Archive | August 2012

British Science Festival 2012 – Focus on Geoscience

The best from the Geology Section of this year’s festival

This year the British Science Festival, the flagship event of the British Science Association, will occupy the city of Aberdeen from the 4th to the 9th of September. The city, famed for its granite architecture, will play host for the first time since 1963.

The festival is this year hosted by the University of Aberdeen and is one of Europe’s largest celebrations of all things scientific. Its broad spectrum includes content from all areas of science, technology and engineering. All incorporated into over 250 events, activities, exhibitions and trips. With over 350 of the UK’s top scientists, researchers and science communicators – including Bill Bryson, Brian Cox and Iain Stewart – Aberdeen will be the hub of the science community for six days this September.

The University of Aberdeen. The hosts of this year’s festival.

With a 54-page programme, there really is something for everyone at this year’s festival. The roster includes events that fall into five audience levels: families, everyone, all adults, adults with some knowledge of the topic, and professionals.

Each major scientific discipline has a designated ‘section’ within the festival programme; geology being no exception. Each section has a President, Section Recorder, and Section Communications Officer. For the Geology Section these are Dr Lawrence Donnelly, of the IUGS initiative on forensic geology; Dr Richard Waller, of Keele University; and Dr Aofie O’Mongain, of the British Geological Survey. “I help to arrange and organise sessions at successive festivals in collaboration with organisations like the Geological Society of London, the Geologists’ Association and the British Geological Survey” said Geology Section Recorder, Dr Richard Waller.

The Geology Section seeks to ‘emphasise the relevance of geoscience to society, to explain the dramatic processes that shape our planet and to provide anyone who attends [the festival] the opportunity to meet and chat with some of the best known and active researchers in the field.’ This year includes subject matter such as the Earth’s magnetic field, climate change and – no doubt influenced by the primary sponsors of the festival, Shell and BP – myriad events centred on the fossil-fuel industry. The Geology Section also includes a field excursion, providing participants an opportunity to ‘stretch their legs and get out into the country’s spectacular landscape.’

With so much to see in such a short time, here is a run-down of the most hotly-anticipated geoscience events set to feature during the festival.

Tuesday 4th September

14.00 – 15.00 The Natural Gas Revolution
Organised by one of the festival’s principal sponsors, Shell, this talk will look at the role natural gas has to play in the world’s future energy needs. The talk explores how projects such as Shell’s Pearl GTL plant will help to meet the on-going stresses on energy supply and demand.

Venue: King’s Quad, Lecture Theatre 8, King’s College, University of Aberdeen. Audience Level: All adults Price: Free

15.30 – 17.30 The Future of Our Polar Regions: What Must We Do and How Can Science Help?
This two-hour event is a joint venture between the University’s Cryosphere and Climate Change group and the UK Polar Network. Audiences can participate by asking questions and voting on any issues raised. The talk also features an exhibition including polar fieldwork clothing, science equipment and field video diaries.

Venue: Fraser Noble Building, Lecture Theatre 2, University of Aberdeen. Audience Level:Everyone Price: Free

Wednesday 5th September

10.00 – 12.00 Our Fossil-Fuelled Future
Liam Herringshaw – post-doctoral researcher of palaeontology at the University of Aberdeen, 2006-2008 and blogger – asks what role do fossils have to play in everyday life? Liam, and other experts in the field, will investigate techniques used in the understanding of fossils and fossils fuels; answering the question of why they matter.

Why do fossils matter? Join Liam Herringshaw to find out!

Venue: Regent Building, Regent Lecture Theatre, University of Aberdeen. Audience Level:Everyone Price: Free

13.00 – 15.00 The Limits of Oil and Gas
This talk is organised by the University of Aberdeen and aims to delve into the issues emerging within the oil and gas industry. By looking at a variety of aspects from within the industry, the talk will be of interest to multi-disciplinary audience.

Venue: Regent Building, Regent Lecture Theatre, University of Aberdeen. Audience Level: All adults Price: Free

13.00 – 15.00 May the Force Be with Us: What Does Earth’s Magnetic Field Do for Us?
This will be, undoubtedly, one of the highlights of the programmed geoscience events. Organised by the Geological Society of London, it features three experts from the field of geophysics. Dr Kathy Whaler, professor of geophysics at the University of Edinburgh, will discuss how the Earth’s magnetic field is generated. Dr Jenny Tait, also from Edinburgh, seeks to inform participants of how the magnetic field has formed the basis of understanding for major branches of Earth Science and continues to do so today. Finally, Dr Ciaran Beggan, a geomagnetic specialist from the British Geological Survey, will consider the fate of the planet during the next magnetic reversal, whilst also pondering when this might happen.

