Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Welcome to Iceland fieldwork from above... by Jez Everest

Jez Everest established our Virkisjökull Glacier Observatory in 2009, and new equipment has been installed each year to monitor climate, ice dynamics, landscape change, hydrology and groundwater. Today, with the snow keeping them close to camp, Jez has put together a little intro video with the new hexacopter footage...

The BGS Glacier Project machine grinds into gear once more, boldly going where none have gone before. Well almost. This time the team consists of a mixture of BGS and GSNI staff, plus staff and MSc and MRes students from Dundee and Lancaster Universities, here for 10 days with a huge range of research activities to complete.

Atypically the trip started with delays caused by a late shipment of equipment from the UK. Who would have thought it was so hard to transport LiPo batteries between countries? However the blue roof of Austurbaer at Svinafell hove into view on Wednesday evening, bathed in sunshine. Thursday was spent steam drilling holes in the glacier to discover meltwater pathways along faults and thrusts, sampling various water sources for sulphur isotopes, and testing the hexacopter which will carry our thermal imaging kit to be used on the trip… more on this hopefully later in the week. There was still a bit of time for Paul and Ali to go for a run before dinner, and for me to do some video using the quadcopter.

Unfortunately today has seen bucket loads of snow, hiding crevasses on the glacier, and blanketing the ground, obscuring features and their thermal properties from the two drone helicopters. The only work possible has been to download all the groundwater borehole data, test various bits of kit, and piece together a short intro video for your enjoyment. The Dundee students have also had to do a series of presentations for their MSc coursework, via the internet to their classmates and staff back at home. So still plenty to do, despite the Christmassy weather outside.

Hopefully we will be able to get back on the ice, and get all our birds in the air tomorrow, really getting the research programme underway.
I’ll keep you posted

The St. Patrick’s Day Geomagnetic Storm... by Sarah Reay

On the 17th March 2015 the Earth experienced a strong geomagnetic storm. This ‘St. Patrick’s Day storm’ was the largest storm in over 10 years, and the largest of the current solar cycle! Sarah Reay, from the BGS Geomagnetism team, expands on the science behind the solar storm...

So what happened?

The storm began at 04:46 UT on the 17th March 2015 when a shock in the solar wind (a stream of charged particles emanating from the Sun) hit the Earth’s magnetic field signalling the arrival of a coronal mass ejection (CME). A CME is a massive burst of charged gas and magnetic field ejected from the Sun’s corona which is carried away from the Sun by the solar wind. The sunspot region responsible for the CME was centrally placed on the solar disc and so the Earth was directly in the line of fire! This CME travelled quickly towards Earth arriving earlier than space weather forecasters had predicted, taking us a little by surprise.

BGS magnetometers, which measure the variations in the strength and direction of the Earth’s magnetic field, recorded the impact of the CME. We observed a rapid variation in the magnetic field signalling the start of the geomagnetic storm. At Eskdalemuir observatory in the Scottish Borders the rapid variation was approximately a fifth of a degree in compass variation (i.e. declination). 

A magnetogram showing the variation in the compass variation (in degrees west of true north) for the three UK magnetic observatories the 17th – 18th March 2015. You can see the shock arrival and storm commencement followed by larger variations later in the day
Shortly after the shock impact those on the night-side of the Earth were treated to a spectacular auroral display. There were various sightings reported across North America, and more unusually, some great sightings of the aurora australis in New Zealand (New Zealand is of similar geomagnetic latitude to the south of UK). If it had been dark, we should certainly have seen the northern lights across the UK. However our night-time was many hours away. The question everyone was asking was how long would the storm last and how strong would it be?

Why the storm was so strong?

One of the main factors that influence how big a magnetic storm will be is the direction and strength of the interplanetary magnetic field (IMF). That is, the magnetic field carried in the solar wind. If this turns southwards it allows much more energy into the Earth’s magnetic field. If it turns northwards it can effectively ‘shut down’ a magnetic storm. This key aspect is, unfortunately, not one space weather forecasters can predict well in advance so it is difficult to know what nature a storm may have in the coming hours.

