Thursday, 20 December 2018

The 12 Blogs of a BGS Christmas: the top GeoBlogy posts of 2018



GeoBlogy, the name for the BGS blog, is a great way to get a flavour of what goes on at BGS and gives you a glimpse of the challenges and achievements of those who help to make us a world-leading geological survey. From geologists to cartographers, from groundwater to space weather and from breaking discoveries to the daily grind; you'll find all of this and everything in between on our blog and it will give you a true taste of everything that goes on at BGS.

For Christmas, we thought we'd share the top 12 blogs on GeoBlogy from 2018, so sit back and relax and find out what was hot on the BGS blog over the last year.

1. Unseen video footage: The Holbeck Hall landslide 25 years on...by Catherine Pennington

Our most popular blog from 2018 was this one from Cath Pennington, engineering geologist, landslide specialist and of course science writer at BGS. Written back in June, this blog was put together 25 years after the Holbeck Hall landslide as a result of some unseen video footage turning up in our archives, taken at the time from an aeroplane (drones hadn't been invented yet). There is no sound and the images are a little hazy due to the weather, but you can get a good idea of the scale of this landslide and some of the damage it caused.

2. PODCAST: Geology is boring, right? What?! NO! Why scientists should communicate geoscience...by Catherine Pennington

Our number two slot also goes to Cath Pennington who decided to take matters into her own hands after being told one too many times that geology is boring! In this blog Cath shares a brilliant podcast that she put together after a conference on Communicating Geoscience run by the Petroleum Group of the Geological Society.

3. Do Shale Resources Have Any Place in a Green Great Britain?...by Joe Emmings

Joe Emmings, a Post-Doctoral Research Associate in shale gas and geochemistry has got the number three slot in our 12 Blogs of Christmas. His excellent blog explored how shale resources could help the UK transition to much cleaner energy such as renewables and was published as part of Green Great Britain Week, meaning that it attracted quite a lot of attention!

4. Tracking the life signature of Britain: The Biosphere Isotope Domains GB dataset and web portal...by BGS Data

The number four slot was obtained at the end of May when we published this blog to coincide with the release of a new dataset and web portal, that even includes a handy 'try me out' section. The new website that it talks about enabled users to input their own data and compare it with the reference data from three isotope systems (Sr, O and S) that characterises the contemporary British biosphere, in order to assess the likely geographic origins of their sample. The method has its roots in archaeological studies of human migration for example to establish a likely place of origins of our ancestors but it is likely to be applicable to other research areas such as forensic and food traceability.

5. Not a boring story: the impact of sharing data...by Gerry Wildman

The number five place goes to Gerry Wildman, data and science services manager at BGS. Gerry's blog tells us of the impact of BGS scanning our collection of legacy borehole records and releasing them as open data on our OpenGeoscience website. Overnight, the number of borehole records accessed went from 2,000 a month to 20,000, and in 2017 we logged over 2.5 million downloads!

6. Update from the elephants...by Fiona Sach

Back at the start of 2018, Fiona Sach, currently the elephant coordinator for the Zoological Society of London wrote a guest blog for us updating on her work into reducing Human-Elephant Conflict surrounding Kruger National Park. The interdisciplinary project involved geochemistry, plant science and animal health between a range of partners including the BGS and the University of Norttingham.

7. Learning to code: the benefits of taking a BGS sabbatical...by Rachael Ellen

Some of our most popular blogs are about the various career development opportunities at BGS, and Rachael Ellen's blog from July is an example of this. Written back in July, Rachel's blog tells us how she took a break from the world of geology to do something completely different and outside of her professional comfort zone and took an adventure into the world of software development supported by the BGS Sabbatical Scheme.

8. Mapping a geomagnetic storm with Raspberry Pi magnetometers...by Ciaran Beggan

Back in 2017, one of the largest storms of the current solar cycle hit the Earth. Starting around 11.30pm on 7th September, the first and deepest part of the storm lasted for around 3 hours and beautiful aurorae were visible all across the UK. At around 1pm on 8th September a second burst arrived though it was during the day in the UK so the aurorae were not visible. They were however detected by the newly installed BGS Schools Magnetometer Network! Ciaran Beggan, geophysicist at BGS and member of the geomagnetism team tells us all about it in the number eight blog in our list.

9. Celebrating and Reflecting: UN International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction...by Joel C Gill

Published in recognition of the UN International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction in October, Joel Gill's blog celebrated the actions that people and communities around the world are taking to reduce their exposure and vulnerability to disasters. It also reflected on the research, innovation and training needed to advance this work and ensure sustainable and resilient communities and looked at how BGS is working to address many of these issues.

10. Rock solid advice for geoscience PhD Students...by Melanie J Leng and Anson Mackay

Back in September, Melanie Leng, Science Director for the Stable Isotope Facility & Director of the Centre for Environmental Geochemistry, wrote a series of article for Geoscientist, the magazine of the Geological Society, giving advice for new and current geoscience PhD students. She very kindly put this into a great blog with seven key points that range from organising your data to dealing with your supervisor.

11. Energy transitions and geoscience...by Mike Stephenson

Our last two blogs are both written by BGS Director of Science and Technology, Prof Mike Stephenson. The first one looks at how important geoscience is to energy transitions and he looks at the technologies and geopolitics that underlie present and historical movements in energy sources including the most recent move towards renewables from fossil fuels.

12. Geoscience and climate change: the African groundwater story...by Mike Stephenson

The last of our top 12 blogs is again from Mike Stephenson and looks at the 'geology-energy-climate nexus', or the intimate relationship between geoscience, energy supply and climate change. This very much concerns groundwater and its importance to climate change adaptation with the question of just how important groundwater will be in helping people to adapt to climate change.

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It's not fact-based narratives that are missing in the energy debate: It's the will to bring unusual suspects together in the same space...by Cristina Chapman

Over the years, I’ve sat in many conversations about how we continue to meet rising demand for energy, while tackling climate change and managing the impact on the environment. I’ve heard from bosses getting energy into the heart of people’s homes, people facing the prospect of energy being extracted from beneath them, analysts working out how we get renewables to power the future, and many others.

The role of a professional communicator is not to participate in these conversations but to facilitate them. Our most important skill is listening, to what people want and need to know; who they want to talk to; what they have to say; and how they say it. Only by listening can we bring the right people together to improve the discussions to find better solutions.

As we spend most of our time absorbing what other people have to say, our insight is shaped by many perspectives. We learn a lot and we develop a comprehensive overview. Every now and then, we are asked to share it.

Last month was one such occasion. I was invited to speak at the UK launch of the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) 2018 World Energy Outlook about what it meant for engaging with people outside the energy industry. The IEA crunches the world’s energy data and each year explains what’s driving demand, how we’re meeting it, what markets are emerging and how we’re performing against carbon emission targets.

