Friday 12 December 2014

Geochemical data for the south-west

BGS with a suite of partners including CEH, BAS and universities ran Tellus south-west in 2013. This was the first such survey which involved the traditional Tellus geophysical suite of acquisition and also high resolution lidar and also multispectral analysis. These were complemented by the G-BASE programme of systematic sampling and the determination of chemical elements in samples of stream sediment, stream water and soil in the region.  

The Tellus approach is state of the art in terms of provision of baseline information and underpins the BGS core role in survey which is to provide a marker of the current state of the environment for the measurement and monitoring of future change.

In particular the G-BASE data allows us to assess the condition and health of soils and sediments for agricultural and ecosystem functions and quantify human impact on the environment, indicating elevated concentrations of potential harmful elements. Furthermore it permits the identification of new opportunities for the responsible use of natural resources.

I am pleased to announce the publication of the G-BASE data set for the south-west that will complement Tellus. Our staff have collected and analysed data from 3779 stream sediment, and 1154 soil samples in Cornwall and parts of Devon and Somerset. Analytical data are available for Ag, Al, As, Ba, Bi, Br, Ca, Cd, Ce, Cl, Co, Cr, Cs, Cu, Fe, Ga, Ge, Hf, I, In, K, La, Mg, Mn, Mo, Na, Nb, Nd, Ni, P, Pb, Rb, S, Sb, Sc, Se, Si, Sm, Sn, Sr, Ta, Te, Th, Ti, Tl, U, V, W, Y, Yb, Zn, and Zr and are part of another world class data set from the BGS.

Wednesday 8 October 2014

The European dimension

BGS is involved in Europe in a number of ways, the most lucrative being through EC funded projects, but also through multi-lateral and bi-lateral collaboration that have developed over the years.

Our current funding from Europe is about £1 million and is down on recent highs which approached £2 million. As with many competitive funding sources there are phases of funding and from time to time the phases coincide thus creating a dip or artificial high. We are currently in a dip with respect to EC funding that we had managed to build to about 5% of our total income.

Prognoses for the future indicate that we may be able to increase this income, but it is doubtful that the total will exceed ~10% of our funding. This is about the amount for funding that the EC puts into research as national governments fund the rest.

Should we put such an effort into this funding source as the overheads to win the funding is high and the EC funders do not pay anywhere near the full cost of the research? I have spent a lot of time recently trying to shore up our longer term funding from Europe and ask myself this very question.

I feel that the answer is “yes”, as this work establishes us as international experts and we can then use this credibility to win more lucrative contracts. Nonetheless, the work we do for Europe must be work we would normally do internally. Thus developing new data infrastructure that can also be used in BGS projects in general, getting the EC to fund the construction of laboratories that serve additional purposes or funding data products that we can integrate into national or international data bases that add value to BGS as a whole are the sorts of endeavours we need to undertake. In general these fall in the infrastructure development domain.

I think we are positioning ourselves as leaders in European data delivery for the geosciences and this should be our major goal with Europe. Our partners are not necessarily the other national surveys and as some of you know I am somewhat cynical about an approach that includes all the surveys as partners. Our preferred partners are institutes and entities that we may not intuitively work with, but that need our resources in data processing and also from whom we can learn to build new data products. Why not reposition and reskill to achieve the “the Ultimate Earth model” that is something of the scale of the “human brain project”.  

Understanding the shallow and deep Earth will bring benefits in understanding how we use it for Energy and storage, but also how we remain resilient to geological hazards, like earthquakes, landslides and volcanoes. For the first time computing technology brings this understanding within our grasp but it will involve a joint effort to collect and process data across Europe and the globe.

Monday 14 July 2014

BGS - Looking back and looking forwards......

BGS ran its biennial stakeholders event at the Royal Society last month. The event was attended by about 100 stakeholders from across the spectrum of government, academia and industry. The presentations given by myself, Mike Stephenson and Mike Patterson can be viewed here.

