Sunday, 31 May 2015

The Rock Whisperers: tales from the Lyme Regis Fossil Festival ... by Kirstin Lemon

Horace the travelling Plesiosaur cinema. Just one of
the attractions at the Lyme Regis Fossil Festival. 
The first bank holiday weekend in May usually means planning barbecues, family outings and other relaxing pastimes. But for a team of dedicated scientists from the British Geological Survey it meant something completely different; it was time for the Lyme Regis Fossil Festival!

This popular festival attracts over 10,000 people to Lyme Regis, arguably one of the UK's most important fossil localities. The significance of this Dorset coastal town doesn't stop there though, and in 2001 the entire Jurassic Coast was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its contribution to the study of earth science. It is now one of only two sites in the UK to receive such a status because of their geology.

Lyme Regis is therefore a natural choice for a festival dedicated to all things 'fossil' and those that attended weren't disappointed. The activities on offer included walks, talks, theatre, music, comedy, exhibits and of course lots of hands-on science!

Clive Mitchell showing off the Climate Through Time map.
The theme of the festival was 'Mapping The Earth', to celebrate the 200th Anniversary of William Smith's geological map. In keeping with the theme, the BGS stand was based on an interactive Climate Through Time map. This allowed people to explore the links between our planet's changing climate and the different rocks that formed as these environmental conditions varied through geological time. This was all supported by some giant Lego and some handy rock sets.

So on a cold and blustery Friday, the Grand Marquee on the beach at Lyme Regis became a hive of activity as dozens of schools from the surrounding area joined us for the Schools Day. It was a bit of a baptism of fire for those of us that had never attended the festival before, but we quickly got into our stride, exploring the geology of the British Isles with the hundreds of school children that came to see us. Many of the kids already knew a good deal about geology, but there were quite a few that didn't so we got to work in explaining how diverse our geology is and exactly what some of our rocks look like. If the 'oohs and aahs' were anything to go by, we've hopefully inspired a few geologists of the future.

Exploring the geology of the British Isles
with local school children.
The next two days were open to the public and out of the thousands of people that came into the Grand Marquee, we must have talked to the majority of them. The huge variety of people that attended the Fossil Festival meant that we are able to explain what BGS does, introduce them to our iGeology app, talk about the William Smith map, as well as carrying on using the interactive Climate Through Time map.

The feedback was amazing with many people commenting that after visiting us they knew a lot more about the geology of where they live as well as about many of their favourite places in the British Isles. And of course we had a few comments about the very friendly and knowledgeable BGS staff!

We weren't alone in the festivities and were joined in the Grand Marquee by scientists from organisations such as the Natural History Museum, British Antarctic Survey, National Oceanography Centre, Palaeontological Association, Geological Society, and Rockwatch. They were accompanied by exploding volcanoes, crinoid-making workshops, make your own dinosaur footprints sessions as well as a CSI Jurassic Coast activity. The huge number of different activities on offer meant that the Grand Marquee was literally a hands-on science centre for the duration of the Fossil Festival.

The Lyme Regis Fossil Festival takes place annually on the first bank holiday in May. For more information see

If you would like your very own Climate Through Time map you can download it as a PDF for FREE here.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Chromium in crops... by Elliott Hamilton

Elliott Hamilton (right) sampling with partners from CBU and ZARI
Chromium, the 22nd most abundant element in our Earth's crust, takes many different forms. Some of these forms, or 'species', pose a risk to human health so it's important to know where they're created and how they move through the soil into crops. Elliott Hamilton's fieldwork in Africa is focused on the mechanics of agricultural practices and the knock-on impact of soil-crop transfer of harmful Chromium species....  

In November 2014, barely a month into my part-time PhD, I visited Africa for the first time with Michael Watts and Murray Lark to undertake fieldwork in the Copperbelt region of Zambia.

Sample logging
The aim of my PhD research is to improve the understanding of chromium species transfer into crops from soils in close proximity to mine tailings in the Copperbelt region of Zambia and whether agricultural practices, such as liming or organic reincorporation have an impact on the bioavailability of these different chemical forms.

Chromium exists in the environment as trivalent (Cr(III)) and hexavalent (Cr(VI)) forms. Cr(III) plays a role in the metabolism of carbohydrate, fat and protein. Cr(VI) is released primarily through industrial processes such as wood preservation and leather tanning, it is toxic and a known carcinogen. Cr(VI) is also more mobile in the environment, with common soil parameters such as pH and soil organic carbon (SOC) dictating species distribution and bioavailability.

