Thursday, 31 March 2016

BGS 'Geohazard day' for British Science Week... by John Stevenson

British Science Week logo
Briitish science week is a ten-day celebration
 of science technology, engineering and maths. 

How do you make a four-day British Science Week event, which already includes over 700 primary school children and 1000 members of the public, even easier? Just add another day and 70 secondary school children.

The BGS has participated in British Science Week (BSW), or National Science and Engineering Week as it was previously known, since it began in 1994. In previous years, our schools event has been aimed at KS2 children in years 5 and 6. This year we added a ‘geohazard day’ aimed at year 9 and 10 children from three local secondary schools. Split into groups, the students each took part in four, one-hour sessions, on volcanoes, earthquakes, landslides and tsunami disaster response mapping.

A volcano is about to erupt and you are responsible
for evacuating an island community, what would you do?

Called Seconds from catastrophe? Living with an active volcano, this exercise is based on real events that took place on the Caribbean island of Montserrat. Students were asked to role-play a part in groups of local residents, including the government, scientists, and business community. The groups had to decide: Will there be an eruption? When? Do we close transport infrastructure and evacuate? Where do we evacuate to? The groups discussed what to do before the ‘government’ made a final decision. Then the students compared their decision with what really happened. A prize was awarded to the school group that lost the fewest lives, which turned out to be zero for the winners.

Drop, cover and hold on to a slinky?

Here, we asked students to produce a short film that looked at the fundamentals of earthquake hazard and risk. The students’ videos introduced the concept of risk and how risk could be reduced by performing earthquake drills and building safer structures. Each of the four groups produced a 15 second clip that was edited to produce a one-minute film at the end of the session. The final results demonstrated some strong presentation skills from the students combined with some interesting film techniques to create a very realistic sense of shake and panic.

Making disaster response maps with the British Cartographic Society,
aided by expert GIS staff from the 

Based on real events of the Japan tsunami of 11 March 2011, working in teams, the students created a series of maps that could be used by relief agencies – military, humanitarian, medical or search and rescue. Focusing on the human side of the disaster, students had to make sure that data was shown correctly on the map so that authorities could send helicopters, medics or military as appropriate. This activity was produced and led by the British Cartographic Society and is part of the Restless Earth Workshops programme that over 100 schools have attended.

Measuring the angle of slope failure with our home-made clinometer.

In this session the students learned how and why the BGS survey and monitor landslides around the UK. Using an exercise 'borrowed' from Earth Learning Idea, students were asked to model how rock cliffs and slopes can collapse by conducting several experiments using an inclined board and a pack of playing cards. Students used a variety of clinometers to measure the angle of ‘slope failure’; from home-made ‘cardboard box protractor’ and plumb line, to phone apps and professional equipment.

British Science Week 2017

Thanks to everyone who took part in the event, in particular the BGS staff and British Cartographic staff whose enthusiasm helped make the event such a success.  We hope that we can repeat the event for British Science Week 2017.

Friday, 25 March 2016

Geochemistry and Health in the Kenyan Rift Michael Watts, Valerie McCormack, Diana Menya and Odipo Osano

The Inorganic Geochemistry team within the Centre for Environmental Geochemistry (CEG) has, with partners from the International Agency Research Cancer (IARC), the World Health Organisation’s cancer research agency based in Lyon, France, Moi University and the University of Eldoret, recently completed a survey of environmental samples in West Kenya, ranging from the tea estates in Nandi Hills through Iten (famous for Kenyan runners) and down into the Rift Valley. Dr Valerie McCormack from IARC and Dr Diana Menya at Moi University are studying the high incidence of squamous cell esophageal cancer (EC) in Kenya’s Rift Valley. The environmental survey will complement a case-control study being conducted in Eldoret, which includes individual-level questionnaires, tumour analyses and biomonitoring (blood and urine) collection and information on approximate residential location. Various causal factors are now under investigation - high-strength ‘kill me quick’ alcohol consumption or hot tea drinking, but they are unlikely to fully explain the burden. IARC-WHO is also leading similar BGS-supported work near Mount Kilimanjaro area of Tanzania (see previous blog and http:\ ).

Is there an environmental link to esophageal cancer?