Venue: Meston Building Lecture Theatre 1, University of Aberdeen. Audience Level: All adults Price:Free

Thursday 6th September

11.15 – 12.45 The Heat beneath our Feet
Investigate the science behind a potential new clean energy source: the internal heat of the Earth. The event aims to explain the links between the geology beneath our feet and the potential for using Earth’s thermal store as a source of energy. Organised by the British Geological Survey, this event features a ‘cycle your way to a hot bath’ challenge and a post-talk 3D visualisation suite (spaces limited).

Venue: Regent Building, Regent Lecture Theatre, University of Aberdeen. Audience Level: Everyone Price: Free

Friday 7th September

10.00 – 12.00 Life Down Below: The Search for a Deep Biosphere on Earth
This event looks into the world of the sub-surface; asking questions of where life may exist in the world beneath the topography, both on our home planet and others. Organised by the University of Aberdeen and supported by the Astrobiology Society of Britain this looks to be an exciting and novel approach to discovering new life in our universe.

Venue: Fraser Noble Building, Lecture Theatre 2, University of Aberdeen.       Audience Level: Everyone Price: Free

12.00 – 13.00 Charles Lyell Award Lecture: What do Dwarf Elephants Have to do with Climate Change?
This year’s award lecture, namesake of the great British geologist Charles Lyell, was awarded to Dr Victoria Herridge, post-doctoral researcher and resident dwarf-elephant-expert at the Natural History Museum. Dr Herridge uses the fossils of now extinct dwarf elephant species, from islands around the globe, to make inferences about climate changes in the recent geological past. Island species are often highly specialised and fast-evolving; the study of these animals, and other dwarf island-species, can inform us about fast-acting climate variability and the impacts of future climate change on animals alive today.

Venue: King’s College Conference Centre, Auditorium, University of Aberdeen Audience Level: Everyone Price: Free

Join Victoria Herridge to discover the links between dwarf-elephants and climate change.

Saturday 8th September

18.00 – 19.00 The Story of the Continents
Another highlight of the week for the Geology Section, this evening talk features geologist and television personality, Professor Iain Stewart. Iain Stewart has become the face of British popular geology in recent years, balancing his career as professor of Geoscience Communication at Plymouth University with various appearances and presenting roles for the BBC. This talk gives a preview of his latest endeavour: a four-part series in which he tells story of the major continents, one by one.

Iain Stewart will be telling the ‘Story of the Continents’.

Venue: Arts Lecture Theatre, University of Aberdeen. Audience Level: All adults Price: £10.00, concessions £8.00 *Book signing in Elphinstone Hall: £19.00

12.00 – 18.00 Whisky on the Rocks
Combining local geology with local whisky, this adults-only affair is led by geologist Steve Cribb. The six-hour journey takes you to sites of special geological interest as well as to a whisky distillery – exploring the role geology has to play in the process. The highly experienced Steve Cribb will no doubt be a delightful tour guide and play the perfect host for this very unique event.

Venue: Coach pick-up-point, University of Aberdeen. Audience Level: All adults Price: £10 (includes whisky tasting).

So, there you have it. The best this year’s festival has to offer for the geoscience community. There are many more events not mentioned in this preview and only by exploring the programme for yourself will you discover them all!

Tickets can be booked by phone (08456 807 207), online at the festival website or in person at the Aberdeen Box Office, Music Hall.

For any and all additional information please visit the British Science Festival’s website,

Be sure to check back next week when Geoscience Lines will be bringing you up-to-the-minute content from around the festival.

Follow Geoscience Lines on Twitter (@geosciencelines) for the latest content and check out previous posts on Curiosity’s geological mission and some interesting earthquake research from New Zealand.


David Chapman


8000-year Earthquake Record Forms Basis of Seismic Forecasting

Recent research by scientists from GNS Science, New Zealand and the University of Nevada-Reno, Reno provides insights into how isolated, geometrically simple strike-slip faults can produce a near-regular earthquake pattern – having implications for earthquake prediction.

The scientists, led by Kelvin Berryman of GNS Science, studied the Alpine Fault in southwest New Zealand. The Alpine Fault separates the Pacific tectonic plate from the Australian plate and is one of the longest, straightest and fastest-moving faults of its kind on Earth. Previous research on the Alpine fault had only produced age-estimates for the last four major earthquakes; Berryman and the team of scientists increased this to a record of 24 major earthquakes, stretching over a period of 8000 years – one of the longest continuous records of fault activity on Earth.

