Wednesday, 13 December 2017

A scenic tour of Scotland’s dynamic glacial Romesh Palamakumbura

John Merritt describing the Alturlie Gravels that formed
from a retreating ice sheet.
Recently BGS staff hosted a field excursion to look at the spectacular glacial geomorphology in the Inverness-Nairn area of NE Scotland. This trip attracted 37 leading academic scientists from across the UK, Poland and Sweden. BGS colleagues Jon Merritt, Clive Auton and Emrys Phillips of BGS expertly led the field trip. Over the 4 days we looked at ancient glacial landscapes, newly discovered moraines, world-class glacial deposits and extraordinary glacial landscape features. There is also a comprehensive field guide of around 250 pages, will be available from the Quaternary Research Association soon.

To Moraine or not to Moraine

An optional day to start, organised by Martin Kirkbride and Adrian Hall, took us high into the Cairngorm Mountains to look at a newly defined moraine that represents the development of a Little Ice Age glacier in Coire an Lochain. Martin presented evidence for his interpretation of the moraine, with combination of geomorphology, cosmogenic dating and glacial modelling. Fortunately, his hypothesis managed to withstand the scrutiny of the party, even as the rain started to pour! Check out his paper.

Its main event time!

The following three days were the main field trip, which explored the glacial landscapes and features along the edge of the Moray Firth. We started off at Alturlie Point where we looked at deltaic deposits related to a retreating Moray Firth ice-stream. There was much debate regarding the presence of gravel in the deposit and whether these could possibly represent kettle hole deposits in the delta. Elsewhere quickly deposited gravels resulted in some very eye-catching soft-sediment load structures.

Following on from this we went on to the SSI site at Ardersier to look at world-class folding and soft-sediment deformation structures in the Ardersier Silts. Emrys Phillips guided us through these complex structures, showing the benefits of applying some structural geology knowledge to glaciology, a fantastic example of interdisciplinary collaboration in science. This spectacular site shows the power of a moving glacier and how it can deform sediments, representing a crumple zone in fore-front of the glacier.

From L-R: Ball and pillow soft structures in the Ardesier Silts; Sandy inter-beds within the Alturlie Gravels.

Seriously, this is a rock?

Day 2 and the impressive geology kept coming. We started by looking at the Old Red Sandstone. Upon arrival we find a “rock” that can be dug out with a spade. This remarkable change in character is due to the de-calcification of the rocks, making them a pale white colour, providing a very soft section. It’s the hydrofracturing that really captures the imagination of the group. The pressure and movement of the glacier above has resulted in high-pressured water causing fractures in the bedrock. The fractures are filled with clay and contains broken up pieces of the surrounding Old Red Sandstone.

From L-R: The group exploring hydrofracture networks in the Old Red Sandstone, related to an overriding glacier;
 Decalcification and hydrofractures in the Old Red Sandstone. 

Landscapes and deposits of the Findhorn Valley

The final day of the trip was spent in the stunning and picturesque Findhorn Valley. Incredibly, the valley has Devonian (420-360 Ma) aged deposits, suggesting that it was also a valley in the Devonian time. This was a natural point for Adrian Hall (also a BGS VRA) to jump in and give us an overview of ancient landscapes in the area. This resulted in a spirited debate on the uplift history of Scotland. Was the Scottish Highlands ever covered in Cretaceous-aged chalk? We certainly see them in the offshore area, but how far did this extend on-land? Watch this space for some very exciting science in the future!

From L-R: An overview of the Findhorn Valley; Climbing ripples in the Findhorn Valley. 
The final section of the trip was in the river cliffs along the River Findhorn. The 15 m thick section exposed, represents glacial-meltwater draining from an ice-front resulting in small delta/fan pro-grading down the valley. The energy of the delta system was represented by metre sized rip-up blocks that are now entrained in the fluvial deposits. A more recently exposed section shows lacustrine rhythmites and spectacular photogenic climbing ripples that underlie the glacial delta deposits, representing older phases of the glacial delta/fan system.

Overall, a fascinating trip which provided an excellent opportunity to see some of the most interesting glacial features and deposits in Scotland. Most importantly the excursions created an environment for lively and enthusiastic debate. Many thanks to field trip leaders for organising a fantastic trip and I look forward to QRA/GLWG 2018 in sunny Iceland!

Monday, 11 December 2017

Using fossilised algae to detect historical Heather Moorhouse

DeepCHALLA is an International Continental Scientific Drilling Programme project investigating ~250,000 years of climate change using lake sediment cores from Challa, a 92m crater lake on the Kenyan-Tanzanian border. Dr Heather Moorhouse from Lancaster University explains how fossilised diatoms have been purified from the sediments ready for isotope analysis at the Stable Isotope Facility, British Geological Survey.