The Black Mountain, Kitwe
As a result of large-scale exploitation of rich copper deposits within the Copperbelt region of Zambia since the turn of the 20th Century, a number of contaminant exposure studies on mine tailing and metal smelters and the subsequent risk to human health have been undertaken (Ettler 2014; Ikenaka 2010; Ndilila 2014).

These studies focused predominantly on the metals mined, such as copper, cobalt and zinc, with little attention devoted to chromium and its species. The vicinity of Kitwe was chosen for a preliminary sampling campaign undertaken in November 2014 to establish chromium concentrations at a number of sites in close proximity to mine tailings, with a view to carrying out crop trials and species kinetics experiments in parallel with experiments undertaken during a recently funded RS-DFID project (see Michael Watts blog "Geochemisty brings societal benefits ...").

The fieldwork was carried out with partners from the Zambian Agricultural Research Institute (ZARI), Copperbelt University (CBU) and the University of Zambia (UNZA). Four locations were sampled, within half a mile of a tailings heap or smelter. To understand variation at different spatial scales, a nested sampling design was implemented (discussed in more detail in Murray’s blog “Random variables and field sampling”). The laboratory analysis of the soils is now complete; once the data have been interpreted in the context of the sample design I’ll have a better understanding of the spatial variation to plan future sampling and experimental plots with greater efficiency.

A smelter in Kalulushi
The next few months will involve the development and optimisation of analytical methodology for extracting and quantifying the different chromium species in solid matrices, and the use of pot experiments to investigate the physical chemistry dictating the transfer of chromium species from soil to crop; the results of these will ultimately lead to a better understanding of the impact of agricultural practices on soil-crop transfer of Cr(VI). These are the references used in the blog...

Ettler, V., M. Vítková, et al. (2014). "Dust from Zambian smelters: mineralogy and contaminant bioaccessibility." Environmental Geochemistry and Health 36(5): 919-933.
Ikenaka, Y., S. Nakayama, et al. (2010). "Heavy metal contamination of soil and sediment in Zambia." African Journal of Environmental Science and Technology 4(11).
Ndilila, W., A. C. Callan, et al. (2014). "Environmental and toenail metals concentrations in copper mining and non mining communities in Zambia." International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health 217(1): 62-69.

Abandoned mines provide low carbon heating... by Gareth Farr

New 3D Geological model of the South Wales coalfield (Andy Hulbert)
Gareth Farr from BGS in Wales has been discovering how abandoned mines in South Wales could once again be used to supply energy. Mine waters in flooded workings can be passed through a heat exchanger, producing hot water to heat homes and offices. The technology has been proven at a test site in South Wales and offers a secure, low carbon alternative to traditional fossil fuels....
At the BGS we've been working with Cardiff University and WDS Green Energy Ltd on the ‘Seren’ project supported by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF).

Seren has been aimed at helping businesses find new opportunities by developing innovative engineering technologies to exploit geo-energy. One of these opportunities that has been investigated by the BGS and Cardiff University is the potential for exploiting geothermal energy from mine-waters in the South Wales Coalfield.
Measuring mine water temperature and chemistry at the inflow to a treatment lagoon with Dr Siva Sadasivam (Cardiff University)

We undertook a program of temperature monitoring temperature and chemistry of mine waters, which has accompanied creation of a new 3D geological model of the coalfield and developing a new coal properties database populated by capturing many thousands of historical coal analysis records. The commercial partners have installed a working GSHP system into abandoned mine workings.

Ground source heating relies on the recovery of low grade heat energy from the earth or from groundwater, with the energy being harvested using a ground source heat pump (GSHP). There is little use for mine waters as they are often below drinking water standards, however the large volumes of water could offer a potential source of low grade heat. In the South Wales area it is estimated that as much as 2000 – 3000 litres per second is still being pumped or drained from old mine workings.

WDS Green Energy Ltd have installed a working GSHP system into abandoned mine workings as part of this project. The system is working well, heating a large property and several outbuildings. This photograph shows some of the above ground workings.
To assess this potential we installed temperature monitors where water flows out of the abandoned mines. The temperature was recorded every 30 minutes and by the end of the project we had collected over 300,000 individual temperature readings. We found that many of the mine waters had temperatures above that of ‘normal’ groundwater (~11°C) and offered an exciting potential for use with GSHPs.

