Sunday, 29 December 2013

Antarctic Diamonds

Scientists have found evidence for diamonds in the icy mountains of Antarctica, however it is currently forbidden to recover minerals from the Antarctic for commercial purposes. Diamonds form from carbon that has been put under extreme heat and pressure, reaching up to 150km beneath the Earth's crust. Volcanic eruptions help to bring valuable crystals, including diamonds, to the Earth's surface, in blue rocks called kimberlites. These kimberlites have now been found in Antarctica in three separate samples, and are a specific type that suggests the presence of diamonds, however only 10% would be economically viable. The Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty has banned the extraction of mineral resources, except for scientific purposes, but this is up for review in 2041. At this time, views on mining here could change, and technology may have continued to advance, making it more economically viable to extract minerals here.
The paper that has been published regarding these kimberlites explains that they are 120 million years old, corresponding to the ages of other Cretaceous Gondwanan kimberlites from around the world. They have been brought up to the surface of the Earth due to the reactivation of a Graben (a trench that is bordered by normal faults) associated with rifting of India from Australia and Antarctica.

A Graben surrounded by normal faults

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Fleshy Head

Mummified Edmontosaurus regalis (a herbivorous duck-billed dinosaur that is a member of the hadrosaurid family that lived between 75 and 65 million years ago) remains have been found in Alberta, Canada, with it's fleshy head ornament completely preserved. This is the first evidence of a dinosaur having a completely soft tissue crest - up to now, only bony crests have been preserved, as skin rarely fossilises. When the dinosaur died, it would have been buried instantly in sediments, where there would have been a lack of oxygen, slowing down the process of decay and allowing soft tissue to be mineralised.
The paper published in Current Biology (which unfortunately I can't get full access to without paying $30!) explains that the fleshy head ornament would have replaced the bony crests in hadrosaurids at the end of the Cretaceous (around 66 million years ago). It would have been used in a visual display to attract mates or to determine leadership in a herd.

A reconstruction of the fleshy head (courtesy of the BBC)
Other dinosaurs have been previously found with some soft tissue preservation. An article in Nature explains how a 113 million year old Scipionyx samniticus (a therapod dinosaur) fossil has been found with soft tissue preservation, whilst National Geographic explains about how a 70 million year old Tyrannosaurus rex fossil has also been found with some soft tissue from the thighbone.

Saturday, 21 December 2013

3D Specs at the Ready!

Today I received my winter copy of the Planet Earth magazine, which is in association with NERC (Natural Environment Research Council), and after flicking through it, one story in particular caught my eye. Researchers from the BGS (British Geological Society) are working on making the first ever 3D virtual fossil collection, by scanning the UK's finest fossils. So far they've taken thousand of high-resolution photos, 3D models and stereoscopic images of the fossils, and more information is being added all the time. Along with the photos are comprehensive fact sheets, explaining things such as where the fossils were found, what species they are and where they are stored. The photo files can be downloaded and they work with 3D printers (see my previous post about 3D printing), allowing for the possibility of perfect replicas to be used in classrooms for teaching purposes, without risk of damaging the fossils. I'd definitely recommend having a look at the 3D fossil collection, as you get to see the detail of fossils that you wouldn't normally get a chance to look at.

One of many 3D movable images (courtesy of  GB3D)

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Bremen Core Repository

For one of my modules with Uni, we had a trip to the Bremen Core Repository in the University of Bremen, Germany. Here we got to see how the 154km of cores are stored, in a 4 degrees centigrade room, in hundreds of movable rails.

Lots of Cores
More Cores!

Core Labels
We also got to see a drill rig that will soon be going back out to sea to drill for more cores, a close up of a drill bit, an XRF (X-Ray Fluorescence) machine, which is used for completely geochemical analysis on cores, and an MSCL (Multi-Sensor Core Logger) machine, which is used for high resolution imaging of cores.

Drill Rig

Drill Bit

XRF Machine

MSCL Machine
Then we went into a lab to start analysing the cores. First we put around 16 cores out onto special holders with rulers on, which make it easier for making accurate observations.

These cores are split into separate pieces where they have broken off, and these pieces can be split into sub-pieces. The sub-pieces have labels and arrows attached to them, to ensure that they are put back in the same place after analysis.

Core Pieces

Labels on Cores
An interesting core was from the KT (Cretaceous-Palaeogene) boundary, which occurred 66 million years ago. The boundary is clear to see, and is best known to mark the time of the dinosaur mass extinction event.

