Tuesday 21 August 2012

A Blog from Down Under

Every four years the geologists from around the world get together in an International Geological Congress (IGC) which was held this year in Brisbane Australia. It's a long haul from the UK, but it's increasingly necessary to be present outside of Europe and North America as we start to see real globalisation of our science.

Entrance to the IGC at the Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre
Increasingly science research programmes that were dominated by western subscriptions are being joined by memberships from Brazil, China and India. We are starting to see significant investments in geological research in these and other countries, not only to underpin their natural resources, but also to educate their young scientists. One notable movement is the Young Earth Scientists (YES) network that will be meeting with the IGC. YES focus on up to date media such as webinars, blogs and social media to communicate; the formal lecture being slower and reaching fewer scientists.

IGC on reducing carbon emissions

A significant focus of the IGC meeting in Brisbane was on energy supply and security. How can we reduce our dependence on carbon as coal, oil and gas, for energy? These sources of energy are very efficient.  They have high calorific values and are relatively easy to transport, but 30 billion tonnes of carbon per year are injected into the atmosphere and have resulted in an increase in global carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere from 280 ppm to nearly 400 ppm since the industrial revolution.

Over the same period the population of the planet has grown to 7 billion. Expected demand for energy as this population grows and demands better living standards, will at the very minimum double to 1000 exajoules per year. We must reduce emissions. 

Coal burning produces about twice the CO2 output of gas power stations and a significant part of the reduction could then come from conversion to gas power plants that are fed from potential gas reserves held tightly in sediments, called shale gas; the USA uses 200 trillion cubic meters of gas per year and now more than half comes from shale gas. There is a consensus among geologists that shale gas is a potential resource that will significantly extend our dependence on carbon related energy, but at the same time we must make energy use efficiencies and use non carbon sources from energy, including nuclear, geothermal, solar and wind production. Australia plan to include a significant geothermal part in their energy mix, currently they do not produce any energy this way.

Geological surveys will play an important role in defining shale gas reserves, geothermal sources, radioactive waste repositories, subsurface energy storage and infrastructure for wind-farms. Transparency and publication of operational practices and research results is mandatory.

Very dynamic geology in New Zealand

After my visit to Brisbane, I am now in New Zealand at GNS Science having discussions on the International Continental Drilling Project (ICDP).  This is the most active geological environment on Earth as New Zealand sits astride the Alpine fault which cuts across the country dividing the Australian plate from the Pacific plate. The collision between the two is at about 5 cm a year year (50 meters in a thousand years) and the mountains are created by uplift and erosion with 12 meters rainfall on west side of alpine fault and as low as 30 cm the other side resulting in a sharp contrast in relief, erosion and vegetation West to East across the country.

It is an earthquake prone region and the recent Christchurch earthquake although not as large as some earthquakes, has resulted in significant damage, a large part of the city will have to be abandoned and relocated. This damage was mostly due to a process called liquefaction, which liquidises the shallow sediments as a result of shaking of water saturated sediments. This is why a detailed understanding of the shallow subsurface and how it behaves in earthquakes is needed to better manage the risk of damage.


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