The Alpine Fault has slip rates ranging from 37-47 mm/yr along its length.

Researchers found that a pattern of cyclic stratigraphy in fault-adjacent deposits recorded the seismic history of the area. This allowed for a reliable, composite record of major earthquakes to be established. The layers in the sediments corresponding to earthquakes, known as event horizons, were dated using radiocarbon dating of leaves and seeds. All-in-all, eighty-two radiocarbon ages were used to produce the earthquake sequence.

The results of the paper, published in Science, estimate that there is a mean recurrence interval of 329 years for the 24-event data set. There hasn’t been a major earthquake on the Alpine Fault since written records began, around 170 years ago, but multiple lines of evidence suggest that it has produced large (moment magnitude (Mw) >7) earthquakes and poses a substantial seismic hazard.

By utilising an unusually long earthquake record, the scientists were able to categorise the Alpine Fault as ‘quasi-periodic’; meaning that – due to its simple geometry and isolation from other faults – it can be used as an end member for the characterisation of faults around the world that threaten major earthquakes. In other words, features observed in the Alpine Fault can be recognised in areas in which seismic records are much shorter. This has implications for earthquake hazard perception and forecasting. The researchers suggest that by studying features of faults; such as slip-rate, total slip, geometric complexity and interaction with other faults, and by relating them to long earthquake records such as that of the Alpine Fault, more informed decisions can be made in situations of earthquake prediction and hazard analysis.

Millions of people live near to major fault zones and studies such as this one can help create safer, more prepared communities when disaster does strike.

Original paper:

David Chapman

A geological mission to Mars

Can Curiosity match the exploits of Earth Scientists?

On the 16th of July 1965, Mariner 4, NASA’s fourth in a series of spacecraft designed to investigate the planets of our inner solar system, completed the first successful flyby of the Martian surface. The Mariner 4 mission was one of huge success among a string of other, not-so-lucky (or perhaps not as well executed), missions carried out in the 1960s; primarily by NASA and the USSR’s Soviet Space Program – including the latter stages of the Sputnik Program. The initial pictures returned from Mariner 4 depicted a heavily cratered, baron surface of the red planet – quashing the initial excitement of ‘life on Mars’.

Since Mariner 4, a mission of many firsts, the exploration of Mars has moved on significantly: there have been over thirty spacecraft launched to investigate the red planet since 1965, including eleven that planned to land. Of these, six can be classified as ‘true rovers’, including the British-built, Beagle 2, and twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity, built for NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover (MER) project for launch in 2003. Now, in 2012, NASA’s latest incarnation, Curiosity – dubbed by some as a robot-geologist – builds upon the success of the MER project, taking on board many of the best features of Spirit and Opportunity: six-wheel drive, a rocker-bogie suspension system and cameras mounted on a mast. Whilst Curiosity is in many ways similar to its predecessors, a lot has changed since 2003 and its differences are what set it apart as a truly cutting-edge machine. For instance, Curiosity carries twice as many scientific instruments and its entire science payload is over ten times the weight of Spirit and Opportunity’s. Despite being a bigger, more powerful, technologically advanced machine, NASA still managed to decrease the landing ellipse (an area in which they are 99% certain they can land the craft) by 75%!

Curiosity carries an array of scientific instruments that eclipses anything seen before on the red planet.

Curiosity landed on the Martian surface, inside its designated landing site, Gale Crater, at 05:31 UT on the 6th of August 2012. “We always knew it was going to be a great landing site…It’s not until you’re on the ground that you realise that something like this is going to be like driving around in western Utah – it’s going to be spectacular”. John Grotzinger, project scientist (and geologist), summed up his excitement after seeing some of the first ground-level images from Curiosity. Some may find “driving around in western Utah” a little underwhelming for a trip to Mars but it seems Grotzinger was trying to convey the 3D nature of the area surrounding the landing site, as all images up to this point had been from an aerial perspective.

Curiosity was built and is operated by the NASA mission team, Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), who are in-turn part of the Mars Exploration Program. The Mars Exploration Program’s overall science strategy is ‘following the water’. The MSL team will be seeking to contribute to this strategy by following specific objectives, with a view to reaching four main goals: (1) Determine whether life arose on Mars, (2) Characterise the climate of Mars, (3) Characterise the geology of Mars and (4) Prepare for human exploration. The primary goal of determining whether life arose on Mars is the driving force behind this mission and sees NASA go ahead with what is their first astrobiology mission since the Viking landers.