The DeepCHALLA project is a large, international consortium of scientists investigating ~250,000 years of climate and ecosystem change in equatorial east Africa using sediment cores from lake Challa. My role, along with Principal Investigators Prof. Philip Barker at Lancaster University and Prof. Mel Lang at BGS is to test whether mega-droughts (lasting up to thousands of years) from ~130-190,000 years before present, may have resulted in the dispersal of our hominin ancestors out of Africa. Further, this region is drought-sensitive and improved understanding of past climate will help predict and prepare the area for future climate change as our planet warms.

In order to investigate the historical climate of the region, we are using diatoms found in the lake sediment cores. Diatoms are a common and abundant member of the phytoplankton community; the microscopic single-celled organisms found in all surface waters, which produce energy from sunlight. They bloom in Challa in the summer and when they die, they sink to the lake floor and form noticeable diatom-rich layers in the sediments, which accumulate over time. Because Challa is a deep crater lake with little shoreline or shallow lake habitats, it is a relatively simple system leading to low diatom diversity, dominated by two species; Afrocymbella and Nitzschia species.

From L-R: Two of the DeepCHALLA lake sediment core sections - the lighter layers are rich in diatoms; Difference
 between a sample rich in diatoms (left) and a sample with little diatoms and more mineral matter (right).
In particular, we are interested in the oxygen isotopes that the diatoms have up-taken from the lake water. Heavier oxygen isotopes indicate higher evaporation rates and so, drier conditions, whereas lighter isotopes indicate more rainfall. Diatoms produce silica or glass cell walls, which protect the isotopes from degradation and thus make ideal proxies for climate reconstructions. Additionally, In terms of investigating isotopes from diatoms the low diversity at Challa is a good thing, as sometimes the size of the species can influence what isotopes they uptake and cause confusion when interpreting results.

Sediment samples were collected this summer from the lake Challa sediment cores from Gent, Belgium (see my previous blog). Since summer, I have been busy in the lab at Lancaster trying to purify ~290 sediment samples so that just diatoms remain. This involves dosing the sediment with hydrochloric acid to remove carbonates, hydrogen peroxide and nitric acid to remove organic material and sieving to remove large particles. Because the sediments of lake Challa are so rich in diatoms, most samples have been processed quite quickly.

SEM image of fossilized diatoms from lake sediment 39 metres deep.
Image shows diatom fragments, Afrocymbella species.
It is important that the diatom samples are as pure as possible as any additional organic or minerogenic material can alter the isotope results. In order to double check the cleanliness of the diatoms, I looked at all the cleaned samples under a light microscope and determined the percentage of diatoms to contaminants. A further subset of samples was investigated using a Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) at Lancaster University, which has a greater magnification to that of a light microscope. Any potential contaminants were scanned using the EDX detector attached to the SEM, which describes the elemental composition of the item in question and again is another great tool to help detect impurity. Luckily most of my samples consisted of diatoms or diatom fragments, and so, are ready to undergo isotope mass spectrometry at BGS, which will begin at the start of next year. Watch this space for what I hope will be some exciting results.

Special thanks to Dr Sara Baldock at Lancaster University for help with the SEM.

Friday, 8 December 2017

The First International Conference of the World Iodine Association…by Olivier Humphrey

Delegates from BGS and the University of Nottingham at the
World Iodine Association conference
In November 2017 a group of students from BGS and the University of Nottingham researching iodine geochemistry and its affect on human health attended the World Iodine Association’s first international conference ‘Iodine in Food Systems and Health’ in Pisa, Italy. The international conference aimed to bring together scientists and other stakeholders working on various aspects of iodine in food systems, to increase understanding on how variations in the earth’s supply of iodine affect human and animal health.

Iodine is an essential micronutrient involved in the production of the thyroid hormones, essential for all mammalian life. Approximately one-third of the world’s population are at risk of iodine deficiency disorders (IDDs). The most common outcome of iodine deficiency is goitre, a swelling of the thyroid gland, however, the most severe effects occur during foetal development; leading to stillbirth, cretinism and mental impairment. The most widely-used method for reducing IDD is implementing iodised salt programmes; however, poor treatment, food processing, losses through volatisation and implementation reduces its effectiveness.

The conference welcome reception was held at the Domus Comeliana, a charming house situated next to the world famous leaning tower. It was here we were given introductory presentations regarding the history of iodine and human health by Dr Elizabeth Pearce. The great work conducted by various organisations towards eliminating global IDD was highlighted by Prof Michael B Zimmermann. After these opening talks, we had our iodine enriched gala dinner consisting of fish, cheeses and, of course, pasta.

