Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Gas sampling near Gemma Purser and Tom Barlow

Evening sunshine on Krafla
Preparing to journey into the heart of a volcano...........

This story begins in Iceland back in 2009 during the Iceland deep drilling project (IDDP). The project was established to explore for supercritical geothermal fluids in the area around the Krafla Volcano, Northern Iceland.

Geothermal energy is the ability to harness heat energy carried by hot geothermal fluids which circulate in zones around magma. Geothermal energy contributes to 27 % of Iceland’s total energy supply. Hotter fluids are produced the closer the borehole can be drilled towards this magma with supercritical geothermal borehole producing approx 10 times more energy than conventional wells.

It was intended that the IDDP-1 borehole (the first to be drilled in the project) would be drilled to a depth of 4.5 km, to access the fluids at temperatures of 400°C and above. However at just over 2 km the drill unexpectedly struck the magma chamber directly.

So what does all this have to do with two geochemists from the British Geological Survey?

Recently a project has been developing to re-drill, intentionally, back into the same magma chamber. This will help us to better understand the geochemistry, fluid flow and sealing mechanisms of these geothermal systems. This project, supported by the International continental drilling programme (ICDP) will see international collaboration from scientist undertaking work at Krafla close to the Landsvirkjun power station site. Landsvirkjun, is the national energy company of Iceland and were the hosts during our visit to Iceland.

Gases such as CO2, H2S and Radon are released from geothermal fluids as they circulate from deep underground to nearer the surface. By mapping the location and concentration of gases we can start to build up a picture of the subsurface.

Tom Barlow measuring gas concentration for carbon dioxide, hydrogen sulphide and radon 
For the past two weeks, Tom Barlow and I have been out doing exactly that. We worked with a team of scientists from the Italian national institute of geophysics and volcanology (INGV). We undertook soil gas measurements as part of a baseline survey around the Krafla caldera in an area around the IDDP-1 well and the Viti crater formed from an explosion in 1724. This work will help define the background conditions on the site before the drilling stage of the Krafla Magma Drilling Project (KMDP). The main aim was to complete 3 survey areas, each approx  1 km2 to locate the best position in which to install a permanent Radon monitoring station. Gas flux measurements were taken every 50 metres, gas concentrations every 100 metres and radon gas every 200 metres in a systematic grid pattern. This involved a lot of walking and negotiating the steep and rough terrain of a volcanic landscape. During our work we both spent time answering questions from inquisitive tourists and enjoyed taking the time out to explain more about BGS and the project.

The area over which the soil gas survey gas performed,
showing the steep terrain and gas explosion craters
Despite a couple of setbacks due to poor weather, a strong team effort between BGS and INGV resulted in the production of a final map showing CO2 gas flux, soil temperature and gas concentration maps for all the areas and a potential future site identified for the deployment of permanent radon monitoring equipment.  In addition we took fluids from the natural geothermal pools and drilled geothermal boreholes to get a better understanding of the fluid rock reactions occurring underneath the surface. Tom will now analyse the collected fluids in the BGS inorganic geochemistry facility as part of an inter-lab comparison with INGV in Italy.

Some of you may be interested to know that the word ‘viti’ in Icelandic means ‘hell’ . Given the horizontal rain, single figure temperatures and swarms of the local and infamous Myvatn lake midges at times the trip could have nearly felt like it. However, it was actually a great experience to work in such a stunning landscape and when the bad weather did subside we were treated to one of nature’s most spectacular shows. We were able to watch the northern lights dancing across the sky over the power station at Krafla, just magical!

Iceland was an awesome place in which to undertake fieldwork and it was great to be involved in an international collaboration and work with scientists from INGV at the very beginning of what will be a very novel, ambitious and exciting project of the future. Watch this space for future blog posts...........

The Northern Lilghts over Krafla

Thank you to Landsvirkjun for accommodating us at the site during the entire trip and to Sue Loughlin, BGS Edinburgh and Chris Rochelle, BGS Keyworth for the opportunity.

