Wednesday, 26 July 2017

DeepCHALLA subsampling party at the Universiteit Heather Moorhouse

The DeepCHALLA sampling team.
DeepCHALLA is an International Continental Scientific Drilling Programme project investigating ~250,000 years of climate change and ecosystem dynamics in Equatorial East Africa, using lake sediment cores from Challa, a 92m crater lake on the flanks of Mount Kilamanjaro in Kenya/Tanzania. Dr Heather Moorhouse from Lancaster University details her trip to Gent, Belgium where subsampling of the cores was undertaken in order to gather the material ready for analyses of isotopes from bulk organic material and diatoms (algae with silica cell walls), jointly undertaken at Lancaster University and the Stable Isotope Facility, British Geological Survey.

In mid-June, amidst a continental heatwave, scientists across the globe from ten different research institutes, descended on the Department of Limnology in Gent, Belgium to collect subsamples of the drilled sediment cores which totalled ~214 m in length, retrieved from Lake Challa, Kenya/Tanzania earlier in the year. In total 9459 subsamples were collected, of which over 1000 samples were collected by yours truly. Luckily for us subsamplers, the laboratory where we spent our days had air conditioning and boasted a picturesque botanical garden next door; perfect for picnic lunch breaks in the sun.

The success of the sampling can be attributed to the hard-work undertaken by the members of the DeepCHALLA team who visited the National Lacustrine Core Facility (LacCore) in Minneapolis, USA just after the core had been retrieved. Here, the composition of the core was described and logged, and from this, the optimum depths at which to take the samples were meticulously determined, taking care to avoid turbidites (sediment deposits resulting from slope failures), cracks in the sediment and tephra layers; which are a fragmented material emitted from volcanic eruptions (unless of course you are a member of the team from the University of Cambridge who is investigating the nature of the tephra deposits in Challa). The excellent condition of the sediment cores and the well-preserved laminations of the sediment at Challa, caused by changes from diatom-rich deposits to darker organic material, made the subsampling preparation relatively straightforward and ultimately, is what makes this a model dataset to work on.

From L-R: Example of laminated sediment layers and a tephra layer (pinkish band) can be seen; Sediment core with a
I was amongst the subsamplers who had to extract the amount of sediment required for each analysis from a core section at a given depth. Care had to be taken not to contaminate the sample with material from other depths or layers, harder than it sounds especially when the sediment was crumbly. Different analyses required different sampling resolutions so a chain system was created to maintain a continuous workflow, with different people sectioning different cores and depths at the same time. Once all the samples had been taken from each core section, the holes in the core are infilled with foam to prevent collapsing and contamination of different sediment layers then repackaged and put back in cold storage. We quickly developed an efficient sampling system and our quick pace resulted in us finishing a day early (fantastic chance for sightseeing and sampling the local cuisine of beer (very strong, be warned!) and frites).
Not a bad commute home; Gent at night!

Huge thanks go to Dirk Verschuren, Thijs Van der Meeren, Yoeri Torsy and the rest of the team at the Universiteit Gent who put in the hard graft in organising this sampling event. I eagerly await our next project meeting to see how all the analyses and results are coming along. Now, to get started in the laboratory…

DeepCHALLA is live!

Monday, 24 July 2017

Gorillas and feathered dinosaurs... by John Stevenson

George the Gorilla or Gorilla-saurus.
Nottingham locals and regular visitors to Wollaton Hall are very familiar with George the Gorilla as being the star attraction for Wollaton Hall’s Natural History Gallery. George is so popular that he now has his own Twitter page @George_Gorilla. Although, his profile picture seems to have been hijacked by some Photoshop gremlins that have given him a dinosaur’s tail and chicken-like comb on his head.

George has been a feature of Wollaton Hall since 1926 so why give him a dinosaur makeover? There’s a rock and mineral gallery in Wollaton Hall, but no dinosaurs…

Ground shakers to feathered flyers
Mamenchisaurus fills Wollaton's Great Hall at about 23m long from head to tail,
but is taller than three double-decker buses when in this rearing posture.

Wollaton Hall is hosting the ‘Dinosaurs of China’ exhibition that brings to life the story of how dinosaurs evolved into the birds that live alongside us today. The new exhibition, which opened in July and runs until the end of October, features fossils that have never been seen outside of Asia.

