Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Getting a Read on Radon: measurement of radon activity in groundwater samples from a proposed fracking site - a student project! James Dinsley

My name is James Dinsley, an Environmental Science student from the University of Nottingham and I am currently a quarter of the way through a one-year placement with the British Geological Survey, working in the Inorganic Geochemistry Laboratories in Keyworth, Nottingham. Over my year with the BGS, I have been supporting projects with Dr Charles Gowing and Dr Andy Marriott looking at the development and validation of (i) a method for determining the amount of radon in groundwater and its application to environmental baseline monitoring at proposed shale gas exploration sites, and (ii) a method of using a form of radioactive lead (210Pb) to determine the age of lake sediments. I will also be working in the aqueous chemistry laboratories, where I will use different chemical tests to analyse the composition of water samples for clients. As part of my work, I have learned how to conduct key laboratory tests such as determining soil pH and organic matter content, water pH and alkalinity, electrical conductivity and total organic carbon.

What does radon have to do with shale gas and fracking?

Fracking is a controversial topic due to public concern about it’s potential environmental and health risks. The process of fracking creates micro-fractures in the target shale rock to release natural gas (methane) for energy supply. One area of concern with fracking and the shale-gas development more generally is the possible release of naturally occurring radioactive materials (NORMs) contained in the shale, e.g. radon (222Rn), a known carcinogen, either as a gas or dissolved in the produced water that also comes up the shale gas well. Human exposure to radon is known to present a health risk if it is not adequately controlled.

In order to understand the potential additional risks that might arise from shale gas operations, a clearer understanding of the baseline groundwater chemistry is needed in areas around proposed development sites.

What have we found so far?

Libby preparing the samples for analysis to
determine radon concentration. 
Charles, Andy and Libby Gallanaugh, the previous placement student from the University of Surrey, refined a method for looking at the emission of alpha particles (a type of radiation) from the radioactive decay of radium (226Ra) in order to quantify the amount of radon present in groundwater samples. To do this, organic chemicals called ‘scintillators’ are used to convert the energy generated by alpha particle emission into light, which is then measured by a detector. More light pulses will indicate a higher amount of radon in the samples.
Libby’s work has identified the most suitable scintillator type and an appropriate scintillator/sample ratio to use, alongside helping to determine the most efficient analytical run time needed. Her results have helped to enhance both the counting efficiency of the detector and improve the quality of the results. It is hoped that the technique that Charles, Andy and Libby were working on could be used directly in the field to reduce the length of time that radium has to decay before analysis.

What are the next steps?

Alongside my duties in the aqueous lab, I will continue to further this research by investigating both the influence of sample temperature on the detector’s ability to quantify the radon concentration; and the influence that major ions in water (e.g. chloride, bicarbonate, etc.) can have on the detector’s readings, since water collected from different environments and rock types will have different chemical compositions! This work will help to ensure that the quantification of radon from field samples are more accurately represented despite variation in where and when sampling takes place.

During my time with the BGS I will also be working on another project, looking at refining a method for using a radioactive lead isotope (210Pb) to determine the age of Malaysian lake sediments. Ageing these sediments will help to reconstruct past pollution events from possible human activities. 210Pb dating can show us changes in sediment deposition over time, which is key as this can lead to changes in the lake’s physical and chemical characteristics. By using data collected from 210Pb dating, decision makers will then be able to determine the best method to remediate contaminated lakes. This project is being run in collaboration with the University of Nottingham through the joint Centre for Environmental Geochemistry.

I am enjoying my time with the BGS so far, and I am looking forward to getting involved with learning and experiencing as much as possible, alongside having the opportunity to meet many more people!

Monday, 24 October 2016

Examining the chemistry of mushrooms: a valuable tool for archaeology? Angela Lamb

The edible oyster mushroom, Pleurotus ostreatus, in Mere
Sands Wood Nature Reserve, Lancashire.
Mushrooms are a common part of modern human diets, yet they are rarely considered from an archaeological perspective. As soft-bodied organisms they readily rot, so are very rarely found on archaeological sites. Search for academic papers on archaeology and fungi and you are most likely to find articles discussing how microscopic fungi eat wall paintings and artefacts, and there are very few examples of mushrooms in relation to diet. The most famous exception is Oetzi ‘the Iceman’ from the Copper Age of Italy who had two species of bracket fungi in his possession. Neither of these are terribly edible but one could have been consumed as a vermifuge (something to kill parasitic worms), and both can be used as tinder to light fires.

A new collaboration between Dr Hannah O’Regan from the Department of Archaeology (University of Nottingham), Dr Angela Lamb (Centre for Environmental Geochemistry/British Geological Survey) and Dr David Wilkinson, (Liverpool John Moores University) set out to consider this lack of mushrooms from another angle -  as they are made of protein, can we see evidence of fungus consumption by looking at the stable isotope composition of people in the past?

