Thursday, 17 December 2015

Jedi geology or Sith science: the Force was Kirstin Lemon

Unless you have been living in a bubble for the past few months, you won't have failed to notice that the greatly anticipated seventh Star Wars movie has finally made its appearance in our cinemas. You can't help but get swept up in all the excitement! There has been a huge amount of debate regarding the story line; will we finally have a female Jedi (girl power!), will Luke have gone to the Dark side, and just exactly what are those new lightsabers all about?

I'll be the first to admit that up until a few years ago, I had absolutely no interest in Star Wars, in fact I had never even seen any of the movies. I was born one year after the first movie was released in 1977 so most of my friends, especially the male ones, were completely obsessed with them. I knew the characters, I think that they are a firm part of our popular culture, but I had no idea what there role was. However, that all changed a few decades later. I now have children of my own, two boys no less, and they are both Star Wars mad! For a while, I managed to simply feign interest in the movies, but one Friday night as they were watching what I now know to be Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, I happened to look up and saw something that would change my opinion of Star Wars forever. It was the famous fight scene between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker, as they both battled with lightsabers whilst balanced on rocks floating on a river of lava. Something clicked that day, whether the Force was calling, or whether it was the rather impressive CGI work with the lava (let's be honest, this is more likely given that I'm a geologist), I don't know, but from then on I was hooked as well.

Over the past few years, I have been making up for lost time and have watched all of the movies more times that I can remember (although I have never watched them all in the correct order so my version of the story may be different from yours), I have been to numerous Comic Cons and have even made Star Wars gingerbread! I have also taken a great interest in the filming locations because whilst the story might be set in a galaxy far, far away, the filming has to be done here on planet Earth (for now). As always, the geology and geomorphology plays a key part in the location choice for all of the movies so just for a bit of fun, I've given a brief run down of some of the key planets and the geology of their real-life filming locations.

Twenty Mule Team Canyon, Death Valley, California
By far the most commonly used location for filming is Tunisia, where the desert landscape has been used to film Tatooine, the home planet of Anakin Skywalker and his son Luke.  A great number of sites were used around the city of Tozeur, where the stunning landscape provided the perfect backdrop for at least four of the movies. Some of the features include the yardangs, enlongated erosional landforms that resemble the shape of a sharks fin that were the location of the Jedi duel between Qui-Gonn Jin and Darth Maul in Episode I. One of the most famous geological features used is Star Wars Canyon or Sidi Bouhlel as it is known locally. This canyon is carved out of Middle Miocene sandstone and contains fossils of a number of vertebrates including crocodiles that provide vital evidence for changing palaeoclimate in the region. It was used during Episode IV and is where Luke Skywalker meets Obi-Wan Kenobi for the first time.

During the filming of Episode IV and V, shots that were scheduled for Tunisia were filmed in Death Valley, California, as production had gone over budget. Taking advantage of the typical 'badland topography' with its densely spaced drainage, deeply eroded hills, and lack of vegetation, Twenty Mule Team Canyon became the new Star Wars Canyon and was where R2-D2 was filmed as he made his way to Ben Kenobi's hut.

Tower karst in Guilin, China
The homeland of Chewbacca and the rest of the Wookies, Kashyyyk is perhaps one of the most stunning planets. No filming actually took place here, but background shots were taken from Phang Nga Bay in Thailand, and Guilin in China. These two locations are known for their breathtaking tower karst, the name given to steep sided hills of weathered limestone that typically develops in areas with thick limestone, warm wet weather and slow steady tectonic uplift. The landscape from both of these locations can be easily recognised in Episode III during the battle of Kashyyyk.

Everyone remembers the icy wasteland of Hoth from Episode V but it's real location was the Norwegian glacier of Hardangerjokulen and the area around the nearby town on Finse. The glacier itself is the sixth largest in Norway and is around 380m thick. It has played a significant role in the education of glaciologists over the past decades as it has been used as a base for a number of glaciology courses. Hardangerjokulen has also been the subject of a significant amount of recent research into glacier fluctuations during the Holocene period. 

Hardangerjokulen, Norway
Regarded as being the most Earth-like planet, Alderaan is probably most famous as being the home planet of Princess Leia. It was mentioned in both Episode I and IV, but was not actually seen until Episode III. Filming for Alderaan was done in Grindelwald, a municipality in the Swiss Alps, but also the name of  a glacially-carved valley and glacier adjacent to it. The area around Grindelwald has received a significant amount of publicity over the past few decades due to the  retreat of the Lower Grindelwald glacier.