Posing in front of the leaning tower of Pisa
I couldn’t resist!
The remainder of the conference was held at the Palazzo dei Congressi where talks were divided into multiple sessions addressing various iodine research related themes. The presentations given covered a wide range of topics including technical hurdles, salt iodisation, international stakeholder organisations’ opinions, before looking at iodine in soil, water and atmosphere. The next step, after looking at iodine in the environment, is to assess iodine in food and health. Dr Sarah Bath, a lecturer in public health nutrition at the University of Surrey, discussed nutritional recommendations for iodine and whether they can be met via dietary sources. Alongside these presentations, there were talks monitoring the iodine status of populations, industrial applications and iodine deficiency and excess in humans and animals.

The final session focused on agronomic biofortification of agricultural produce with iodine and I presented my current work investigating iodine uptake, translocation and storage mechanisms in spinach. Not only was this the World Iodine Association’s first international conference, it was the first conference I had given a presentation at! Despite the wide use of iodised salt, approximately 2 billion people are at risk of IDD, therefore we need to improve and add to current preventative treatments. The fortification of food with iodine is another strategy that can be used to reduce the risk of IDD, however, there is a lack of understanding of how iodine behaves in plants. In general, iodine has positive effects on plants when applied at a low concentration in soils, nutrient solution or foliar sprays. Despite the apparent positive effects on plant growth, the uptake pathways of iodine remain unknown and translocation pathways once absorbed by plants are still disputed. In my research, I have conducted a number of experiments to grasp a fundamental understanding of iodine-plant dynamics and have used isotopically labelled iodine tracers to trace the movement through spinach roots to show that uptake follows both active and passive pathways. This work, and recently published papers, indicates that agronomic biofortification could have a much larger role in tackling IDDs.

Whilst in Pisa, we also visited some key tourist spots, including: the square of miracles where we saw the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta - Duomo, the Baptistery, the Camposanto and the Tower, ate pizza and gelato (when in Rome…). We also managed to spend an afternoon in Lucca, a small city famous for its intact Renaissance-era city walls that surround the city. We wandered around and through the city before climbing the Guinigi Tower, a 45 metre high tower in the middle of the city with seven holm oak trees planted at the top.

My overall impression was that the conference was a great success, the quality of all talks were fantastic and the inclusion of researchers from various backgrounds all investigating iodine was brilliant.

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).

Monday, 27 November 2017

Stable Isotope PhD training at the Melanie Leng

In November the BGS hosted the second PhD training course in “Principles and Practise of Stable Isotope Geochemistry in Earth and Environmental Geosciences”. This intensive 2 day course attracted 30 PhD students from across the UK (from St. Andrews to Exeter) who are researching a diverse range of subjects including stable isotopes in Martian analogues, mantle perdotite, Mesolithic artifacts and Namurian shales!

The course had the aims of providing an introduction to general principles of isotope geochemistry (which are very similar across a range of disciplines), understanding notation and standardisation, to mass spectrometry physics. There were also lectures on isotopes and the water cycle and how these get transferred to palaeoclimate archives, how isotopes are used to trace nutrient and pollution cycles, isotopes in ecology and archaeology and also how we apply isotopes to a variety of geological questions, including the genesis of volcanic magmas, ore deposits and geothermal systems.

The course included a tour of the BGS Geological walkway (thanks to Steve Parry), the National Core Repository (thanks to Simon Harris), and the Centre for Environmental Geochemistry (including the stable isotope laboratories).

The responses from a Survey Monkey on the course were overwhelmingly positive, with the course being given an overall rating of 82%. When asked how clearly the course content was presented over 80% of the participants thought the background material and the application of stable isotope science content was presented either “very” or “extremely” clearly. Students were very happy with how their questions were dealt with, all respondents answering either “extremely” or “very” well. The students were also very impressed by the opportunities to network provided throughout the event. The comments about the course were positive: for example “Fantastic course with fantastic staff would like to be kept informed of other events hosted by the BGS” and “Enjoyable and useful course - locating it at BGS also useful for gaining insight to facilities and meeting staff”.

Thanks to all the students who attended (and gave 2 minute / 2 slide fast track presentations on their research which was extremely diverse!) and to the speakers: Adrian Boyce and Jason Newton (from SUERC); Jack Lacey, Angela Lamb, Melanie Leng, Andi Smith (Stable Isotope Facility, BGS)  and Kyle Taylor (Elementar). The course was sponsored by Sercon, Elementar, ThermoFisher and Elemtex. Next year the course will be held at SUERC in East Kilbride.  Check our web or social media or contact Adrian Boyce.

Twitter #stableisotopetraining
Facebook: Geochemistry Training

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Measurement and modelling human dermal bioavailability of potentially harmful organic soil Jack Lort

I am a PhD student who recently started a NERC and BBSRC funded studentship through the STARS Centre for Doctoral Training, working with Prof Paul Nathanail, Dr Christopher Vane and Dr Darren Beriro. Prior to starting my PhD, I studied at Aberystwyth University, gaining a first class degree in BSc Environmental Earth Science and then continuing onto study MSc Environmental Monitoring and Analysis, which I completed in September. These two courses focused heavily on geochemistry, laboratory techniques and contaminated land.