Worldwide, EC has a very peculiar geographical distribution, for example, this is the second most common cancer in Kenya yet it’s extremely rare in West Africa. A hypothesis was presented in that an environmental factor could be contributing to the higher incidence of EC in localised areas, such as exposure to potentially harmful elements or organics (e.g. PAHs from wood fires) or deficiency of essential micronutrients, such as zinc or selenium (Qiao et al. 2009) that diminishes the body’s ability to recover from or buffer an event that may cause cell damage (Schaafsma et al. 2015).

The BGS team, with support from the CEG and BGS Global, assisted IARC-WHO, Moi University and the University of Eldoret in designing and undertaking a survey of soil, water and crop samples in the vicinity of Eldoret, with the primary aim of linking geochemistry and crop data with areas in which EC is a common.  In addition, the data will demonstrate a spatial understanding of the geochemistry of the differing climatic zones and food production areas from the Rift Valley to the tea estates in Nandi Hills and provide an indication of micronutrient composition or presence of potentially harmful elements.

Micronutrient composition of soil and crops in the Rift Valley will improve baseline evidence for a differing climatic zone compared to previous work in Sub-Saharan Africa (see previous blog), to inform future experimentation of agricultural methods that could improve soil-crop transfer of micronutrients for onward health benefits. Training was provided to local counterparts Moi University, University of Eldoret as well as local Public Health workers from the individual district offices in the collection of environmental samples, recording of field data for quality assurance and data management for onward presentation in GIS maps as agricultural planning tools.  Strong working relationships were forged, with clear opportunities for future collaboration with all partners.

The partnership of the CEG with IARC-WHO (PI) and Kenyan experts from local universities to study the highly-localised prevalence of EC in the Eldoret region of the Kenyan Rift Valley demonstrates the value of cross-disciplinary collaboration between epidemiologists, health practitioners, biostatisticians, geochemists, farmers and local agricultural extension workers. A great deal of interest was created amongst the communities who welcomed the research and could provide useful local knowledge with respect to farming and local health issues.

BGSs’ Dr Andrew Marriott also assisted with fieldwork, along with Dan Middleton (BUFI PhD student).  They will follow-up with a blog describing their first experience of working in Africa and more on the human interest and potential opportunities for varied research with local collaborators (entitled ‘Kitum Cave’).

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

Dr Valerie McCormack, Section of Environment and Radiation, International Agency Research Cancer (IARC), WHO’s cancer research agency based in Lyon, France

Dr Diana Menya, School of Public Health, Moi University, Kenya

Professor Odipo Osano, School of Environmental Sciences, University of Eldoret, Kenya

For more information on the Centre for Environmental Geochemistry click here  


Qiao et al. (2009). Total and cancer mortality after supplementation with vitamins and minerals: follow-up of the Linxian General Population Nutrition Intervention Trial, J. Natl. Cancer Inst., 101, 507.

Schaafsma et al. (2015). Africa’s Oesophageal Cancer Corridor: Geographic Variations in Incidence Correlations with Certain Micronutrient Deficiencies, PLOSOne, 1, 13.

Further reading:

Joy EJM et al. (2016). Dietary mineral supplies in Malawi: spatial and socioeconomic assessment. BMC Nutrition, 1, 42.

Watts MJ et al. (2015). Iodine status of Malawi, Scientific Reports, 5 1521.

Joy et al. (2015). Zinc enriched fertilisers as a potential public health intervention in Africa, 389, 1.

Gibson RS et al. (2015). Dietary iron intakes based on food composition data may underestimate the contribution of potentially exchangeable contaminant iron from soil, Journal of Analytical Food Research, 40, 19.

Joy, EJM Et al. (2015). Soil type influences crop mineral composition in Malawi, Science Total Environment, 505, 587-595.

Joy, EJM et al. (2014) Dietary mineral supplies in Africa, Physiologia Plantarum, 151, 208-229.

Siyame E et al. (2014). A high prevalence of zinc but not iron deficiency among Women in Rural Malawi: a cross-sectional study, International Journal for Vitamin and Nutrition Research, 83, 3, 176-187.

Hurst, R et al. (2013). Soil-type influences human selenium status and underlies widespread selenium deficiency risks in Malawi, Scientific Reports, 3, 1425.