Solar wind conditions measure by the ACE satellite. The top trace (red) shows IMF turning southward for extended period of time. Orange, yellow and green traces show the change in density, speed and temperature and the CME arrived.
Remarkably in this case the IMF went strongly southwards for well over 12 hours allowing a lot of energy to flow into the Earth’s magnetic field. This produced a major magnetic storm. The Space Weather Prediction Centre (run by NOAA in the USA) has five defined levels of geomagnetic storm activity from G1 to G5 with G5 being the most severe. This storm, at its peak, reached G4 level for several hours. G4 levels were seen globally between 12:00 – 18:00 UT and again between 21:00 – 00:00 UT on the 17th March 2015. Space weather forecasters in BGS and Met Office continually monitored the situation throughout the day and consulted with each other as the storm progressed. 

A snapshot of BGS's activity monitor when global geomagnetic activity was at the G3 storm level on the 17th March 2015.

A northern light show

When a geomagnetic storm is in progress the auroral ovals, usually located near the Arctic and Antarctic circles, broaden and move out towards the equator. That is why during a magnetic storm the aurora can be seen more easily in the UK.

As the geomagnetic storm rumbled on throughout the St Patrick’s Day more people around the world were treated to a spectacular auroral display - that is, if they were lucky enough to find a gap in the clouds. Unfortunately for the UK many places were covered in thick cloud or fog so missed out on this event. However many more were lucky and sightings were reported across Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and the parts of England even as far south as Hampshire and Sussex. In Europe, aurora was seen as far south as Germany and The Netherlands.

Model of aurora oval over the northern hemisphere at 21:40UT on the 17th March 2015. The line of auroral visibility in UK is located around the Midlands. Image SWPC NOAA.

The day after the solar wind conditions remained heightened and geomagnetic activity, whilst no longer at the peak of activity, continued at a moderate storm level throughout the 18th March. Once again parts of the UK reported aurora sightings but these were mainly confined to Scotland.

So how big was this storm?

One way of measuring how large a magnetic storm is by a type geomagnetic index – the Ap index. This is measure of global geomagnetic disturbance. When Ap is greater than 100 (out of maximum of 400) this is classed as a ‘severe storm’ (severe in this case refers to the magnitude of the storm rather than a comment on the possible impact). The St Patrick’s Day storm had an estimated daily Ap of 108. This is the largest magnetic storm of the current solar cycle (which began in 2008). We need to go back 10 years to September 2005 for the last storm with an Ap >100. The last magnetic storm which was bigger than the St Patrick’s Day storm was in November 2004, almost 11 years ago!

Chart showing all the major magnetic storm with a daily Ap greater than 100 since 1980. Notice the large 10-year gap before the St. Patrick’s day storm.
Do you want to keep track of current geomagnetic activity and watch out for the next chance to see the aurora in the UK?

You can keep up with the current geomagnetic activity levels here.
Read our daily space weather forecast here.
If you don’t want to miss out on the next chance of seeing the aurora you can subscribe to our email alerts.

Or follow us on twitter at @BGSauroraAlert or @BGSspaceWeather

Sarah Reay
BGS Geomagnetism Team

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Is there an environmental link to esophageal cancer in Tanzania?... by Michael Watts

Scientists from the Centre for Environmental Geochemistry are helping health organisations understand why esophageal cancer is localised within specific areas of the African Rift Valley. Whilst various causal factors are now under investigation, such as high-strength ‘kill me quick’ alcohol consumption or hot tea drinking, it is difficult to fully explain the localised nature of the burden. Here Dr Michael Watts outlines why soil around Mount Kilimanjaro could unearth some answers…

Dr Valerie McCormack from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC, part of the World Health Organisation) has studied the high prevalence of esophageal cancer in the Rift Valley and identified a particularly localised incidence of cases in the Mount Kilimanjaro area of Tanzania. A hypothesis was presented that an environmental factor, such as exposure to potentially harmful elements or organics (e.g. polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, PAHs, from wood fires) or deficiency of essential micronutrients (e.g. zinc) that diminishes the body’s ability to recover from or buffer an event that may cause cell damage, could be contributing to this.