One aim of my PhD project will be to standardise an in vitro method for quantifying the dermal absorption of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) from soils. The project is currently very relevant to the UK, as PAHs are commonly found in elevated concentrations within the soils of brownfield land, especially sites such as former gasworks where PAHs are formed through the incomplete or inefficient combustion of organic materials. There is over 660km2 of brownfield land in England alone, which is larger than the area of the Greater Manchester Built-up area (630km2) which includes: Manchester, Bolton, Stockport, Oldham, Rochdale, Salford and Bury. The Government aims for at least 60% of new builds to be on brownfield land.

What is Dermal Absorption?

The skin is comprised of three principle layers: epidermis, dermis and hypodermis. The Stratum Corneum is the outermost layer of epidermis which is a protective layer to protect underlying tissues. There are four major pathways for a compound to be absorbed through the skin: intercellular (between cells), transcellular (through cells) and two fissure pathways, via hair follicles and sweat glands. There is a distinct difference between the bioavailability and bioaccessibility of a compound. Bioavailability is the proportion of the total concentration of an organic compound in soil that, following exposure, is absorbed into any part of the skin that then may remain local, or be potentially available for uptake by the blood compartment or tissues for storage, release and distribution to one or more target organs. Bioaccessibility is the total amount of a substance available for absorption, which can therefore be used to estimate bioavailability.

What is dermal absorption?

What Are PAHs?

PAH’s are hydrocarbons composed of multiple aromatic rings (organic rings with delocalised electrons) and are hydrophobic (repels or fails to mix with water) and lipophilic (dissolves in lipids or fats) in nature. Although they can be volatile and water-soluble as low molecular-weight hydrocarbons (< 3 rings) such as benzene. PAH have the tendency to bio-accumulate in plant and animal tissues and are a risk to human health as some are known to be mutagenic and carcinogenic. Although there are over 100 PAHs, the US Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) 16 are commonly analysed to assess PAH levels to reduce lab costs and to allow long term trends to be easily identified. Of these, benzo[a]pyrene is the most common marker, due to its highly carcinogenic nature.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

‘Killer facts’ supporting geology in schools and colleges... Prof. Chris King

What ‘killer facts’ will help you to ‘bang the drum’ when you want teaching geology in schools to continue in this climate of austerity, staffing cuts, course closures or you want to launch a brand new geology course in your school/college?

These may be the key ‘killer facts’ for you:

  • students perform better in geology than they do in other science subjects'
  • AS to A2 staying on rate is better in geology than in other science subjects
  • geology contains elements of all the STEM subjects – critical for those who want to continue studying a science 
  • geology is seen as a ‘relevant’ and accessible subject, often more so than other science subjects 
  • geology gives the school/college a ‘unique selling point’ (USP) 
  • geology interests both girls and boys 
  • geology is a popular subject 
  • the UK needs geologists! 
  • geologists are well paid 
  • geology plays a vital role in supporting the economy of the UK 
Download the full Killer facts article originally published in Teaching Earth Sciences, complete with supporting evidence.

Students perform better in geology than they do in other science subjects 

An Ofqual analysis in 2015 showed that A-level geology candidates achieved between 0.6 and 1 grade higher than students of an equal general ability who took other science subjects i.e. biology, chemistry or physics. 

The AS to A2 staying on rate is better in geology than in other science subjects 

Data produced by the inter-board Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) shows that the ‘retention’ (or ‘staying on’) rate for geology from AS- to A2-level for the past three years was significantly higher than for biology, chemistry or physics.

Geology contains elements of all the STEM subjects – critical for those who want to continue studying a science 

Nikki Edwards, ESTA Chair, has recently carried out an analysis of GCSE geology which clearly showed that the geology specification contains significant elements of biology, chemistry, physics, maths and engineering (the STEM subjects). 

Geology is seen as a ‘relevant’ and accessible subject, often more so than other science subjects 

Experience has shown that geology can explain the physical outdoor world in ways not readily accessed by other science subjects. 

 Geology gives the school/college a ‘unique selling point’ (USP) 

Teaching geology gives a school/college many strong selling points that can be used to promote the institution. A particular case study is Truro School, which employed a company to identify its strengths and weaknesses in terms in attracting students and parents – the results showed that the fact that geology was an excellent department, and achieved higher grades and success than other subjects, was a major factor. 

Geology interests both girls and boys 

Candidate data in recent years has shown that A-level entries have been around 2/3 male and 1/3 female. However, in the past two years, whilst male entry has declined, female entry has remained stable. See Figure 2.

Probably the ‘killer facts’ discussed so far are the most likely to persuade senior management of the importance of continuing/launching a GCSE or A-level geology course.