On the face of it the World Energy Outlook is bleak. Upward population growth. Upward demand across the world. Upward CO2 emissions. Slow renewables growth.

On that drizzly November morning in London as the UK’s population of 69 million buzzed through their daily routines, just 80 people heard the CEO of The Committee on Climate Change Chris Stark call for ‘everything to happen everywhere across everything’.

Against this outlook, as an advisory board member of the CIPR's Energy Leadership Platform and the British Geological Survey's strategic communications manager for energy decarbonisation, I was asked to share my insight into how we develop sensible, clear and concise fact-based narratives about where we are and where we are going.

As I looked out across the crowd of the usual suspects in that safe London lecture theatre, I took a deep breath and told them they were asking the wrong question. Fact-based narratives are not lacking. Nor is the ability to explain them in a concise, clear and sensible way. What’s missing is the appetite to bring together people unlike one other into a single conversation.

That morning, I championed the value of every community member, business, scientist and public official taking part in the energy conversation. Those against all activity in the underground environment. Those against the pursuit of fossil fuels. Those who look to the sun for the answer. Those who look to technology. Those who know we can’t do without oil and gas. Those who know we need the underground to scale up renewables. Those who know that everything we depend upon either comes out of the ground or grows in it.

Each narrative is clear and concise. Each perspective borne from knowledge and experience. Every position a valid part of the discussion and solution. If everything must happen everywhere across everything to solve climate change, then everyone must take part in the conversation to get the solutions working.

Our single biggest learning from engaging with people on our UK Geoenergy Observatories proposal (research facilities that will answer vital questions about how the subsurface can help to deliver a cleaner, future energy mix) is that so few forums exist in which the conversation about our resources reflects the complexity of the problem. Where they exist, none are inclusive.

It was late in our engagement programme that this penny dropped. We were one of the few, perhaps only, organisations providing an open forum in which anyone who wanted to contribute to the energy and climate change debate could do so.

Understandably people were frustrated. They had an important contribution and no way to make it heard. Conversation was, therefore, drowning in a good versus evil rhetoric. Discussion was short-circuiting in adversarial dialogue.

Then we showed up, in standard-issue BGS blue t-shirts with tea, biscuits and graphics. We showed up again. And again. And again. We met a diverse crowd. With diverse views. We saw the challenge from every angle. The economic bodies vested with sustainable growth. The innovators solving tomorrow’s problems. The educators making the next generation work-ready. The industry drivers keeping the wheels turning. The community representatives taking care of life today.

The conversation people wanted to have moved way beyond the science of managing the subsurface through to politics, economics, ethics, morals and values. We stayed on the right side of the line. We are experts in geoscience and have a statutory duty to provide independent evidence to everyone – whether you’re in government, industry, academia or the public. So, we explained the boundaries of our expertise, facilitated debate, provided input on the science wherever appropriate, and signposted people to researchers, regulators, decision-makers, policy-makers or industry where questions were not ours to answer.

So very many geoscientists are excited by the UK Geoenergy Observatories as an opportunity for people to learn about the underground environment: Understanding that it feeds us, clothes us, cures us and keeps us warm, safe and dry. It’s hard to dismiss the rationale that because we demand so much of the underground, we must take much better care of it. They hold great optimism that here is a chance to demystify the underground, shifting perception from the stuff of ancient myths and legends to images created by great data, scale and state-of-the-art modelling. Their enthusiasm for the potential knowledge gained is infectious: from how reservoirs affect the rocks to how quickly aquifers replenish.

However, as is so often the case when you open a conversation to impart what you know, what you discover is so much more valuable.

Through the scores of opportunities we've created for people to find out about the importance of geoscience in meeting our future energy needs, tackling energy poverty, addressing climate change and improving environmental management, we’ve begun to understand how to change the energy conversation.

It sets a challenge for us all – for every public body, academic institution, industry player and community member. We will only find workable solutions when we include everyone who wants to be part of the conversation. It enables us to begin to understand one other. To develop trust. To generate genuine and honest two-way dialogue.

This means that, however incongruous and difficult it seems, the suits, scientists, number-crunchers, and policy-makers must sit alongside the nannies, farmers, engineers, teachers, landowners, industry executives and campaigners who want to be heard. Not just once but as the norm. Trust is only gained by putting yourself forward time and again. It’s not easy. It’s not quick. It’s not cheap. But urgent action from ‘everyone, everywhere, across everything’ to tackle climate change requires new solutions. To turn our energy options from black and white to shades of green, we must put long-term gain ahead of short-term cost.

As our friends at the IEA reminded us last month, the solution to climate change must start in the developed world. Perhaps, the very resource, skill and ingenuity that turned Britain into the birthplace of the industrial revolution is the same alchemy that can put the UK at the forefront of the environmental revolution. Global action on climate change starts at home with a better fireside chat about how we keep the embers glowing and the trees growing.

Cristina Chapman is the UK Geoenergy Observatories communications manager at the BGS and Advisory Board Member for the Chartered Institute of Public Relations Energy Leadership Platform.

Sunday, 16 December 2018

From Keyworth to Kisumu: Aquaculture in Lake Victoria, Kenya - A student adventure…by Kelsey Ferris

I have almost completed my 1-year industrial placement in the Inorganic Geochemistry team at BGS, and will soon be back in New Zealand to finish my undergraduate degree at Waikato University. My experience has included fieldwork in Kenya, aqueous chemistry analyses for BGS science projects and external clients. The experiences I have gained from this placement branch much further than broadening of my analytical and research abilities. My leadership skills, independence and confidence within my own abilities has grown immensely due to the responsibilities I have been tasked with. 

Kelsey analysing samples in the aqueous lab
My research project aligned with Andy Marriott’s Newton International Links project – Aquaculture: Pathway to food security in Kenya, which is investigating the contribution of micronutrients from wild and caged Nile tilapia in Lake Victoria to dietary intakes in the Winam Gulf basin. In addition, possible inorganic contaminants were measured to define potential pollution pathways, hence food safety. This work also supported CEG activities with the University of Nottingham, who measured antimicrobial resistance as a result of exposure to metal pollution.  In my previous geoblogy I talk about the exciting adventure I was a part of in May as we undertook fieldwork on Kenyan Marine Fisheries Research Institution (KMFRI) research vessel R. V. Uvumbuzi, sampling Lake Victoria for waters, sediments and fish.

Life aboard the R. V. Uvumbuzi. I tried my hand at all aspects of fieldwork, from sampling to navigation.
The filtered waters, fish tissue and sediments were analysed back at BGS for general chemical parameters, mercury and a full suite of elements on the ICP-MS. It was clear to see while sampling that the water quality in Winam Gulf was much poorer than the greater Lake Victoria basin, as it ranged from vivid green in hypereutrophic and high-density aquaculture zones near cities, to murky brown throughout the Gulf. Waters within Winam Gulf had much higher concentrations of anions, cations, alkalinity, TDS and many other parameters than the greater Lake Victoria basin. This, coupled with a low TN:TP ratio in shallow Winam Gulf waters, indicates that Winam gulf is hypoxic and of poor quality for aquatic life to grow.