The exhibition includes the best-preserved dinosaur fossils from anywhere in the world, not just the bones, but also soft parts including skin and feathers. Many of the species on show are new science discoveries that were only named in the last 20 years.

The exhibition is simple and uncluttered with easy-to-read panels with bite-sized chunks of information to guide you through the story. I loved the use of the packing cases as plinths to lift the smaller dinosaurs off the ground. 

Highlights of the exhibition include  the Gigantoraptor, which at four metres high and eight metres long is the largest feathered dinosaur ever found; double decker buses are about four metres by eleven metres.

‘Flying’ dinosaurs include the Microraptor, which had flight feathers on its four limbs for gliding towards its intended prey. Measuring about a metre in length, the Microraptor is the largest four-winged dinosaur ever discovered - longer than today’s eagle or albatross.

Sinornithosaurus; a 'fuzzy raptor',
about the size of a turkey.

'Jurassic Park got it wrong!'

Large and deadly dinosaurs aside, I was particularly blown away by the preservation of the feathers in the fossils. Sinornithosaurus is labelled as 'a 'fuzzy-raptor' that proves Velociraptor had feathers', where you can clearly see the tuft-like feather structure.

What happened next?

The Dinosaurs of China exhibit integrates well with the existing natural history collection of Wollaton Hall, where the evolutionary story continues and makes the bold statement 'Dinosaurs are not extinct; birds are dinosaurs!' We see some feathered dinosaurs and dinosaur eggs among Wollaton's collection of today's birds including a pelican, bird-of-paradise and red kite.

Sinraptor, not feathered, probably scaly and the size of a minibus.

Collect the evidence that connects birds with dinosaurs.

 Education resources

If you were in any doubt about the connection between bird and dinosaurs, you could fill in the Dinosaurs of China trail sheet, they are available free on entry.

Visiting schools

Schools can visit the exhibition for teacher-led sessions or the Hall's education team offer a wide range of facilitated sessions; from Mary Anning and her Fossils to Earth Science Dinosaur Day.

What about the rock and mineral gallery?

Jurassic Nottingham, the forthcoming geology 
exhibition theme for Wollalton Hall. 
The Mineral Gallery is currently closed, but having chatted to Adam Smith, the museum curator, a new gallery is in the planning stage, but sadly it couldn't be ready to coincide with the visiting dinosaurs. The new Mineral Gallery should be ready in 2018, but you should go and see the Dinosaurs of China before the end of October and return again next year, it's well worth it.

Friday, 21 July 2017

Learning about the living earth: the BGS through the eyes of a newbie... by Grace Davis

Seismogram images of the earthquake on 20/07/17
It’s the end of another busy week at the BGS, and an even busier Friday. On the night of Thursday the 20th, as I’m sure you know, an M 6.7 earthquake hit southwest Turkey and the Dodecanese islands, tragically causing two fatalities, many injuries, and structural damage to buildings. I first heard about it on the radio as I drove to work, and arrived prepared to help with any enquiries we might receive. Most of my morning was spent on Twitter and Facebook, updating people with the information we had and directing them to our earthquake pages if they wanted to know more about why things like this happen.

Taking a step back in time, Monday saw me attending another lunchtime lecture (I think I’m getting to be a familiar sight in the conference room: eagerly clutching my notepad and pen like an anxious child on the first day of school). This one was all about our Official Development Assistance programme. The programme and projects involved are still being developed but, from what I gathered at the lecture, it’s certainly shaping up to be a fascinating and innovative area of work for the BGS that will have truly global implications.

Projects like this were one of the things that drew me to the BGS originally, and continue to intrigue me now. I think that sometimes people believe geology is all about things that have already happened, stuff that is ancient history. Although that’s undeniably part of it, what I have come to realise more and more and is that so much of geology is about the living earth: the processes and changes that are happening in front of our eyes (even though some are far too slow for our eyes to perceive!).

A wonderful example of living geology is the work the BGS does on energy. And if you’re wondering what that work is, well I can’t put it better than the words on the front page of the BGS’ energy web section: “the BGS supports science that seeks to understand and maximise the recovery of dwindling fossil fuel reserves, as well as helping the development of renewable energy such as geothermal power.” This is science that affects us all! If you’d like find out more about this work, why not head over to our dedicated energy pages.