Broadley MR et al. (2012). Dietary requirements for magnesium but not calcium are likely to be met in Malawi based on national food supply data, International Journal of Vitamin and Nutrition Research, 82(3), 192-199.

Joy EJM et al. (2012). Risk of dietary magnesium deficiency is low in most African countries based on food supply data, Plant and Soil, 368. 129-137.

Chilimba ADC et al. (2011). Maize grain and soil surveys reveal suboptimal dietary selenium intake is widespread in Malawi, Scientific Reports, 1, 1 - 9.

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Top 10 Geological Sites to Celebrate St Patrick's Kirstin Lemon

St Patrick's Day is celebrated the world over, and usually involves turning things green and drinking excessive amounts of alcohol. But what do we know about the great man himself and why do we celebrate? Most people know that he was Irish (he wasn't), that he drove the snakes out of Ireland (he didn't because they were never there in the first place), and that he converted Ireland to Christianity (we don't even know whether this is true as it was probably already done).

Now that all the myths have been de-bunked, what do we actually know about St Patrick? The truth is that we don't know a huge amount about him. We know that he lived during the 5th century and that he originated in Roman Britain, but aside from that a lot of what we know is pure speculation. So how come he is celebrated so widely? Despite our lack of knowledge, there are a huge number of locations across the UK and Ireland that all claim to have links to St Patrick. It is unlikely that he actually visited them all but more of an invention by clerics in Medieval Ireland to increase pilgrimage visits. Pilgrimage was big business in Medieval times, bringing in visitors from across the Christian world, and the idea seems to have stuck.

Many of the sites associated with St Patrick were simply iconic landscape features formed as a direct result of the underlying geology. We've put together a list of some of the better known locations linked to the famous Saint but also added in a few that are slightly off the beaten track.

1. Ravensglass, Cumbria
There are a number of places that claim to have been the birthplace of St Patrick, Ravensglass in Cumbria is just one of them. Located on the edge of the Lake District National Park, Ravensglass is thought to have been an important Roman naval base in the 2nd century. It is famous for the export of hematite from nearby Eskdale that has been mined there since Roman times, and more recently for the export of granite and copper ore.

2. Old Kilpatrick, Dumbartonshire
Another place claiming to be the birthplace of St Patrick is Kilpatrick in Dumbartonshire. The name means 'Church of Patrick' so at least the name is fitting if nothing else. A great deal of the geology of the surrounding Kilpatrick Hills is made up of Carboniferous lavas, with two zeolite minerals; edingtonite and thomsonite being first recorded here.

The volcanic plug of Slemish Mountain
3. Slemish Mountain, Co Antrim
St Patrick is thought to have been kidnapped by Irish pirates when he was about 16 and brought to the east coast of the island of Ireland. He was put to work as a shepherd on the slopes of Slemish Mountain, an iconic volcanic plug formed during the Palaeogene period. It's dolerite core stands proud from the landscape in stark contrast to the the surrounding low lying basalt. It is said that it was whilst working on the slopes of Slemish that St Patrick discovered Christianity and made his plans to escape home.

The church of St Patrick at Llanbadrig
4. Llanbadrig, Anglesey
On his return to Britain, St Patrick is said to have been shipwrecked on Middle Mouse Island, just off the coast of Anglesey. He made it ashore and took refuge in a cave on the cliff with a plentiful supply of fresh water. The rocks of the cliff are Precambrian limestone making it the ideal geology for caves and natural springs. The limestones themselves contain fossil stromatolites (algal structures) and have been dated to between 650 and 700 million years ago, making this one of the few locations in the UK and Ireland to see Precambrian fossils. After recovering from his ordeal, St Patrick founded a church at the top of the cliff that can still be seen today and the name Llanbadrig translates from the Welsh as 'Church of Patrick'.

5. Saul, Co Down
St Patrick decided to return to Ireland to carry out his missionary work and convert the population to Christianity (see note above). He was planning to return to Slemish, but strong currents swept his boat through the Strangford Lough tidal narrows and he landed near to Saul in Co Down. Strangford Lough has an extremely fast tidal flow due to the narrow entrance to the sea lough form the Irish Sea. Strangford Lough is underlain by a geological fault, that combined with the erosive power of ice during the last glaciation has given rise to this narrow sea lough. Whilst St Patrick may have wanted to go to Co Antrim, it was as a direct result of the geology that he ended up in Saul, Co Down where he is thought to have established the first church in Ireland.