Mount Etna erupting in 2002
Last, but by no means least is Mustafar, the planet where the epic battle scene between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker took place and the one that got me hooked on Star Wars. Obviously, filming two men fighting whilst balancing on rocks floating on lava is impossible but some of the lava scenes were actually shot at Mount Etna in Sicily. Europe's largest active volcano was erupting during the filming of Episode III in 2002 so a film crew visited and got some shots of the lava flow to use as the backdrop for the planet Mustafar.

This impressive array of global filming locations has given us the planets that we know and love in the Star Wars series so far but what about Episode VII? The filming locations have been kept under wraps, although a few leaks have come through here and there. Rumour has it that filming has taken place in Iceland, and given the geological wonderland that Iceland is and the fact that it is used for a number of other science fiction movies and TV shows, then it comes as no great surprise. It has also been rumoured that filming took place at Skellig Michael, a small island off the south-west coast of Co. Kerry in Ireland. This relatively inaccessible place is a World Heritage Site as it was the location of a 6th century monastic site, perched on top of strongly deformed Devonian rocks that appear to burst up from the sea floor. A truly spectacular site but not an easy one to reach! It's been said that the producers of Episode VII have relied much less on CGI this time, and have instead used 'real' locations so let's hope we get a few geological surprises as well as a few storyline ones.

Skellig Michael, Co. Kerry, Ireland
May the force be with you.

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Extreme field testers wanted; wimps need not Kirstin Lemon

Me sheltering from the rain.
There's a saying amongst us that the best geologists are the ones that have seen the most rocks. But what about the people that have seen the most rocks, do they make the best geologists?

Some of the people that see the greatest amount of rocks are hill walkers, who spend their spare time exploring and enjoying our great outdoors. Many hill walkers have a practical understanding of the ground beneath their feet, and many of them are geologists themselves. But quite often, those that aren't, want to know more and that is where Mountaineering Ireland came up with an idea to address this.

Mark Cooper introducing the Rocks to Ridges map
Late last year, Mountaineering Ireland approached the Geological Survey of Northern Ireland and the University of Ulster to see if they would produce a simple geological map for the north of the island of Ireland. The idea being to help hill walkers, and anyone else using the outdoors for recreational purposes, to understand the rocks and natural landscape that they are using. The map, called From Rocks to Ridges, uses a digital terraine model (DTM) that shows the topography in 3D over which is draped a simple bedrock geology map. On the back of the map is a general description of the geology that helps provide an understanding of how the main rock types formed. Of course, it's not just the solid bedrock that we see but the superficial deposits that provide a thin veneer on top so in addition to providing information on the general geology, a description of the main superficial deposits and the features that result is also given.

But producing a map is one thing, checking how it functions in the field is another altogether. So on one of the wettest and windiest days in November a handful of us from GSNI together with two members of Mountaineering Ireland decided to test it in the Mourne Mountains, in Co. Down.

The day got off to a 'good' start when Alex Donald, Information Officer with GSNI tried to test our new Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), otherwise known as a drone. Even in the car park at relatively low levels the UAV would have been simply blown away so we had to shelve that idea for another day.

The view looking down valley (before the cloud came in).
Chief Geologist for NI, Dr Mark Cooper began by giving us an overview of the map and then we set off. Starting off at Meelmore Lodge with its stunning glacial features, we were treated to some interpretation by our Quaternary geologist, Dr Sam Roberson. We made our way up the track and lunched at an old granite quarry on what was apparently the calm side of the mountain. The high winds were only just beginning and our colleagues from MI started using the phrases 'a high level of grimness' and 'death zone'. But we are geologists in Northern Ireland and we could cope with this. As we continued upwards, on at least one occasion each of us managed to be blown over, with the smaller members of our group (me!) being blown over several times.

The view (or lack thereof) on our way up! 
Onwards and upwards we went, into horizontal rain and increasingly poor visibility. For all of our expensive outdoor clothing, all of us were starting to think that it was time to invest in upgraded equipment. We reached the Mourne Wall, a 35km wall used to mark the perimeter of the water catchment area for NI Water, and more importantly a place for shelter as we crouched down out of the strong winds. At this point we should have been getting spectacular views of the rest of the stunning Mourne Mountains with their glacially carved granite peaks. All we could see was rain! The paths that we were walking on were simply rivers, but we did manage to stop to have a look at some tuffasite (veins within the granite that formed during explosive events) that was lying loose along the way.