The water quality of Winam Gulf was poor compared to the main Lake Victoria basin.
A typical daily portion of fish comprises of 100g of tilapia and compared to an average Kenyan PMTI (provisional maximum tolerable intake), none of the potentially harmful elements studied for wild or caged tilapia were greater than 4% of the PMTI. Hence, the health risks associated with consuming tilapia were low. However, 100g of both caged and wild tilapia exceeded 10% of the RDI (recommended daily intake) for numerous essential micronutrients, and was noticeably higher for selenium. This indicates that the tilapia sourced from both caged and wild sources is a good source of nutrients. Part of my research outcome and possibly the next step would be to do more research on the nutritional quality of caged tilapia to improve Kenya’s food security.

Back in the UK I have soaked up as much of the British culture as I could, experiencing snow for the first time, the special magic of a winter Christmas (although I am looking forward to spending it at the beach this year!), and the attraction to a beer garden on one of the precious summer days. During my personal time I have travelled around Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Germany, Croatia, Scotland and Wales, and have been amazed by the rich culture and history that we Kiwi’s aren’t accustomed to.

Thank you to all of the wonderful people I have met during this journey, the mentors who have guided me towards finding a new passion in aquaculture research, and to the lifelong friends who have made this year the best of my life! This year has taught me that success is the result of a combination of opportunity and hard work. If you are lucky enough to find yourself in the right place at the right time, apply yourself and you will be amazed at the results.

Friday, 14 December 2018

How do you coordinate a group of scientists working across seven continents, to achieve the project objectives? By Virginia Hannah

This is my role and although it might sound easy, it really isn’t!!

My name is Virginia Hannah.  I have worked at the BGS for over 15 years starting out as a Secretary, later known as Business Assistant. More recently, I have become a Project Coordinator, working on various science projects within the Informatics Directorate.  I now coordinate and bring together the practical and necessary elements of the projects, which a scientist may not always think about, enabling the effective delivery of their science.

I am also the Secretariat for the OneGeology Project, which is still a very active project within BGS and stakeholders from around the globe.  The mission is:

to make web-accessible the best available geological and other geoscience data worldwide at the best possible scales, starting with at least 1:1 million scale.

OneGeology Board members at the 16th Meeting in Vancouver, Canada, June 2018
OneGeology Board members at the 16th Meeting in Vancouver, Canada, June 2018
The project, governed by the Board, meet virtually several times a year and is chaired currently by James Johnson, the CEO of GeoScience Australia (GSA).  I manage the logistics of these meetings that stretch over many different time zones.  This usually means I end up upsetting at least one member who has to attend at an ungodly hour!  However, I try to make this fair and give everyone the chance to attend at least one meeting wearing pyjamas ­čśä  

There is also one face-to-face meeting annually, which the Board Members take in turns to host in their own country, but again, it is my role to coordinate.  I spend lots of time liaising with science and administration staff, where there is quite often a language barrier to overcome, to manage the usual logistical requirements for the meetings.  In addition to the day programmes, I also organise evening events such as conference dinners; ensuring time for networking, I have to bear jet lag in mind and make sure delegates are not is falling to sleep in their soup!  I also manage the material we need to take with us, such as pop-ups, give-aways, posters etc, and determine how we are going to get that stuff to the venue.  Whether that be filling peoples cases up for them or arranging courier deliveries, which can be a nightmare if you only have a conference venue address to deliver to!

I manage the administration of the project and all of the communications and outreach activities.  I am responsible for purchasing all marketing material as well as creating flyers, posters and creating and editing newsletters.  I attend the meetings to report on marketing progress and expenditure, as well as take notes and detailed actions from the meetings, which I monitor for progress and closure after the meetings.

OneGeology Board Meeting in Full Swing at Geological Survey Vancouver Canada Offices June 2018
OneGeology Board Meeting in Full Swing at Geological Survey Vancouver Canada Offices June 2018
This year the Geological survey of Canada (GSC) kindly hosted us at their offices in Vancouver, 13-15 June. OneGeology celebrated its 10-year anniversary in 2017-18, so to celebrate the board decided to make this event in Vancouver bigger and hold a three-day meeting.  So adjacent to the usual one day face-to-face board meeting, we hosted the annual Technical Implementation Group (TIG) meeting and ran a one-day regional workshop, which outlined the focus of the project for the next ten years, with a particular focus on North American involvement.  To manage these events, I worked closely with the team at GSC,  Boyan Brodaric and Sonya Ryou

The invited delegates came from all over the world: UK, Japan and Australia to name a few.  Many people that attended gave presentations, which you can find on the OneGeology website along with the minutes from each event.  

Prior to the meeting, I had to plan the timings of these presentations and work with the IT team to ensure that the rooms that we had been allocated, were equipped with the correct equipment to make the presentations.  During the meeting, I also had to make sure that the presentations were loaded onto the meeting PC and ready to run at the correct time in the agenda. I worked alongside the chair to make sure that the presentations ran to time.

To communicate the considerable achievements of the last ten years, we aligned the OneGeology meetings with the Resources for Future Generations conference, which was being held at the Vancouver Convention Centre.  

Session 4 was The changing roles of geological surveys.  Here, Carina Kemp (GeoScience Australia), Matt Harrison (BGS) and Fran├žois Robida (BRGM) presented and ran the discussion session about the OneGeology project.  They described how big data is managed within the international geological survey community and explored how exciting new technological directions, such as the application of artificial intelligence, will impact next generation geoscience and the geological survey organisation of the future.  I helped to co-ordinate participation in the session prior to the conference and attended to ensure they ran smoothly.  I also minuted the session and took photographs, which I tweeted from @onegeology and will feature in the next OneGeology Newsletter.

Carina Kemp presenting at RFG
Fran├žois Robida presenting at RFG

Matt Harrison presenting at RFG
Matt Harrison presenting at RFG
At the conference exhibition, we also had a booth in association with the rest of BGS.  The booth was staffed by BGS personnel attending the conference.  I wanted OneGeology to be represented at the booth, so prepared a timetable for an expert to be available during certain times every day to answer any questions and give advice.  I took a corner of the booth and set it up with OneGeology information and products to entice delegates to take an interest. 

