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.

Friday, 6 December 2013

BGS in Scotland

There are significant changes ahead for BGS in Scotland. All are positive and underpinned by investments in estates, new NERC sponsored Doctoral training initiatives with Scottish universities and new programmes of research in geohazards, environmental sustainability and resource security.

BGS has about 180 staff based in Scotland. Most are in Murchison house, which is based on the University of Edinburgh’s King’s Building campus. We also have a facility for handling heavy marine drilling infrastructure at Loanhead, Edinburgh.

We intend to relocate all of our Edinburgh activities to the Heriot Watt University (HWU) campus over the next two years. This is an opportunity in that we can regroup and develop synergies in key areas with HWU, notably in the resources sector in partnership with the Institute for Petroleum Engineering, but also with the Marine Sectors and the Institute for the Built Environment. The focus on transformation of research to innovation at HWU through spin-out and spin-in activities and joint ventures with industry is attractive to BGS business development. 

We will relocate all of our staff to the Sir Charles Lyell Centre which will be a state of the art facility incorporating our staff and about 100 HWU staff plus laboratories. We also intend to relocate the marine infrastructure warehouse on the HWU site as part of the research centre.

In all about 25% of BGS activities are based in Scotland and we see the new development in HWU as underpinning this investment. Furthermore, we will enhance collaboration with other Scottish Universities, both in creating joint research programmes and through the NERC Doctoral Training Centres with Edinburgh University, the Centre for Doctoral Training in oil and gas that will be managed by HWU and a consortium IAPETUS headed by DurhamUniversity.

We will build on our geohazards work with the University of Edinburgh and other UK universities and European institutes. For example: we will be doubling the density of  our seismic grid in creating UK-Array with Edinburgh, Bristol and Leicester Universities; we will continue to intensify monitoring volcanic activity in Iceland in partnership with UK HEI; we will enhance our monitoring programme of the Earth’s magnetic field with the University of Edinburgh and the British Antarctic Survey.

BGS also works with Edinburgh and Glasgow universities in managing NERC services and facilities in mass spectrometry at the Scottish Universities Research and Reactor Centre, the Ion Probe and the Geophysical Equipment Pool in Edinburgh. We are founding members of BritGeothermal with Durham and Glasgow universities. We will continue collaboration with Aberdeen, Dundee and St Andrews University in key disciplines and also work with the James Hutton Institute and marine institutes in Scotland.


Despite the disruption in moving facilities and staff, which I understand and which will be managed in an efficient and compassionate way by BGS support staff, the future for BGS science in Scotland is extremely positive and I predict an expansion of our research activities and innovative joint ventures with Scottish universities and companies.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

I think the Mole says it all.......

I presented a number of talks over the past few weeks and many of them involved drawing on BGS work. This allowed me to read over a number of our research outputs and in particular bring myself up to speed with the impressive work in London and the Thames basin.

At the Goldschmidt conference I gave a talk on the Geochemistry of London in a session I organised on Impact of the science. My talk was on a broad subject and in the end it had three parts: atmospheric, calling on the work from the ClearfLo project; soils (London Earth), geology and geochemistry; river water, groundwater and modelling.

My conviction now is that  we have enough data and observing systems in place in London to create an Urban Critical Zone (from tree top/building to bedrock) observatory).


I also talked at the British Cartography Society's 50th anniversary and joined the Chief Executives  of the Ordnance Survey, Hydrographic Office, Defence Geographic Centre etc.  I was struck by how different their approach in pure cartography is to ours, where BGS maps are really to be interpreted as models of the subsurface or the geological environment. My talk, entitled "The geological model for tomorrow's world"  provides some indication of the direction of travel of the science programme that Mike Stephenson and I are developing; I think the mole says it all... can we fit them with nose sensors?

Friday, 16 August 2013

A world leading Geological Survey

The Financial Director David Allen of BIS (Business Innovation and Skills government department) visited BGS last week, along with Graeme Reid who is responsible for research in BIS; Graeme knows us well and thought we would be a good centre for David to visit given our commercial focus. The aim was to show how a Research Council works and what our role is in translation of knowledge into useful information for the private sector and the public.

David was extremely interested by all that he discovered. The focus of the science discussion was on subjects such as shale gas, carbon capture and storage (CCS) and nuclear waste disposal, but also on what we do with groundwater and vulnerability to climate change and how we work overseas. He was keen to discover how we work with universities and also with other government agencies. He recognised the important role of BGS as an independent voice on geological matters and asked some probing questions on how we manage to remain independent while also advising industry consortia.