Geology is a popular subject
Morocco fieldwork

Geology is usually a popular subject in institutions where it is offered, and in some school/colleges, it is the most popular science subject.
Chae Cruikshank, Science Subject Advisor and Geology Subject Officer for the Awarding Body OCR, has written:
‘In centres which offer A level geology, it competes very well with the other sciences, and attracts students who may not otherwise take a science A level; an analysis of A level entry data by OCR showed that in 1:10 centres of all sizes, geology was the most popular science by entry, and in most other centres, competed with chemistry as the second science, it was only in those centres where other factors were imposed (such as a limit numbers or reduced time allocated) that geology was less popular.’
Students on geology courses are the happiest with their degrees. Discover why Geology rocks.

The UK needs geologists 

That the country needs geologists is evidenced by the fact that the latest published UK government ‘Shortage Occupation’ lists ten geoscience-related shortage jobs (including geologist) and only one physics-related job (geophysicist), one chemistry-related job (geochemist), one biology-related job (bioinformation technician) and no geography-related jobs.

More than 40% of applicants for undergraduate geology degrees have A-level geology (UCAS data 2010 and 2012).

Approximately 44% of students who gained A-level geology that went on to university studied for a geoscience degree (Earth Science Teachers’ Association, ESTA, data 2009-2014).

Geologists are well paid

The salaries of geologists are higher than those of many other professionals. Geologists at Imperial College London have emerged as the top earners in a league table of graduate salaries published in the Sunday Times Good Universities Guide, 2017. Their average wage of £73,267 six months after leaving university surpasses that of medics and engineers. What do graduates earn’ section of the Complete University Guide lists mean professional starting salaries for subject groups for first time graduates who completed their degrees in 2014-15. This shows that, of the 70 subject areas listed, geology is 17th at £24,818.

Geology plays a vital role in supporting the economy of the UK 
Construction minerals map

A recent Council for British Industry (CBI) report has highlighted the key role played in particular by the minerals industry, in supporting the UK economy.
The UK Mineral Extraction Industry report carries the following comments:
‘Minerals directly contribute to the UK economy by generating £235bn in gross value added, representing 16% of the total UK economy.’ (p5)
‘Excluding oil and gas, mineral extraction employs 34,000 people and is 2.5 times more productive than the UK average.’ (p6).
The economy simply could not function without minerals; without them, life as we know it could not be sustained on its current scale. The message is clear: minerals underpin everything in the UK economy.

A longer version of this article was originally published in Teaching Earth Sciences, Vol. 42 No. 2 2017. 

Monday, 13 November 2017

ISOcycles – conference Monte Verita, Andi Smith and Angela Lamb

Andi Smith and Angela Lamb.
In October 2017 a small group of researchers descended on the Monte Verita conference centre in Ascona, Switzerland. This fantastic conference centre is the venue of choice for Congressi Stefano Franscini, the international conference platform of ETH Zurich. The conference was aimed at bringing together experts from a range of scientific disciplines to discuss the topic of “Reaching an integrated use of stable isotopes to constrain biogeochemical nutrient cycles.” Andi Smith and Angela Lamb attended from the NERC Stable Isotope Facility at the BGS and here Andi discusses the conference in more detail...

The Monte Verita conference centre is perched on the top of a hill in the Swiss Alps not too far from the Italian border and offers an idyllic spot for a scientific conference. In the early 1900s this hilltop sanctuary was home to a vegetarian colony, nudist retreat and then sanatorium. More recently, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich have adopted the venue as their main conference centre and host a range of events throughout the year.

ISOcycles 2017 was aimed at bringing together researchers who were currently using stable isotope science to help understand nutrient cycling within the environment. The conference was filled with a number of diverse keynote talks and shorter presentations by PhD students, as well as several dynamic poster sessions. One key difference from many conferences was that time was set aside for breakout discussions.

From L-R: The view from the balcony at Monte Verita: at the far side of the lake you can just about see Italy; Even during
 the day trip away from the conference centre there were lots of discussions about isotopes and nutrient cycling,
between enjoying the view and taking some photos that is…
Once broken up into teams we were given a series of “homework” assignments all of which aimed towards us becoming a more integrated group of researchers and asked the question “can the integrated use of stable isotopes help to constrain biogeochemical nutrient cycles in more detail than is currently possible using one isotope approach”. This topic was hotly contested, but the general consensus was that we should become more integrated, using multiple isotopic systems to help understand nutrient cycling as a multidimensional process rather than a diverse set of stand-alone processes. Hopefully by starting these discussions the community will work more closely together in the future to tackle some of the remaining questions in nutrient cycling and dynamics. We are already looking forward to the next ISOcycles in 5 years’ time.

