Thursday, 19 October 2017

Northern Ireland's Geodiversity Charter: safeguarding our rocks and Kirstin Lemon

The Geological Survey of Northern Ireland (GSNI) has just launched Northern Ireland's Geodiversity Charter. Kirstin Lemon, a Team Leader at GSNI and co-author of the Charter tells us more.

What is a Geodiversity Charter?

A Geodiversity Charter is a guidance document that sets out a clear ambition to recognise geodiversity as a vital and integral part of the economy, environment heritage and future sustainable development. This is necessary to safeguard and manage geodiversity for both current and future generations.
The aim of a Geodiversity Charter is ultimately to better inform decision makers and support policy at a strategic level as well as encouraging stakeholders to work together and take a more holistic approach to conservation management of geodiversity. By raising the awareness of geodiversity at a variety of levels it will lead to better protection of geological heritage, and the ability to sustainably manage natural resources, so that the full range of economic, social, educational and environmental benefits can be realised.

Why does Northern Ireland need a Geodiversity Charter?

Northern Ireland for its size, is one of the most geologically diverse places on Earth and it is this geodiversity that has helped shape the fabric of our every day lives. Geodiversity has not only shaped our natural and built environment, but it influences our historical and cultural heritage, biodiversity, education, the economy and our health and well-being so it provides essential benefits for our society.
Geodiversity in Northern Ireland is often overlooked despite the fact that it is an integral part of our natural environment. As a result, it can be taken for granted and it is constantly under threat. By increasing the understanding of the true value of geodiversity in Northern Ireland, the economic, social, cultural and education benefits will be realised. By changing the attitude, it will be possible to achieve a better and more sustainable outcome for every person in Northern Ireland.

Is this the first Geodiversity Charter in the UK?

No, there are already Geodiversity Charters for Scotland and England. Scotland had the first Geodiversity Charter in the world which was published in 2012. It has been very successful in widening the appreciation of Scottish geodiversity and its impact on society, and now has over 60 signatories.

Who will benefit from the Geodiversity Charter?

Northern Ireland's Geodiversity Charter will benefit every citizen in Northern Ireland but specifically a number of key sectors have been targeted who will not only benefit from the Charter but can help to achieve some of the main objectives.
  • Individuals and Communities: Who can experience and enjoy the local landscape and geodiversity and appreciate its value and importance.
  • Landowners and Managers of NGOs: Who can take into account the geodiversity of the land that they manage, try to work in sympathy with natural processes and consider how geodiversity can be appreciated and understood.
  • Industry and Business Sector: Who can endeavour to ensure that new industry and business opportunities take geodiversity into consideration and strive to meet best practice standards.
  • Local Authorities and Public Agencies: Who can ensure that due consideration, management, enhancement and promotion of geodiversity are an integral part of decision-making.
  • Education: Who can share and promote the values and applications of Northern Ireland's geodiversity through teaching at all levels.
  • Academia and Research: Who can continue to develop the geodiversity framework of Northern Ireland including its wider values and applications.

What does the Geodiversity Charter mean for the future?

To date, there are over 20 organisations that support Northern Ireland's Geodiversity Charter. This collective voice will help to maintain and enhance our geodiversity and achieve the future vision of raising awareness, policy integration, enhanced conservation, and continued research. As the success of the Charter spreads, it is hoped that more organisation will add their support, which will help to achieve the overall objective of safeguarding and managing our geodiversity appropriately for current and future generations.

Northern Ireland's Geodiversity Charter was produced by Kirstin Lemon and Sam Roberson at the GSNI with financial assistance from the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affair's Environment Fund (2016-2017). Funding was awarded under Theme 2: Promotion of health, well-being, resource efficiency and sustainable economic development, realising the full value of our environment.