An Italian mushroom shop.
Examining their chemistry

Stable isotopes of a range of elements are widely used in archaeology and ecology to estimate the food source used by an organism – for example plants, herbivores and carnivores tend to show different stable isotope chemistries. We found that very few studies have been performed specifically on edible mushrooms, so we collected and analysed fungi from the wild in North West England. We combined our results with published data to see how variable isotopes of carbon and particularly nitrogen can be. It turned out to be that fungi are extremely variable, with nitrogen values ranging from those you might find in legumes up to those you’d see in a polar bear!! Edible mushrooms had a smaller range, but were still very varied. This means that a human – or other animal – feeding on lots of mushrooms could, depending on which species they are eating, have a bone chemistry that could lead people to think they were being carnivorous. But the main thing this work showed was how little we know about fungi and the archaeological record. There is still much to learn!

This work is published online in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

Monday, 17 October 2016

Linking Geology & Biology in Europe’s oldest lake: a 1.3 million-year record of climate change and evolution from Lake Ohrid…by Jack Lacey and Melanie Leng

Lake Ohrid SCOPSCO science team, photo courtesy of F. Wagner-Cremer.
The Lake Ohrid drilling project has featured regularly on Geoblogy over past years, now reaching its final stages Jack Lacey and Melanie Leng from the Centre for Environmental Geochemistry travelled to the Netherlands to attend the 6th project workshop in Utrecht. Here they report on the meeting and provide a much overdue update on this ground-breaking interdisciplinary research…

Lake Ohrid is one of only a handful of lakes worldwide that has continuously existed for millions of years and contains hundreds of unique species found nowhere else. It represents an outstanding natural laboratory allowing us to explore the links between geological processes (climate change, volcanic eruptions, tectonic activity) and biological evolution – i.e. what drives speciation; stable conditions or rapid environmental change. To this end, the lake was drilled in 2013 as part of the International Continental scientific Drilling Program’s (ICDP) Scientific Collaboration On Past Speciation Conditions in Lake Ohrid (SCOPSCO) project (see blog series). The fieldwork campaign recovered over 2000 m of sediment from four sites around the lake, with a master record in the central basin reaching 569 m below lake floor that archives at least 1.3 million years of Earth’s history back to the Early Pleistocene.

Recently, we published our findings from the upper half of the core - covering 650,000 years - as a special issue in the journal Biogeosciences (open access). The team has been working extremely hard to finalise analytical work on the lower half of the record, and we met in Utrecht last week to discuss new developments and future efforts. In short, progress has been exceptional and for many proxies (e.g. isotopes, pollen) the majority of work is complete for the entire lacustrine succession (equivalent to the upper 430 m of sediment). The project has now reached a very exciting stage, proxy data from different research groups are being collated and we can start to understand how the lake has responded to both long- and short-term environmental change, answer fundamental questions about why/how the lake first formed and ultimately determine what drove biological evolution. We also have one of the longest and best land-based archives of tephra (volcanic ash) in the Mediterranean, which will allow us to accurately date our core material and directly compare to other regional and global sequences. However, there is still much work to be done - so keep an eye out for future updates!

Thanks go to Friederike Wagner-Cremer and Timme Donders at the University of Utrecht for organising the workshop, and to the entire SCOPSCO team who exemplify the best of interdisciplinary and collaboratory science.

To find out more about SCOPSCO visit the project website, or for further information please contact
By Jack Lacey and Melanie Leng (Centre for Environmental Geochemistry & Stable Isotope Facility, British Geological Survey)


Monday, 10 October 2016

INTECOL International Wetlands conference in Changshu, Suzanne McGowan and Keely Mills

Conference delegates getting ready for the start of the Aquatic
Transition session. Suzanne is far right, Keely is second right. 
Staff from the Centre for Environmental Geochemistry (CEG), a collaboration between the British Geological Survey and the University of Nottingham, Suzanne McGowan and Keely Mills, travelled to Changshu in China to attend the 10th INTECOL International Wetlands Conference which took place on 19-24th September 2016.  Here they tell us a bit about the conference...

The main aim of this visit was to host a session on ‘Trends in wetland condition and ecosystem services’, also chaired by Prof Peter Gell from the University of Ballarat in Australia. The CEG has been supporting an international working group Aquatic Transitions which is coordinated by PAGES Past Global Changes

The aim of this working group is to ‘integrate regional records of change in aquatic systems to provide a global synthesis of the sensitivity of sites to critical stages of human impact, detailing the nature of changes that can provide insights for management of these aquatic ecosystems’. Much of the research conducted in the CEG is aligned with the Aquatic Transitions goals.

Keely Mills presented an overview of how human impacts influence freshwater ecosystems and the aims and activities of the working group, which has held two workshops to date and is working on several synthesis manuscripts. Suzanne McGowan presented work from a diverse range of floodplain lakes investigated by University of Nottingham / CEG researchers (Stefan Engels, Charlotte Briddon, Virginia Panizzo, Melanie Leng) including Attenborough Nature Reserve, lakes from the Yangtzse Delta and the Tasik Chini flood pulse wetland in Malaysia. The latter work presented some preliminary results from work initiated by CEG on Asian lakes and wetlands.

