Monday 21 November 2016

BGS Annual Science Review

I am pleased to present the BGS Annual Science Review for 2015/16.

In the review we have chosen to focus on the BGS working with nations; the devolved administrations of the UK and nations globally.  Our strategy is focused on state of-the-art geological modelling and technology for monitoring the subsurface with our aim for people to feel confident that we know what is below their feet and how this will be managed and may change during their lifetimes.

We have activities in all parts of the UK and worked in 79 countries globally. Environmental monitoring and modelling were a strong focus in all of our UK activities this year: working on baseline monitoring for potential future shale gas extraction in northern England; monitoring heat from abandoned mine waters in South Wales and Glasgow, and subsidence monitoring of abandoned mines in Northern Ireland with the Geological Survey of Northern Ireland (GSNI).

On the energy front, we worked as part of a national effort on carbon capture and storage (CCS) in Wales and looked at the sub-Irish sea floor CO2 storage potential. We are also part of the UK CCS group in Edinburgh, and are still helping out South Africa in CCS and shale gas development.

Infrastructure and data to support infrastructure development remain key parts of the BGS and we released software packages that allow better definition of borehole data and visualisation of geological cross-sections via ‘Groundhog’. In response to a recommendation by a Parliamentary report on unconventional gas, we released a database on the regional stress field that will be of use in subsurface activities including ‘fracking’, geothermal and energy storage.

Our public-good-facing activities are underpinned by state-of-the-art applied research, and our outputs in publications have almost doubled in five years with a marked shift towards high-impact outputs in highly rated science journals; in 2015-16 we wrote ~300 papers of which ~30% were in Impact Factor 5 or above publications. 

We moved our science base in Scotland to a new home, the Lyell Centre, at Heriot-Watt University (HWU), Edinburgh. Our staff are in a fully open and modern building shared with HWU and we also moved our marine operations onsite.

The Lyell Centre, BGS's new home in Scotland

This significantly strengthens our visibility and presence in Scotland. In 2017, we will move into the Cardiff University campus and hope to achieve the same for GSNI with Queen’s University of Belfast, thus creating strong academic links in all parts of the UK.

Looking forward to 2016/17 we are starting with a balanced budget, significant capital infrastructure investment in the energy sector and a growing overseas development programme as part of the new Research Councils UK Global Challenges programme.

Tuesday 2 August 2016

BGS welcomes the Keyworth and District Footpath Association (KADFA)

The BGS headquarters is located in Keyworth on the outskirts of Nottingham. We are a somewhat enigmatic place that the locals view as a positive asset to a small dormitory town to Nottingham. We know that they wonder what goes on behind the hedges and they have no idea how far back the site reaches. It is thus a pleasure that we welcomed the Keyworth Walking Club on site as part of this year’s walking programme.

They were met by me and then received an amusing and factual account of how the geological walkway was put together from Steve Parry of BGS.

Dr Steve Parry introduces the BGS Geological Walkway

The tour ended in the Core Store (National Geological Repository) which is an impressive thing to have on your door step, whilst not knowing it. It allowed me to pass on a message about energy security and answer questions on geohazards and reassure the locals that we are doing a good job for the UK and globally.

Me introducing the impressive Core Store on site at Keyworth

Trevor Lax of KADFA said "We had a tremendous morning being shown around BGS. Steve, who took us on the Geological Walk was "top class". His talk was very informative and good humoured. John Ludden was so knowledgable and enthusiastic about the most valuable work BGS carries out. It was a great community event. Thank you to all who made it happen." 

Photos courtesy of Trevor Lax, KADFA.

Tuesday 12 July 2016

BGS and the EU referendum

BGS employs the best people for the job regardless of their nationality and we will always do this.  I sincerely hope that the UK government will make it as easy as possible for us to maintain a free flow of talented staff in the future.

I have been very impressed while talking to staff recently of the degree of commitment to BGS and the firm belief that it is  a great organisation to work for.  I realise that inside BGS there are staff who will have voted Remain and Brexit and we absolutely respect the democratic decision of the UK public.

I fully expect that we will develop strong EU partnerships in the future but the way these are developed may well have to change. Irrespective of funding developments, I am sure BGS will be remain a highly effective organisation and currently we are in a very strong position in all of our science and data areas.

I invited all non-UK European colleagues to write to me with their concerns and I offered to send their letter to Jo Johnston the Universities and Science minister. You can read the letter that we have sent to him here.

Wednesday 13 April 2016

BGS getting down to business

The British Geological Survey released its Business Plan (BP) for the three year period starting April 2016. This plan underpins the BGS strategy “Gateway to the Earth”.