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Geoscience for Sustainable Futures... by Joel Gill

At the end of September, the British Geological Survey launched ‘Geoscience for Sustainable Futures’, at an evening reception at the Geological Society of London. The event gathered representatives from civil society, the private sector, government, and academia to hear about and discuss our ‘Official Development Assistance’ programme of collaborative research and capacity building.

The world faces many challenges that span the interface between Earth science and human activities. For example, ensuring access to sufficient and nutritious food, identifying and protecting water resources, developing sustainable cities, tackling energy poverty, understanding the impacts of environmental change, and increasing resilience to natural hazards. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) aim to address these challenges. The 17 SDGs aim to end poverty, fight inequality and injustice, and ensure environmental sustainability.

Engagement of Earth sciences is critical in delivering these 17 goals around the world. Geoscience for Sustainable Futures will draw on our research expertise in natural resources, urban geoscience, and natural hazards to develop three platforms of research and capacity building, addressing multiple SDGs. This programme aims to enhance the lives and livelihoods of some of the world’s most vulnerable communities.
Research platforms will be characterised by a collaborative approach, working in partnership, especially in-country, with diverse sectors to deliver enhanced economic and social development. Platforms will contribute to improved understanding and management of natural resources (e.g., soils, energy, minerals and water), infrastructure, and urban environments, together with the strengthening of Earth science services, training, and skills.

Research Platform 1: Integrated Resource Management in Eastern Africa
Eastern Africa faces natural resource challenges due to exponential population growth, rapid urbanisation, and economic development. We aim to improve human welfare and future economic development by characterising resources in the context of a changing natural and social environment.
A key research theme is to understand the links between geology, soils, water and agriculture to help tackle micronutrient deficiencies (so called ‘hidden hunger’). Our hydrogeological expertise will investigate the diverse natural and anthropogenic stresses on groundwater resources, aiming to improve and ensure water security and quality. Research on the location, extent and characteristics of critical metal resources, essential for use in many technologies, will help to inform natural resource governance.
Agriculture in Tanzania (Public Domain)
Research Platform 2: Resilience of Asian Cities
Asian cities are exposed to multiple natural hazards and environmental stresses, rapid urbanisation, and significant uncertainty in their resilience to environmental change. We aim to improve their resilience by integrating geoscience knowledge in urban subsurface planning and decision-making, and urban-catchment science in India and south-east Asia.
Key research themes include using data informatics, sensor technologies, and modelling systems to improve integrated urban planning, identify new and economically viable uses of the subsurface and its resources, and avoid conflicting and potentially harmful subsurface uses. Research on the diverse stresses faced by cities and the sub-urban surroundings will help strengthen development of planned and resilient city networks.
Urban Development in Vietnam (Public Domain)
Research Platform 3: Global Geological Risk
Geological hazards (such as volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and landslides), and their associated risk and impacts, are of key concern to long-term economic growth. Understanding these dynamic processes, and using this information to improve disaster risk reduction, can increase the security and sustainability of development, and protect lives and livelihoods.

We aim to characterise complex, multi-hazard processes in Latin America and the Caribbean, eastern Africa, and Asia. A key research theme is to integrate citizen science, innovative technologies, and understanding of environmental processes, hazards and impacts to strengthen resilience.

Eruption of Montserrat (© NERC)
Follow our progress and get involved

We will be sharing further information and outputs from Geoscience for Sustainable Futures on our website and the BGS Global Twitter pages over the coming months and years. Whether you represent an organisation in one of the countries that we will be active in, are a UK-based academic or development practitioner interested in collaborating, or a member of the public interested in the application of geoscience to international development - we would be delighted to hear from you.

Discussing Integrated Resource Management in Eastern Africa at the launch of
Geoscience for Sustainable Futures.

Advance of the Agonic – what does this mean? Susan Macmillan

Global map showing declination from the World Magnetic Model at 2015.0
The agonic is a line on a global map along which the directions to true north and local magnetic north coincide. In other words it is where magnetic declination, sometimes simply referred to as magnetic variation, is zero. The global map shows declination from the World Magnetic Model at 2015.0. Shown in green is the agonic line. 