I also work on the H2020 European Plate Observing System (EPOS) project, as the communications lead for the Geo-Energy Test Beds for Low Carbon Energy (GETB) work package.  I also attended the RFG conference in this role to report on presentations given by the GETB teams 
  1. Dr Helen Taylor (BGS) who presented: EPOS and ECCSEL; Geoenergy Test Beds in European Distributed Research Infrastructures
  2. Mohammadreza Jalali from ETH Zurich, who presented; In-situ Stimulation and Circulation Experiment as a Decameter Geo-Energy Test Bed for Enhanced Geothermal System Development presentation, on behalf of EPOS GETB during the same session.  
I attended both presentations to take notes and pictures to communicate to the wider EPOS community through our dedicated GETB web page and to produce an article for the external newsletter, produced by the EPOS programme management office.

Dr Helen Taylor giving the joint EPOS –ECCSEL presentation at the RFG in Vancouver, June 2018
This was the first time I had the chance of attending a conference of this size and it was exciting to have the experience.  It was challenging because I hadn’t experienced a science conference as a delegate before and being a ‘non-scientist’ I found it difficult to know which sessions to attend.  When I did find talks that I wanted to see, they were all over the place, and this convention centre was BIG, so navigation was fun, but I managed it and attended some great sessions.

Attending the conference meant I finally met people face-to-face who I have worked with remotely for years.  I would not necessarily have met them in person otherwise.  It has given me a greater understanding of the need to network and insight into some of the collaborations BGS has going on globally, and the complexity of how these intertwine with other collaborations closer to home.  It has also strengthened my confidence in the work that I do within these collaborative projects and how my role fits into the bigger picture.

As well as this, I got to hang out with a moose and was fortunate enough to see this beautiful view of the Rockies out of the aeroplane window on the way home…if Carling made sunsets! 

Virginia Hannah on her trip to Canada
Virginia Hannah on her trip to Canada



Thursday, 13 December 2018

VIDEO: Landslides Training in Scotland... by Cath Pennington

In October, a few of us spent a week in the beautiful Scottish Highlands looking at landslides and we've made a video about it.  The trip was just after with a period of very heavy rain that triggered some debris flows that closed the A83 Rest And Be Thankful Pass where these types of landslide are a regular occurrence.

Staff attending the training week had a range of different expertise and were mostly from the Landslides Team in Keyworth and Quaternary Geologists from our Edinburgh office. These are two groups of people trained to look at the landscape in different ways.

The idea was for the Landslides Team to get a better understanding of the Scottish geology - a complex beast that can produce different landslides to those elsewhere in the UK - and for the Quaternary Geologists to further their expertise in landslides, especially debris flows.

Debris Flows

These landslides are defined by Ballantyne (2004) as:
the rapid down-slope flow of poorly-sorted debris mixed with water.
Debris flows are a particular problem in Scotland.  Their biggest impact is to cut across roads and railways that can leave communities isolated and important routes blocked.  Perhaps the most famous repeated site of debris flows is the Rest And Be Thankful Pass where the closure of the road results in a 55-mile detour.

Dr Claire Dashwood and Dr Nikhil Nedumpallile Vasu comparing the debris flows that happened in 2007 with that from October 2018
Dr Claire Dashwood, Engineering Geohazard Geologist, and Dr Nikhil Nedumpallile Vasu, Engineering
Geologist, comparing the debris flows that happened in 2007 with that from October 2018
How we put debris flows on our maps is something we are working on at the moment and this produced a lot of discussion in the field.  We also used the examples we visited to help us consider our GeoSure Debris Flow Model, a map that provides information on the potential of the ground to form a debris flow.

Stood at the top of Glen Our with landslides on our minds, shame about the mist
Stood at the top of Glen Our with landslides on our minds, shame about the mist

Debating the geology, the geomorphology, the palaeoenvironmental history and ... just a lot of debating!

The topographic map of the area
The topographic map of the area

More discussion and debate

Found it!  Comparing debris flows from different years at the Rest and Be Thankful Pass.  We are stood on the other side of the valley which is a great vantage point to see how the slope is behaving.
Found it!  Comparing debris flows from different years at the Rest and Be Thankful Pass.  We are stood on the other side
of the valley which is a great vantage point to see how the slope is behaving.

Beautiful Scotland
Beautiful Scotland

The training course was well received by everyone attending and has opened the door to plenty of collaborative work that can only be beneficial to everyone.  We even came across this: Landslide beer!  It was named after the debris flow that blocked the road near the brewery, but also because of the repeated debris flows on the A83 that leave the brewery cut off.  The initial debris flow is documented in our National Landslide Database (17693/1) as well as many of the others on the Rest and Be Thankful Pass.

Landslide beer!  Named after a debris flow that blocked the road near the brewery




Monday, 10 December 2018

Decarbonisation: the importance of ‘good geography’...by Prof Mike Stephenson

On a recent visit to the spectacular Iron Bridge in Telford Shropshire I was reminded not only of the engineering genius that designed it - Thomas Pritchard - but also the factors that came together to make the bridge possible – a gift of good geography and geology. The bridge, opened in 1781, is widely seen as a symbol of the birth of the industrial revolution in the fact that its construction involved the use of raw materials on an industrial scale – limestone, coal and iron ore. Without these three resources in close proximity to the town of Ironbridge and the bridge itself, this famous construction would simply not be there.

The industrial revolution set the world on a course of the large scale of use of resources including fossil fuels and therefore on the course of a period of emissions that could be called ‘carbonisation’. We now need to decarbonise, but for some of the most challenging parts of decarbonisation, for example industry, transport and domestic heating, good geography and good geology will still matter.

We are witnessing rapid progress in the decarbonisation of electricity production with wind and solar costs dropping rapidly. But electricity is the easy area to decarbonise. Industries that make steel, aluminium, cement and ammonia won’t be so easy to decarbonise because the processes they use produce CO2 emissions directly, and because they use very large amounts of fossil fuels and electric power. Domestic heating is also hard to decarbonise. The UK, for example, uses more energy in heating than for generating electricity and for running its transport system. Around 70% of this energy comes from burning gas producing more than a quarter of the UK’s CO2 emissions.

The decarbonisation of industry, transport and domestic heating sectors needs planning and thought. One solution is to develop geographical clusters that can exploit existing industrial infrastructure together with natural geological resources and other advantages to allow local solutions. An example is the hydrogen economy – the idea that hydrogen can provide a fuel for cells to drive vehicles, heat houses and power industry . Its production may in the longer term be through electrolysis of water using excess (renewable) electricity, but in the short term is more likely to be produced by steam methane reforming (SMR) from natural gas which produces CO2 and hydrogen. The latter is a useful zero carbon fuel, and the former can be used or most likely will need to be disposed of geologically. The key point here is that geological disposal of CO2 can’t be done everywhere, because only specific geologies are suitable. It’s also known that to make the hydrogen economy work, huge amounts of the gas will be needed, and therefore so will large local storage. In most cases, this means geological storage in salt. So geography and geology are again important.