There won’t be a post from me next week as I’ll be on annual leave, jaunting around Berlin with my family (birthday wishes to my dad who probably doesn’t want me to mention his age on here). So it’s adieu from me for now!

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Hominin Sites and Paleolakes Drilling Jonathan Dean

Jonathan Dean (now at Hull University), who worked as  Post Doctoral Research Assistant at the British Geological Survey until February, reports on the latest group meeting of the research project he is involved with while at the BGS...

The Chew Bahir project team.
The latest meeting of the Chew Bahir portion of the Hominin Sites and Paleolakes Drilling Project took place in Potsdam in June. Chew Bahir is a lake in southern Ethiopia that was 'drilled' in 2014 to retrieve cores of lake sediment. These extend from the lake bed down to 290 metres into the sediments. This sediment accumulated over the past 500,000 years ago. I presented the isotope data that we produced at the Stable Isotope Facility at the British Geological Survey. By looking at the ratio of one type of oxygen to another, and how this varies from the present day lake bed through the sediment cores at intervals down to 290 metres, we are able to reconstruct how the climate changed between wet and dry over the past half a million years.

Our colleagues on the project are from the UK, Ethiopia, Germany and the US. Some are busy working out how old each bit of the sediment core is, e.g. using radiocarbon dating at the top and dating volcanic ash layers towards the bottom. Others are looking at changes in the type of algae found down the sediment core, to look at changes in how fresh or salty the lake water was over time. Some are taking the reconstructed climate changes and relating them to changes in human history. We want to establish what the climate was like when our species, Homo sapiens, evolved and then spread out of Africa. Some people have suggested that when climate changes from more variable to more stable, that can lead to movements of populations, but we want to test that hypothesis.

 From L-R: Location of one of the more famous Potsdam conferences, where Churchill, Truman and Stalin decided how
 to divide up Germany at the end of the Second World War; the famous Bridge of Spies in Potsdam.
While in Potsdam we visited the famous Bridge of Spies (aka Glienicke Bridge) and the Potsdam Conference venue. The bridge across the Havel River in Germany connects Berlin with Potsdam. The bridge was completed in 1907, although major reconstruction was necessary after it was damaged during World War II. During the Cold War the bridge was used several times for the exchange of captured spies and thus became known as the Bridge of Spies (several films have used this location)... The Potsdam Conference was held at Cecilienhof, the home of Crown Prince Wilhelm, in Potsdam, between July and August 1945. The conference participants were the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States (Stalin, Churchill/Attlee, Truman). The 3 powers met to decide how to administer the defeated Nazi Germany, which had agreed to unconditional surrender nine weeks earlier.

Monday, 17 July 2017

Success in Scotland: BUFI Science Festival 2017... by Olivier Humphrey

BUFI Presenters

Hello, my name is Olivier, I am a PhD student at the Centre for Environmental Geochemistry (University of Nottingham and BGS) and I have recently attended the BUFI Science Festival 2017, hosted in The Lyell Centre, Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh.

BUFI (BGS University Funding initiative) supports over 100 projects and the Science Festival is an opportunity for all the PhD students to come and present a poster detailing their work, and to discuss it with both scientific and non-scientific BGS and Heriot-Watt staff members. This year there were 29 presenters with fantastic posters covering a wide range of topics including; environmental geochemistry, volcanology, hydrology and glaciology. My research revolves around iodine geodynamics and plant availability, and this year I presented my poster on ‘Iodine uptake, translocation and storage in spinach and tomatoes’.

Iodine is an essential micronutrient involved in the production of the thyroid hormones, thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3). Approximately one-third of the world’s population are at risk of iodine deficiency disorders (IDD); the most severe effects occur during fetal development; leading to goitre, stillbirth, cretinism and mental impairment. The most widely-used method for reducing IDD is dietary supplementation with iodised salt; however, poor salt treatment and food processing reduces its effectiveness.
Due to the epidemic levels of IDD, alternative supplementation methods are required: iodine phytofortification is such a strategy. In my poster I outlined how one aspect of my project aims to develop the fundamental understanding of iodine uptake mechanisms and translocation pathways within plants, and assess the practicality and effectiveness of foliar-spray biofortification as a method of increasing dietary iodine intake.