Kilimanjaro district
This is where the skills of the inorganic geochemistry team come in. With support from the Centre for Environmental Geochemistry (CEG) and BGS Global, the BGS Inorganic Geochemistry team assisted IARC-WHO and the Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Centre (KCMC) in designing and undertaking a detailed survey of soil, water and crop samples in the Kilimanjaro district.

Children from Masame
Our primary aim was to link geochemistry and crop data with areas in which esophageal cancer cases were prevalent.  In addition, the data will demonstrate a spatial understanding of the geochemistry of the differing climatic zones and food production areas around Mount Kilimanjaro and to provide an indication of micronutrient composition or presence of potentially harmful elements. 

This increased understanding of the soil and crops in Kilimanjaro will improve baseline evidence for a differing climatic zone compared to previous work in Sub-Saharan Africa (previous blogs), to inform future experimentation of agricultural methods that could improve soil-crop transfer of micronutrients for onward health benefits.

We also provided training to local counterparts from KCMC and the Ministry of Agriculture Kilimanjaro District Extension Office in the collection of environmental samples, recording of field data for quality assurance / data management and onward presentation in GIS maps for agricultural planning tools. It is a privilege to be able to help where our skills are needed most and it’s clear these strong working relationships will bring benefits to local populations and the wider science community. We see clear opportunities for future collaboration with all of the partners we worked with in Tanzania, including the Regional Area Secretariat from the Prime Minister’s Office.

Rombo Mkuu
In fact the CEG has already partnered again with IARC-WHO (the project leaders) on a recently gained grant from the US National Cancer Institute to study a similarly high-localised prevalence of esophageal cancer in the Eldoret region of Kenya.  Such work involves the cross-disciplinary collaboration of epidemiologists, medics, health practitioners, biostatisticians, geochemists, farmers and local agricultural extension workers and commences 2015 to 2017. Watch out for future blogs and see all our research via our CEG website.

Dr Michael Watts
Head of Inorganic Geochemistry, Centre for Environmental Geochemistry

Suggestions for further reading:
Joy et al. (2015). Zinc enriched fertilisers as a potential public health intervention in Africa, DOI:10.1007/s11104-015-2430-8.

Gibson RS, Wawer AA, Fairweather-Tait SJ, Hurst R, Young SD, Broadley MR, Chilimba ADC, Ander EL, Watts MJ, Kalimbira A, Bailey KB, Siyame EWP. (2015). Dietary iron intakes based on food composition data may underestimate the contribution of potentially exchangeable contaminant iron from soil, Journal of Analytical Food Research (in press).

Joy, EJM, Broadley, MR, Young, SD, Black CR, Chilimba, ADC, Ander, EL, Barlow, TS and Watts, MJ*. (2015). Soil type influences crop mineral composition in Malawi, Science Total Environment, 505, 587-595.

Joy, E, Ander, EL, Young, SD, Black, C, Watts, MJ, Chilimba, ADC, Chilima, B, Siyame, E, Kalimbira, A, Hurst, R, Fairweather-Tait, SJ, Stein, A, Gibson, RS, White, P, Broadley, M. (2014) Dietary mineral supplies in Africa, Physiologia Plantarum, 151, 208-229.

Siyame E; Hurst R; Wawer AW;Young SD; Broadley MR; Chilimba ADC Ander EL; Watts MJ; Chilima B; Gondwe J; Kang’ombe D; Kalimbira A; Fairweather-Tait SJ; Bailey KB; Gibson RS. (2014). A high prevalence of zinc but not iron deficiency among Women in Rural Malawi: a cross-sectional study, International Journal for Vitamin and Nutrition Research, 83, 3, 176-187.

Hurst, R, Siyame, E, Young, SD, Chilimba, ADC, Joy, EJM, Black, CR, Ander, EL, Watts, MJ, Chilima, B, Gondwe, J, Kang’ombe, D, Stein, AJ, Fairweather-Tait, SJ, Gibson, R, Kalimbira, A, Broadley, MR*. (2013). Soil-type influences human selenium status and underlies widespread selenium deficiency risks in Malawi, Scientific Reports, 3, 1425.