Andi Smith and Angela Lamb are part of the Stable Isotope Facility at the BGS.


Thursday, 9 November 2017

Stable Isotope Geochemistry Training course at Charly Briddon

A bit about me…

Hi, my name is Charly and I am a second year PhD student at the University of Nottingham in the School of Geography and part of the Centre for Environmental Geochemistry at the BGS. Let me start by introducing what I do. I am investigating the impact of aquaculture (in this case, the high intensive farming of fish in cages) in freshwater lakes on the island of Luzon, in the Philippines. I will be using the physical, chemical, and biological information (i.e. proxy data or indicators) preserved in sediment profiles to help me reconstruct how past environmental conditions have changed within these lakes.  Stable isotope analysis is an important part of my research as I will be using carbon and nitrogen isotopes to determine changing levels of productivity and sources of organic matter (terrestrial vs. algal) within these lakes. This will help to disentangle the impacts of aquaculture from other catchment effects such as climate.

So  a bit about the stable isotope course…

On the 31st October I joined 29 other PhD students for a two day Stable Isotope Geochemistry Training Course held at the British Geological Survey.  Since we all intended to use stable isotope analysis as part of our research it was an ideal opportunity to learn more about this technique and its many applications. Over the next two days we were treated to a number of very informative lectures starting with an introduction to stable isotopes (Dr Jack Lacey, BGS) and how a mass spectrometer works (Kyle Taylor, Elementar) to the palaeoclimate applications of oxygen isotopes (Prof Melanie Leng, BGS) and nutrient cycles (Dr Andi Smith, BGS).  We also got to appreciate the diverse uses that stable isotope analysis can be put to. For example, in the field of archaeology stable isotope analysis by Dr Angela Lamb (BGS) on the remains of Richard III has been used to give an insight into his life. This has ranged from using oxygen isotopes to determine where he lived at different stages of his life to using carbon and nitrogen isotopes to see changes in his diet after he became king. Other interesting applications are the use of a range of different isotopic ratios from animal tissues to understand changes in food web structures and animal diets (Dr Jason Newton, SUERC) and isotopes in geological applications (volcanic hazards and mineral deposits, Prof Adrian Boyce, SUERC).

Guest speaker Adrian Boyce (University of Glasgow and SUERC) lecturing
on the geological applications of stable isotopes.
One of benefits of attending the course was to make contact with other students and on the first day each of us was called on to give a speed talk on the subject of our research. It was fascinating to see the wide range of projects being undertaken using stable isotopes from using carbon and sulphur isotopes to determine flame retardant contamination from land fill sites in the UK gull populations to the use of strontium to help find people missing in Guatemala.

One of my personal highlights of the course was a tour of the geological walkway and the geological repository.  The geological walkway is a selection of different rocks from each of the geological periods in the Earth’s history from the Precambrian to the Quaternary. Here we got to see Lewisian gneiss, the oldest rock in Britain! On our second day a tour of the National Geological Repository included a stop to see 500km of sedimentary core archives, its sheer size making you realise the huge amount of scientific research that is carried out at the BGS.  We also got to see the isotope facility, 16 different mass spectrometers (!) that are used in analysing the different isotopes such as oxygen, silicon, carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen and sulphur (and then there are all the heavier mass isotopes in the radiogenic part).

Wow, the National Geological Repository at BGS, showing the storage of both
onshore (left) and offshore (right) sedimentary cores from different geological
periods from in and around the UK.
I would like to thank Prof Melanie Leng and all the other educators (from both BGS and SUERC)  that made this course so informative and useful. On a personal note I made many new friends who I am sure I will keep in touch with throughout my academic career.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

How to draw pictures in the sand on a sunny(ish) beach Catherine Pennington

Dr Jon Lee helping us interpret the geology at Happisburgh, Norfolk
Dr Jon Lee helping us interpret the geology at Happisburgh, Norfolk
I've just got back from a new field-based BGS training course that I enjoyed so much I want to tell you all about it.  It's called Quaternary Deposits, Processes and Properties (catchy title) and is designed for geoscientists who undertake geology-based fieldwork or 3D geological modelling who want to gain experience in describing Quaternary deposits.

It was four days in total.  The first day was at our headquarters in Keyworth where we were given an introduction to the geology of East Anglia, human evolution in the area and an overview of current coastal management issues.  After this followed the nitty gritty of how you describe, interpret and classify Quaternary deposits according to the most recent British Standard. 

Then it was off to Sunny Norfolk for the next three days to put all this into practice.


We started in Happisburgh, a site well known for its coastal erosion and somewhere we have monitored as part of our Slope Dynamics Project since 2001.  The beach here is around 900 metres long and we were tasked with interpreting the entire cliff section to understand what's there and how it got there.

Starting the cliff section at Happisburgh, "draw what you see...."
Starting the cliff section at Happisburgh, "draw what you see...."