An example is the H21 Leeds City Gate project  which seeks to convert the existing natural gas network in Leeds – used mainly for heat -  to 100% hydrogen. A batch of four SMRs on Teeside will produce the hydrogen needed while the waste CO2 will be captured and disposed of offshore in the southern North Sea. Capture is well established and the technology for disposal has been demonstrated at scale for over twenty years close to the Sleipner Gas Field in deep North Sea rocks. Salt cavern storage in the Tees and York areas will be needed for ‘intra-day’ and ‘intra-seasonal’ swings in demand as heating is turned on and off by consumers. Beyond heating, the availability of low-cost bulk hydrogen in a gas network could revolutionise the potential for hydrogen vehicles in the North East and, via fuel cells, support a decentralised model of combined heat and power and localised power generation.

A similar project, the Liverpool-Manchester Hydrogen Cluster, aims not just at decarbonising domestic heat, but also at decarbonising major industrial gas users in the Liverpool-Manchester area, including in the oil refining, glass manufacturing, food and drink, chemicals and pulp and paper sectors. The main use of gas in these industries is for heat production, whether in furnaces, ovens or combined heat and power (CHP) plants.

The Liverpool-Manchester area also has good geology. The nearby Liverpool Bay ‘complex’ of hydrocarbon fields located in the East Irish Sea off the coast of Merseyside, could be repurposed to provide CO2 storage and these fields are likely to cease production around the time that a cluster concept might be reaching maturity. In the early stages the Liverpool-Manchester Hydrogen Cluster does not envisage H storage in salt because many local process industries operate continuously, so little change in demand is forecast daily or annually so there aren’t big fluctuations in demand. However the area is rich in salt deposits which will be well suited for a larger roll out of hydrogen. The area also benefits from two established pipelines that already transport hydrogen, as well as pre-existing skills and capability related to the production, handling and use of hydrogen.

Perhaps most important is the fact that local ‘energy ecologies’ – collections of energy users and producers - are beginning to work together to realise the need to decarbonise. This added to the local funding arrangements of the Government’s new Industrial Strategy  as part of the ‘place agenda’, will provide the impetus to make decarbonisation happen through carefully targeted government funding along with co-funding from industry to address market failure. The cluster concept underlines the need for industry and government to work together to decarbonise, but also the importance of the distribution of useful rocks, and ultimately the importance of geology in decarbonisation. This is alongside the decarbonisation options that rocks also provide, including geothermal power and cooling and air conditioning, as well as the potential for large scale heat and energy storage.

Back in the Eighteenth Century the impetus to build the Iron Bridge came from local entrepreneurs, including Abraham Darby who first smelted local iron ore with coke made from Coalbrookdale coal in 1709. Darby had agreed to construct the bridge with a budget of £3250 and this was raised by sponsors of the project, mostly early industrialists from surrounding towns and villages. The bridge probably cost about twice that - around £700,000 in today’s money. This was an investment that was part of the ‘carbonisation’ process which was the industrial revolution. The same kind of partnerships are being formed in the new decarbonisation clusters again driven by the opportunities that new technologies can bring to local economies.

If you are interested in the wider geology – energy – climate nexus read my new book:  https://www.elsevier.com/books/energy-and-climate-change/stephenson/978-0-12-812021-7.  Also register for this exciting conference (https://www.geolsoc.org.uk/Lovell19) on the role of geology and decarbonisation.

Wednesday, 5 December 2018

Feeling the heat: exploring the potential for geothermal energy...by Chris Rochelle

The Los Azufres geothermal area. Steam swirls from a natural vent (fumarole)
in the valley bottom, and also from several geothermal wells amongst
the trees further up the valley sides.

Part One - Mexico


Swirls of steam and the deep ‘bloop, bloop’ sound of bubbling mud pools greeted me on my first visit to a geothermal prospect in Costa Rica during my PhD fieldwork in the mid 1980s. Heat energy was literally pouring out of the ground, and the visit opened my eyes to the potential of geothermal energy as a renewable energy resource. Now, some 30 years later, geothermal power produces some 15% of Costa Rica’s electricity, with 80% coming from the prospect I studied. This, together with power from other geothermal areas and a very large hydroelectric capacity, allows >99% of Costa Rica’s electricity generation to be from renewable sources, and the country aims for its power supply to be carbon neutral by 2021.

And Costa Rica is not the only country with high aims. I write the first part of this blog on the return leg of a long-haul flight from Mexico where I have attended a meeting of the GEMex project - a €20M EU-Mexico collaboration which aims to enhance understanding of two geothermal systems east of Mexico City. Over 100 scientists from across Europe and Mexico spent 4 days visiting working geothermal operations, discussing their latest data, and trying to combine many different strands of research into coherent models for the two study sites.

Our busy schedule started with a four-hour ride in the back of a minibus to the Los Azufres geothermal field. This geothermal field has an installed capacity of about 200 MW, and produces some 20% of Mexico’s geothermal power. The geothermal field covers many square kms, and is in a beautiful area of rolling countryside. We walked through pine tree-lined valleys to study natural features of hydrothermal areas, including fumaroles, bubbling pools and hydrothermally-altered rocks. We were also allowed to visit the surface infrastructure of a geothermal plant, including: production wells, injection wells, turbine halls and the control centre of the whole operation. Unfortunately, time did not allow us to visit the numerous geothermal spas in the area.

From L-R: GEMex project participants inspect the wellhead of a producing geothermal borehole; A similar image but this
 time taken with an infra-red camera, with white and yellow areas showing the hot steel of the wellhead (and the relatively
 cold people being barely visible left of centre). The steel of the wellhead had a temperature of approximately 150°C.
 
The following three days were spent in Morelia discussing progress on our investigations of the two study sites: at Los Humeros, a currently working geothermal field where its operators want to deepen boreholes, but where little is known about the hotter fluids below the currently exploited zone; and at Acoculco, a prospective, but poorly understood geothermal area where fluid flow rates have been unexpectedly low. BGS input to the programme includes:
  • Study of exhumed, ancient systems that may be analogous to what may lie below the currently active geothermal systems, and where we can investigate fluid-rock reaction processes in detail;
  • UAV-based thermal imaging of warm/hot vents at Los Humeros to identify features conducting warm fluids and to try to match their position with geological structures (i.e. faults);
  • Surface gas monitoring to also identify conductive features;
  • And lab experimental and mineralogical studies to fluid-rock reaction processes that may impact fluid flow with the deep, currently exploited geothermal reservoir.
Developing Los Humeros and Acoculco, and other systems, will help Mexico achieve its own target of 50% of its energy from ‘clean energy sources’ by 2050. The knowledge learned will also help in Europe’s geothermal development, which could provide an important contribution towards the European target of at least 20% of its total energy needs being via renewable sources by 2020, and 32% by 2030.