BGS is constantly reviewing its science priorities and these have largely moved towards a programme of harnessing new technology to instrument the Earth so that we understand geological processes in real time. This will help society to:

  •          Use its natural resources responsibly
  •          Manage environmental change
  •          Be resilient to environmental hazards

As part of our business planning we will be implementing the £31 million Energy Security and Innovation Observing System (ESIOS) to underpin new developments in subsurface energy management. This will be supported by BGS being part of a Midlands regional capital investment in partnership with Midlands Innovation “Energy Research Accelerator (ERA)" of £60 million, plus a twice this amount in supporting funding from industry. BGS will be required to resource both of these capital investments in providing technological development and operation and undertaking new research with partners.

At the same time the new BGS Business Plan sees a significant upscaling of our overseas activities, largely in response to targeted funding on Overseas development for UK government as part of the Global Challenges Research fund and also the Newton fund. We anticipate that as much as 30% of BGS activities may be redirected overseas in support of development, but at the same time underpinning UK government policy.

BGS will enhance its position in the UK devolved governments; in Scotland at the Lyell Centre which we will be developing with Heriot-Watt University and in Cardiff and Belfast in co-locating with Cardiff University and Queens Belfast. We will further enhance our activities with the University of Nottingham and other partner universities through key joint ventures.

Within the period of the Business Plan BGS hopes to have moved from its current position within the NaturalEnvironmental Research Council (NERC) UK to a Government corporation alongside similar bodies to ourselves (such as the Met office, Ordnance Survey and the National Physical Laboratory) which advise government and work at the cusp of academic research industry and government.

John Ludden

Monday 21 March 2016

How is the BGS responding to the urgent challenge set out by the Paris accord?

The Paris climate summit proposed some stringent targets for global warming and emissions. These can only be reached if we manage to engineer a reduction in greenhouse gas output and currently the main means of achieving this are switching to gas away from coal and deploying renewable energy and increased nuclear sourced energy. 

BGS was asked by Friends of the Earth how we were responding to the Paris decisions and the BGS Director of Science and Technology has produced a reply which is copied below.

BGS provides scientific evidence on subsurface processes that are relevant to the economy of the UK, and may be used by government in support of policy.

Response to Friends of the Earth


BGS is an internationally recognised centre in several sciences that contribute to lower emissions, including carbon capture and storage, geothermal and the siting of offshore wind farms.

Carbon capture and storage

Predictions like those of the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) New Policies Scenario suggest that coal will continue to be used heavily in the future, and will probably remain the backbone of global electricity generation for many years to come. This underlines the need for a switch away from coal, and for the coal that is to be burnt to be used in power stations that are fitted with carbon capture and storage facilities. A look at three large countries with big coal resources, China, India and South Africa, illustrates the problem. China is by far the largest coal consumer in the world, accounting for almost half of global coal use in 2010. In the IEA New Policies Scenario, China’s coal demand will increase to over 2850 million tonnes per year by 2020, and stabilise above 2800 million tonnes until 2035. Coal will continue to provide more than half of China’s electricity until 2035. Similarly in the New Policies Scenario, South African coal production, which is mainly for electricity, will peak around 2020 but continue to be high into the future. India is struggling to electrify its rural economy and it is likely that much of this electricity will come from coal.

In Europe for 2020, the EU has committed to cutting its greenhouse gas emissions to 20% below 1990 levels, and further cuts are being decided for 2050. This commitment is one of the headline targets of the Europe 2020 growth strategy and is being implemented through binding legislation. Power generation will have to take a particularly large part in emissions reductions, mainly by focussing on increasing surface renewables (wind, tidal and solar), nuclear and geothermal power, but it is likely that carbon capture and storage on fossil fuel power plants will be important.

Carbon capture and storage may be particularly important for the 2°C limit set at COP 21, in Paris in December. Most of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) scenarios limiting global temperature increases to 2 °C include some form of ‘negative emissions’ or permanent removal of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the atmosphere. Of the 400 IPCC climate scenarios that have a 50% or better chance of less than 2 °C warming, more than 300 assume the successful and large-scale uptake of negative-emission technologies. The most popular of these is Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS). BECCS involves growing energy crops for power stations for electricity and scrubbing out the CO2 in the flue gas for permanent sequestration in the subsurface.

The main constraints on BECCS are how much land and resource can be devoted to biofuel crops, and how much subsurface storage space for carbon dioxide there is. The first is a difficult problem and not within BGS’ remit. Given the weight that the IPCC gives to BECCS there is an urgent need to explore the potential ecological limits to, and environmental impacts of, implementation of BECCS at a scale relevant to climate change mitigation.