Carboniferous limestone at the Rock of Cashel
6. Rock of Cashel, Co Tipperary
Probably one of Ireland's best known tourist attractions, the Rock of Cashel is said to have been visited by St Patrick where he met and baptised the powerful King of Munster, Aonghus. The 'Rock' itself is Carboniferous limestone and is one of the many distinctive features in this lowland karst area.

7. Croagh Patrick, Co Mayo
As it's name would suggest, Croagh Patrick is linked with the famous Saint. He is said to have visited in 441 when he fasted for 40 days and 40 nights. It is still a location for pilgrims to visit on Reek Sunday (the last Sunday in July). Croagh Patrick is made up of deformed quartzites that formed during Ordovician times, something that makes the pilgrimage even more of a challenge than just the 764m climb.

8. St Patrick's Holy Well, Belcoo, Co Fermanagh
The holy well at Belcoo
One of over 3000 holy wells on the island of Ireland, St Patrick's holy well near Belcoo is said to have been blessed by St Patrick and water from the well was thought to cure 'stomach and nervous complaints'. The limestone geology of the region makes this one of several natural springs in the area some of which are also associated with local legends similar to this one.

9. Station Island, Lough Derg, Co Donegal
Lough Derg in Co Donegal, was and still is an important place for those wishing to celebrate St Patrick. It is on a small island in the middle of the lough that St Patrick as supposed to have seen the entrance to purgatory. To most geologists however, the name of Lough Derg is synonymous with a major thrust fault in the north west of Ireland called the Lough Derg Slide.

10. Downpatrick, Co Down 
St Patrick's final resting place is thought to be on the Hill of Down in Downpatrick Co Down. No-one knows for sure whether this is the case or not but the location of his suggested grave is marked with a large piece of granite from the nearby Mourne Mountains. The Hill of Down is on an elevated position and is where the cathedral is also built. It is actually a drumlin that overlooks the Quoile River below and is one of many that are found in the area.

This is a fitting end to our geological tour as the day we celebrate St Patrick's Day, 17th March, is thought to have been the day he died sometime during the 5th century. Irrespective of what he did or didn't do, let's raise a glass to the man himself because if nothing else, he has helped to make famous some of our most iconic geological sites.

Monday, 14 March 2016

From ice age insects to the tropics: an introduction to new postdoctoral Stefan Engels

Stefan Engels in the field 
Hello, my name is Stefan Engels and I’ve just started a 3-year postdoctoral research project within the Centre for Environmental Geochemistry, between the School of Geography (University of Nottingham) and the BGS. I am a Dutch guy who’s lived most of his life in Utrecht. The Netherlands. I completed my PhD research at the Free University of Amsterdam, where I studied subfossil chironomid remains (insect jaws!) found in lake sediment records that were dated to the last glacial period around 50,000 years ago. I used the fossil insects of lakes to reconstruct past ecosystem development and to quantitatively infer past summer temperatures. My results showed that summer temperatures were probably as high as today across large parts of Europe during the middle of the last glacial, which was quite a surprise!

After finishing my PhD I moved to Stockholm and then Canada where I continued work into chironomids until I returned to The Netherlands in 2010 where I took up a post at the University of Amsterdam. My job was to use a range of different indicators and techniques to further study Holocene lake level changes on lakes across Europe. I used a combination of ground-penetrating radar imagery, palynology, chironomid analysis and geochemical tools to reconstruct past changes in precipitation. While I found evidence for changes between 3500 and 2500 years ago, I also noticed that my methods didn’t work so well in the sediments that covered the last few centuries. This turned out to be the result of overriding effects of lake ecosystem pollution, and using a different set of techniques (including sedimentary pigment analysis and coprostanol analysis) I was able to show that my study site had been polluted by man since the Medieval times.