Over half of the bay had geology that looked like this, a nice gentle layer-cake affair:

The cliff section at Happisburgh. From top to bottom: Happisburgh Sand Member, Ostend Clay, Happisburgh Till
The cliff section at Happisburgh. From top to bottom: Happisburgh Sand Member, Ostend Clay, Happisburgh Till

But then the further south we went, the more complex it became.  There was quite a bit of head-scratching, debate and even argument (!) about the palaeoenvironmental conditions (what the environment was like when the sediments were deposited).

tting stuck-in at understanding the geology and Happisburgh
Getting stuck-in at understanding the geology and Happisburgh
And then we all drew our different theories in the sand:

Professor Emrys Phillips drawing his interpretation of the Happisburgh cliffs
Professor Emrys Phillips drawing his interpretation of the Happisburgh cliffs
Another sand drawing of the cliffs in front of us.  No idea who drew this.   It definitely wasn't me.
Another sand drawing of the cliffs in front of us.  No idea who drew this.   It definitely wasn't me.
My first attempt to interpret the 900 m cliff section at Happisburgh
My first attempt to interpret the 900 m cliff section at Happisburgh

East Runton

The last morning was spent at East Runton where we were again asked to interpret the cliff section.  This time, we were more confident and were able to use everything we had learned over the previous two days at Happisburgh.  Again there was debate and a lot of drawing in the sand but we came to an agreed interpretation that I would like to tell you all about here but that would spoil it for those going on the course in the future!  Instead, here are some pics...

The cliffs at East Runton, Norfolk
The cliffs at East Runton, Norfolk
Field sketch of the cliffs at East Runton, Norfolk
Field sketch of the cliffs at East Runton, Norfolk

So how exactly do you describe, interpret and classify Quaternary deposits?

Dave Entwisle teaching us how to tell the difference between a silt and a clay by their behaviour
Dave Entwisle teaching us how to tell the difference
between a silt and a clay by their behaviour
After drilling or mapping, often the only remaining evidence of what was discovered is the description provided on the borehole log, section or notebook.  This can vary enormously depending on who made the description and which classification they were following, if any.  High-level decisions can be based ultimately upon these descriptions as, for example, structures are build or tunnels dug.  So what might seem like a small part of the work on the day is actually very important to get right.

BS5930 : 2015 is a description of the behaviour of engineering soils based on material and mass characteristics.  An engineering soil is an aggregate of mineral grains that can be separated by gentle agitation in water.  Most Quaternary deposits are engineering soils.  BS5930 : 2015 aims to standardise description and terminology to reduce ambiguity and error, no matter who describes them. 

Sounds easy right? Well, once we'd got the hang of it, it was actually.  It's a systematic examination process where everything is considered in a logical sequence so you are guided through your description from beginning to end.  Whilst a more sedimentological description may have been what some of us are more used to, everyone could see the merit of the engineering description.

Getting to grips with the Munsell Colour Chart...

Monday, 30 October 2017

Ghosts, witches and zombies: 'terra'-fying tales from Northern Kirstin Lemon

The island of Ireland is known for its ghost stories, with every nook and cranny of the island having a tale or two to tell. Halloween is one of our favourite times of year; a great excuse to dress up, have a bit of fun and generally make fools out of ourselves. It is known for its Celtic origins, being synonymous with the festival of Samhain (pronounced SAH-win), marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of the darker half of the year. It was a time when cattle were brought in for the winter, livestock were slaughtered and bonfires were lit to fend off evil spirits. It was also said to be a time when the boundary between this world and the 'otherworld' were blurred so the souls of the dead could come back for a visit.

In Northern Ireland, there are a huge amount of spooky stories, many of which have been passed down from generation to generation. Over the years they will have been exaggerated and added to, all with the intention of scaring the life out of everyone listening, and there is no better night to tell these than on Halloween. Many of the stories have their origins in the diverse landscapes of Northern Ireland, and in some cases these were a way of helping to understand geological processes before science had helped to provide the answer. Here's just a few of the best ones and please let us know if you can think of any more.

1. Benaughlin

View of the Cuilcagh Mountains with Benaughlin in the front right.
Our first port of call is Benaughlin in Co. Fermanagh. Translated literally as 'peak of the speaking horse' this limestone hill is renowned locally for the legend of Donn Binn Maguire. Being one of the ancient Kings of Fermanagh, Donn Binn Maguire used to go hunting across his lands and on one particular evening he caught sight of a beautiful white stallion. After giving chase, Donn Binn Maguire found that he was completely lost, and before he knew it he had chased the horse into a cave, of which there were many in west Fermanagh. The horse had been a lure to the underworld of the fairies, known to most Irish people as 'the good folk', a strange kind of dangerous supernatural being that was not to be messed with. Donn Binn Maguire was held captive in the underworld where he became undead, being nether dead or alive, and was allowed to go back to the real world on certain nights of the year including Halloween, to bring back a human being for company. It is still a tradition for people to hang a branch of mountain ash above the door to ward off Donn Binn Maguire who may try and take away the prettiest girl, the best scholar or the strongest athlete. Thanks to the Lower Carboniferous limestone geology, there are hundreds of caves in Co. Fermanagh, many of which are steeped in superstition.