For the past 350 years in the UK and Ireland declination has been westerly (magnetic north west of true north) and the agonic line has been advancing from the east. In 2017 the agonic line arrived at East Anglia and Kent and is due to pass slowly over the British Isles during the next few years with declination becoming easterly behind it. Susan Macmillan of the Geomagnetism Team explains a little more.

Magnetic declination at mid-2017
At the BGS regional and global models of the Earth’s magnetic field are derived every year to keep accurate track of the slow changes in the Earth’s magnetic field. These models use data from observatories, satellites and repeat stations and are widely used for navigation and orientation. The map shows how declination currently varies across the UK and Ireland in more detail than the global map. Also shown are locations of ground-based observatories and repeat stations. The BGS run Lerwick (LER), Eskdalemuir (ESK) and Hartland (HAD) observatories and UK repeat station network and Met Éireann runs Valentia (VAL) and Irish repeat station network.

What is causing this gradual change in direction of magnetic north?

The Earth’s magnetic field is sustained by a dynamo process in the liquid outer core of the Earth. Interactions between the flow of the molten iron-rich material in this region and the magnetic field generate electrical current that, in turn, creates new magnetic field which sustains the field. Energy sources for the fluid motions are primarily convection - as the Earth slowly cools down, warmer fluid ascends and cooler fluid descends and solidifies onto the inner core. This in turn changes the chemical composition of the fluid, and buoyancy forces result. The effect of these deep Earth processes on declination at the four observatories in the UK and Ireland can be seen in the graph. Note several sharp changes in trend in this graph, for example at 1925, 1969 and 1979. The cause of these so-called geomagnetic jerks is not fully understood.

What does this mean for compass users in the British Isles?

Magnetic declination at the four observatories in the UK and Ireland
The advance of the agonic line to the UK and Ireland will affect compass users when swapping between map bearings and magnetic bearings. A common mnemonic to help remember whether to add or subtract magnetic variation when converting from map bearings to magnetic bearings is “East is least, west is best”. This mnemonic is applicable for any type of map and anywhere in the world, no matter whether the north lines on the map are true north lines or grid north lines or whether magnetic north is west or east of map north. “Least” in this context means “subtract” and “best” means “add”. If converting from magnetic bearings to map bearings, as one would if locating one’s position on a map using back bearings from known features, the sense of the correction should be reversed.

Some mnemonics, however, will no longer work when magnetic variation is easterly. Examples of mnemonics which are soon to be redundant in the UK and Ireland are “grid to mag, add - mag to grid, get rid” and “MMM (Magnetic to Map Minus)” – can you think of others?

Monday, 16 October 2017

Survival at sea as part of ORCHESTRA: Part Chris Kendrick

Chris, Mel and Carol undertaking survival at sea training in
readiness for their ORCHESTRA cruises next year
The British Geological Survey (BGS) is a major partner in a scientific programme called ORCHESTRA (Ocean Regulation of Climate through Heat and carbon Sequestration and Transport) which has been running for over a year. The project aims to improve our ability to understand and predict the role of the Southern Ocean currents to modulate global climate. The BGS’s contribution to this research is to analyse the oxygen and carbon isotope composition of waters from the World’s oceans over a 5 year period. The carbon data will be used to investigate where carbon is ether absorbed by the ocean or expelled into the atmosphere. This is particularly important as the oceans regulate atmospheric CO2. The oxygen will help us to track currents and understand where freshwater enters the oceans.

 Next year three of the BGS staff (myself, Carol Arrowsmith, and Melanie Leng) will be going to sea to collect samples across 3 transects of the World’s oceans: I will sail along the 24°S parallel between Rio de Janeiro and Cape Town, Carol the Falklands and Cape Town via the Weddell Sea, and Melanie across the Drake Passage.