Broadley MR, Chilimba ADC, Joy, E, Young SD, Black CR, Ander EL, Watts MJ, Hurst R, Fairweather-Tait SJ, White PJ, Gibson RS. (2012). Dietary requirements for magnesium but not calcium are likely to be met in Malawi based on national food supply data, International Journal of Vitamin and Nutrition Research, 82(3), 192-199.

Joy EJM, Young SD, Black CR, Ander EL, Watts MJ and Broadley MR. (2012). Risk of dietary magnesium deficiency is low in most African countries based on food supply data, Plant and Soil, 368. 129-137.

W H Shetaya, S D Young, M J Watts, E L Ander and E H Bailey (2012). Iodine dynamics in soils, Geochemica et Cosmochimica Acta, 77, 457 – 473.
Chilimba, A.D.C., Young, S.D., Black, C.R., Ander, E.L., Watts, M.J., Lammel, J. and

Broadley, M.R. (2011). Maize grain and soil surveys reveal suboptimal dietary selenium intake is widespread in Malawi, Scientific Reports, 1, 1 - 9.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Records on the move... by Lorna Stewart

Last pallet being loaded on the lorry in Edinburgh
As we've reported here before our two offices in Scotland are being united at one single site in Edinburgh. In the Spring of 2016 The Lyell Centre will be the new home of BGS in Scotland and preparations are already well underway. Here Lorna Stewart, Records Manager, tells us about the latest activity...

Following months of careful indexing and scanning the first delivery of Records from Murchison House left Edinburgh on Monday 9th February for relocation to Keyworth.
Records staff still smiling after a hard
day of re-shelving the records in
their new home
For the past 18 months the Records Team at BGS Murchison House have been preparing the records for transfer, some collections have been scanned and all have been  meticulously indexed to ensure that they remain accessible. Where there is no existing scanned image a Scan on Demand Service will be available. Records and  Reprographics staff at BGS Keyworth had in the meantime prepared the top floor of the Publication Store (V block) to receive the material.

Each folder and container is barcoded and is associated with the barcoded shelf location at Keyworth to make sure that they can be quickly and accurately retrieved when requested.
The respective Records Teams managed the physical handling at either end of the operation; happily the weather was on our side and all 49 pallets were unloaded and undercover by the end of Tuesday morning.

Records happy in their new home
By Wednesday afternoon all of the 3,000 boxes and files had been shelved and the database updated with their new locations. Massive thanks is due to all staff who helped in the process, it bodes very well for the next 12 months or more of work ahead.


[The BGS Communications team have also just published the latest YouTube update from The Lyell Centre site, see below.  

Heriot-Watt have also announced on their website some major donations to the Lyell Centre development from two leading philanthropic charities.

Keep checking on here and follow us on Twitter for more updates on the move to The Lyell Centre. - Editor]


Monday, 9 March 2015

A new way to knowledge exchange... by Sophie Wood

Claire Shelley on her soapbox (that's an
imaginary box, no risk assessment needed)
The BGS Informatics and BGS Environmental Modelling teams are an eclectic mix of highly skilled staff from our offices in Keyworth, Edinburgh and Cardiff. To share their different talents, skills, ideas and projects they host an annual interactive team Information Workshop. Here Sophie Wood tells us more about the activities and how innovative days like this benefit everyone…

Thursday 5th Feb saw the second Informatics and Environmental Modelling Information Workshop held at Keyworth in both the conference suite and the communal William Smith Building lower ground floor. Half a day was given to finding out and learning about many of the different projects  currently ongoing within the two directorates and the event had 4 main sections.