The Lyell Centre
Shortly after arriving in sunny Edinburgh the PhD students and BUFI team went out for a meal, this gave us the opportunity to catch up and meet new students, we even managed to find time for a wee dram or two! On the day of the science festival the weather was back to normal: wet. After arriving at The Lyell Centre we set up our posters and had the chance to look at everyone else’s, all of which looked great. One presenter even bought a virtual reality headset, which enabled people to discover the world of hydrothermal vents off of the coast of Greece. After lunch Professor Mercedes Marot-Valer gave a talk on carbon capture, utilisation and storage; highlighting the need for us, as environmental scientists, to work with engineers and professionals from other disciplines to develop solutions to current global issues rather than just identifying them.

As the festival drew to a close a number of awards were presented; including The Lyell Centre staff prize, a BUFI students peer prize and a highly commended prize. I was lucky enough to win the best overall poster presentation prize! I had a great day and would just like to give a massive thank you to Jon Naden, Ellie Evans and Ann Evans for organising a fantastic event, I'm really looking forward to next year’s BUFI Science Festival.
Prize Winners (left-to-right): Professor Mercedes Maroto-Valer (keynote speaker), Iain Stobbs (Lyell Centre staff prize), Ailsa Guild (BUFI students peer prize), Chloe Morris (highly commended prize), Olivier Humphrey (best bverall poster presentation), Jon Naden (BUFI manager)

By Olivier Humphrey

The PhD is supervised under the umbrella of the Centre for Environmental Geochemistry: Dr Scott Young, Dr Liz Bailey and Professor Neil Crout (University of Nottingham) and Dr Louise Ander and Dr Michael Watts (BGS)

Friday, 14 July 2017

Art, Twitter and the Miocene Epoch: the BGS through the eyes of a newbie.. by Grace Davis

If you’ve tweeted the BGS this week, there’s a decent chance it was me who replied to you!  As of Monday I’ve been helping to monitor our social media accounts and I’ve really been enjoying keeping up with your questions, comments and thoughts. From sharing geology-themed school projects to wanting to know more about updates on our website, people have spoken to us from all over the world. It’s great to see how people engage with us and the work we’re doing, and we are keen to keep the conversation flowing, so if you’ve got anything to share with us then please do get in touch.

Guests at the Impossible Views exhibition
I’m Grace and I’m a new starter at the BGS, you may have read my first weekly blog post last Friday – if not, check it out here. I’m happy to report that the end of week two leaves me feeling like I’ve really begun to get stuck in.

Perhaps the biggest undertaking this week has been getting started on what will be one of my main projects here: the communications work for ODA. What’s ODA, you ask? It stands for Official Development Assistance and encapsulates the BGS’s overseas work. This is a large and complex area, and we’re really looking forward to sharing more about it with you as it develops, so watch this space!

Tuesday night saw the unveiling of the Impossible Views exhibition, a great opportunity for people to visit our site, take in the art and speak with the people who created it. I attended and, along with assisting with hosting guests, made a rather ham-fisted job of helping to serve drinks (corkscrews are not my forte). It was also lovely to have the chance to meet some more of the BGS staff and their partners at the event.

Speaking of events, I was also able to go to another lunchtime lecture where I learnt about the Brassington Formation, a Miocene deposit in the Peak District. I was fascinated to hear that such deposits (from the Miocene epoch which occurred 23 to 5 million years ago) are extremely rare onshore in the UK. This particular area was only preserved by chance due to the collapse of the soluble limestone/dolomite below it, allowing it to fall into cavities and remain protected until mining and brickmaking activities began in the area.
A large pebble and some of the 'mummified' wood that can be found at the Formation

As you might be able to tell, I was pretty excited to pick up this new piece of geology knowledge and I’ve been eagerly sharing it ever since. And as five o’clock rolls around this Friday afternoon, I can only imagine I’ll be telling it throughout the weekend too so if you know me, be prepared…

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Impossible Views - art and science come together... by Grace Davis

Impossible Views – it sounds rather like a contradiction in terms doesn’t it? Something that couldn’t possibly exist or be seen? Well, in fact: it does and it can! Impossible Views is the name of a new exhibition created out of a partnership between the BGS and Quarrylab, a local artist development organisation. The exhibition features a diverse collection of paintings, drawings, video, audio and mixed media by various artists, all centred around combining art and science together, as well as items from the BGS collections.