BGS main research in CCS involves questions over the feasibility of large scale geological storage of carbon dioxide. Though in Norway two deep subsurface sites 20 million tonnes of carbon dioxide have been safely stored, other geological environments must be tested and it is vital that more demonstration and full scale schemes are started, like the Aquistore scheme in south-eastern Saskatchewan where 40000 tonnes of carbon dioxide has been safely stored, and where 1100 tonnes of CO2 are injected per day.


BGS is researching the feasibility of geothermal heat for residential and civic use including the use of disused mine workings as a geothermal resource in urban areas, geothermal from deep sedimentary rocks, and ground source heat pumps. Geothermal could be an important way for the UK to achieve its goals in emissions reduction.

Although the UK is not actively volcanic, there is still a substantial resource of geothermal energy at shallow depths but it is exploited in different ways. The upper 10–15 m of the ground is heated by solar radiation and acts a heat store. This heat can be utilised by ground source heat pumps that can substantially reduce heating bills and reduce emissions. The heat from the sun is conducted downwards into the ground. At a depth of about 15 metres, ground temperatures are not influenced by seasonal air temperature changes and tend to remain stable all year around at about the mean annual air temperature (9–13°C in the UK). Hence, the ground at this depth is cooler than the air in summer and warmer than the air in winter. This temperature difference is exploited by ground source heat pumps that are used for heating and/or cooling of homes and office buildings. There are different types of systems which can be broadly grouped into closed-loop systems and open-loop systems.

With increasing depth, the ground temperatures are also affected by the heat conducted upwards from the Earth's core and mantle, known as the geothermal heat flow. When combined with the thermal conductivities of the rocks this allows the prediction of subsurface temperatures. The UK's geothermal gradient, the rate at which the Earth's temperature increases with depth, has an average value of 26°C per km. Some rocks contain free flowing water (groundwater) and so at depth this water will be warm and can be extracted for use in district heating schemes or for industrial uses such as heating green houses.

There are also regions in the UK where the rocks at depth are hotter than expected. This occurs in granite areas because some granite generates internal heat through the radioactive decay of the naturally occurring elements potassium, uranium and thorium. Granites have very little free flowing water, but it is possible to engineer the fracture system such that water can be made to flow from one borehole to another through the granite. The extracted hot water is at a sufficiently high temperature to drive an electricity generating turbine. Parts of Cornwall have geothermal gradients that are significantly higher than the UK average due to the presence of granite and have potential for geothermal power generation.

Offshore wind turbines

The Marine Environmental Mapping Programme (MAREMAP) and the Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA), both of which BGS is a part, are coordinated efforts to improve seafloor and shallow geological mapping to establish the ground and geotechnical conditions for many offshore wind turbines. The shallow geology can produce impacts and constraints on design, installation and operation of seabed structures and sub-seabed foundations. Some of these constraints relate to the variability in the composition and distribution of Quaternary sediments (at the seabed and in the subsurface) and bedrock within the first 50 m below the seafloor. Additionally, other constraints relate to the geological processes that have occurred in the past or are active today.

As well as these sciences aimed at direct emissions reduction, BGS is working intensively on the effects of coming climate change, including on groundwater levels (in the UK and in Africa), landscape and erosion, and sea level. We are working with a whole range of partners on how these changes can be forecasted and planned for so that society is more resilient to change.

BGS is, of course, interested in all other areas of research into emissions reduction and climate change science and welcomes discussions on its science strategy.

Best wishes,

Prof Mike Stephenson

Director of Science and Technology, BGS

Monday 14 March 2016

The British Geological Survey in 2016

BGS is continually refreshing itself, ensuring that it is relevant and provides up to date geological science solutions for the UK and globally.

I have used this presentation at various events to outline the British Geological Survey (BGS), what it does and who it works with. The presentation also includes information on our discussions with government and the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), on the best place to house BGS in the future to give us the flexibility to provide impact that will help the UK economy.

On numerous recent occasions with stakeholders, we have concluded that BGS should move from NERC ownership to a Government owned public corporation. BGS has welcomed visits from international geoscience agencies and surveys, many of whom view BGS as a model geological survey. We have had discussions with universities who are interested in partnerships and especially combining our applied science and theirs in creating joint research initiatives that will yield impact. BGS has worked hard on developing links with other research centres and government departments.

Please browse through the slides ... not only do they show how BGS geological mapping science has changed over time, who we partner with, how we deliver world-class infrastructure but they underline the importance of a dynamic workforce. 

John Ludden

March 2016