Friday, 31 July 2015

Dinosaurs and disasters: a summer of Kirstin Lemon

With the school holidays upon us, there is the usual plethora of movies to see in the cinema, all in a vain bid to cash in on poor unsuspecting parents that are trying to keep the kids entertained. Super heroes and strange yellow creatures are all popular but, it is the dinosaurs and earthquakes that are proving to be the box office smashes. But just how accurate are these movies with regards to their scientific content and are they providing misinformation to a media-driven society.

Let's start with San Andreas. We all know the name San Andreas, it's probably the only fault that everyone knows by name, so there's no prizes for guessing that this movie is about earthquakes. The general story line is that a number of seismologists make a breakthrough in earthquake prediction whilst visiting the Hoover Dam in southern California. Rather coincidentally, a previously unknown fault ruptures triggering a magnitude 7.1 earthquake causing the dam to collapse, killing one of them in the process. It turns out that this is just the beginning of a series of events that occur all along the San Andreas Fault system including a huge magnitude 9.1 earthquake that destroys pretty much all of southern California, and ends with a monstrous tsunami that devastates San Francisco Bay.

Real earthquake damage in Oakland, California
So what about the science; is any of this actually possible? First of all, we all know that this fault system exists, but it is not capable of producing earthquakes of such a high magnitude. San Andreas is a strike-slip fault, meaning that two plates are moving past each other horizontally. Generally, they don't build up as much stress as other types of fault so it is unlikely that it would get above magnitude 7 or 8. Secondly, strike-slip faults are not generally capable of generating tsunamis, and certainly not ones of the size seen in the movie. This scale of tsunami requires a subduction zone, when one plate is being forced downwards into the mantle, causing huge earthquakes. When this occurs far out at sea, the water above is displaced and a tsunami can be generated. The list could go on but I think you're getting the point.

Now let's move on to Jurassic World. It was one of the most hotly anticipated movies of the year, being a sequel to Jurassic Park that was released back in 1993 (there were a couple in between but it's best not to talk about them). The story now is that after the disastrous attempt at opening Jurassic Park, the owners have worked out all the problems and have opened Jurassic World, the first dinosaur-based theme park. All of the old favourites are there Stegosaurus, Tyrannosaurus, Ankylosaurus, baby Triceratops (aw, how cute) and of course the dinosaur that everyone loves to hate, the Velociraptor. It is also revealed that the Jurassic World scientists have been breeding genetically-engineered dinosaurs who of course turn out to be lethal and wreak havoc on the park.

Artists impression of a Velociraptor (restraining an Oviraptor)
There is obviously a happy ending, it's Hollywood after all, but what about the science in Jurassic World? Well first of all, the name is a bit of a sore point as many of the dinosaurs that feature in the movie didn't live during the Jurassic period at all, and were in fact from the Late Cretaceous. Secondly, the Velociraptor would actually have been the size of a turkey when they were alive and would have been covered in feathers. The Tyrannosaurus would likely have had feathers too but this wasn't shown in the movie either. One of the new additions to Jurassic World was the the mososaur, a huge marine reptile that was portrayed to be almost twice its actual size. Again, the list goes on but you're getting the picture.

So the general consensus is that accurate science is lacking in the majority of the movies that are released in our cinemas. We all know that Hollywood needs to make jaw-dropping, fast-paced, non-stop action movies, otherwise they don't sell so they have to stretch a few truths. But is there anything really wrong with that?

One of the unexpected consequences of San Andreas is an increase in the awareness of earthquakes in California. It is estimated that only one-tenth of people living there are prepared for a large earthquake. Since the movie was released it has got people talking and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has teamed up with the producers to create a multi-media campaign that focuses on earthquake preparedness.

The majority of geologists are drawn in at an early age by the exciting elements of the science; mostly earthquakes, volcanoes and of course dinosaurs. As a young girl, I can still remember watching Jurassic Park back in 1993 and was completely blown away. It inspired me to become a scientist and I am sure I am not the only one. Jurassic World is now doing the same and as I sat in the cinema and looked round at the sea of young faces, including my two young children, it is apparent that a whole new generation of scientists has been born as a result.

Looking for fossils: inspiring the next generation of scientists
I know there will be purists that read this who think that the inaccurate science and the misinformation provided by Hollywood is damaging to the science of geology, but personally I think that we should be thankful. In our digital age there is no mechanism more powerful to spread the message of disaster preparedness or to inspire the next generation than the silver screen, and the obvious social media frenzy that these then generate. I think that if you ask the majority of geologists what inspired them to take their chosen career path, the answers may be unsurprisingly similar to my own.