I went to see the exhibition myself this week as I prepared to start work on getting the word out about the show. Serendipitously, my arrival happened to coincide with that of several of the artists themselves, there to plan for a private viewing that took place on July 11th. Roy Pickering, artist, painter and founder of Quarrylab, stopped to speak with me about what was going on and how the exhibition had come about. He explained that this partnership between the BGS and Quarrylab is pretty unusual – its aim is to take science and art and focus on the similarities between them, and the ways in which they can complement each other. Professor Mark Rawlinson, a member of the Faculty of Arts at the University of Nottingham and one of the artists featured in the exhibition, recently wrote “From the laboratory to the artist’s studio, the work of the artist and the scientist appear rooted in similar practices, are allied to similar processes, and rely upon similar modes of thinking. And both seem concerned with revelation, the revealing of something hidden or previously unknown.”

During my look-around I met artist Paul Harraway. He showed me the pieces he had contributed and talked about his time spent in Derbyshire and at Siccar Point in Scotland, sketching and drawing in the countryside.

Speaking to Paul, I found myself thinking about the contradiction that his work had managed to capture: the scenes before me looked like completely natural landscapes, full of greenery and gently tumbling slopes. However none of this had happened organically: these sites were created by human hands, by the years of quarrying and earthworks that had taken place there.

For me, these ideas were the heart of the exhibition: the combination of natural and human-made, the hidden landscapes of quarries, both active and in ruin, and the connection that can be drawn between what we do here at the BGS and the work that goes on in artists’ studios everywhere.  To find out more about the materials collections at the BGS visit our collections webpages.

Impossible Views is open to the public every Friday from now until 13th July. Why not pop along and take a look at this unique combination of art and science? For more information call 0115 936 3143 or email

Friday, 7 July 2017

New beginnings: the BGS through the eyes of a newbie... by Grace Davis

Lithology. Inselberg. Colluvium. These are only three of the many, many words that just one week of work at the BGS has introduced me to. Every time I come across a word that seems like it could come in handy I make a note in my nice fresh notebook. I’m building up quite a glossary (incidentally, inselberg is my favourite so far: for those who don’t know, it’s an isolated hill or mountain rising abruptly from a plain).

I'm Grace Davis and I started at the BGS on Monday 3rd July, joining the Communications team on a fixed term contract. My first day was a fairly unusual one, mainly involving helping to clear up from the Open Day on the Saturday before. A lot of balloons had to be popped and I was the woman for the job – unfortunately this did mean many people’s first impression of me was a loud ‘bang’ followed by a grimace and a ‘sorry!’

I managed to attend the Open Day on that Saturday (along with my boyfriend, parents and friends who were all eager to have a nosy at my new place of work) and was really glad to have a chance to get to know my way around and learn about some of the work that goes on here. I particularly loved the ‘Walk like a Dinosaur’ stand. After all the excitement and ice cream it was a fairly surreal contrast to then come back on Monday, without my friends and family in tow, and actually start working.

The rest of the week was a whirlwind of meeting people, starting on my very first tasks, and doing a lot of learning, exploring and absorbing. I’m starting to feel a little bit like a sponge…
On Wednesday I attended my first lunchtime lecture – hosted by Graeme Taylor, a flood expert from the local council. It was a great opportunity to learn more about what happens when a flood hits and the defences we have against them. I’m definitely going to be looking out for more of these.
I’ve also been working with Impossible Views, a new art exhibition created by the BGS and Quarrylab, a local artist development group. The exhibition is open from now until 13th August and showcases pieces that bring together art and science, looking at the similarities between the two. Keep an eye out for my blog post on the exhibition next week.

And that brings us to today: the end of my first week on the job. It’s been an amazing first glimpse into a whole new world, whetting my appetite to really get stuck into some of the fascinating projects going on here. Look out for my weekly blog posts taking you along for the ride, through the eyes of a complete newbie!