Monday, 28 September 2015

Seismology, geodynamics and beautiful Rose Hen-Jones

Earlier this month, Newcastle University PhD student Rose headed to Denmark to attend the tenth elite PhD training course at the University of Copenhagen, on using Seismology and Geodynamics to quantify earth's internal processes. Rose tells us all about it...
Nyhavn, the beautiful 17th century waterfront of Copenhagen
Although the topic of my PhD concerns the development of a landslide monitoring system using electrical imaging, I wanted to learn more about seismic imaging methods, and was lucky enough to win a place on this course!
I was initially concerned that my research being heavily civil engineering-based I might have some trouble finding my feet, but the first day kicked off with a fantastic introduction to Geodynamics from Prof. Greg Houseman of Leeds University, and I found everything flooding back from my Geophysics undergraduate degree. The Seismology component of the course was taught by Prof. Rob van der Hilst from MIT, and began with the basic principles of elastic wave propagation. These were then used as the physical basis for seismic tomography applications.
Elastic wave equation - back to undergraduate maths! 

Although the course itself was based around lectures, these were incredibly dynamic and flexible, involving a lot of discussion depending on which topics were raised. Additionally, all of the attendees gave a very brief presentation on their own research, which was fascinating as it helped to showcase the application of what we were all there to learn more about.
The last afternoon was spent engaged in a debate, in which each of two teams had to defend a theory chosen at the start of the course, as well as to present a counter-argument for the other team's point of view. Having presented the evidence for "the lower crust is the strongest part of the continental lithosphere", we then had to witness the other team tear our poor theory to pieces, and then had half an hour in which to come up with a response. I'm not entirely sure who won in the end, but it was fantastic to see everyone come together in the final debate, and the fact of having various different perspectives was key in the development of a coherent argument.
The stunning interior of the Copenhagen Geological Museum
Although the University's Geophysics department is housed within the iconic Geocenter, we were delighted over the course of the week to be hosted in several amazing locations, including the Geological Museum, with the most stunning interior design and breathtaking collections, as well as the Agpalilik meteorite in the museum courtyard – a real treat for a bunch of geophysicists!

The Agpalilik meteorite in the sunshine
The course did indeed keep me very busy during my week in Copenhagen, but we did have some spare time, so I headed to Nyhavn on what happened luckily to be the most beautiful day – all in all not a bad way to spend a week!

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Verticality and the Anthropocene: Politics and law of the Stephanie Bricker

The city and its subterranean environment 
The Geoscience and Society team at the British Geological Survey was invited to co-host a session on Verticality and the Anthropocene with social-science researchers from Lancaster University at this year’s Royal Geographical Society conference. Stephanie Bricker, team leader for Urban Geoscience participated in the event along with BGS’ Hazel Napier, team leader for Geoscience and Society and Michelle Bentham, Energy Geoscientist.  Stephanie explores the ideas emerging from the session and the mix of social perspectives and practical applications…

Let’s start with the final question of the conference session, posed by Dr. Nigel Clark of Lancaster University, What do geo-social futures look like, what do we want from the ground beneath our feet?The Verticality and the Anthropocene session at the RGS-IGB conference saw a merging of perspectives from social scientists and applied geographers to examine ‘the interface between human designs on the subsurface and the malleability of geological formations under both natural and human processes’. Much of the discussion centred on the issue of ownership and governance of the subsurface.  Listening to the speakers, where the historical and philosophical approach to this issue was frequently highlighted, I was reminded of the works of Emerson in Nature and Other Essays(i), where the concept of commodity, property and the visual and theoretical connotations we attach to nature is discussed.

Commodity and Property

The subsurface provides us with resources, a concept known as ‘natural capital’, Emerson referred to this as commodity and rather poetically writes;

‘Under the general name of Commodity, I rank all those advantages which our senses owe to nature. This, of course, is a benefit which is temporary and mediate, not ultimate, like its service to the soul…we explore the steady and prodigal provision that has been made for his support and delight on this green ball which floats him through the heavens…What angels invented these splendid ornaments, these rich conveniences, this ocean of air above, this ocean of water beneath, this firmament of earth between?’