From L-R: One of the many waterways in Changshu. INTECOL being publicized in Changshu
Changshu is a natural place to host a wetlands conference. Located at the mouth of the Yangtzse River Delta a few hours from Shanghai, the city is a fascinating example of how wetland habitats and waterways can be integrated into urban design to create a very pleasant living environment. The conference was highly publicized in the city, and there were excursions to showcase some of the wetland restoration efforts and also to illustrate the importance of wetland environments to the rice farming communities in this region.
Selfie with Bob Costanza! 
It was very interesting to see such a mix of interdisciplinary research at the conference, with the range of topics including, for example, engineered wetland design, bird conservation in Ramsar sites, peatland restoration, socio-ecological interactions and pond ecology. The plenary speaker on the first day, Robert Costanza is renowned for his paradigm-shifting publication which introduced the, now widely applied, concept of ecosystem services. We ended up next to him in the restaurant later on that day, and could not resist the opportunity for a selfie. All in all, it was fascinating to see the great range of stakeholders who have interests in wetland management and conservation.

The main aim of the visit was to publicize the work we are doing to a different audience, and it was great to interact with academics, NGO representatives and businesses from across the world. We also found the time to plan for the next Aquatic Transitions workshop which is scheduled for February 2017 in Kuala Lumpur at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus.

For more information just contact us!

By Suzanne McGowan (University of Nottingham)  and Keely Mills (British Geological Survey)

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

A month with the BGS Volcanology Team…by Alastair Hodgetts

Hi, I’m Alastair, a graduate Geologist with a BSc (Hons) in Geology from the University of Leicester. I am about to study for an MSc at Lancaster University in Volcanology and Geological Hazards this upcoming academic year. I was offered an internship role in the British Geological Survey’s Volcanology Team, based in Edinburgh for the month of August 2016.

Throughout my time at BGS I was very lucky to be involved in some fascinating and exciting projects. Many of the projects I contributed to involved writing reports and compiling databases, as well as analysing data and conducting research. Most of this work will be used to advise the UK and overseas governments as well as inform and help observatories and other geological surveys that monitor volcanoes and record their hazards and impacts on a regional and worldwide scale. The work involved research along the whole spectrum of Volcanology, from the physical processes that trigger eruptions, and the parameters that control them, to applied volcanology - studying the hazards, risk and impacts on populations, aviation and infrastructure. Below are some highlights from my time at BGS:

As part of an ongoing project assessing potential volcanic hazards on Ascension Island, I was heavily involved in calculating and modelling the potential of re-suspended ash as a volcanic hazard on Ascension (a UK Overseas Territory). Volcanic ash can lie present on and around eruption sites for days, weeks or years, depending on the size of the eruption and volume of extruded ash and tephra. ‘Clean-up’ operations can be disrupted by the entrainment of volcanic ash and can take people and officials by surprise. It is often overlooked as a volcanic hazard as the volcanic activity has ceased. Models considered a number of parameters for ash to be re-suspended and re-entrained into the atmosphere, ultimately posing a threat to public health, infrastructure and aviation. I also plotted wind direction data on rose diagrams to determine the areas of the island that would most likely be affected by re-suspended ash (if the issue were to ever arise on Ascension Island…)

Ascension Island, photograph by Charlotte Vye-Brown
While I was working with the Volcanology team, Brava volcano in Cape Verde showed signs of increased seismic unrest.  Brava Island is a little known volcanic island with a population of ~7,000 people.  The seismic unrest in July and August 2016 highlighted that data and geological information needed to be collected to help prepare for a future volcanic eruption, if one were to occur. I spent a day researching and writing a literature review on the background geology and demographic statistics of the Cape Verde Islands, particularly focussing on the island of Brava.

I compiled an extensive database on the eruptive parameters of Mt. Sinabung in Indonesia since it’s almost continuous eruption starting in 2010, after lying dormant for ~400 years. With the exception of three eruptive hiatus’, (the longest lasting little under three years), it has remained in an unrestful and eruptive state, continuing to extrude large volumes of volcanic ash, tephra and lava and induce pyroclastic density currents, lahars and many other hazardous flows.  This involved me studying weekly reports from multiple sources from the past 6 years. I then extracted geological (plume height, shape and colour; ash dispersal distance and direction; lava dome growth; deformation etc.) and volcanic impact (alert level changes, geographic areas impacted, evacuation status etc.) data from the reports and compiled a database.  From this, I wrote a report to compare a number of eruptive parameters to see if a correlation between the data sets exists. The information, graphs and database will be used for a detailed report and publication on the eruptive source parameters of Mt. Sinabung.

Mt Sinabung in 2010.
My internship at BGS was very exciting and interesting with a strong focus on applied work for government, industry and civil protection. It has been very rewarding to work for a world-leading geoscience organisation that addresses current issues, hazards and risks and uses geological science to improve the lives of the British and international public. The internship with the Volcanology team has confirmed I have made the right decision to specialise in volcanology and I aim to work as a Volcanologist after my academic studies.