 As part of the preparation for going to sea, we had to undertake personal survival (at sea) training, in case we have to abandon ship! We did this training at the Humberside Offshore Training Association (HOTA) facility in Hull. We spent a day learning about the ship on-board safety equipment (survival suits, life rafts, location devices), as well as how to abandon ship safely (jumping into a very cold pool from a few metres high), how to board and right a life raft etc. Overall we learnt that the key to survival is team work and will power. (Incidentally, and according to a quick search on the web, only two dozen or so large ships sink at sea each year from a cohort of 50,000 large ships, that’s 0.05%).

See our previous blogs about ORCHESTRA:

The start of a major new research Carol Arrowsmith

The ORCHESTRA project is led by the British Antarctic Survey. For further details please go to our website. Twitter @ORCHESTRAPROJ  Facebook: Orchestraproject

Friday, 13 October 2017

Carbon capture and sequestration in peat in response to positive and negative Coleen Murty

I am a PhD student who recently started an EPSRC-funded studentship in collaboration with Newcastle University and the Organic Geochemistry Laboratory at the British Geological Survey, working with Dr Geoff Abbott and Dr Christopher Vane. The project will focus on harnessing the carbon-storage capacity of peatlands by investigating a series of organic supplements which can release phenolic compounds and test whether these can suppress greenhouse gas release.

In spite of various studies focussing on enhancing carbon capture in the oceans and on land through afforestation, there has been no known attempts at increasing the carbon storage capacity of peatlands or utilizing them to store externally captured carbon.

Why study peatlands?

Northern peatlands are one of the largest terrestrial carbon sinks on the planet, storing approximately one third of global carbon stocks, equivalent to ~547 Gt of carbon.  Ombrotrophic peats dominate in high latitudes, temperate climates and are characterised by acidic conditions and low microbial degradation rates which result in net carbon sequestration. Evidence suggests that global warming is amplifying the global hydrological cycle, thus causing periodic variations in the water table across the northern peatlands. Resulting implications could mean changes to feedback mechanisms controlling rates of carbon accumulation/decay in peatland areas – potentially converting a current global carbon sink to a carbon source.

Sphagnum moss is the dominant peat-forming species which is abundant in acidic ombrogenous bogs. They contain biologically active phenolics which act as structural support components and inhibitors of microbial decomposition. Sphagnum cell walls are very recalcitrant, as they biosynthesize high amounts of phenylpropanoids (e.g. trans-sphagnum acid). Sphagnum acid is a phenolic secondary metabolite produced to restrict plant degradation by providing structural support to cellulose within the cell wall and increasing the cells water-holding capacity.

This research aims to investigate sphagnum acid in more depth by determining which form it primarily exists within peat - in its free form or bound form within the cell. Results could give insights into the best way of preserving carbon. In order to answer the question of whether capture and sequestration of carbon in peat is feasible, the chemical nature peat organic matter must be understood at a deeper level.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

A model for Quality Assurance, Lab Management and Good Laboratory Practices for David Samoei

My Name is David Samoei from the University of Eldoret (UoE) in Kenya. I work as a Senior Technician in the School of Environmental Studies, Department of Environmental Biology and Health. I assist in the project that explores links between soil geochemistry and the spatial incidence of oesophageal cancer in Kenya (see previous blog from Michael Watts). I undertook a Commonwealth Professional Fellowship (CSCUK) 2017 alongside a colleague, Takesure Tendayi who is also a Chief laboratory technician from the University of Zimbabwe School of Agriculture and Soil Sciences. This training took place with the Inorganic Geochemistry team at the British Geological Survey (BGS) in Nottingham.

Our training exposed us to the use of state of art laboratory equipment i.e. ICP-MS, IC and NPOC. Due to the sensitivity of these equipment, I have an improved understanding of the importance of proper sample collection, sample handling, preparation of bulk reference materials and their need for Good Laboratory Practices that require clean environments, good protocols for sample and data traceability.