I gave a summary of activities since the last stakeholder event which was of course selective, but underlined our workforce plan, budget and some key science activities, including partnerships. We look strong across the board with a refreshed workforce, near rebuilt estate and some leading science activities for all stakeholders. We were particularly active in the DECC commissioned unconventional hydrocarbons work, in informing government for flooding and also in surveying SW England. We deployed some pretty hefty infrastructure in the Baltic ocean for the International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP) and offshore Japan with our BGS rock drilling capability. We are participating in the SWARM mission and continuing to instrument Iceland as a volcano super-site.

Mike Stephenson (pictured right) presented a video of the highlights of our strategy displayed in Geovisionary and clearly underlining our move towards more instrumentation of the subsurface of Earth to underpin resource development and forecast GeoHazards on "scales that matter to people". 

Mike Patterson summarised where we are with ownership and governance options and made it clear that our preference is for a GovCo public corporation but the status quo would still be on the table as might other governance and ownership options. The ownership outline was well received with the audience asking the same sorts of questions that we are about handling assets and ensuring we can deliver a national geological survey role. Our preferred option was not contested.

With respect to the BGS science strategy, there was support, but also questions about how we will represent our uncertainty in models or more open databases in general. We explained that we were also working on this problem as part of our rapidly developing National Geological Model which will be increasingly open, fed in part through open-sourced information and delivered by smart web services.

All in all 2013 -14 was a good year for BGS and I thank our staff for their excellent contributions.

Monday 28 April 2014

BGS - A centre of excellence for geosciences

The BGS and many other geological surveys are in the process of "upping their game" as scientific research institutes. BGS intends to be the "preeminent research active geological survey" and announced this as part of a study in developing its business planning going forwards. We anticipate that public based funding in the UK and elsewhere, is probably becoming tighter and we will need to diversify our science funding base.   The key will be to maintain excellence in a competitive research market and minimise drift towards science consultancy. 

Paramount in doing this is to have excellent scientists and to be a good place to work. Three news stories from the BGS underline this:

Dr Andy Chadwick a world renowned expert in Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) was recognised by the NERC individual merit promotion panel.   These posts are highly competitive and Andy will develop a far reaching programme in modelling CCS and storage volumes in the UK and globally which will help underpin a zero carbon emissions future for fossil fuels.

Dr Mathew Hall who works at the University of Nottingham and BGS and directs our joint centre for CCS, the Nottingham Centre for Carbon Capture and Storage, was awarded a Royal Academy of Engineering Senior Research Fellowship.   This award will allow him, to devote himself to researching several of our priority areas, such as CCS, shale gas, gas hydrates and energy storage.

BGS was one of the six UK publicly funded research institutes that received an award from the Athena SWAN programme which acknowledges our efforts for promoting good employment practices for women in science. Well done to all involved.

With these sorts of achievements BGS will continue to understand and predict geological processes that science that matters to people's lives and livelihoods.

Tuesday 4 March 2014

Flooding 2014

It has been the wettest winter on record and one when the expertise of British Geological Survey staff was in high demand as flooding extended across much of southern England. At the same time we feel very sorry for those who have been and continue to be materially affected by the flooding and the impacts of the extremely wet ground.

The British Isles are located on the edge of the European tectonic plate system and this location has underpinned a number of our geographic and geological attributes. The one in play over the past few months is that we face the Atlantic Ocean and in particular, we are subject to the position of major geographical fluxes such as the atmospheric Jet Stream and also the  Atlantic Gulf Stream. The long term research that is ongoing and needed is to be able to better predict the weather patterns and in a given year, to allow people and government, to prepare for them. I note that at almost exactly the same period two years ago, BGS staff were advising government on the risks of a severe drought as we had not received enough rain over the two previous winters.

Some might feel that the British climate is just too difficult to forecast. I think we are making strides and there are indications that we know what triggers the trajectory of the Jet stream and observations on the Gulf Stream show some significant changes in warm water ocean flux that must link to our weather patterns (NERC Rapid Watch). How these fluxes are being affected by climate change is also an important line of research, as we know that the Earth is absorbing more heat, but we do not yet know how this links to climate change. We do know, for example, that the fluctuations associated with the El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) have favoured a cool La Niña phase in the past few years and when this shifts the planet will most likely accelerate into a warmer climate.