1: a round-up and vision for the year ahead from the directors Kate Royse and Matt Harrison followed by a quick resumé from each of the team leaders with lots of interesting facts and figures about the projects and the teams themselves. Edinburgh joined us by video-link which was good to see, even though some of the transmission was lost for a few minutes due to technical difficulties. The slides from all of these presentations are available to all BGS staff via our Intranet.
2: the Poster Gallery with 14 posters displayed work by both Keyworth and Edinburgh staff adding interest and new focal points in the Keyworth atrium. Topics covered included Mining Hazard in Great Britain, Domesday Project, MyVolcano, G-Base, DECC data and MAREMAP to name but a few.
3: Soapbox style presentations including topics ranging from Data Ingestion, Data Scientists to BiG data were delivered from our version of Hyde Park’s Speakers Corner with a sparkling tree and tweeting fluffy bird dive-bombing any speaker who dared to overrun their time slot – which happened a lot but most of the bird strikes missed !
4: the Merry-Go-Round session was a most successful part where demo’s of 10 minutes duration were given throughout an hour and half by staff at their desks talking to groups no larger than 10 people.

The final wrap up session by Matt and Kate with questions
from the floor - not to be mistaken for the soapbox!
This year a very diverse range of projects were on show and most of the attendees lunchtime was taken up choosing which to go to out of an impressive 17.

The event was well attended with 80+ individuals and although it was devised for just the 2 directorates to learn who and what are involved in them, the lunchtime Poster Gallery viewing and Soapbox presentations were open to the whole site. Nice to see lots of staff coming to check it out.

With prizes for best Poster, Soapbox and Merry-Go-Round demo’s it was a fun way to bring the informative event to a close. Much was learnt during the day through a friendly and informal environment especially the Merry-Go-Round where in small groups around someone’s desk people felt at ease to ask questions and not be intimidated by a large conference room setting.

by Sophie

Friday, 6 March 2015

Jellyfish are dish of the day at EnviroHack 2015... by Rachel Heaven

EnviroHack 2015 ©
Is open access data helping to solve environmental problems? Yes, but only with the innovative thinking and skills of people from a wide range of scientific and engineering disciplines. Rachel Heaven, Stephanie Bricker, Anubha Singh may have different expertise within BGS but one thing they all share is wanting to put data to it's very best use. Here they tell us more about their experience (and jellyfish) at this years NERC EnviroHack...

So it turns out that jellyfish can wreak havoc for power stations by getting sucked into and clogging up the water supply intake pipes – who knew? (Don’t believe me? The headline in National Geographic read Jellyfish Invasion Shuts Down Nuclear Reactor). A system to identify and track likely jellyfish hotspots using atmospheric and oceanographic data was just one of the great ideas we saw developed at NERC’s EnviroHack 2015 last weekend.

EnviroHack 2015 is a data jam. In essence you put a bunch of enthusiastic data scientists, designers and software engineers in front of a wealth of openly accessible environmental data (atmospheric, meteorological, hydrological, ecological, geological…), feeding them some pizzas (and perhaps a little beer), letting them cook for 2 days and then hopefully seeing some innovative application prototypes that could address important environmental challenges such as environmental change, resilience to environmental hazards and use of natural resources.

The event was hosted at Digital Catapult, in what is being branded the Knowledge Quarter in London. We were on a 9th floor office opposite the British Library, giving fabulous views over St Pancras Station, and across the London skyline. 

After admiring the view and a few talks from the event partners - which in addition to NERC and Digital Catapult included the Knowledge Transfer Network, Microsoft Research and Red Ninja Studios - we had a quick brainstorming session and then were encouraged to give lightning talks to pitch our ideas. Some of these had clearly been planned in advance and were well thought out with a good knowledge of the available data...others were loose ideas sparked off that morning that morphed and took shape as the project teams were formed around them.

The ideas that we pitched and worked on (food_chain and Energy Cast) definitely fell in the latter category, but the self-organising teams managed to do an amazing amount in a short time to present prototype solutions by the end of day 2.

The jellyfish hackers on team JellyStrike led by Centre for Ecology and Hydrology's (CEH) Tom Redd were catch of the day taking overall first prize and winning development support for the next 100 days, but - as at a school sports day - most teams managed to come away with at least one prize (best 2D visualisation, best mobile app etc).