As a result, we were exposed to Quality Control (QC), Data Management and Interpretative Skills with the use of simple excel spread sheet tools incorporating formulas to manage simple statistics, QC performance charts for laboratory equipment, handling of data outputs through to the client/end-user, importance of using certified reference materials and many more controls.  All of which provide confidence in data issued from a laboratory for use in a regulatory, industry or peer review environment. We were introduced to the concept of Quality Assurance (QA), which is comprehensively wrapped up in ISO 17025. Whilst not every laboratory requires ISO accreditation, the maintenance of a quality management system is crucial to a laboratory, again for confidence in data outputs.  The overview of principles of QA, which includes documentation, Standard Operating Procedures (SOP's), Quality Control samples and monitoring processes will help us develop our own systems in Africa and understand the challenges to implement them and possibly even aim for appropriate accreditation. Our collaboration with the BGS laboratories will act as a bench mark to this monumental task. This can be achieved in a stepwise and staggered manner. Accreditation is possible for Africa laboratories.

Health and Safety, Waste Management is an integral part in all the processes and systems in laboratories in general, to safeguard staff safety, comply with legal and regulatory frameworks, ensure control of chemicals, hazardous equipment or procedures to minimise risk where possible. The safety designs, training instruction, and personal protective equipment (PPE) made a good impact on me, being asthmatic I was able to work in soil sample preparation laboratories without any complication, an area which could otherwise be dirty and dusty without extensive controls in place to protect staff and minimise sample contamination. This knowledge will be used to introduce simple steps to gradually improve awareness of health and safety, and waste management in our laboratories back in Africa.

We experienced field collections visiting Colchester Zoo for Fiona Sach’s PhD project (see Fiona’s previous blog), introducing QA from collection through to reporting. We explored more the UK during our training, which coincided with four bank holidays; these gave us opportunities to tour and interact with the wider British National Cultural Heritage. These moments were good refreshing breaks from the intensive training within BGS laboratories. We visited tourist sites around the country in London, Cardiff and Portsmouth experiencing the history and variety in the UK.

African and overseas linkages: BGS is strategically placed to build networks by bringing scientist and specialist together from their already existing linkages and collaborations. Interactions between both myself and Takesure from Zimbabwe, Nottingham University and wider email correspondence with project partners, previous and future CSCUK Fellows has enabled us to develop a network to which we will support one another across Kenya, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi to develop laboratory capabilities and design and implement improvement plans appropriate to our setting. There are further opportunities for collaboration in many areas including exchange of scientific ideas, University laboratory management and Inter-laboratory Standardisation, which will build synergies and improve the laboratory confidence output in our laboratories. 

While the program was intensive, the holidays, particularly the bank holidays allowed for visiting of places of historical interest, below Takesure Tendayi relaxes at some of the notable places of interest.

Clockwise from top left: Chatting with Senior citizens at the acclaimed ‘oldest pub’ Ye Old Trip to Jerusalem (Nottingham),
 Internationally acclaimed TV Personalities (Cardiff), HMS Warrior Ship (Portsmouth Historic Harbour, Portsmouth), 10
 Downing Street, Westminster, London, The Great Oak Tree, Sherwood Forest, Mansfield, George Green’s Windmill,
 Sneinton, Nottingham, Soccer Fanatics, World renowned Martial Arts Experts (Nottingham).
Our next step was to attend joint training activities in Lusaka in September as part of a wider Royal Society-DFID project, linking laboratories from eight organisations across the four countries. The emailing and WhatsApp groups is help to one another in planning appropriate strategies for improving our laboratories, such as our own round robin analytical exercises using our own in-house produced reference materials which will provide a measure of performance for analytical data.

Monday, 25 September 2017

Data Science Techniques.... by Simon Flower

Simon Flower is interested in the application of data science techniques to the range of data in BGS. He is also a senior specialist in IT in geophysics, chair of the INTERMAGNET Operations Committee and a Chartered Engineer. He has managed the growth of information technology across the Geomagnetism programme for the past 25 years.

