Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Where is Geoscience going anyway? An opinion.

At the HORIZON GEOSCIENCE policy dinner debate.
The high level panel debate with (L-R) the host Jonathan Bamber,
EGU President, John Ludden, BGS Director, Lieve Wierinck, MEP,
Jean-Eric Pacquet, DH Research and Innovation and
Vitor Correa, EFG President.
As Chief Executive of the British Geological Survey I am often invited to talk about the Survey or more often what Earth scientists do in general. These reflections were part of presentations at the Resourcing Future Generations Conference in Vancouver, Canada in June 2018 and will be presented at the Korea Institute of Geology and Minerals (KIGAM) centenary at the end of October 2018 in Busan, Korea. More specifically they were used to prepare a round-table organised by the European Geosciences Union (EGU) and the European Federation of Geologists (EFG) on the role of geoscience in Europe. It provides my view and not necessarily one that is shared by the organisation I run or the earth science community in general.

1. Introduction


I feel it is necessary to start with a definition to set the boundaries of this discussion paper so I turn to Wikipedia:

Earth science or geoscience is a widely embraced term for the fields of science related to the planet Earth. It is the branch of science dealing with the physical constitution of the earth and its atmosphere. Earth science is the study of our planet’s physical characteristics, from earthquakes to raindrops, and floods to fossils. Earth science is a branch of planetary science, but with a much older history. “Earth science” is a broad term that encompasses four main branches of study, each of which is further broken down into more specialized fields
 
In fact much of what I state in this paper is focussed on the “Solid Earth and it’s interfaces” as I am unqualified to discuss the more fluid Earth. However, I suspect that the basic tenets of this discussion: “that scientists need to move to solving problems related to the future of the Earth and the species that live on it (including humans), rather than simply identification of the problems”, is true across the geosciences.
 
It is time to move towards provision of environmental and Earth-science solutions that require interdisciplinary science involving engineers and physical scientists as well as the social and economic sciences.
 

2. What are some of the fundamental tenets of geoscience?


In producing documents to underline the importance of Earth sciences in Europe specifically
https://www.bgs.ac.uk/EarthScienceEurope/?src=topNav, some of us have produced a simple definition of what we think geoscience is all about.
 
  • Understanding the dynamic Earth: The internal motor of our planet has built the continents and created a habitat for life. It shapes the Earth’s surface and affects our society on human timescales.
  • Creating a safe and healthy planet: Minimize the impact of unavoidable natural hazards and build a cleaner, sustainable environment.
  • Living sustainably on planet Earth: Provide the foundation of the exploration and responsible use of global natural resources, now and in the future.
  • Driving growth: Find the resources that build economic prosperity, support industry and promote innovative technologies.
  • Reducing global inequities: Support science, education and industry in developing nations.


3. The big questions are still there and they require discovery science

 
Earth scientists specifically those in university departments, should still pursue the big academic questions with will allow us to discover more about the planet. Although there are many, some of the “big” questions are listed here.
  • How do planets form?
  • Where did Earth’s water come from?
  • What causes ice ages?
  • What causes mass extinctions?
  • What causes reversals in Earth's magnetic field?
  • Are there volcanic and earthquake precursors that can lead to useful predictions?


4. There are new drivers for applied geoscience research

 
There are significant problems facing the Earth and the people living on it. A significant effort in research has been in defining the extent of challenges that we are facing, not only with changing climate dynamics but also with population growth and associated urbanisation and resource demand. Solving these challenges require the basic knowledge and public understanding of how the Earth may change in their lifetime or in future generations. Underlying this is the need for data on the Earth system, which will be open to all stakeholders and the public and used to define realistic base lines and models of the Earth (climate, resources, health etc.). This shall form a universal knowledge base on which society, economy and business can define options on how to mitigate or respond to change.  

Notwithstanding this Earth and environmental scientist need to focus efforts more on the solution and not the problem, our research should be increasingly goal directed and should be aimed at achieving practical objectives and outcomes.

This shift in emphasis will be enabled by a technological revolution, some examples being the increased use of underground sensors, high-resolution visualisation tools such as the European Plate Observing System (EPOS) and ExtremeEarth, all associated with super-computers. Additionally the proliferation of low-tech citizen-derived data (smart sensors carried by people, urban sensors etc.) will require curation, analysis and sorting for valuable information that is of use.