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Do a few sand grains reveal the 'lost' mid-Cretaceous deserts of North Africa? Andy Newell

Quartz grain imaged by a scanning electron microscope
The image to the right might look like a NASA image of some distant planet but it is actually a grain of sand recovered from a deep borehole in the Sahara desert of central Algeria. The quartz grain, magnified many times using a scanning electron microscope, comes from the 'Continental Intercalaire', a thick unit of sandstones, mudstones and carbonates which lies below much of the Sahara desert. Vast quantities of groundwater are stored within the Continental Intercalaire deposits.

This quartz grain, like many others within the Continental Intercalaire in central Algeria, is interesting because the corners have been well rounded, leaving distinctive broad, bulbous grain edges. Such rounding of quartz grains is nearly always associated with aeolian transport, where sand grains bounce along in the wind and many high-energy impacts polish and round the grain edges. However, the Continental Intercalaire of North Africa is normally considered to have been deposited by rivers, deltas, and lagoons in a marginal marine setting.

Geologists at work in the Sahara desert of central Algeria 
Our work at Krechba (In Salah) in central Algeria (see map) has clearly shown the existence of ancient rivers in the Lower Cretaceous Continental Intercalaire.

Map of the study area, Krechba (In Salah) in central Algeria

3D seismic images showing the sinuous river channels
(indicated by yellow arrows)
These are spectacularly shown in 3D seismic images as sinuous river channels (indicated by yellow arrows) which, during the lowermost Cretaceous meandered lazily across what is now the Sahara Desert.

However, in an overlying unit we call the Krechba Formation (see the borehole correlation below) the channels disappear and the deposit is dominated by weakly-consolidated sands (shown by the yellow colour) that show convincing microscopic evidence for wind-blown transport.

Borehole information showing the correlation of the sandstones (shown in yellow) across the study area
This seems to point toward a major change of environment in the mid-Cretaceous of central Algeria, from lush river floodplains in the In Salah Formation to an arid desert represented by the Krechba Formation, possibly similar to the modern Sahara. On a global scale, this can probably be related to the initial opening of the South Atlantic Ocean in the mid-Cretaceous which caused a major reorganisation of climatic zones, with the initial establishment of a hot arid belt across northern Africa. While this was likely to have been detrimental to life in the Sahara region during the mid-Cretaceous it is actually of high benefit in the context of the Continental Intercalaire today and its vital role as an aquifer. Thick piles of aeolian sand and sandstone happen to provide enormous amounts of space or porosity for the storage of water and an understanding of the depositional environment of the Continental Intercalaire has important implications for estimating the size and long-term sustainability of this vital resource.

Further details on the work are available in the journal 'Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology'. 'The Cretaceous Continental Intercalaire in central Algeria: subsurface evidence for a fluvial to aeolian transition and implications for the onset of aridity on the Saharan Platform' by Andrew Newell, Gary Kirby, James Sorensen and Antoni Milodowski found at 

Friday, 24 July 2015

Caves hold clues to past climate... by Laura Deeprose

Laura entering the cave; getting in and out is a tight squeeze!
Often people look at stalagmites and stalactites within caves and admire their strange shapes and fascinating formations. However, the slow and systematic growth of these cave deposits, referred to as speleothems, can also reveal a vast amount of information about climate from hundreds of thousands of years ago to the modern day. Speleothems are formed by water from rainfall moving through the soil, bedrock and then into the cave. The chemistry of these drip waters reflects the climatic and environmental conditions of the time and therefore the chemistry of speleothems can be analysed to reconstruct past climatic and environmental changes over time. Here Laura Deeprose, a PhD student with Lancaster University and the British Geological Survey tells us more about her exciting research…

My PhD project is focussed on producing a record of past climatic and environmental change between 50,000 – 30,000 years ago in the northern Iberian Peninsula. It was during this period that the last Neanderthals disappeared from our planet and it is believed by some that their demise was related to changes in climate. During this time period a series of abrupt and severe climatic events are known to have occurred across the Northern Hemisphere. These events, known as Heinrich Events, led to widespread cooling and aridity across the Northern Hemisphere, with each event lasting approximately 1000 years. 
Perlas Cave is home to countless
stalagmites and stalactites

Speleothem sample from Perlas Cave after being cut at BGS
Currently, there are few climate reconstructions from areas where the last Neanderthals survived, such as the Iberian Peninsula and those that do exist don't have a high enough resolution to assess the climatic and environmental impacts associated with these events. A key advantage of using speleothems in palaeoclimate reconstruction is their potential to be accurately dated by uranium-series dating. Uranium is dissolved into solution as water moves through the bedrock and incorporated into speleothem calcite during growth. The subsequent radioactive decay of the uranium to thorium acts like a radioactive clock and can provide us with an accurate and precise age for a given layer of calcite within a speleothem.