The sun came out as we walked back to the car park. 
We eventually began our descent and as we did so, the rain stopped and the cloud began to clear and we were able to catch glimpses of the glacial valley that we were walking down. We took shelter from the still very strong winds in an old quarrymen's hut. This time it was our colleagues from MI that were able to tell us about the granite quarrying heritage in the Mourne Mountains, something that has all but ceased.

As we reached the bottom of the valley, the rock type changed and this time it was Silurian metasediments. These were the original country rocks that the granite would have been intruded into about 55 million years ago. From a walkers point of view, these require a different approach altogether with their sharp edges and slippery surface. Although I can assure you, that falling on to the granite was no delight either, and I have the bruise on my shin to prove it.

But what about the map? Well we brought it out on several occasions to see what the various rock types were. Despite it acting a bit like a sail in the wind, and the exceptionally heavy rain that it was subjected to, it faired very well. It has been printed on waterproof paper and fits easily into a leg pocket so it is designed to be used in the field. We were also told by our colleagues from Mountaineering Ireland that a number of schools have requested to use the map so it is definitely being put through its paces. I'd like to think that the conditions that we took it through were some of the roughest that it could possibly experience so if it survived that, then it can survive anything!

Click here to download your free copy of From Rocks to Ridges.

No geologists were harmed during the writing of this blog

Monday, 14 December 2015

Rare minerals and community cohesion: impact through geological Kristine Pommert

BGS Executive Director John Ludden introduces the blog below, shared with us by Kristine Pommert from Bulletin after their recent Impact Skills Training: "As a world-leading geological survey, focusing on public-good science and research, we are required to generate and demonstrate the impact of what we do. BGS recently enlisted Bulletin to develop our skills in this area and we are delighted with what they have been able to achieve. Their recent blog summarises the positive results from their training and gives an insight in to further excellent results."

Before I say anything else about the British Geological Survey, I have to declare an interest: I like them. Not just because what they do is intrinsically interesting, which it is; and not just because they’re a good bunch of people to work with, either.

The geological walk at the entrance to BGS headquarters  in Keyworth 
The added attraction is what you walk into when you enter their headquarters at Keyworth near Nottingham: an Aladdin’s cave of a shop, featuring intriguing geological books and maps and – best of all - a wealth of covetable stones and minerals, with rows of boxes proffering colourful samples from agate to (if my memory serves me right) zebra jasper. And don’t get me started on those glass cases holding beautiful pendants with semi-precious stones, many far superior to what you find in regular jeweller’s shops.

But on Bulletin’s most recent visit, once I’d torn myself away from these distractions, we discovered things which were even more fascinating: a kaleidoscope of the impacts BGS researchers are achieving in the real world. In a series of coaching conversations, we worked with research teams from different areas to discuss their planned impact case studies for the next NERC evaluation exercise.

Measuring mine water temperature and chemistry 
The range of where and how BGS researchers are achieving impact is impressive: among the projects that have particularly stuck in my mind is one exploring the sub-surface of some of Europe’s major cities, providing governments and councils with a wealth of useful data for urban planning and regeneration purposes – even down to new options for harnessing heat from abandoned mines.

Another project examines the effects of fracking on groundwater, shedding light on an important aspect of a highly emotive public debate. Yet another explores the future availability of rare metals needed for digital and low-carbon energy technologies, allowing governments and industry better resource planning and all of us a better understanding of how our own consumption habits may impact finite resources.

And then there are the kinds of impacts you would never expect from geological research: such as the building of bridges between Protestants and Catholics from both sides of the border in Ireland through geological tourism projects. Perhaps the most spectacular of these projects is the Marble Arch Caves UNESCO Global Geopark near Enniskillen, which takes visitors through a natural underworld with stunningly beautiful cave formations – in the process uniting the two communities through a common interest exceptional features of their natural environment.

Bringing communities together in the
Marble Arch Caves UNESCO Global Geopark
What makes coaching conversations such a valuable tool for developing impact case studies is that as often as not, new impacts emerge which no-one has thought of. In a discussion on landslide research, it came to light that fire services had changed their professional practice in direct response to the research findings: clear impact, but one which the case study author had not thought to include in her draft.

For me as Bulletin’s training lead, the two days’ of sessions at BGS were also highly satisfying for another reason: the case study drafts I was shown demonstrated very clearly that the impact training I had run there in 2014 had borne fruit. Almost all of the case study authors began their description of the underpinning research with a clear and convincing outline of the “real world” context that made their research relevant and desirable; and most had succeeded in choosing a manageable scope for their impact cases.