Drilling a groundwater production borehole for
West of Scotland Water, at Machrie, Arran
When it comes to the subsurface we are of course talking about the firmament of the earth between. As applied geologists, when investigating the resources that the ground provides, such as minerals, groundwater and heat, we tend to do so in a very practical manner - we evaluate the amount of resource, the processes involved and the impact of those processes.  We are perhaps therefore more concerned with governance and the legal planning and environmental framework controlling the activities being undertaken. As practitioners, rarely do we debate the moral or ethical context of subsurface utilisation which was illuminated by speakers in the session.  The issue of subsurface ownership is however gaining increasing traction, particularly in regard to shale gas extraction, radioactive waste disposal and underground storage and the legal ambiguity on this subject is increasing topical.  Dr. Saskia Vermeylen, Lancaster University even considered the historical references of ‘private property’ by Abraham and Plato.  Emerson makes an interesting observation that nobody owns the landscape – ‘There is a property in the horizon which no man has but he whose eye can integrate all the parts…this is the best part of these men’s farms, yet to this their land-deeds give no title.’  In this we might draw parallels with the subsurface, whilst people may lay claim on the materials beneath their property, there are services which the ground or ‘sub-scape’ provides which cannot be owned, e.g. the regulation of flows such as heat and water.

However what resonated most was Dr. Saskia Vermeylen’s observation that the broader historical and political context of the laws on ownership should be considered, i.e. what additional sentiment is behind the laws as written?  This is a concept I can identify with, for example legislation is often brought in after significant events that had large economic, social or environmental impacts and the justification for the new legislation is only apparent to those who remember those events.

Human attachment to the subsurface

Long Harry Mine, Mid Lincoln Ironstone Mines, Greetwell
In fact the attachment of human perspectives to subsurface uses was a recurrent theme throughout the session. Cary van Lieshout (Nottingham University) in recounting 17th Century metal mining in Derbyshire, highlighted the ‘layered notions of ownership’ and the accelerated public discourse once water supplies and farms were effected.  Meanwhile Alan Webster (Lancaster University) spoke of disconnect in public perception between resource supply and consumption – we think the extractive industry is a thing of the past? These comments led us to debate the detachment that people have with the subsurface, does the fact that we can’t easily see or visualise the subsurface mean we have a more limited frame of reference for activities occurring underground? A feeling of being ill-informed because the processes are harder to explain and to understand. I find intriguing the names used for the subsurface, from underground, to the more mythical underworld and netherworld.  Emerson notes that appearances in nature corresponds to a state of mind, e.g. a cunning man is a fox, the owl is wise, light and dark are often used to imply knowledge and ignorance, so what then do we associate with the subsurface? The fiery depths?! When we want to hide or conceal something we ‘go underground’? But we also look to the ground as a foundation – to stand on firm ground, or to build from the ground up…no wonder we seem somewhat hesitant about the use of the subsurface.

The city

The Verticality of the Anthropocene does not just relate to the subsurface but to the entire 3D form of the human-modified landscape and Lauren Rickards (RIMT University, Australia) and Etienne Turpin (University of Wollongong, Australia) both spoke about the city. Lauren likened the evolution of the village setting through to the mega-city to the maturing of grasslands to forest.  This analogy is compelling in thinking about the surface and subsurface expression of our cities – as trees mature they develop deeper root networks and in the same way our expanding cities extend increasingly into the subsurface. Just as larger trees spread their roots further in order to sustain themselves, Lauren observes, the increasing gravitational orbit of the city, or as applied scientists we might say the increased catchment area needed to support the city.  Mentioned earlier was the malleability of geological formations under both natural and human processes and natural thresholds was something highlighted by Nigel Clark and alluded to by Etienne, that there is a tipping point in the Anthropogenic processes and perspectives.  It is curious that with nature we rely on the consistency and patterns of nature to inform our own routines, for example, working to the seasons and to daylight – a concept Emerson refers to as ‘the discipline of nature’, yet we also accept and learn to cope with nature’s irregularities. Etienne spoke of flood-hit Jakarta, ‘an accelerator of the Anthropogenic condition’ but first gave an account of the postcolonial theory of Shiv Visvanathan and Dipesh Chakrabarty, where Jakarta’s urban design honoured its tropical setting.  With an increasing detachment of human perspectives from our natural environment and the advent of globally accessible technology and expertise I can’t help but wonder if all our cities are trending towards the same form and end-point? Have we forgotten how to design to the local rhythms of nature?