Combining what we had learnt about the temperatures of mine waters with information collected by the Coal Authority on the volumes of water leaving the mines we were able to estimate that there was potential to generate enough energy to heat 20,000 homes. This estimate is based on sites where data has been collected so the real potential is likely to be much greater.

Temperatures of mine water discharges measured every 30 minutes over a one year period
To prove this concept our commercial partners WDS Green Energy Ltd installed a real GSHP system into flooded mine working and have been successfully providing heating energy for a large house and outbuildings in South Wales.

Seren has shown that there is considerable potential to use mine waters as a source of heating, providing energy security, reduction in carbon emissions and reducing reliance on traditional fossil fuels.
by Gareth

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Managing Malawi's spatial data ... by Carl Watson

CSCUK fellows collecting field samples in
Devon, Salome Mkandawire (left) and
Grace Manzeke (right)
Salome Mkandawire, a GIS expert from the Malawi government Surveys Department, has just spent a busy month training with Carl Watson, a Systems Developer & Analyst at the BGS. Their aim was to share good data practice and information management experience as well as research international standards for spatial metadata. Here Carl explains why BGS is a leader in these fields and asks Salome how this CSCUK Professional Fellowship is helping the National Spatial Data Centre in Malawi...

Salome is one of two Fellowships visiting BGS via funding from the Commonwealth Scholarship Council (CSCUK) gained through the combined BGS-University of Nottingham Centre for Environmental Geochemistry. Grace Manzeke from the University of Zimbabwe is the other Fellowship and will follow-up soon with another blog on her experience. 

Salome was motivated to come to BGS and learn about our practices because of recent developments in the Malawian geospatial community,
"In Malawi we are setting up the National Spatial Data Centre (NSDC) which will be the data bank for spatial data. The NSDC is important for facilitating seamless data development, information sharing, and collaborative decision making across multiple sectors of the economy.

The National Spatial Data Centre should have well trained staff in different areas of Geographical Information systems and Web GIS, Information management, Metadata creation and also human resource management."

My first objective when organising the training programme was to make sure Salome experienced the wide range of activities carried out by the BGS and partners. I arranged a series of meetings with experts who could describe their roles in the data management workflow, from field data capture through to public dissemination of spatial knowledge built on well structured, fully managed data.
Over the four weeks we spent time talking to data verification and information management officers, observed how the physical and digital records were managed and even fitted in a couple of field trips to Devon and Derbyshire to experience how important it is to collect and describe data correctly.
High level data model for metadata, taken from
Database design principles and best practice was covered by walking through BGS examples and corporate documentation and supplemented by the book ‘Database Systems: A Practical Approach to Design, Implementation and Management’ by Connolly and Begg.

With the help of BGS experts and online resources (see external links listed at the end of the article) we explored why data centres need to take metadata seriously. By walking through documented standards on spatial metadata and logical data models such as that available at we identified what the most important attributes were for Malawian spatial datasets. This work will feed directly into the section of metadata in the NSDC standards document and may even lead to the development of new functionality in the Malawi Spatial Data Portal (MASDAP).
“The Commonwealth Fellowship has enabled the transfer of skills and knowledge relevant to my home country [Malawi] because I have learned the importance of information management, the creation of metadata and systems by seeing how important this is to the British Geological Survey.
I will be able to teach other members of staff in Malawi the importance of managing the various datasets from different organizations which we have at NSDC and the Department of Surveys, this will help to avoid the duplication of efforts and easily find data.
Currently, we are digitizing our analogue data therefore, the training came at the right time as I will help in data management and creation of metadata of all the scanned sheets and digitized maps. The metadata creation for all the physical and non-physical data will be done using knowledge gained.”
This month has illustrated that the BGS has a lot of staff who are very experienced and knowledgeable about all manner of data management issues, we have spent so many years working with and adapting international standards that we almost take it for granted. The CSCUK Professional Fellowship has been a great way to share our knowledge and develop closer relationships with spatial data experts in an interesting part of the world. I hope that the Malawi NSDC is a great success and I’m sure we will work with Salome and her colleagues again in the future.
External links / suggested further reading:
GoGeo, containing training course on metadata.
Previously blogs about BGS work in Malawi.

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Ancient links between climate and vegetation... by Jonathan Dean

Skyline of Minneapolis
Dr Jonathan Dean is part of a new multi-million pound project that hopes to shed new light on the possible links between environmental change and the emergence of our species...