The robot-geologist

With one of four main goals of the MSL being to characterise the geology of Mars, Curiosity has been provided with a subset of instructions under the heading of geological and geochemical objectives. These are: to investigate the chemical, isotopic and mineralogical composition of the Martian surface and near surface geological materials; and to interpret the processes that have formed and modified rocks and soils.

So why is geology so important in what is essentially a search for life? Well, NASA itself has admitted that the question of whether life has existed on Mars is one which this mission alone cannot answer: “Curiosity does not carry experiments to detect active processes that would signify present-day biological metabolism, nor does it have the ability to image microorganisms or their fossil equivalents”. This means that Curiosity is not looking for life itself, but signals in the environment that suggest a suitable habitat for life. For example, one of the main strategies is to search for carbon-containing compounds known as organic molecules: an important ingredient for life that Curiosity can detect. This ability, along with many other facets of knowledge that can be coaxed from the rocks on Mars is what makes geology so integral to this mission. Geology is the link between the distant past and what we see today; if there’s a time in Mars’ history when life did exist, the only record of that will be in its rocks. That’s why Gale Crater was selected as the landing site: it is, in NASA’s opinion, the place where the rocks are most likely to paint a picture about the history of life on Mars.

Curiosity possesses instrumentation that far exceeds some of the world’s most well-equipped Earth Science laboratories, and eclipses the comparatively rudimentary tools used by field geologists. Among its arsenal is a laser-equipped, spectrum-reading camera – for vaporising rock surfaces; and an Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer for determining the relative abundance of selected elements. The more familiarly named (to the geologically inclined at least) Mars Hand Lens Imager – or MAHLI for short – is arguably the most important tool, if only for the wealth of fundamental knowledge it can provide. In the field, the hand-lens to a geologist is indispensable: it is imperative to build the basis of understanding, from which all other inferences proliferate. The application of a hand-lens in the study of a rock can provide information on properties such as colour, texture, cleavage, crystal size, crystal shape, sorting and composition; all of which have implications for such factors as how, why, at what rate and via which processes selected rocks were formed.

With a seemingly superfluous supply of equipment at its disposal, Curiosity seems destined for greatness, but can this one ton, $1.8 billion behemoth really match up to the achievements of the geologists and geoscientists on Earth?

Well this has been pondered, and scientists – including NASA’s own Shawn Domagal-Goldman at this year’s Cheltenham Science Festival – have discussed this very subject. Each will have their own views; many will say that the ability of an Earth Scientist to recognise the subtleties in an outcrop, to move around a site to get the perfect view of things or to create such detailed observations required for a top-notch geological sketch are simply unrivalled by mere machines. However, the fact of the matter is, we can’t put a human geologist on Mars, which makes the whole man vs. machine argument close to irrelevant. What we do have is a machine with the ability to carry out world-class research on a planet 127 million miles away. That is something which cannot be rivalled by anything attempted before.

The information provided by MAHLI and the other science instruments will be analysed by geologists, geochemists and other NASA scientists; as with most of science, the resulting conclusions will be up for debate. Not least because these rocks are alien to everyone; no one has ever touched a rock from Mars and how do we know what the products of over four billion years of geological processes on Earth’s neighbour will look like? Of course we will use our knowledge of Earth geology as an analogue, but what effect will physical and environmental characteristics have on the geology? For instance, there are crucial differences in how we distinguish wind-blown from water-lain sediments on Earth, but are these applicable on Mars? With Mars’ gravity being only 38% as strong as Earth’s and an atmospheric pressure less than 1/100th of that on our own planet, who’s to say that Martian sediments won’t portray their depositional histories in a way that misleads us…Only time will tell.

Looking to the future

NASA has had by far the most success when it comes to deciphering the geological history of Mars. It’s testament to the team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California that the US government and president Obama continue to support missions of this size and expense, whilst others have fallen by the wayside. Just this week NASA announced plans to send a new spacecraft, InSight, to Mars in 2016. The craft will be equipped with seismic instruments, allowing for experiments on ‘marsquakes’ and the internal structure of the planet. InSight will undoubtedly build on the knowledge gained from the work of Curiosity and once again push the boundaries of planetary science to a whole new echelon of understanding.

NASA’s next Mars lander, InSight, will carry instrumentation to detect seismic activity, giving clues on the internal structure and composition of the planet.

Before then, Curiosity has important work to do and all eyes will be firmly fixed on the rover’s voyage of discovery en route to its primary destination, Mount Sharp; which the NASA mission team hope to at the base of a year from now.

Whatever happens during Curiosity’s operations on Mars, the results will be ground-breaking; Mars is an enigma waiting to be deciphered and each and every day will teach us something we didn’t know about one of our closest neighbours.

David Chapman