So returning to the first question, what is the geo-social future? What do we want from the ground beneath our feet? The growing interest of local communities in the uses of the subsurface, re-connecting with our natural environment is a move in the right direction to answer this question. And the next steps – how do we continue to merge the broader perspectives of the social scientists with the practical approach of the applied scientists?

Read abstracts from the RGS-IGB Verticality and the Anthropocene session here

Find out the urban geoscience research at the British Geological Survey here

(i) Emerson (2009), Nature and Other Essays, Dover Publications Inc. ISBN-13: 978-0-486-46947-8.

Friday, 18 September 2015

Cosmic Colliery - an astronaut training centre in the South Wales Valleys? Gareth Farr

Boyo in space: Hefin in his space suit made
of Welsh materials © Hefin Jones
Gareth Farr from BGS Wales talks about zero gravity, abandoned mines and community engagement in Penallta, South Wales.
It was a normal day in the BGS Cardiff office.  The phone rang and Jane, BA to the Chief Geologist Wales, passed the call over to me. I stopped what I was doing, put my cup of coffee down and picked up the phone. Now we are used to receiving a wide range of questions from the public and professionals all of which we enjoy answering, however this one was going to turn out to be stranger than most.
Putting the phone to my ear I was greeted by a familiar Welsh accent, 'how can I help' I said, expecting a normal day to day query. The man on the phone, introduces himself as Hefin Jones (a good Welsh name) and gets ready to outline his query….. 'I would like to open an astronaut training centre in South Wales and I am thinking of using abandoned mine shafts to create an underground zero gravity training facility'. 
Now this is the point where most people would either rub their eyes, check they were actually awake and not dreaming, or question the strength of their coffee. However, as I like to think I am open minded I let Hefin carry on, 'so explain your idea a little more' I suggested.  Not wanting to dash his hopes I gently told him of the dangers of abandoned mines and that the likelihood anyone in an expensive white space suit would want to dive to the bottom of an abandoned shaft filled with ocherous water,  was extremely if not totally unlikely. The conversation ran on for a while, I just didn't get it, perhaps it was a prank call? Hefin told me he had a website I should look at, he dictates the address to me 'Hefinjones dot co dot uk forward-slash swc'. I type it into the browser and hit the return key (CLICK HERE if you want to follow the story).
Cosmic Colliery logo: design by
Aron Jones © Hefin Jones
I was greeted (as you will be if you have followed the link) by a chap wearing a space suit, made of Welsh wool complete with traditional clogs, it clicked, and relieved I thought 'he must be an artist', and so began an unusual collaboration. Hefins concept of a Welsh Space training centre was just that, a concept. Its aim is to get people to think big, about 'what ifs' and about regeneration in the South Wales coalfield – a very similar theme to our recent work on mine water temperatures and their potential use for ground source heating. The project involved ex miners, a mine surveyor, diving instructors and local youth groups, all of whom got together, under the imposing pit head and wheel at Penallta Colliery, to dream big and plan the astronaut centre. The plans were all based on positive initiatives to regenerate ex mining areas and the concept of heating the centre using abandoned mine water were well received.
Our 3D Geological Model of the South Wales coalfield (Andy Hulbert, Carl Watson & Luz Ramos Cabrera) helped to illustrate the scale of mining in South Wales and the possibilities for using flooded mines for ground source heating. Calum Ritchie, our award winning cartographer, also created a bespoke map for inclusion in the exhibition booklet. Although this project was conceptual, it is thinking 'big' and 'outside of the box' that must have helped man take his first step on the moon, and more recently land a washing machine sized robot on an asteroid. If humankind can achieve such mind boggling feats then sustainable regeneration and low carbon ground source heating should surely be within our grasp. 
Coalfield Cartography: Calum Ritchie's bespoke map for the Cosmic Colliery exhibition
The Cosmic Colliery exhibition opens on the 9th September at the Design Museum London.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