After nine months of working on this project I have established a cave monitoring regime in Cueva de las Perlas (northern Iberia) to determine how the climate signal is being transferred into modern speleothem calcite. In addition, I have drilled and sampled numerous speleothems for uranium-series dating. After the dates come back we will select speleothems of appropriate age for further geochemical analyses including oxygen and carbon isotopes, further uranium-series dating and trace elements. All the geochemistry is being done at the British Geological Survey.

Laura is a PhD student at Lancaster University, supervised by Dr Peter Wynn and Prof Phil Barker and at the BGS supervised by Prof Melanie Leng and Dr Stephen Noble


Monday, 20 July 2015

The week we raised a glass to ArcIMS

Last week we raised a glass to ArcIMS as we turned off the software that quite literally put the BGS website on the map. We launched GeoIndex fifteen years ago, almost to the day, thanks to the ESRI ArcIMS web mapping software that enabled organisations like ourselves to serve maps across the internet.  It revolutionised our ability to deliver maps and other spatial data online. GeoIndex provides a map-based index to our geoscience data holdings, enabling users anywhere in the world to discover what information we hold for their area of interest from the comfort of their home, office or when in the field. Over the last 180 years, BGS has amassed vast data assets relating to many areas of geoscience (geological mapping, site investigations, geochemistry, geophysics, minerals, groundwater, geohazards and much more).  Our archive of over 1 million spatially referenced borehole records is one of our most well-used resources with over 50,000 scanned records downloaded every month.

An early version of GeoIndex built using ESRI ArcIMS

OpenGeoscience provides access to a range of similar web viewers that allow users to view, pan, zoom and interrogate interactive maps on a range of topics including London's soil geochemistry, groundwater levels over time and seabed samples.  Our most popular map viewer is 'Geology of Britain', which receives up to 40,000 visitors per month.

Geology of Britain viewer.  This allows you to explore the geology of Britain.

This has led on to the development of mobile apps for iphone, ipad and Android. We created the iGeology app, which allows people to find their current location using GPS and discover the geology under their feet.  The app has been downloaded over 250,000 times.

iGeology is a free smartphone app helping you to discover the landscape beneath your feet.

For those familiar with GIS, we offer several of our data archives as web services that can be integrated into other systems.  Third party organisations can take advantage of these services to combine geological data with their own data and gain fresh insight into their land and property assets.

Our newest solution is the augmented reality iGeology 3D for Android.  Highly innovative, this mobile app utilises the GPS, camera, tilt sensor, compass and motion detector functions on tablets to create a 3D scene of the landscape in which a person is standing – and then layer geological data on top of this scene.  As the person moves, the data displayed synchronises with the changing view.  

ArcIMS also facilitated commercial innovations such as GeoReports, released back in 2002, providing site specific ground condition reports to aid those interested in drilling, investigation, house purchase or for those concerned about subsidence or Radon.

An early version of GeoReports built using ESRI ArcIMS.

The Groundhog system enables the interrogation of 3D geological models of the subsurface, creating virtual boreholes, cross-sections and horizontal sections.

These web-based GIS services developed by BGS make it easier for people to discover and use geological data. They substantially increase the number of people using our resources, and help us reach a wider demographic. Their ease-of-use means that people don't necessarily have to have specialist knowledge and software to be able to view and use geological maps. We hope this increased use of our data resources will bring long-term advantages for the whole country by stimulating new commercial projects and businesses that will benefit the economy as a whole.

Whilst the use of ArcIMS within BGS has now been replaced by the latest innovations in web mapping technology, it will be remembered for its role in ushering in a new era of online spatial data delivery.

Friday, 3 July 2015

The BGS Open Day - 27 June 2015

Iain Stewart gets captured in 3D!
The BGS 2015 Open Day was held in Keyworth, Nottingham on Saturday 27th June. This year, not only did we have our very own staff on site demonstrating their science, we also had staff from our sister centres (British Antarctic Survey, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, National Oceanography Centre, National Centre for Atmospheric ScienceNational Centre for Earth Observation and of course NERC) to help NERC celebrate their 50 year anniversary.