We recently held a hands-on data science workshop for BGS scientists, an opportunity to spend time learning a little about new ways to work with our data. Many of us are becoming aware of the revolution that is going on in data science and of the power of what household names like Google are doing. Sometimes seemingly ‘magic’ things surprise us. Have you received a flight booking by email only to have Google remind you a few hours before you’re due to depart for the airport? Or stopped at a café to find that Google knows you’ve been there and is asking you for a review. The uncanny accuracy with which Facebook seems able to recommend people that you know is the result of some serious data mining activity in the background.

BGS is rich in data, past and present, and is on the verge of a vast increase in what’s available to us through projects like UK Geoenergy Observatories and the European Plate Observing System. At times we’ve possibly thought of this as a problem, having all this data to look after. But it represents a huge opportunity if we can start to master data science techniques. What would it be like if we could do a semantic search(1) of the entire BGS data holdings, past and present – be able to track down things that are relevant to our work from across the whole range of BGS data. Or continuously trawl the web for things that people are saying that are relevant to us – about earthquakes, landslides or the reputation in which the public hold us? Are we really thought of as an independent body, as we hope we are? Data Science techniques can answer this question. As we develop the ability to use these techniques, we will realise that there are new scientific questions that we can answer.

Looking round BGS I can see that there are a number of areas where we are doing some of this data processing manually and already feeling swamped (a case of data being a ‘problem’). Through necessity I suspect that these areas will develop expertise in data science, turning problems into opportunities. At the workshop we had examples of this, some of us using Apache Spark(2) to investigate processing large volumes of groundwater data. It was good to see scientists in BGS  exploring the benefit from these techniques to their work. I hope that we can build on this and create some exemplar systems that not only solve a particular problem, but also provide the catalyst for others in BGS to take the first step. Watch this space as there’s definitely more to come!

Note 1: A semantic search allows you to search for the meaning of words rather than simply matching the way the letters in a word are ordered. For example, semantic searching would understand that, in the context in which I work, aurora refers to the Northern or Southern lights, not to a Norwegian singer or a type of trainer.

Note 2: Apache Spark is a software system that allows data to be manipulated by clusters of computers, enabling large data sets or complex operations to be completed in a short time. A feature of Apache Spark is that users do not need to concern themselves with how the work is split across the multiple computers comprising the cluster.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Work Experience at the BGS Stable Isotope James Setchfield

Hi, I’m James and for the past week I have been gaining experience working in the stable isotope facility at The British Geological Survey in Keyworth. I have a burning passion for Geography and the processes that help to shape and change the physical world around us. I am currently in sixth form doing my A-levels but have every intention of pursuing this subject to a degree and career level. The work experience scheme I was placed on helped me to gain an understanding of the career pathways Geography leads to. My week at BGS has allowed me to use and understand scientific equipment that I have only ever seen in diagrammatic form.

To start off the week we conducted an experiment with Chris Kendrick where we took samples of calcium carbonate (CaCO3) with unknown oxygen and carbon isotopic values and reacted them under a vacuum, with Phosphoric Acid (H3PO4). The carbon dioxide (CO2) we produced was transferred into a collection vessel, using liquid nitrogen to freeze the CO2, and any unwanted gases were removed using a vacuum pump.

This process took us 2 days so on Wednesday we had a sample that was ready to be put through the mass spectrometer. We learnt how to set up the mass spectrometer manually, which was very useful in enabling me to understand how the machine runs and produces data from the samples. Our samples needed to be left running overnight, so by Friday we had our data which showed us that the loch we were investigating changed from fresh water to marine water, which coincided with the glacial retreat at the end of the last glacial period. This showed us that as the glaciers retreat and the sea level rises, marine water floods the loch and changes the water composition and we were able to trace this using the different isotopic values for carbon and oxygen in our samples.