Tasik Chini in Malaysia which is suffering due to
human impact
In my current project role within the Centre for Environmental Geochemistry I will be investigating human impact on SE Asia. Exponential population growth, urban expansion and climate change are affecting the quality of freshwaters across the globe, and especially so in Asia. The Tasik Chini wetland in Malaysia was known for its natural beauty and its dense lotus vegetation attracts lots of tourists to the area each year. However, construction of a weir, development of bauxite mines on the lake shore, and rubber and palm oil plantations all negatively affected the status of the natural ecosystem of the Tasik Chini wetland, and the lake currently suffers from invasive species and a decline in its lotus population and its fish fauna. In the current project I will investigate the effects of all the different drivers of ecosystem change in Tasik Chini, again incorporating a number of different indicator techniques.

Suzanne, Ginnie and Melanie with our Malaysian
collaborators on the shores of Tasik Chini 
I took up my role in January, so far I am spending my time becoming familiar with the previous work completed in the Tasik Chini area. I have also started to undertake my first batch of laboratory work, processing sediments from the Tasik Chini wetland by Dr Suzanne McGowan, Dr Ginnie Panizzo and Prof Melanie Leng last summer. Initial analyses are mainly focussed on establishing physical properties of the lake sediment core and to assess the potential of the material for further study. I am also gearing up to go into the field where I hope to be able to collect more sediment cores from the Tasik Chini wetland. I am really looking forward to this fieldtrip, and can’t help but comparing it to the first real fieldwork I ever did as an MSc student when I went to sample peat bogs in W Greenland – quite a different environment!

My main collaborators for this project are Dr Suzanne McGowan (University of Nottingham) and Dr Melanie Leng (BGS and University of Nottingham), but there are lots of other collaborators both at the university of Nottingham and the British Geological Survey as well as in Malaysia.

If you’d like to see more about Stefan’s previous research projects, take a look at the following links: - a professional mini-documentary on palaeoclimatology, aimed at undergrad students - an item broadcast by Dutch national television showing some of my work at Lake Uddelermeer (in Dutch)

Friday, 11 March 2016

The 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) Ceri Vincent

I was really excited to attend and participate in side events at the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) through support from CO2GeoNet and BGS. COP21 took place in Paris from November 30th – December 15th, 2015 and I attended for the second week of the conference.

Observing negotiations at COP21 (photo courtesy of CO2GeoNet)
BGS was able to access the negotiation zone through membership of CO2GeoNet. CO2GeoNet is a Research Association comprised European research institutes with a strong interest in geological storage of CO2. Currently, there are 26 research institutes who are Members of CO2GeoNet, with representatives from 19 countries.  CO2GeoNet has been an accredited Observer organisation of the United Nations Framework on Climate Change (UNFCCC) as a recognised ‘Research Institution Non-Governmental Organisation’ (RINGO) since 2013 and so was able to participate in COP21 through side events and booths in the negotiation ‘blue zone’ and the public ‘climate generations area’. CO2GeoNet co-organised four side events and a booth in both the climate generations area and the restricted negotiation zone. The presentations from these events and the materials used for the booths are available through the CO2GeoNet COP21 webpage.

Working area for observers within the negotiation zone
(photo courtesy of CO2GeoNet)
Overall participation of CO2GeoNet in COP21 was organised by the CO2GeoNet Secretariat. As Chair of the Executive Committee of CO2GeoNet, I was happy to be involved in co-organising a side event and was invited to present at another side event on behalf of CO2GeoNet. I also provided material on CO2GeoNet and on geological storage of CO2, including a short leaflet on what makes a good reservoir rock and a good cap rock for storing CO2 in deep geological formations, for the public booth. I led on preparation of a mini poster for the public booth so that the ECCSEL and ENVRIplus projects, which support science through sharing of research and data infrastructure, were represented at the public booth. All these activities helped keep me busy in the run up to COP21.

At COP21, I presented on ‘North Sea Basin CO2 storage opportunities’ at the Bellona side event ‘CO2 storage: from extraction to injection’. The CO2GeoNet President and I co-organised the side event ‘The role of CCS (Carbon dioxide Capture and Storage) in mitigating climate change’ with the Energy Research Alliance Carbon Capture and Storage Joint Programme, the Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute and EuroGeoSurveys. I also helped with staffing of the booths in which CO2GeoNet was involved in the negotiation zone and in the public ‘climate generations area’.