'William Smith'
We had fantastic warm, sunny weather on the day, the ice cream stall sold out, our talks and tours were full, geological treasure was hunted, children with scary dinosaur faces explored and everyone had a brilliant day.

William "Strata" Smith (aka BGS's David Bate) and Prof Iain Stewart (who just happened to be at BGS for a meeting) were our stars of the day!

See below for round ups of the Open Day from both BGS staff and some of our visitors.  Don't forget to look at the Photobooth photos, you might just see yourself being chased by a dinosaur!.

Talking Science! By Sarah Nice   

"Just taking my inflatable dino for a walk"
 As well as the plethora of exhibits and tours at the Open Day there was a series of comprehensive talks held in our De La Beche conference Suite.  The day kicked off with our Executive Director, John Ludden, giving an introduction of who BGS are and what we’ve been up to.  John then introduced Dr Julia (Jules) West who gave a fascinating talk on “Fukushima – four years on” and the work that she has been involved with in the clean-up operation in Japan.  The talk raised some really interesting questions from the audience about nuclear power and how to keep it as safe as we can.

Next up was Dr Chris Vane, who’s talk on “Muddy Molecules” was about - you’ve guessed it – mud, and how it can help us to find oil and gas, predict catastrophic events and understand the earth’s climate.  Chris talked about  his work which has taken him to far flung corners of the globe.  From taking sediments samples in the river Thames, to mud samples from mangrove swamps Chris’s talk really hit home just how varied the work at BGS can be.  Chris explained all of this with a terrific sense of humour which the audience really appreciated, even down to looking at the organic make up of poo!

Dave Tappin then took to the stage to ask us the question “Did a catastrophic tsunami wipe out the Minoans?” where he presented an in depth background to the 1500 BC events on the demise of the Minoans that forms the basis for a new research proposal that will solve an enigma that has challenged science for 70 years. With breath-taking photos of Santorini, and using evidence from Krakatoa, Dave really helped the audience understand the importance of trying to understand past catastrophic events.

Leanne Hughes teaches field mapping
Our Director of Science and Technology, Mike Stephenson, then talked to the audience about “Why it’s great to be a Geologist in the 21st century”. His talk, aimed to inspire the next generation of geologists, covered the work we do at BGS from earthquakes to landslides, mapping to energy and volcanoes to groundwater flooding. He ended his talk by highlighting the importance of geology in helping to cut the amount of carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere by considering carbon capture and storage, nuclear energy (and the storage of radioactive waste) and other renewable sources of energy. His talk should definitely have got the younger members of the audience thinking about taking up geology as a future career option, if nothing else for the wonderful photos that Mike showed us on his travels as a geologist!

Last, but definitely not least, Leanne Hughes gave the final talk of the day, entitled “Mapping rocks. How we collect our geological data”. Leanne took us through the various stages of geological mapping, from fieldwork and actual real life “mapping” (with loads of cool photos), to compiling the data collected in the field to making cutting edge 3D geological models and maps. Leanne explained all of this in a fun and easy to understand way, demonstrating to our audience that mapping really does rock.

Purple ... by Gemma Nash

That poor old Blackberry is really tough!
In the purple tent, many happy children went home with an iron pyrite sample after they panned for fools gold; the minerals team smashed up mobile phones to show all the rare earth elements enclosed within; mini wind turbines were built out of paper and pencils to be tested for foundation conditions and CCS was demonstrated using chocolate, milk and balloons! All the while the London Volcano rumbled and smoked in the background.

Blue ... by Mike Ackroyd

I spent an extremely enjoyable day on the BGS Groundwater exhibit on Saturday as part of the Open Day. Our displays and activities were intended to entertain and inform both the kids and their parents. Whilst mum and dad were able to see examples of fluid flow process at depth on exhibits overseen by the groundwater experts I was able to have fun showing the kids the BGS global water cycle model. They had fun filling their sponge clouds with evaporated water from the sea, raining on the mountains, watching the water run-off into the rivers and flow back to the sea. Then the kids pumped water from the aquifers, treated it at the water works and then wracked their brains to think of all the ways it can be used in their homes before it was cleaned again and returned to the rivers. It’s fair to say that some of the kids left us not only slightly wetter than when they arrived but hopefully slightly better informed.