We are in the process of moving away from fossil fuels and essentially decarbonising the planet. The rate at which we achieve this will be driven by economic factors, but many of the low-carbon solutions are geological and they require us to work across the science, engineering and socio-economic spheres. Examples are shale gas extraction, carbon capture and subsurface storage, geothermal energy and energy storage and some forms of waste storage, and all require a more invasive use of the subsurface. The technology to achieve this decarbonisation requires the application of high-resolution geophysical, geochemical and geo-biological processes to engineered solutions.

We need to make a more effective shift from global geological hazard research to risk-related research. This requires us to effect a shift from identification of hazard from an earthquake, volcano or landslide, to modelling and prediction and communication of geological risk – that is where the hazard affects people’s lives directly.

Global population management and urban growth require geoscience research in provision of water, food, health services and energy where most needed. Resources will continue to be needed provide wealth to developing nations. Increasingly an integrated approach to resource development (corridors) will require modelling the geology, subsurface use such as groundwater and aggregate availability and associated infrastructure. This is no different to the approach of geological surveys in developed countries, but this needs to be translated globally. I fully anticipate that the rate of digital development in parts of Africa and other developing regions to leap-frog the western-world’s reliance on adapted legacy data-systems.

Driven most probably by industry, we will explore and inhabit the Moon and other planetary bodies. This will require us to innovate on Earth with remote sensing new quantum sensors and novel construction techniques (eg 3D printing) to be translated to the moon and planets.  At the same time we will require new sources of minerals, both on Earth and as we explore our planetary system. This will also lead to a surge in fundamental Earth sciences in domains such as lunar and planetary petrology; it is thus essential that the basic disciplines of earth sciences be maintained.

Earth scientists have the experience and knowhow to deal with global data sets. They should take the lead in the creation of, and innovation with, multi-disciplinary Earth data sets. This requires us to establish a generic strategy to reconstruct and simulate the multi-level organisation of the Earth for different domains (energy, climate, biodiversity, resources etc.). To calibrate and reinitialize whole Earth system models for the “satellite era” the past ~30 years, including uncertainties on these models. 
 
We need a platform operated as a community resource that will generate a  3D and time scalable model/representation of the Earth’s environment in time sequences into the future and in parallel, develop a cyber-infrastructure built to meet the current and future needs of Earth and environmental scientists. Including high-resolution environmental modelling from newly acquired observation platforms and networks.
 

5. Is our science too parochial and can we undertake some “extreme geoscience”?


Drilling the ocean-floor via what is currently the Integrated Ocean Discovery programme (IODP) is about as adventurous as we get in the earth sciences. IODP and similar drilling programmes have produced some good discovery science, but with limited applied science; although industry has used the geological models to refine their strategies. The Planetary science and astronomy community have no qualms with multiple hundreds of millions of dollar missions and infrastructure; we struggle when an operation exceeds ~$20-30 million.

Let’s get into some geo-engineering – in fact let’s appropriate the geo in geoengineering!

Can we drill into a magma body and control the magma/fluid system. Both in terms of geothermal energy and magma-engineering to control eruption of magma? Can we seal faults using imaginative mineralogy perhaps mediated through bio-geochemical engineering? Let’s undertake a fully researched hydrofrack, which covers both the optimisation of resource use and assessment of environmental impacts and has full open data release.

In the UK we do now have UK Geoenergy Observatories which is a significant investment (£31 million capital from BEIS-funded via NERC £7.5 million from BGS. resource to manage UKGEOS and a series of UKRI-funded research programmes) all taking our science in the direction I propose.

In the marine realm, can we significantly modify coral reef growth rates and enhance CO2 removal using a geo-engineering approach. How can we better manage the ocean floor using robotic technology?

6. The challenge


This opinion piece essentially  proposes that Earth scientists need to reconnect discovery science, applied science and translation of science.

I would state that academics are too focussed on Earth’s history rather than its future and that we as earth scientists should be solving environmental problems rather than simply identifying them?
I also suggest that we need to propose some BIG Earth Science projects that match or exceed those of the planetary scientists and astronomers – even if these are aimed at geo-engineering of the planet they will have significant fundamental research associated with them.

University research and teaching on oil and gas (and minerals) is decreasing and the concept of leave it (training and research) to the companies is beginning to creep in, as some universities see divestment as a means of attracting students. There may well therefore be a skills shortage in the basic earth sciences (the geo-subject and petro-subjects) developing and the associated industries will struggle to achieve their hiring targets. We thus need to provide new career paths (non-academic) for Earth science students.

Communication with government and the public will remain a major concern. Fighting public perception on what are perceived as environmentally unacceptable industries, but that provide essential resource remains a problem. We will be required to train students and be prepared as professional geologists to dealing with tougher environmental regulations, greater public scrutiny and will need better links with socio-economic research.

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