Some of the other ideas were:
  • food_chain - connecting surplus produce e.g. from allotments, to food charities and businesses to reduce food waste.
  • Energy Cast - a weather-forecast and machine learning informed green energy app to help match domestic energy supply with energy consumption.
  • ShowMeTheNature - putting people in touch with green space, an app to rate the quality of the green space near to you using the metrics of your choice, with user-feedback.
  • CHARM - a self-learning data system to allow users to enrich environmental data by adding annotations, use cases and key metrics to make more sense of our data-rich world.

Why no geological data ? Well, independently of this event BGS had already started implementing ideas based on the same principles as EnviroHack. For example:
  • aligning our geochemical sampling datasets with those of CEH and British Oceanographic Data Centre (BODC) so that chemical pollutants can be tracked from source to sea
  • aggregating worldwide soil data in the BGS mySoil app
  • optimising the use of national scale datasets in Natural Capital Mapping (see the  CEH/BGS academic paper here)

The original idea for Energy Cast could have included various datasets available for assessment of Ground Source Heat Pump potential, but the hackers preferred the wow factor of presenting dynamic datasets (and who can blame them with an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset to compete for?!). It’s true many of BGS’s open datasets describing the subsurface are static, but they can provide the framework that determines the movement of fluids underground and are so important for many of today’s critical issues.  As an organisation we are increasingly dealing with time series monitoring data and outputs from process models, and we need to work on making all those open and accessible where appropriate so that other developers and data scientists can make use of them.

We also learnt a lot about how other people approach and solve software problems, got ideas about how we might apply machine learning, made a lot of good contacts and had a load of fun. 

What did the organisers learn ? That even though lots of datasets are available it still took them a lot of time and effort to find out what was out there and how to get hold of it, and even then the size and complexity of the data can inhibit its usage. BGS was held up as a great example of making data open and accessible but we still have far to go and it’s something we are continuously improving.

Rachel, Stephanie and Anuhba

How much shale gas lies beneath our feet… by Dr Clement Uguna

Dr Clement Uguna at work in the laboratory
Most people these days will have heard of shale gas.  It’s the unconventional gas stored within fine grained mud rocks and its extraction has been hitting the UK headlines over the last couple of years. Dr Clement Uguna, a new Research Fellow at the British Geological Survey and the University of Nottingham, is pioneering research into answering questions about how much gas lies beneath our feet...
My research, within the Organic Geochemistry Laboratory and Centre for Environmental Geochemistry, focuses on understanding the fundamental mechanisms through which gas is generated and retained within deeply buried rocks in the UK and overseas.
Although the amount of research on shale gas has vastly increased during the past decade, the mechanism of how shale gas is actually generated and how it is retained within shale is not properly understood. Shale gas is dry and composed mainly of the fossil fuel methane, and we know it is formed at high temperatures and pressures deep in the subsurface. What we really need to know though is whether the amount of methane generated is greater at particular depths (temperatures and pressures) in the Earth.

Dr Clement Uguna between his team members
(left) Prof Colin Snape (right) Dr Christopher Vane
A few studies have so far investigated the  process of gas formation by analysing natural shale rocks or used 'pyrolysis' techniques but have not replicated subsurface conditions to simulate gas generation.  I have devised a specialised experimental technique (called high water pressure pyrolysis) that does closely replicate subsurface conditions beneath us to simulate shale gas generation as a function of the temperature and depths under the Earth subsurface. I can then calculate the amounts of methane and other hydrocarbon gases generated from my experiments which will be significant in improving the assessment of gas stored at different depths across the UK (and this varies a lot).

Overall my aim is to better understand the amount of gas in the shales buried deep under the UK, and then others can decide on whether extraction is economically viable.
Dr Clement Uguna at work in the laboratory
By Clement

Clement is a Research Fellow within the Centre for Environmental Geochemistry at the British Geological Survey and the University of Nottingham where he is working with a team including Prof Colin Snape, Dr Christopher Vane, Dr Will Meredith and Vicky Moss-Hayes.

For more details have a look at Clements recent paper: Uguna, C.N., Carr, A.D., Snape, C.E., Meredith, W. 2015. High pressure water pyrolysis of coal to evaluate the role of pressure on hydrocarbon generation and source rock maturation at high maturities under geological conditions. Organic Geochemistry. 78, 44-51.