When the rain falls, it either evaporates, is taken up by vegetation, runs off or soaks into the ground.  It is this underground flow that is the research realm of our BGS groundwater scientists. A large amount of the flooding in the Thames valley and across southern England is related to groundwater flooding, where the ground is completely saturated, the underground aquifers are full and the gradients in topography result in groundwater emerging at the surface in places where it has never, or very infrequently, appeared before. Some streams in the chalk of southern England are flowing for the first time in living memory. Interestingly, even in a normal flow regime ~ 65% of the water in the Thames in London is sourced from groundwater and not surface water and it is groundwater that keeps many of our rivers flowing during the summer months.

Oxford Floods 2014 BGS (c) NERC

What can we do to help the people who are struggling and inform the government? We can provide estimates of how long flooding will continue, based on the predicted rainfall patterns and or knowledge of how our aquifers respond, and we can model where groundwater flooding will be the most serious, although that is of little help to those who's homes are already flooded. We can also help provide information on protecting important infrastructure and future planning. Because groundwater flooding has only relatively recently been recognised as a serious issue, there is only limited information on historical events and so it is as just as important that we invest in the research needed to improve our understanding of groundwater flooding and develop resilience as it is to be able to predict the weather.

High rainfall amounts and ground saturation and shallow groundwater flow also result in increased landslides and sinkhole risk. These commonly form in areas where clays or sand-rich sediments overly soluble rocks such as the Chalk or Gypsum. BGS has maps of areas most likely to be susceptible to landslides, underground solution features (sinkholes) or mobility of rocks. These help inform insurance and construction companies, but prediction of where an event might happen is extremely difficult especially in urbanised areas. In mountain ranges and rural areas it is possible to use ground measuring satellites coupled to systems in the ground  to measure movement and indeed some of the most threatening landslides and subsidence areas on the planet are monitored constantly.

BGS staff have worked hard in providing information to the public and government and also worked with the press in helping explain to the public how exceptional this particular flooding crisis is. We must however continue  to better prepare for the next crisis whether is from too much or too little rainfall input into our catchments.

Thursday 30 January 2014

Getting a Gong

I was extremely pleased to see that Dr Sue Loughlin BGS Head of Volcanology was honoured with an MBE in the New Years honours list Sue not only plays a pivotal role within the BGS Volcanology team but also within the wider volcanology community where she has long been recognised and respected as one of the leading scientists in the UK. It's Sue's passion for working with other leaders in the field, as well as early-career scientists, that has resulted in her successful leadership of global collaborations including Global Volcano Model and ground-breaking research such as FutureVolc. Sue has forged new ground in interdisciplinary science and global level projects such as STREVA, VANAHEIM, EVOSS and VOGRIPA and been key in applying our science in order to protect lives, livelihoods and communities at risk.  A huge congratulations to Sue from us all at BGS!

BGS staff occasionally get an award from the Queen's New year honours or Her birthday's honours. These tend to reward our public good science role.

Our mixed role as scientists is quite a juggling act. We produce science results and scientific interpretations to provide the government and public with reassurance or with what is needed to make a decision. In the case of volcanology this advice is related mainly to the Iceland volcanic system, both during the 2010 activity and also  possibility of future activity. We worked with the Icelandic meteorological office and also with the UK Met Office, the UK research  National Centre for Atmospheric  Science in monitoring the Iceland ash clouds and Eyjafjallajökull Volcano.  Since then we have enhanced our monitoring systems in Iceland and we are part of a major EU funded supersite initiative on Iceland.

Other public good activities involve resource estimates for the UK, groundwater monitoring, geological stability of the UK, vulnerability to climate change  and many more.  All of the staff involved in this work deserve a medal, unfortunately we only get one now and again, but I’d like to take the opportunity to thank the BGS staff for their efforts.

Our staff also get satisfaction from recognition after writing their data in international  science publications and the general feeling that they are doing something very useful for UK society and economy.

My new year's resolution is to write a blog every month at a minimum, so if you have any burning issues you’d like me to talk about please get in touch.