BGS Earth Observation and 3D technologies for volcano monitoring ... by Francesca Cigna & Deodato Tapete

As part of BGS' Volcanoes stand, this year we designed exciting demos, virtual 3D tours and volcano hunts using Earth Observation data and GeoVisionary, to discover volcanoes of central and southern Italy that the public could even touch via printed 3D models!
Whilst little kids were captivated by ancient myths of Cyclops and giants living within active volcanoes, grown-ups got engaged with remote sensing technologies to gather objective evidence of volcanic activity and associated hazards.

As soon as they grasped our science, people acknowledged the public benefits of having BGS geoscientists working on volcano hazards in densely populated areas.

Many visitors came back for a second round of activities and demos at the end of their visit – unafraid at all to turn the Earth upside down with the 3D mouse!

 BGS' Volcanoes Stand ... by Lorraine Field

3D view of Mount Etna (Italy) in GeoVisionary
To complement the Earth Observation and Volcano Hazard parts of the BGS' Volcanoes stand, we had posters giving a basic introduction to volcanoes, different eruptions and the rocks they produce. A wide range of rocks were set out for people to handle: everything from volcanic bombs to gabbros. The different varieties of obsidian and the pumices were particularly popular with the kids. The adult visitors were especially fascinated by the Eyjafjallajökull ash, and that it was this fine, innocent, grey powder that caused so many problems! One enthusiastic little girl had even brought her rock identification book with her and went through every rock on display, reading out the entries to her very patient father.

We also had a microscope set up so that we could show what scientists can discover from the crystals within the rocks. Many people came back two or three times to compare what appeared to be a 'boring' basalt in a hand specimen with the corresponding thin section with its brightly coloured crystals!

BGS Volcano Hazards ... by Katy Mee

Also on the BGS Volcanoes stand, visitors could learn about the many different hazards produced by volcanoes from lava flows, pyroclastic density currents (PDCs) and volcanic mud flows (lahars), to volcanic gases and ash clouds. Examples from previous eruptions in Montserrat, St. Vincent and the Grenadines and Colombia showed the true devastation that can be caused by some of these hazards, particularly the high speeds and enormous power produced by PDCs and lahars. Visitors also learnt about a multi-disciplinary, collaborative project that BGS is involved with trying to increase resilience to natural hazards in volcanic environments of Ecuador, Colombia and the eastern Caribbean.

The kids loved having a go at recreating the volcano hazard map for Nevado del Ruiz volcano, Colombia by squirting a sticky concoction of watered-down golden syrup over a 3D model of the volcano. And another 3D model of Soufrière St. Vincent volcano (St. Vincent and the Grenadines) was overlain by an ash 'veil' which demonstrated how different parts of the island might be covered by thinner or thicker deposits of ash during an eruption, depending on which way the wind was blowing.

Yellow ...

Hook a dino... by Denise Langley

The hook-a-dino proved a great success with our younger visitors (and a few of the not-so-young ones too!).   The dinos had more of a cute factor than any real scientific authenticity – although this didn’t stop the children from having a good go at identifying the one that they had successfully hooked!  Some of the very small children were more interested in the balls and splashing about in the water – but who could blame them?!

Maps and apps ... by Patrick Bell

Over in ‘maps and apps’, visitors where fascinated to discover the vast range of datasets BGS hold and were delighted to receive a free personalised GeoReport describing the geology of their house, its natural ground stability and its liability to flooding.  Younger visitors wowed their parents by demonstrating their hitherto unrevealed spatial awareness as they used the BGS Geology of Britain website and iGeology app to navigate around their area to pinpoint where they live. I thought one mother was going to drive her 5 year old straight down to Southampton for a job with OS as he panned around the aerial image of the Vale of Belvoir naming all the villages!

National Oceanography Centre ... by Lauren Noakes

Showcasing some of our latest discoveries at the BGS Keyworth Open Day allowed us to bring Oceanography to an eager and excited new audience. We introduced Heti the Yeti Crab (pictured) and our 'Exploring Ocean Fronts' displays to big and little kids alike. The whole day was extremely good fun and it was great to be there with our other sister research centres celebrating the NERC 50th Anniversary. Thanks to the amazing staff at BGS for having us and an even bigger thanks to the hundreds of visitors who chatted to us and tried to 'Beat the Cube'! For more news about our research and discoveries keep in touch via @NOCNews