Booth in the negotiation zone (photo courtesy of CO2GeoNet) 
The booth in the climate generations area was an excellent opportunity to communicate the science supporting geological storage of CO2. The booth was visited by the general public, students, oil companies, academics and many other interested parties. Generally the view on geological storage of CO2 as a key emissions reduction technology was positive though there were some lively debates about how best to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, alterative options for reducing emissions and the role Carbon dioxide Capture and Storage (CCS) could play as part of the pathway to a low carbon future. In line with the no-paper policy of COP, handouts were minimised but we still found most delegates wanted something to take away and luckily we had prepared plenty of business card-sized CO2GeoNet handouts.

Speaking at the Bellona side event
(photo courtesy  of CO2GeoNet)
COP21 seemed very hectic with so many side events to observe and participate in and much time spent talking to people who visited our booth in the ‘climate generations area’ and negotiation zone. However, when we were heading back to our rented apartment for some home-cooking, tired from a long day, negotiators and translators were working through the night.

The outcomes COP21 represent a turning point for stabilising atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases. Just after the COP21 conference, a consensus was reached: The Paris Agreement calls for emission pathways consistent with ‘holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C’. The next critical step is for each country to set out how they will achieve this tough target.

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

IODP Expedition 346 - 2nd post - cruise Sonja Felder, PhD student at Newcastle University

G’day everyone, I just started the second year of my PhD researching the environmental and climatic development of the Sea of Japan/ East Sea during the last ~1 Million years. Besides the laboratory work (see my first blog), an increasing amount of time is now being spend on reading, writing and thinking about the laboratory results I have obtained so far. I am also spending time practising presenting results to a whole range of audiences from the public to my academic peers through written work (manuscripts, blogs - like this one) and by partaking in scientific conferences. Conferences can be exhausting because you have to prepare a presentation (usually for around 15 minutes, which seems so long when you have to speak in front of an audience!), practise it and deal with the stage fright, but conferences are also great opportunities for getting to know researchers in the field and meeting fellow PhD students. Last but not least, conferences are a way to see more of the world; my most recent conference took me all the way around the world to Australia.

Alternations between soft (marl) and hard (clay) rocks
 at Jan Juc Beach (photo courtesy of Chloe Anderson) 
The samples that I am researching for my PhD are provided by the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP), specifically from their Expedition 346. After each of the IODP expeditions so called “post-cruise meeting” follows. These conferences can only be attended by the shipboard-scientists (i.e. the expedition participants) and shore-based researchers working on sample material from that expedition. The scientists then present their findings, discuss interpretation ideas and form collaborations to write on scientific publications. The post-cruise meeting of IODP Expedition 346 took place in January 2016 in Melbourne, Australia; how ace is that! This meeting was probably the most important conference during my PhD and I was glad to present my results and ideas to a friendly, very well-informed and enthusiastic audience. Some of the scientists that were there I have been in contact since the start of my PhD (but never met) and they gave extremely valuable advice; so it was nice to meet them in person and to show them the outcome of their support.

Sedimentary rocks meet volcanic rocks at
Eagle Rock Marine Sanctuary
(photo courtesy of Carlos A Alvarez Zarikian)
Following the meeting there was a three day field-trip, guiding us through the geological history of the last ~100 Million years in Southeast Australia, which took us along parts of the famous Great Ocean Road. The outcrops were located in pull-apart basins which were formed during the break-up of the supercontinent Gondwana and the subsequent drift of Antarctica away from Australia’s southern margin. Hence, marine sediments, material that was deposited on land and volcanic rocks could be observed. As most of the outcrops were located at the beaches, we needed to start at 7 am every morning to make sure we would make it before the tide came in and made a safe passage impossible. Maybe not the tide but at least the weather was on our side, with plenty of sunshine providing the chance for the occasional dip in the Southern Ocean. Overall the field-trip was another opportunity for socialising and discussing collaborations and publications.

I would like to thank UK IODP for their kind financial contributions without which I could not have attended this meeting.

My supervisors for the project are Dr Andy Henderson and Prof Tom Wagner (Newcastle University) and Prof Melanie Leng (BGS).