We visited the rock press where David managed to witness a rock failure under pressure and saw what he referred to as the dating lab at NIGL (I think we must have used this expression) ; he understood the importance of both of these facilities in understanding rock behaviour but also in standardisation to underpin geology.

The visit to the National Geological Repository was especially useful as it happened to be full of consultants working on shale gas cores to prepare the next licensing round. They were all "typical geologists" and carrying hammers and lenses (not that I approve of hammering cores), so he did see and observe the stereotype, that I assured him we are changing.

This is from a slide that I presented to David Allen during his visit.

There may be a certain amount of chest banging, but BGS outputs are excellent...

A world-leading Geological Survey

• 516 scientists; working with more than 40 Universities and institutes
• More than 150 current private sector customers
• Around 20 bespoke science laboratories
• 5 NERC and national science facilities 
• The NationalGeoscienceDataBase and Repository
• 93% impact cases in NERC research review recognised as excellent or outstanding 
• Internationally leading or better positions in 78% of research areas
• 75% 4 year increase in peer reviewed papers to 245 in 2012; 
• >150 items of advice to policy makers in the UK, Europe, and overseas in 2012
• > 300 000 web visits a month

In addition we have about 120 staff that support our science in various ways, such as business development, IT, graphics, communications and administration.

Dave Allen was fascinated. BGS represents a mere £26 million of a more than £16 billion budget, but he saw the economic benefit in spades! 

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

BGS commended for its ‘outstanding research impact’

The British Geological Survey (BGS), along with other centres in the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), has been assessed to determine the excellence and impact of its research. The review, carried out by the NERC, was similar to the Research Excellence Framework system used to assess the quality of research in Higher Education Institutions (HEI).

BGS is extremely pleased that the committee found that the impact of the research carried out by the BGS is ‘outstanding’. One area of particularly outstanding impact is the use of information technology to transform the usability of its data to create 3Dgeological models and associated modelling technology and digital geoscience information products such as the iGeology app. Other areas of outstanding impact included the BGS National Geological Repository, its internationalactivities and the NERC isotope geoscience laboratory’s (NIGL) work on depleted Uranium.

The review panel considered that that 78% of the BGS’s research was  the equivalent of the REF ‘internationally recognised’ standard, with a significant proportion being at the REF  ‘internationally excellent’ level. NIGL, along with the Climate Change and Quaternary Science and Hydrogeology are to be commended for their performance in the research review.

BGS is one of the top geological surveys of the world and as such has a dual research and service role, I am extremely proud of what we have achieved to date, but we must continue to define the trend that is now observable across many global geological surveys towards greater research excellence through collaboration with HEI, research institutes and Academies.”


Further information and details of the review can be found here: www.nerc.ac.uk

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Glacier Monitoring at the Royal Society Summer Science Festival

Earlier this month BGS staff were involved in the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition.  This year we featured our observation system and associated research on the Virkisjökull glacier. With partners in Iceland and the UK BGS have been monitoring this glacier for several years. We are studying the glacier to better understand the rate of change occurring in glacier environments, which can largely be attributed to changes in our current climate conditions. The glacier observatory is monitoring how quickly the glacier is melting on a measurable scale to help predict the likely changes in glacier environments.

High resolution surveys are completed annually and the observatory uses a combination of unique measurements to accurately measure the changes in the glacier. Seismometers are used to capture ‘icequakes’, GPS units to measure ice flow and melting, stream sensors to measure outflow of meltwater at the surface, and boreholes to measure glacially-sourced groundwater flow.  

Our Ice in the Greenhouse stand at the RSSSE
Our staff Jez Everest, Brighid O Dochataigh, Tom Bradwell, Leanne Hughes, Alan McDonald, Lee Jones, Lauren Noakes, Paul Wilson, Paul Witney, John Stevenson, Gemma Nash and Sarah Nice did an outstanding job in explaining our research to the numerous visitors to the Royal Society exhibition. I would also like to thank Verity Flett our joint PhD student from Dundee University, Andrew Black a senior researcher at Dundee University and Sam Illingworth a NERC PhD student from Manchester University for giving up their time to come and help during the week.

Photos from the week can be found here.