An Alaskan Road Mark Patton

Mark Patton panning the Fairbanks Placer deposit
Alaska doesn’t have many roads – you can’t even get to the capital by road, you have to take a ferry. Of the few the State has, I’ve been on about a third of them as part of a residential road trip with the postgraduate Mining Professional Programme run by Camborne School of Mines (CSM). Eight professionals from different mining related disciplines joined Professor Kip Jeffry and Dylan McFarlane from CSM for a ten day trip visiting mining operations which were accessible from the limited infrastructure.

In the first week we met with groups involved with the promotion of Alaska’s natural resources, a core store housing some USGS core, the Wishbone coal prospect operated by Usibelli Coal, the Pogo underground narrow vein gold mine, the Hilltop Gold Prospect, Fort Knox open pit gold mine and Fairbanks Creek Placer Gold Mine. (A placer deposit is where the gold eroded from a vein has been concentrated by a stream and deposited in the sand and gravel on the stream bed). Not one of the mine operations was on a main road. In fact the road to the Pogo mine was 50 miles long and had been put in by the mine to access the operation from the highway. At least that one was wide enough for more than one vehicle. The Hilltop Gold Prospect could be described as ‘unsuitable’ for the hire cars we took along it. The fact that two of our three hosts for that visit were carrying side arms for bear protection just added to the excitement.
Underground drill bay, Pogo Mine 
Enough about roads though. We were there to see mines and geology and we got that in spade-fulls (and in some cases, pan-fulls). The coal was shiny and black as you might expect but the most striking aspect of the visit to Wishbone was the litter of shotgun cartridges, .22 shell casings and large hunting rifle cases all over the floor of the locality. A bit unsettling, even for a boy from Belfast.

Pogo mine was the highlight of the trip, with a visit to the mill where the ore is processed in the morning, followed by a trip underground in the afternoon. We saw a face getting prepped for blasting, the underground grizzly, a rig, roof support rods getting put in and heard the paste backfill glugging overhead in its way to backfill a stope. Pretty much the full underground package.

Fort Knox opencast gold mine
Fort Knox was vast – a much lower grade, high tonnage gold deposit. Here two methods are used to extract the ore. For the higher grades a carbon and cyanide method called Carbon in Pulp is used. A heap leach, where cyanide is trickled through the crushed rock, is used to extract metal from the low grade ore. Getting to hold the ‘Tour Bar’ of doré gold,which had been  smelted and poured at the mine, was cool. Eight kilograms and about £200,000 at the market rate. A thoroughly humourless guide was unmoved by all talk of slipping it into a pocket – probably heard it all before.

Fairbanks Placer Deposit with historic placer barge 
Though Fort Knox was huge it was not the most alarming in terms of perceived impact on the environment. That honour fell to placer mining. Another ‘off the beaten track’ drive to Fairbanks Placer Mine was 10 or 20 minutes in before we realised that what we were driving over was about 100 years of legacy placer mine spoil heaps. Granted, nature was reclaiming what had been left, but that did little to lessen the impact of what had been left behind by methods used in the early 20th century. The current operation was compact and pretty cool to see and we all had a surprisingly successful go at panning whilst there.

The final mine trip was in the second week to the Usibelli Coal Mine. This is the only coal mine in Alaska which, given the coal reserves the State has, is pretty surprising (until you remember what the weather is like and how little infrastructure there is). Our guide was incredibly enthusiastic about the company and the importance of coal in Alaska. Given that 40% of U.S electricity is generated by burning it, it’s easy to see why someone so ‘on message’ was our host for the day.