Whilst achieving 100% renewable energy generation is akin to the Holy Grail of national energy targets, any significant move in that direction would mark a huge shift away from our dependence on CO2-producing fossil fuels which have been the mainstay of our energy-generating technologies since the Industrial Revolution. However, we must make this transition, as climate change driven by release of greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere is one of the biggest challenges we currently face.

The drilling rig under construction at
United Downs in Cornwall.

Part Two - The UK
 

And the UK is also rising to the challenge of renewable energy generation. On returning to the UK I travelled to Cornwall where a large drilling rig is being erected at United Downs. Once assembled, it will spend some 7 months drilling two deep boreholes into the Carnmenellis Granite, one of which could be up to 4.5km deep (thereby becoming the deepest onshore borehole in the UK). This £18M United Downs Deep Geothermal Power Project aims to tap deep natural fractures filled with groundwater at 180-190°C and prove the feasibility of a fully working ‘engineered geothermal system’ (EGS) that can export electrical power to the national grid. This exciting project will utilise modern technologies to convert heat energy to electricity, and builds on expertise gained in the previous ‘Hot Dry Rock’ geothermal project which ran in Cornwall in the 1980s-1990s. If the United Downs Deep Geothermal Power Project succeeds, then it will open up the possibility of parts of the UK’s deep geosphere becoming a renewable energy resource for the future.

Since starting work on this blog, I found out that I have just won £1.8M from NERC for a Highlight Topic focussed on understanding the deep geothermal resources of Cornwall (project = GWatt). This study (which also involves Herriot Watt University, Camborne School of Mines, GeoScience, Geothermal Engineering Ltd, and the Cornwall and Isles Of Scilly Local Enterprise Partnership) aims to reduce the uncertainty associated with geothermal exploration through a detailed appraisal of existing and newly gathered data. Key to this will be the incorporation of new data coming from the United Downs Deep Geothermal Power project.

Acknowledgements
The European Union Horizon 2020 research programme for funding for the European half of GEMex under grant agreement 727550. Thanks go to the Comisi├│n Federal de Electricidad (CFE) for allowing the site visit and access to their facilities, and providing many explanations of the different parts of their powerplant.

Wednesday, 28 November 2018

Geochemistry and Health in the Kenyan Rift Valley...by Michael Watts, Diana Menya and Odipo Osano

The Inorganic Geochemistry team within the Centre for Environmental Geochemistry (CEG) has, with partners from Moi University and the University of Eldoret (UoE) recently completed another round of environmental and human biomonitoring sampling in West Kenya, ranging from the tea estates in Nandi Hills and Kericho, as well as the sugar cane belt across Kisumu County. This study started by joining research led by Dr Diana Menya at Moi University (CNN article) and Dr Valerie McCormack from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) are studying the high incidence of esophageal squamous cell cancer (ESCC) in the western part of Kenya including the Great Rift valley region. It is the 8th most common cancer by incidence worldwide and in Kenya it is the most common cancer in men and third most common in women. Initially the environmental survey was targeted at complementing a case-control study being conducted by Moi-IARC in several counties around Eldoret to provide a measure of environmental and dietary factors (see previous blog), alongside various causal factors that are now under investigation – consumption of a high ethanol traditional alcoholic brew, chang’aa  or ‘kill me quick', cigarette smoking and hot tea drinking, but they are unlikely to fully explain the burden.

Essentially, this project sets out to demonstrate 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.

Tea estates in Nandi Hills and 800m drop down from Nandi into Kisumu County - sugar belt.
Over the past two years, with support from the BGS-ODA programme and CEG, the targets have widened to the collection of urine samples to provide a simple measure of population health status for micronutrients-MN’s essential to health (e.g. iodine, selenium) and potentially harmful elements-PHE’s (e.g. arsenic, chromium). Additional information is collected alongside drinking water, such as usage, reliability and source data that will supplement drinking water supply data from teams working across Africa led by Prof. Alan MacDonald – integration of datasets.  Training has also been a key theme of the overall project, both for environmental/laboratory scientists from UoE and Public Health Officers (PHO) from each County Ministry of Health, to improve local capacity and build long-term partnerships to exploit funding opportunities. Overall, the quality assurance processes are repeatedly reinforced, from the point of planning sample collection, through collection of data and samples in the field, their preservation and maintaining the integrity of the sample until return to the laboratory at UoE or BGS for analyses. Ensuring a traceable audit trail from collection to reporting of data to enable reliable interpretation of data and reporting of data to local Ministry of Agriculture extension services and communication via PHO’s and joint publication in peer reviewed literature.  Ultimately the training approach and transfer of surplus laboratory equipment from BGS and UK research partners will help in the teaching activities at UoE to develop local laboratory capability and systems to provide confidence in data output.  Training in field activities has allowed us to scale up field collections cost effectively, but importantly forge strong partnerships.


So what are we collecting?


At each site we capture data on field sheets a range of data relating to the land-use, crops grown, drinking water source/usage and any local health problems (e.g. ESCC, goitre), along with soil, a panel of crops grown and eaten from the garden or farm, drinking water and a urine sample. The latter often results in some giggling, but nearly always enthusiastic participation, despite the potential embarrassment.  We had three vehicles out in the field on predetermined routes to coordinate daily collections, often at difficult to reach places, but thankfully the weather held and many roads although difficult were passable. Of course, the entry point led by the PHO’s and often the drivers (they have a wider range of language skills) is invaluable in explaining what we are doing and why, in order to gain permission from participants at each site and can often result in a deluge of local information. In fact, we have rarely experienced a negative response, rather a great deal of interest and help.  The challenge will be how we report data back in an appropriate format.  

Sampling in hard to reach places in Nandi hills where rapid changes from forest to farming taking place.

Wider uses for data


The collection points rather than being led by the location of ESCC case-control sites has taken on a spatial link across each county, simply driven by spatial coverage where safe access is possible or where populations reside in the rural community (e.g. cannot access sugar cane estates, rainforest).  In addition, we have incorporated into planning collection sites published soil chemistry parameters. Overall, data will be useful to agricultural extension officers to provide advice to farmers on soil management, to PHO’s in gaining datasets to estimate health status from a sample population within each county (e.g. micronutrient deficiencies, exposure to PHE’s). In the coming years, IARC-Moi University will use the environmental data/dietary intakes to support spot sampling for ESCC-control collection points, utilising the trained field personnel.

From L-R: Collection of data; One of the field teams (includes Diana Menya).
Data is already showing potential links through to developing other projects with UoE-Moi University, along the lines of pollution pathways, soil erosion (recent Global Challenge Research Fund (GCRF) bid), links through to Lake Victoria pollution and impact on fisheries/aquaculture. In fact, Andy Marriott stayed on in Kenya for another week to continue his Newton funded grant partnered with UoE, Kenya Marine and Fisheries Institute (KMFRI) and Ministry of Agriculture/Fisheries to sample fish, sediments and water whilst based on the KMFRI boat – blog to follow. Training in both directions has progressed, in that Olivier Humphrey (CEG/BGS University Funding Initiative (BUFI) PhD) joined the team for land-based sampling for a second time and very competently led one of the three field vehicles, collated all of the database information and provided training in the labs to UoE staff and a mix of 6 under-/postgraduate students – blog to follow.  Tom Kelly also joined Andy on the KMFRI field boat for his first BGS overseas trip.