During our time at BGS we also conducted an International standard Mass Spectrometer Calibration which calibrates the mass spectrometer with all the others in different stable isotope labs around the world, this is to make sure the results  are to the same degree of accuracy and to make sure the data can be cross checked by different labs.

We also had a chance to speak to Dr Angela Lamb who carried out an investigation on the skeleton of Richard III. She was able to see what he had been eating throughout his life by looking at the carbon and nitrogen isotopes in his teeth (age 3-14) femur (17-32) and rib bones (30-32, when he was king). This was all very fascinating and made me want to find out more about how exactly they discovered what he ate and where he lived all through his life by looking at his skeleton.
On the whole I have had a very informative week working at BGS, it has really given me an opportunity to see what working in a laboratory is like and the type of investigations that go on, who knows maybe I’ll end up working for The British Geological Survey in a couple of years, all I can say is that I look forward to it.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

My work experience week at the British Geological Laura Wainman

Hi, my name is Laura Wainman and I am a sixth form student from Rushcliffe School. I have just completed my work experience week in the Stable Isotope Facility at the British Geological Survey. BGS is a world renowned geoscience centre with its headquarters here in Keyworth, Nottingham. A great variety of research is conducted at BGS, from monitoring and forecasting volcanic eruptions and earthquakes to studying local and global environments.  Along with another student James, I have spent my week learning how, from measuring the isotopes of oxygen and carbon, the climate and environmental conditions from thousands of years ago can be deduced.

On Day 1 (after the health and safety induction) we began our week long experiment to extract Carbon Dioxide (CO2) gas from Calcium Carbonate (CaCO3) samples which could then be analysed in a mass spectrometer. The first stage in this experiment was to weigh out our carbonate samples into small test tubes, drop these into larger glass vials containing phosphoric acid and then attach these to the vacuum pump (see above photo) so that overnight all the air could be removed. We then allowed the phosphoric acid and sample to mix by shaking the larger vessel and leaving it in a 25.2oC water bath overnight so that the reaction could be fully completed and all at the same temperature. The next day we then had to extract the CO2 gas which had been formed by the reaction. To do this we reattached the vessel to the vacuum pump and then used liquid nitrogen (which was at -196oC) to sublime the CO2 whilst we removed any other remaining gases.  The gas was also passed through an acetone water trap to remove any water which would have later damaged the mass spectrometer.

Once all of our samples had been extracted we then attached them to the mass spectrometer and left them to be analysed. It was especially interesting to learn in detail how the mass spectrometers work and see all of the components up close. I had not previously known about the use of a reference gas or the requirements of different machines to analyse different isotopes – the ones we were using looked specifically at Carbon-13 and Oxygen-18. On our final day we were able to collect and analyse our results, from the graphs we plotted we were able to see that the loch from which the samples were collected had gradually changed from a freshwater environment to a marine one. This was due to the increase in sea levels at the end of the last glacial period 12,000 years ago.

Whilst we were waiting for our main experiment to progress we were also introduced to many other areas of the lab. This included using microbalances, tweezers and mini spatulas to weigh out very very small amounts (70-150mg) of one of the BGS internal standards of freeze dried broccoli! Whilst frustrating at times, this has certainly given me a much greater appreciation of the meticulous and painstaking preparation of samples required to conduct good research.

We also helped prepare rock sediment samples from Vietnam and Tanzania for analysis, this involved daily emptying and refilling of (many) beakers in order to wash the samples of debris and dirt. Once the samples had dried out we then scraped them out of the beakers and used a mortar and pestle to grind them into a fine powder before depositing them into small vials ready to be analysed.