Polychrome Pass, Denali National Park and Preserve 
All in all the trip was fantastic. The mineral potential is huge but the State is hamstrung by its size and the lack of infrastructure, something the local businesses involved with developing the mineral (and other natural resource) potential are acutely aware of. The locals are generally friendly and closer to Canadian than American but they are still American and they are staunchly supportive of the military. Like any isolated community they are a bit cut off from the global picture. It’s a long way to go for a lot of driving but the mountain scenery is fantastic and the vastness is hard to take in. It was totally worth the trip and I’m exceptionally appreciative of the opportunity but it’s not somewhere I’d rush back to.

Mark Patton is the Minerals Geologist for the Geological Survey of Northern Ireland (GSNI).

Thursday, 10 September 2015

20th QRA Annual International Postgraduate Jack Lacey

In early September, the Quaternary Research Association (QRA) hosted their annual symposium exclusively for postgraduate (PhD and MSc) students at the University of Cambridge. Over 45 delegates from 24 universities presented and discussed their diverse research on the Quaternary (the most recent period of geological time covering the last 2.6 million years) from sites around the world covering ice, land and sea.
Symposium group photo outside the Scott Polar Institute, Cambridge.
#QRAPG15 kicked off with a tour of the British Antarctic Survey (BAS). We learned how BAS create maps using satellite imagery, visited the cold marine aquarium containing animals brought back from Antarctic waters, and were shown the drilling equipment used to recover ice cores. There was also the opportunity to see thinly sliced sections of ice that visibly enclose small bubbles of past atmosphere frozen in time (scientists can use this trapped air to understand more about Earth’s past climate).

Conference dinner at the Riverside Restaurant.
The main symposium had a variety of talks split into sessions covering a broad range of research themes, including ice cores, ocean circulation, and palaeoclimate reconstructions. I presented some of my recent PhD work on Lake Ohrid, including a talk on a 640,000 year record of Mediterranean hydroclimate variability and a poster on a high resolution record of environmental change over the last 12,000 years. We also had some great keynote lectures from Robert Mulvaney (BAS) on the ice core evidence of climate change and deglaciation, Babette Hoogakker (University of Oxford) on determining past ocean oxygen concentrations and Lucy Gonzalez (Anglia Ruskin University) on research funding opportunities.

The prize for best presentation was awarded to Alwynne McGeever (Trinity College Dublin) for her excellent talk on modelling tree populations in Europe and best poster was awarded to Francesca Falcini (University of York) who used 3D images to showcase her interesting research into the roughness imparted onto surfaces by past ice streams.

Francesca with her prize-winning poster
(Photo: @Lauren_Knight).
The QRA postgraduate symposium exists to provide students a forum to present their research in a relaxed and supportive environment, and the University of Cambridge team (led by Jenny Roberts) did an excellent job of upholding this tradition. This was one of the largest meetings to date, and a great success!

The next symposium will be hosted by the Centre for Environmental Geochemistry at the University of Nottingham in summer 2016. For more information on #QRAPG16, keep an eye on the QRA meetings page, Facebook or Twitter.

Jack Lacey (PhD student at the British Geological Survey and the University of Nottingham)

Twitter @JackHLacey

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

The paradox of plenty: BGS helps poor countries to manage the impact of minerals and hydrocarbons Andrew Bloodworth

Small-scale mining of tantalum
An abundance of natural resources can represent both an opportunity and a threat to poor countries. Although the wealth released from minerals, oil and gas should present a path to prosperity, the reality is that many developing countries struggle to manage the impacts of minerals and/or hydrocarbons extraction on their economy, environment and society.

Attended by civil servants, regulators and civil society groups from 7 countries across sub-Saharan Africa, an intensive ‘Extractives Executive Course’ addressing these issues was held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia earlier this year. The course was organised and funded by UK Department for International Development through their ‘iFuse’ programme. BGS played a prominent role in delivering the course content.