Laboratory training at University of Eldoret.
Efforts to develop project partnerships and two-way exchanges of staff and students has been recognised in that suggestions for an MOU have been discussed with the VC and DVC for Research and extension services at UoE. The coming months will see how we consolidate on the partnership and friendships built so far. I say friendships, because whilst we all recognise the value of what we are doing, the long days in the field on bumpy and dusty roads, plans not always surviving intact, the shared experience of tiredness and sometimes frustration is always backed up by lots of laughter - which is what you remember when leaving Africa.

Dr Michael Watts is the Head of Inorganic Geochemistry at the Centre for Environmental Geochemistry at the British Geological Survey. Dr Diana Menya is a Senior Lecturer with the School of Public Health, Moi University, Kenya. Professor Odipo Osano is from the School of Environmental Sciences, University of Eldoret, Kenya.


Acknowledgements to wider team:


University of Eldoret: Jackson Masai, Charles Owano, David Samoie, Prof. Odipo Osano, Doreen Meso. Many thanks to student volunteers led by Melvine Anyango and Job Isaboke for help in the field and lab
Moi University: Dr Diana Menya, Esilaba Anabwani - ESCCAPE, Eldoret (Esophageal Squamous Cell Carcinoma Africa Prevention Effort), Amimo Anabwani- ESCCAPE, Eldoret
British Geological Survey: Dr Michael Watts, Olivier Humphrey – CEG PhD student, Dr Andy Marriott
Public Health Officers Many thanks to the PHO’s from Kisumu, Kericho and Nandi Counties, some of whom were volunteer PHO’s serving their community and/or trainees building up work experience.

Friday, 23 November 2018

Last leg of ORCHESTRA cruise part 5…by Melanie Leng

Mel on board the RRS James Clark Ross
Melanie Leng is currently taking part in an expedition to the Southern Ocean as part of  ORCHESTRA (Ocean Regulation of Climate by Heat and Carbon Sequestration and Transports), a NERC funded programme with partners at the British Antarctic Survey (lead), the National Oceanography Centre, Plymouth Marine Laboratory, and many more including BGS. Here she updates us as she nears the end of her expedition on the RRS James Clark Ross…

We have been at sea for around 3 weeks on the RRS James Clark Ross crossing the Drake Passage from the Burwood Bank (an undersea shallow ridge off eastern South America) to Elephant Island (off the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula). All the work has been successfully completed. Personally I have collected over 600 water samples (with help from my overnight buddy, Julia Rulent from the Universities of Bangor and Liverpool) for oxygen and carbon isotope analysis, and around 250 for radiocarbon analysis. These samples are just one leg of the 5 year ORCHESTRA research programme to try to understand the structure of the Southern Ocean and more importantly what changes are taking place within the ocean because of human impact. These samples were taken from over 40 casts of the CTD (see blog part 4) from as deep at 5km in the ocean. On board others from NERC research institutes and UK universities are measuring salinity, temperature, nutrients, carbon, plastics, silicon and nitrogen isotopes, CFCs, and SF6. Many measurements have been made on board with instruments that the scientists have brought a long, the instruments strapped to benches in the ship’s laboratories, to stop them falling off as the ship rocks and rolls. In the 3 weeks on board I can’t remember a calm period, several hurricanes have passed over us bringing massive ocean swells and waves.

There has been a lot of work done, round the clock sampling in periods of relative stability, to make up for time lost due to the weather. The highs include 2 humpbacked whales (mother and calf) visiting us, the mother was enormous, perhaps 12-14m in length. The whales had a distinctive body shape, with long pectoral fins and a knobbly head, they repeatedly lifted their heads out of the water to take a look at the orange high visibility clothing clad scientists on deck, and did several back flips and tail whips. The whales were making their way south in the Southern Ocean to feed off krill and small fish, before returning to tropical waters to breed and give birth, where they live off their fat reserves built up in the south. In the past these amazing creatures have been a target for the whaling industry, and have been on the brink of extinction before protocols were put in place to limit whale fishing. The humpback whale population is increasing but still fishing gear, collisions with ships and noise pollution continue to impact the species.

One day we were also escorted for several hours by a pod of 30 or so pilot whales. It was a mixed group with several large animals of 6-8m, and many calves. The pilot whales frolicked in the waves, enjoying the speed that the currents afforded them, occasionally they stopped and peered at us, lifting their bulbous heads out of the water. With the pod were small clusters of penguins, visible as they surfed the waves on their hunt for small fish. Albatross and petrels follow the ship all the time, possibly for refuse or the small marine animals that are brought to the surface by the motion of the ship, or perhaps they are taking advantage of air currents produced by the ship...

From L-R: Pilot dolphins enjoying the surf; A humpback whale tail whip.
In a few hours we will be docked at Stanley on the Falkland Islands, where we will spend a couple of days demobilizing the ship, taking inventories of samples, packing up the equipment, and generally clearing up for the next cruise. The RSS James Clark Ross will be leaving Stanley in early December with a new group of scientists working on a project called ICEBERGS, they will be travelling along the west side of the Antarctic Peninsula, to see how rapidly retreating glaciers are changing the environment there. They will also be collecting gravity cores to put recent ice shelf retreat into historical (Holocene) context. You can follow them on: Instagram: developingoceans and twitter @ICEBERGS_JCR.

Overall its been a successful research cruise, in no small way down to Dr Yvonne Firing for her leadership and management. Also thanks to the dedicated crew on board, engineers, deck crew and stewards who all played their part.

I am tweeting @MelJLeng and @ORCHESTRAPROJ and Facebooking (Orchestra project) during this trip, a full list of blogs from the expediation are available from the drakepassageblog.worldpress.com page.

Melanie Leng is the Science Director for Geochemistry at the BGS and the BGS lead scientist for ORCHESTRA. 

Wednesday, 21 November 2018

Using workshops to spark ideas: collaborative working in the Lyell Centre…by Amelia Baptie

Workshop attendees getting to know each other.
On 24th October staff and students were invited to a joint workshop between BGS, the Lyell Centre and the Heriot Watt University School of Mathematical and Computer Sciences (MACS). The aim of the workshop was for BGS and Lyell Centre informatics staff and developers to meet each other, and MACS students and staff, with a view to thinking about areas where we can work in collaboration.

Flash talks to spark ideas


The day was broken down in to two parts during which the 25 attendees could present flash talks on their area of expertise and ongoing work. The morning was dedicated to Maths, Modelling and Statistics and the afternoon focused on Computer Science and Informatics. Each of the flash talks was designed to prompt and spark ideas for potential future collaborations between our staff and organisations.