3. The White Lady

Located near the Co. Antrim town of Glenarm , the White Lady is a relict sea stack carved out of Cretaceous limestone (more commonly known as chalk) by the action of the sea. At one time, this sea stack would have been surrounded by the sea, but relative lowering of sea level has left it stranded and is one of many similar features including relict sea caves that can be seen all along this coast. The White Lady is so called because it resembles a female figure as you approach and it shares the same name as the ghost that supposedly haunts the nearby Ballygally Castle. Legend has it that the castle is haunted by Lady Isobel Shaw who leapt to her death from a window after her husband locked her in her room because she couldn't produce a male heir.

3. The Vanishing Lake

Looking into Loughareema. Image courtesy of Tourism NI.
Loughareema, or the Vanishing Lake, in Co. Antrim has been a source of puzzlement for decades. To scientists, Loughareema is regarded as one of Northern Ireland's most enigmatic geological sites. This ephemeral or temporary lake lives up to its title as the vanishing lake as it may be empty of water one day and be completely full the next. To most other people however, Loughareema is best known for its ghost stories. Local legend tells us of the drowning of a coach and horses in the 19th century as they tried to cross the lake when it was full. Bizarrely, a road had been built through the lake when it was empty so in the dead of night it was impossible to tell if water levels were high or low. It is said that on nights when the lake is full, a phantom ghost haunts the shoreline, and together with the prospect of the sight of a kelpie, or water-ghoul, Loughareema is not short of a story.

4. Calliagh Bera's Lake

Slieve Gullion in Co. Armagh is part of the Slieve Gullion Complex, made up of three distinct units of igneous rock that were intruded during the Palaeogene period. Slieve Gullion is made up of layers of igneous rock of varying chemistry which adds to the geological interest of the region. The complex geological history of this area on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland has led to a diverse range of strategic landscapes that have been the location for many historical battles. They are also the source of many myths and legends including that of Calliagh Bera, a witch-like creature who took the form of an old woman or 'hag'. One of the best-known stories involves the most famous of all Irish legends, the giant Finn McCool. Finn McCool was said to be captivated by a beautiful young woman on Slieve Gullion called Calliagh Berra. She claimed to have lost her gold ring in the nearby lake and asked Finn to retrieve it for her. He searched for the ring and eventually found it, only to discover that Calliagh Berra had put a spell on the lake and that he had been transformed into a wizened old man. Finn’s men later found Calliagh Berra and managed to persuade her to change him back, but even though he returned to his former self, his hair remained grey. The lake on Slieve Gullion still bears the name of Calliagh Bera.

5. Lough Neagh

True colour satellite image of the north of the island of Ireland with
Lough Neagh visible in the centre of Northern Ireland
Lough Neagh is the largest lake by area in the UK and Ireland with five of the six counties of Northern Ireland having shores on the lake. The depression occupied by the lake formed during the Palaeogene period as a result of crustal stretching and thinning associated with the opening of the North Atlantic Ocean. It is known as a pull-apart basin where subsidence generates space for the deposition of sediments. However, over the generations there have been many alternative theories as to how Lough Neagh formed. One such story includes a well that stood in the centre of the area where Lough Neagh is now found. The waters were supposed to be under the influence of the fairies and were looked after by a local witch. One day the witch forgot to close the gate through which the water flowed and it overflowed causing her to drown and the water that escaped gave rise to Lough Neagh. An alternative story is associated once again with Finn McCool who is said to have scooped up a chunk of earth too throw at his rival Scottish giant. The chunk of earth landed in the Irish Sea forming the Isle of Man, and the crater left behind is now Lough Neagh!

6. Fairy Wells

There are hundreds if not thousands of holy wells dotted across the island of Ireland. Most of these are natural springs, present in abundance due to the dominance of Carboniferous limestone geology. A great number of these springs were given links to Saints after Christianity reached Ireland, but prior to that, many of these would have had spiritual importance for pagan rituals, as water seemingly appeared from nowhere. A lot of these sites were said to be 'fairy wells' and were said to be the homes of fairies so were looked after for fear of angering the 'good people'. Around the edge of the Belfast hills there are records of an abundance of 'fairy wells' and many of these natural springs have now been covered over. There are however stories of strange goings-on including apparitions close to the site of where the 'fairy wells' were located. After all, if you mess with the fairies then you will live to regret it!