I'm a Post Doctoral Research Assistant based in the Stable Isotope Facility at BGS Keyworth.  In April, myself and 14 other scientists from the UK, Germany and Ethiopia flew out to Minneapolis. We were there to begin our study of half a kilometre of sediment cores that were taken from an ancient lake on the Ethiopian-Kenyan border last year. Our multi-million pound project, funded by NERC, ICDP and German and American funding bodies, aims to help us to understand how climate and vegetation has changed over the past 500,000 years, and is part of a wider project that involved the drilling of 5 lakes across the region. The UK team is led by Prof. Henry Lamb from Aberystwyth University.

Our home for a week, 6 stories underground, at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis
So far, such long-term reconstructions of environmental change from east Africa have been lacking, which means we do not yet understand how the environment changed through the time when our species, and our ancestor species, evolved in the region. Scientists have speculated that environmental changes could have played a role in the timing of our evolution and subsequent dispersal from east Africa, but only when our studies are complete will we be able to test this thoroughly for the first time.

The cores were then split in half lengthways, so we could see the patterns of sediments inside, and so we could take samples for analysis back in our home labs.
The sediment cores are being stored at the world-leading LacCore facility at the University of Minneapolis, where we were able to split open, photograph and scan with instruments to investigate changes in the elements present. We also took samples at intervals along the core; I will analyse mine at Keyworth for oxygen and carbon isotopes, to reconstruct changes in the amount of rainfall over time. Other people took samples to date the cores and to investigate changes in vegetation through time.

Scanning the cores.
So, watch this space over the next few years as we publish our results and shed new light on the possible links between environmental change and the emergence of our species…

Follow me on Twitter @jrdean_uk

Monday, 4 May 2015

Sea Shells on the Sea Bed... by Henrieka Detlef

Henrieka Detlef
Henrieka Detlef is using shells which are over a million years old to reconstruct the different climatic components of the Bering Sea. She's a 1st year PhD student at Cardiff University and a BUFI CASE student at the British Geological Survey studying Paleoclimatology and Marine Geology. Find out from Henrieka why she's so interested in investigating climate systems of the past and how marine sediment cores will unlock the answers...

My PhD project focuses on reconstructing continental ice volume and deep sea hydrography changes, such as oxygen concentrations and temperatures, in the Bering Sea. I am working on the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP) core U1343 from the eastern Bering Sea, which is a unique area with extremely high primary productivity in the surface ocean and an oxygen minimum zone along the continental slope. The Bering Sea today is the gateway between the Pacific and Atlantic Ocean via outflow of Pacific waters through the Bering Strait. During cold stages of at least the past 2 million years continental ice volume increased significantly, causing sea level to fall by up to 130 m. During such events the Bering Strait was exposed and the Pacific Atlantic throughflow was cut-off. Together with other hydrographical and atmospherical changes this caused major shifts of sea ice extent, primary productivity, and ocean circulation in the Bering Sea during glacial intervals.

My research mainly focuses on the Mid-Pleistocene Climate Transition, 1.25 to 0.7 million years ago. During this time the frequency of cold stages changed from 41,000 years to 100,000 years and continental ice volume grew larger during glacial intervals. I plan to unravel the timing of continental ice volume change in the northern hemisphere in combination with deep sea temperature and sea ice shifts to investigate leads and lags of climatic signals and to investigate the influence of sea ice in high northern latitudes on ice sheet build up. Further I plan to look at oxygenation changes of mid-depth waters along the eastern Bering slope and their causes in combination with changes in the ocean’s carbon cycle.

Location map of sediment cores retrieved during IODP cruise 323 in the Bering Sea (red dots). U1343 is located in the eastern Bering slope. (

I plan to mainly use the shell chemistry of benthic foraminifera (little calcareous microfossils living on/in the seafloor) and assemblage changes of dinoflagellate cysts (organic walled cysts of marine protists living in the surface ocean) to reconstruct all the different climatic components.

To begin with I have to make sure that the foraminifera recovered from sediment core U1343 actually record the primary climatic signal and are not influenced by post-depositional carbonate precipitation on the shell or diagenetic recrystallization of the calcium carbonate. Therefore I plan to use a combination of imaging and chemical mapping techniques such as Scanning Electron Microscopy, Laser Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometer (LA-ICP-MS) and solution ICP-MS.
This is where I am at the moment…

I hope you now know a little bit more about me and what I am doing during my PhD project. I will keep you updated on any exciting results 


Hennie is being supervised by Dr Sindia Sosdian, Dr Carrie Leah, Prof Ian Hall (University of Cardiff) and Dr Sev Kender, Prof Melanie Leng (BGS).