it was lead released by mining and smelting of Spanish lead by the Romans!

A petrochemical refinery in Grangemouth, Scotland
Wikipedia source
Overall, in the paper we demonstrate that isotopes show substantial human impacts on the environment. While we showed that different isotopes show different impacts at different times in the past, there is a clear acceleration in the input of CO2 into the atmosphere (recorded by carbon isotopes) around 1950. Other indicators, such as deforestation and species extinction rates, also suggest this was a time when human impacts on the environment increased substantially. If I were a betting man I’d probably go for the start of the Anthropocene being fixed around this time, which would mean that many of us were born in a different geological age to our grandparents!

By Jonathan Dean
You can follow us on twitter: @jrdean_uk, @MelJLeng and @AnsonMackay

Monday, 11 August 2014

Paper pride... by Jack Lacey

We proudly invited Jack, star blogger and PhD student at CEG (Centre for Environmental Geochemistry), to write about his very first lead authorship paper because it's a great academic and personal achievement worthy of cake, bubbles and blogging! So please welcome Jack to outline the research and conclusions of his online paper "A high-resolution Late Glacial to Holocene record of environmental change in the Mediterranean from Lake Ohrid (Macedonia/Albania)"...

The first year of my PhD was initially meant to involve fieldwork at Lake Ohrid in Macedonia, coring through over a million years of sediments that had accumulated in the lake and through various geochemical analysis can provide information about past Mediterranean history. However, there was unfortunately a delay at the start of the operation. This meant I had the opportunity to work on a shorter core (the ‘Lini’ core) from Lake Ohrid that dates back to when glaciers retreated from the area (the last ice age transition) from 12,000 years ago to the present day. I have used the sediments to investigate how the climate and environment in and around the lake has changed over this time.

I took samples of the core sediment for analysis at intervals of around 2 decades and this provides one of the highest resolution lake sediment records for the region. This enables me to see the progression of environmental change through decadal and centennial trends.

The results show that since the retreat of glaciers from the area there have been three main types of climate. The first is a transitionary period where cold winters and cooler summers coming out of the ice age gradually give way to a warmer climate more conducive to plants, animals and people living in the region. The numbers of plants within the lake and surrounding area especially increases to a maximum over this time as temperatures and rainfall increased and conditions become more favourable. In the last few centuries human activity impacts the record due to local forest clearance and enhanced agriculture. In particular more soils are washed into the lake causing algae to bloom.

The data from the Lini core will act as a modern calibration for the deeper cores drilled as part of the SCOPSCO project in Spring 2013, and set the scene for a climatic and environmental reconstruction over the entire 1.2 million-year lake history. I am currently working my way through this time period, and hope to discover how climate forced evolutionary change of the plants and animals in the lake

By Jack Lacey, @JackHLacey (BGS funded student at the University of Nottingham)