Bob Gatliff and Andrew Bloodworth presented, discussed and debated a variety of topics relating to hydrocarbons and minerals exploration, permitting and management with a lively audience.  Colleagues from other UK public bodies including the Coal Authority, OS, Health and Safety Laboratories and the FCO were  responsible for delivering complimentary elements of the course covering a range of issues including spatial infrastructure, health and safety, environmental legacy and human rights.

Gold mine, Namibia 
Despite a packed schedule and ineffective air-conditioning, both delegates and trainers found the experience very informative. We developed some excellent new contacts amongst our African colleagues which we hope will lead to further funded work on a range of topics. It was also a great opportunity to strengthen person to person links with other UK public-sector organisations.

For more information contact:

Andrew Bloodworth ( or
Bob Gatliff (

Friday, 4 September 2015

Adventures in Gondwana: misson Kirstin Lemon

Earlier this year I was fortunate enough to qualify as one of the  Global Geopark evaluation team. This role involves carrying out field assessments on behalf of UNESCO for new Global Geoparks and to revalidate the existing Global Geoparks, of which there are now over 100 across the world. All Global Geoparks undergo a rigorous application process that includes a field visit, but what sets them aside from other UNESCO labels, is that they also have to be revalidated every four years. This element of quality control is what makes Global Geoparks so appealing as this process ensures that they are of consistently high quality.

The two Global Geopark assessors with the Geopark Araripe
vehicle, complete with rooftop pterosaur. 
My first mission (this is the official term, I'm not trying to sound like a secret agent) was to be one of the two assessors to revalidate Geopark Araripe in Brazil, a challenge that I accepted willingly as you can imagine. I have spent a great deal of my career working with Global Geoparks, eight years of which were spent as Geopark Geologist for the Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Now was my opportunity to be on the other side of the fence; to be the assessor as opposed to be assessed! 

Some of the exceptional
fossils in Geopark Araripe.
For those of you that are not familiar with Brazilian geography, Geopark Araripe is located in the province of Ceara, about 500km south of the north-eastern coastal city of Fortaleza. The geology is predominantly sedimentary rocks of Jurassic and Lower Cretaceous age, most of which were part of the extensive Afro-Brazilian lake system that existed prior to the break up of the ancient continent of Gondwana (made up of most of today's Southern Hemisphere landmasses). Because of this, similar rocks and fossils can be found in Geopark Araripe and in Liberia, both on opposing sides of the southern Atlantic Ocean, evidence that they were 
once joined together. 

One of the most significant features of Geopark Araripe are the exceptional fossils found in the sedimentary rocks, not only in their variety, but also in their abundance and state of preservation. Some of the fossils found include insects, frogs, turtles, lizards, fish, plants, and even dinosaurs and pterosaurs. This dazzling array of fossils would impress even the most dismissive grumpy teenager. 

But the geological significance of Geopark Araripe was not really what we were there to assess. After all, it was first declared a Global Geopark in 2006 when it's internationally important geology would have been assessed initially. Given the pace of geological time it was unlikely that much had changed since then. A number of other criteria had to be assessed including the contribution to the work of the Global Geoparks Network, management structure & financial status, geoconservation, strategic partnerships, marketing & promotion, and sustainable economic development. 

Quarry in Cariri Stone, used locally as a building stone.
So over a very intense three-day period, the management and staff of Geopark Araripe led us through a detailed itinerary to demonstrate that they still met the criteria to be called a Global Geopark. Geopark Araripe is managed by the Regional University of Cariri (URCA) so many students joined us on our visit, and were able to show us around a number of key geological sites. We were taken to museums, education centres, paleontological dig sites, tourism sites, information centres, geological trails, as well as witnessing much of the community integration that Geopark Araripe has undertaken. An inspection on behalf of UNESCO does not go unnoticed so we were greeted by numerous local dignitaries including mayors, community leaders and even by the local press, all of whom impressed upon us the significant positive impact that Geopark Araripe was having on the region. 