The BGS team presented talks on geomagnetic field modelling and the ongoing role and work of the Informatics department including data delivery, data science, geosemantics, European and International collaborations, commercial and overseas development work. 


Learning about each other


It was fascinating to hear about the work of our neighbouring colleagues. Having the opportunity to hear about (for example) differential equations, robotic bar tenders, mathematical modelling for disease in plants, humans and animals, identifying tourist landmarks using spatial and semantic clustering and the integration of heterogeneous data for crisis management is not something that we have the opportunity to do very often!

Overlapping research


A lively lunch and coffee session enabled everyone to get together to get to know each other and to note down areas of overlapping research and work interest. We had a large collection of ideas on post it notes by the end of the day. 

Ideas for the future


Ideas for potential collaborations include building augmented reality apps, time series data analysis, human computer interaction for mobile and the use of data for crisis management. These are just a few of the 30+ ideas that came out of the workshop.

We would like to say a big thank you to the Heriot Watt Mathematical and Computer Sciences staff for hosting this event and we look forward to getting again together in the future for events such as a proposed hackathon.

As for the collaborations that come out of this workshop, please watch this space!

Monday, 19 November 2018

Learning about cascading hazards at the iRALL School in China...by Jim Whiteley

Earlier this year, I wrote about my experiences of attending an interdisciplinary workshop in Mexico, and how these approaches foster a rounded approach to addressing the challenges in communicating risk in earth sciences research. In the field of geohazards, this approach is increasingly becoming adopted due to the concept of “cascading hazards”, or in other words, recognising that when a natural hazard causes a human disaster it often does so as part of a chain of events, rather than as a standalone incident. This is especially true in my field of research; landslides. Landslides are, after all, geological phenomena studied by a wide range of “geoscientists” (read: geologists, geomorphologists, remote sensors, geophysicists, meteorologists, environmental scientists, risk assessors, geotechnical and civil engineers, disaster risk-reduction agencies, the list goes on). Sadly, these natural hazards affect many people across the globe, and we have had several shocking reminders in recent months of how landslides are an inextricable hazard in areas prone to earthquakes and extremes of precipitation.

The iRALL, or the ‘International Research Association on Large Landslides’, is a consortium of researchers from across the world trying to adopt this approach to understanding cascading hazards, with a particular focus on landslides. I was lucky enough to attend the ‘iRALL School 2018: Field data collection, monitoring and modelling of large landslides’ in October this year, hosted by the State Key Laboratory of Geohazard Prevention and Geoenvironment Protection (SKLGP) at Chengdu University of Technology (CDUT), Chengdu, China. The school was attended by over 30 postgraduate and postdoctoral researchers working in fields related to landslide and earthquake research. The diversity of students, both in terms of subjects and origins, was staggering: geotechnical and civil engineers from the UK, landslide specialists from China, soil scientists from Japan, geologists from the Himalaya region, remote sensing researchers from Italy, earthquake engineers from South America, geophysicists from Belgium; and that’s just some of the students! In the two weeks we spent in China, we received presentations from a plethora of global experts, delivering lectures in all aspects of landslide studies, including landslide failure mechanisms, hydrology, geophysics, modelling, earthquake responses, remote sensing, and runout analysis amongst others. Having such a well-structured program of distilled knowledge delivered by these world-class researchers would have been enough, but one of the highlights of the school was the fieldwork attached to the lectures.


The scale of landslides affecting Beichuan County is difficult to grasp: in this
photo of the Tangjiwan landslide, the red arrow points to a one story building.
 This landslide was triggered by the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake,
and reactivated by heavy rainfall in 2016.
The first four days of the school were spent at SKLGP at CDUT, learning about the cascading hazard chain caused by the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake, another poignant event which demonstrates the interconnectivity of natural hazards. On 12th May 2008, a magnitude 7.9 earthquake occurred in Beichuan County, China’s largest seismic event for over 50 years. The earthquake triggered the immediate destabilisation of more than 60,000 landslides, and affected an area of over 35,000 km2; the largest of these, the Daguangbao landslide, had an estimated volume of 1.2 billion m3 (Huang and Fan, 2013). It is difficult to comprehend numbers on these scales, but here’s an attempt: 35,000 km2 is an area bigger than the Netherlands, and 1.2 billion m3 is the amount of material you would need to fill the O2 Arena in London 430 times over. These comparisons still don’t manage to convey the scale of the devastation of the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake, and so after the first four days in Chengdu, it was time to move three hours north to Beichuan County, to see first-hand the impacts of the earthquake from a decade ago. We would spend the next ten days here, continuing a series of excellent lectures punctuated with visits to the field to see and study the landscape features that we were learning about in the classroom.

The most sobering memorial of the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake is the ‘Beichuan Earthquake Historic Site’, comprising the stabilised remains of collapsed and partially-collapsed buildings of the town of Old Beichuan. This town was situated close to the epicentre of the Wenchuan earthquake, and consequently suffered huge damage during the shaking, as well as being impacted by two large landslides which buried buildings in the town; one of these landslides buried a school with over 600 students and teachers inside. Today, a single basketball hoop in the corner of a buried playground is all that identifies it as once being a school. In total, around 20,000 people died in a town with a population of 30,000. Earth science is an applied field of study, and as such, researchers are often more aware of the impact of their research on the public than in some other areas of science. Despite this, we don’t always come this close to the devastation that justifies the importance of our research in the first place.

River erosion damaging check-dams designed to stop debris flows is still a problem in Beichuan County, a decade after the
 2008 Wenchuan earthquake.
It may be a clich├ę, but seeing is believing, and the iRALL School provided many opportunities to see the lasting impacts of large slope failures, both to society and the landscape. The risk of debris flows resulting from the blocking of rivers by landslides (a further step in the cascading hazard chain surrounding earthquakes and landslides) continues to be a hazard threatening people in Beichuan County today. Debris flow check-dams installed after the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake are still being constantly maintained or replaced to provide protection to vulnerable river valleys, and the risk of reactivation of landslides in a seismically active area is always present. But this is why organisations such as the iRALL, and their activities such as the iRALL School are so important; it is near impossible to gain a true understanding of the impact of cascading hazards without bringing the classroom and the field together. The same is true when trying to work on solutions to lessen the impact of these cascading hazard chains. It is only by collaborating with people from a broad range of backgrounds, skills and experiences can we expect to come up with effective solutions that are more than the sum of their parts.

Jim Whiteley is a PhD student funded through the BGS University Funding Initiative (BUFI). The aim of BUFI is to encourage and fund science at the PhD level. At present there are around 130 PhD students who are based at about 35 UK universities and research institutes. BUFI do not fund applications from individuals.