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Isotopes in Biogenic Silica Melanie Leng

In June 2017, the ninth meeting of the Isotopes in Biogenic Silica (IBiS) working group met in Blanes, Spain. The meeting was arranged with the aim of those interested in "silica, silicon and isotopes" to meet to discuss recent advances and discoveries in:

  • biological and molecular processes involved in the production of biogenic silica
  • ecological and biogeochemical mechanisms in the production of silica stocks
  • silica isotope tracing of processes in both modern and ancestral environments
  • biotechnology of silica

The meeting was organised by the Centro de Estudios Avanzados de Blanes (CEAB-CSIC) and attracted around 50 researchers from around the world. It was clear from the meeting that the use of silica in biotechnology (mainly as a carrier for other elements that need to be distributed in tiny quantities) is a huge growth area. Other important advances are being made around the signal retained in the oxygen and silica isotopes within the biogenic silica structure, as well as the advancements in analytical protocols and laboratory inter-calibration exercises.

Blanes, the gateway to the Costa Brava, was a relaxed setting for a conference. Although it is a popular tourist town, due to its amazing beach front, it was still early in the season so very quiet. Of note to geologists is the Sa Palomera, a rocky promontory that protrudes into the sea, made of fairly coarse-grained granite (which accounts for the wide, golden beaches).

Please contact Melanie Leng if you are interested in all aspects of the geochemistry of biogenic silica and would like to join the working group. We hope the next meeting to be in Northern Europe in June 2019.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

BGS Open Day 2017: A Huge Success!!

It was truly a great day here at BGS on Saturday!  The sun was shining and people arrived in their droves to attend the BGS Biennial Open Day! This is the third such event we have hosted and it is becoming increasingly popular, with well over 2000 people attending this year.

There was a small army of BGS staff in dark blue t-shirts ready to answer questions and guide people as they got stuck-in to over fifty different activities and learning experiences.  And to top it all, there was even an ice cream van!

As well as a series of talks, the BGS site in Keyworth, Nottingham, was divided into Learning Zones, each one with a different theme: 

The Red Zone included demonstrations and activities on plate tectonics, earthquakes, tsunami, volcano mapping, coastal erosion and mapping minerals on the sea bed (with thanks to NOC).  You could see how mountains are shaped and unearth the secrets of soil or play a protect-your-soil game.  There were fossils through the ages and you could even make your own fossils with Rockwatch, the nationwide club for young geologists.

Getting eaten alive at the BGS OPen Day 2017!
Getting eaten alive!
Fly above and below the landscape on a virtual 3D tour of the UK
Discover information in our boreholes
Face painting!
The sand pit that changes colour!

The Yellow Zone displayed our maps and apps, which are useful to anyone with an interest in geology, from engineers and other scientists to homeowners, gardeners and walkers, or even minecraft gamers.  There was a giant floor map and a place to learn about how we use rocks and minerals in the home.

The Green Zone showcased our landslides and sinkholes research and gave the opportunity for people to talk to the experts about hazards and engineering.

The Purple Zone introduced the Anthropocene - a new geological era that encapsulates human driven biological, chemical and physical changes to the Earth’s system.  You could dig through this era in a sandpit of discovery and also find out about the secret life of your mobile phone!  You could also pan for gold!

The Blue Zone was full of splashingly good watery fun where you could learn about the water cycle, including how aquifers work.  How do we measure water levels and water quality?

A tour of the BGS core store at the BGS Open Day 2017
A tour of the BGS core store

Fossils through the ages
Digging for dinosaur DNA at the BGS Opwn Day 2017
Digging for dinosaur DNA
The secret life of your mobile phone at the BGS Open Day 2017!
The secret life of your mobile phone

Panning for gold at the BGS Open Day 2017!
Panning for gold!
And if all that wasn't enough, Plymouth University were here helping you walk like a dinosaur to tell you which dinosaur you would have been and how fast you were running compared to animals from today.

Walk like a dinosaur - with thanks to Plymouth University Earth Sciences Department
Walk like a dinosaur - with thanks to Plymouth University Earth Sciences Department
We'd like to thank all the staff and visitors who took part in the Open Day - see you next time!

The BGS Open Day 2017 - a day of fun, interest and geological learning!
The BGS Open Day 2017 - a day of fun, interest and geological learning!