The BGS is part of the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), which is the UK's main agency for funding and managing research, training, and knowledge exchange in the environmental sciences. The NERC reports to the UK government's Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). There are, of course, considerable imponderables surrounding the next NERC evaluation exercise. Although the Nurse review has restored confidence in that NERC and the six other research councils will continue to exist (albeit under a different umbrella), we are still waiting to find out when the next evaluation will take place, and what exactly the rules will be.

Yet, as in the higher education sector, there is little doubt that impact will play a part. BGS research teams are doing well to start preparing their impact cases now. Many will need considerable development over time, but some solid groundwork has been laid.

So all in all, our visit to Keyworth felt eminently worthwhile. And who knows, I might yet find one of those beautiful pendants from that glass case in my Christmas stocking. At least I’ve encouraged my husband to pay a visit to the BGS shop.

Kristine Pommert is an impact and training consultant with Bulletin

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Going South Part 3: Doing some science! PhD student Rowan Dejardin

Rowan collecting samples from the seafloor sediment
As described in my previous blogs, I’m travelling south with the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) to collect samples from the South Georgia shelf, as part of my PhD (jointly funded by the BGS and the University of Nottingham, and within the Centre for Environmental Geochemistry). Having dropped off a team of scientists and technical staff on the remote island of Signy we started heading north in the general direction of South Georgia. After a day of slow sailing through the brash ice we head in to open waters. Whilst we’re going to miss the ice behind, with its attendant penguins and seals, the entry into open water means it will now be possible to undertake some science! Also, a gigantic tabular iceberg, that fills the horizon at times, is soon sighted and keeps us company for much of the day, with other smaller bergs.

The first proper science deployment is the CTD, and impressive contraption made up of many instruments to measure a range of oceanographic properties, including conductivity, temperature and depth, and 24 bottles to take water samples at various depths. The first couple of CTD deployments are at locations where data has been collected in previous year and therefore add data to ongoing studies of the Southern Ocean. The instrument first descends to its maximum deployment depth (approximately 1km at these initial locations) continuously recording data as it goes. As the CTD ascends the bottles are activated by an observing scientist on the ship collecting water at different depths for later analysis.

The CTD equipment
Having deployed the CTD at two stations we then sailed to the location of a scientific mooring, known as P2. The mooring consists of a buoy, with a range of instruments measuring parameters such as pH, salinity, CO2, connected to the seafloor more than 3km below by a very long and strong Kevlar rope. Attached to the rope at various depths are sediment traps, measuring variation in sediment flux through the year, and water samplers. Once we arrive at the approximate location of the buoy an acoustic signal from the ship fires the releases and everyone rushes to the monkey island, at the top on the ship to watch out for the buoy breaking the surface. Despite being left in some of the roughest waters in the world the P2 mooring was just where it had been left, unfortunately after it was recovered to the ship it became clear that the buoy had been hit by a huge iceberg that had dragged it to a huge depth, damaging many of the instruments.

Humpback whales circling the ship
Whilst we deployed the CTD at the P2 location we could see whales blowing all around the ship, presumably feeding on the large krill swarm that was visible in the ship's acoustic data. Initially, the whales were quite distant from the ship but they slowly got closer and closer until a pair of humpbacks were circling the ship, repeatedly surfacing just a few metres away!! Apparently humpbacks are often quite curious and attracted to the noises of the ship and the scientific instruments, and this pair spent the next couple of hours hanging out with us.

Leaving P2, and the whales behind, we continued towards South Georgia where we would be resupplying bases at Bird Island and King Edward Point. On the way we were able to deploy the box corer to sample the sediment on the South Georgia shelf, the reason I joined the cruise! The box corer is essentially a big box with a shovel that closes when it hits the seafloor, collecting around 30cm of surface sediment. We were able to deploy the box corer at two locations, in around 250m water depth, and recovered sediment from both locations, in spite of the box corer failing to fire a couple of times! Once the box corer was on deck, I subsamples the sediment with my supervisor, Vicky Perk, collecting four cores and as much of the top 1cm of sediment as possible. I am now processing the sediment so that can study the foraminifera (a single-celled organism that grows carbonate shells in a range of beautiful forms) in the sediment. Observations of which species live in the surface sediment, under current oceanographic conditions, will inform how I interpret fossil data from the Holocene cores that make up my PhD project.

Rowan is supervised at the BGS by Melanie Leng, at the University of Nottingham by Sev Kender, and at BAS by Vicky Peck and Claire Allen.