Monday, 11 September 2017

Rain, hazards and thin sections: A geological adventure in Sierra Lorraine Field

I have just had the opportunity to spend a week and a half in a very wet, rainy Sierra Leone, working with Kathryn Goodenough as part of a two-year partnership project, funded by the Department for International Development (DFID), that is focusing on building a lasting legacy around capacity in the extractives sector. Sierra Leone has been left reeling in recent decades with a brutal ten-year long civil war that finally ended in 2002, the recent Ebola Crisis, and now a catastrophic landslide in the capital, Freetown. My role in country was to run an introductory petrology course to some of the geologists in the National Mining Agency (NMA). Recently refurbished, the Agency has purchased two microscopes to enable them to study rocks in thin section. This is something we at BGS take for granted, but for the NMA, this will be a tremendous step forward. My first challenge was getting four boxes of thin sections that will form the core of a teaching collection at the NMA into country. According to UK customs, thin sections are an offensive weapon, and I very nearly had them confiscated! The flight was spent in nervous anticipation of arriving in Sierra Leone with four boxes of fragmented glass, but fortunately, the boxes survived the baggage handling intact!

A view of the microscope lab

We arrived in country following weeks of exceptionally heavy rain – one estimate we heard was that the rain in August had been 3 times greater than the norm – and believe me, when it rains here, it RAINS! It’s the first time I’ve had to give lectures and battle with the noise of the rain in order to be heard!

Heavy rain at about 10am at the NMA
Unfortunately, this proved to be a contributing factor in a catastrophic landslide in early August causing ~1000 deaths, and extensive destruction to property. BGS colleagues have been working with Arup and local consultancy Integems on a World Bank-funded hazard mapping project for Sierra Leone, and so Kathryn was invited to represent BGS at a World Bank meeting on arrival in country. This meeting brought together key players, to look at issues such as damage to infrastructure (e.g. roads and bridges), stabilising the landslide, hydrology, and obviously, the factors contributing to the cause of the landslide in the first instance. It was a fantastic experience for me to observe the processes and work involved with major organisations such as the World Bank and UN following such a disaster.

Over the weekend, we visited the landslide site with personnel from the international organisations, but also local staff from the NMA (which includes the Geological Survey of Sierra Leone) and members of the Sierra Leone Institute of Geoscientists (SLIG). The BGS project in Sierra Leone takes every opportunity to provide field training and experience to the younger geologists within the local organisations, by taking them into the field with more experienced geologists.  This was a very humbling experience – the news bulletins really did not portray the enormous size of the landslide, nor the reality of the damage caused. We were able to take a detailed look at the geology from the side of the landslide itself and provide our observations to the World Bank and associated organisations. I was grateful to have the opportunity to really see how our branch of science can play a fundamental role in a disaster situation, helping to understand the causes, and then working towards understanding future hazards and risks. We also collected some eyewitness accounts which provided invaluable insights into the timing of key events, and which really brought the reality of the disaster home to us. Freetown is a relatively small capital city of just over 2 million people, so in such a small community everyone knew someone who had lost their life in this disaster.

A view of the landslip from near the source with some of our colleagues from the NMA and SLIG
The petrology course at the NMA started on Monday, with an intense week of lectures and microscope practical sessions. A colleague from the University also joined us in order to refresh and re-stimulate his knowledge. The delegates were eager to learn and proved to be A* students. We worked through an incredible amount of material, from basic microscope operation to covering identification of minerals and textures in sedimentary, igneous and metamorphic rocks in thin section. It was an absolute delight to be able to teach delegates who were so enthusiastic. I hope by the end of the week that I had been able to achieve the aim of providing a foundation that the NMA staff can build on and develop through experience, and then pass on this knowledge by training more staff themselves. I hope soon they will be able to characterise the thin sections that are currently sent out of country for characterisation by the mining companies, thereby growing a commercial service in country at the NMA. As well as working hard, we had an enormous amount of fun during the week: the people of Sierra Leone have a wonderful, fun loving disposition, and one of my most endearing memories of this country will be that of mischievous laughter! If anyone is interested in becoming involved in the BGS work in Sierra Leone, please contact Kathryn Goodenough.