View from the top of the Araripe Plateau. 
Assessing a Global Geopark is not something to be taken lightly. Apart from the field evaluation there is a huge amount of work to be done beforehand and afterwards. Prior to the visit, each Global Geopark must send on a number of documents to the two assigned evaluators, including the original application as well as detailed information on what has been achieved since then. These are then studied and scrutinised and the field visit is then treated as a fact-finding mission, to confirm what has been stated as well as to identify any areas for further work. Once the mission is completed, the two assessors must compile a report for UNESCO. This gives recommendations as to whether the Global Geopark meets the required standard (known as a 'green card'), whether they are weak in certain areas (known as a 'yellow card') or in extreme circumstances, if they are completely failing to comply with the strict quality standards of Global Geoparks, their status will be removed (known as a 'red card'). 

It is important to stress that the assessors only give recommendations and do not make a final decision so if you want to find out how Geopark Araripe got on then you'll just have to wait! 

Just for fun: native macaques being fed bananas. 

For more information on Global Geoparks in the UK and Ireland please contact, or go to or 

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Drilling into the Bowland Joe Emmings

Joe Emmings is a field geologist and a first year PhD student at the University of Leicester and the BGS. Joe's PhD research is on the Carboniferous-aged Bowland Shale in the UK. The Bowland shale is a target for shale gas generation through hydraulic fracturing. Joe's research is not concerned with hydraulic fracturing but he does want to understand more about the origin and type of organic matter contained within the shales, here he tells us more about his project…

Joe in the field acquiring Bowland Shale samples from outcrop
with the help of a hand-held core drill. 
The Bowland Shale is of great interest to geologists because it was deposited during a time of change, during a major phase in the history of life. Vascular plants expanded across and colonised new lands in the Carboniferous, which ultimately increased the amount of organic matter entering the deep marine basins. Enhanced burial of organic matter in these basins acted to moderate the global carbon cycle by effectively sequestering CO2 out of the system on the geological timescale. Fundamental to understanding the organic matter burial efficiency of Carboniferous marine basins, is the environment of deposition, and how it evolved through time. We know the Bowland Shale comprises organic-rich sediments that were deposited as part of an epicontinental seaway that connected North America to central Europe. What we don't understand particularly well is the distribution of organic matter this environment, and how sedimentological, chemical and biological processes influenced this distribution.

Some of the organic matter within the Bowland Shale comprises terrestrial particles such as wood, spores and pollen, which entered the sea via rivers that washed sediments off the land. Organic matter can also be marine in origin (ie algal). The origin of much of the organic matter in the Bowland Shale is not understood. By using a range of analytical techniques, such as palynology, geochemistry, thin section analysis, we can understand the processes that transported, deposited and preserved organic matter in the Bowland Shales. This will allow geologists to assess the shales as a potential gas resource as some types of organic matter have more potential gas than others.

Core from the Bowland Shale. 
To begin this process, I need to get at the rocks. This can be achieved through drilling boreholes into the shales, or by studying the rocks where they outcrop in the landscape. There are many reasons to prefer borehole drillcore over outcrop, or vice versa. For me, outcrop is beneficial because I can see how deposits vary in three dimensions. In the absence of a close network of deep borehole drilling (such as in the UK), it provides an opportunity to study these deposits at a variety of scales from sub-millimetre to several kilometres.  The ability to analyse shale at a range of scales is particularly relevant for the UK's (possibly) emergent unconventional gas shale industry. By understanding the type and distribution of organic matter, this can enable better prediction of key prospective intervals for shale gas and could aid exploration process to be as selective and efficient as possible.

By Joe Emmings
Joe is a PhD student at the University of Leicester, his supervisors are Prof. Sarah Davies and Dr Gawen Jenkin (both University of Leicester) and at the British Geological Survey Prof. Melanie Leng, Prof. Mike Stephenson and Dr. Chris Vane.