KT Boundary
Another interesting core shows how they are separated into a working half and an archive half. Samples cannot be taken from the archive half, but it can be used for surface analysis. The working half is where samples are taken from, and can include slices, thin sections and drills. Polystyrene is then put in place where the samples were taken from to mark when they originated.

Working and Archive Halves

We then started working on these cores, looking at their mineralogy, textures, structures and metamorphic features, to determine what rock they are. I was concentrating on the metamorphic features, looking for evidence of deformation. This can include reaction rims (which are areas between two minerals that are the products of reactions) and zonations (which is when a mineral changes composition as it grows).

Reaction Rim
This was a very interesting trip as we got to learn about cores in a working environment, as we saw how they are stored and how they are examined. We also got to look around Germany, and we went to the Christmas Market each evening, which was lovely. I'll end on a few snaps from the market - not geology related, but it shows that geology isn't all work and no play!

Market Stalls and a Soldier!



Market Stalls

Pretty Sunrise


More Rides!

Hauptbanhof (Main Station)

Saturday, 14 December 2013


The BBC has written a report about the supervolcano under the Yellowstone National Park, explaining that it is 2.5 times bigger than previously thought. It stretches for 55 miles and could contain up to 600 cubic km of molten rock, meaning that if an eruption occurred today, the consequences could be catastrophic. Yellowstone has had three major eruptions so far; 2.1 million years ago, 1.3 million years ago and 640,000 years ago, suggesting an average frequency of one every 700,000 years. This is a very rough estimate, as it is only based on two gaps between the three eruptions.
National Geographic explains that the most recent eruption was 1,000 times the size of the Mt St Helens eruption in 1980, with a pillar of ash rising 100,000 feet. Pyroclastic flows (dense fogs of ash, rocks and gas with a temperature of 800 degrees celsius) rolled along the landscape, welding itself to the ground. The eruption 2.1 million years ago was twice as strong, and the one 1.3 million years ago was slightly smaller, but still as devastating.
The Examiner goes on to explain that no supervolcano has erupted in human history, so it is hard to predict what will happen. They also say that there is an imminent danger, and that the magma is "ready to erupt", causing an eruption that would be 2,000 times larger than the Mt St Helens eruption in 1980.
However, the Yellowstone National Park Service believes that there is no evidence of an imminent catastrophic eruption, as geological activity has remained constant throughout the 30 years that it has been monitored. Instead the eruption is expected to occur in the next 1,000-10,000 years. This eruption could be in the form of a lava flow, oozing slowly for months and years, allowing people to have plenty of time to escape. Scientists also believe that they would examine the precursors to a catastrophic eruption for months or even years. These precursors include smaller volcanic eruptions, strong earthquake storms and ground deformation. The intensity of the precursors would increase closer to the time of the catastrophic eruption.
National Geographic gives a detailed explanation of what to expect from from a supervolcano. First, a hot plume would upwell, melting the rocks beneath the Earth's crust, forming a chamber filled with magma, rock, water vapour, carbon dioxide and other gases. The land would begin to dome upward as this material accumulates over thousands of years forming several fractures. The pressure in the chamber would build up, before being released through the fractures. The surface of the dome would collapse, leaving behind a caldera.
So it seems there is some controversy over the timescale in which Yellowstone will erupt, and the severity of the eruption, but hopefully us geologists will be able to keep an eye on things to give people enough warning about the impending doom!

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Hot Stuff!

Nasa's Iris mission has been observing the Sun's surface and its outer layers, where the temperatures can reach up to 2,000,000 degrees centigrade, with explosions of plasma moving at hundreds of kilometres per hour. This mission has been designed to help get a better understanding of space weather, as solar storms and flares have the potential to disrupt power supplies, transport and communications systems here on Earth.

Image of a Solar Storm (Courtesy of The BBC)
Earth Magazine goes into solar activity in more detail, looking into its possible effects and the vulnerability of power grids and satellites. If a massive solar storm hit the Earth, the impacts could be the worst that mankind has ever faced. If power was lost for a few months or years, commerce would stop immediately, with only a few shops remaining open using cash. Most fuel stations, pipelines and ATMs would stop as soon as the power was lost, shortly followed by land phone lines and mobile phone lines, along with water and wastewater treatment. Medical treatment would also shut down as hospitals would eventually lose electricity too. Emergency services and law enforcement workers would stop working to be with their families, along with power grid workers, making restoration even more difficult. There is also a nuclear concern, as reactors would shut down and melt down. We have become dependent on technology, opening us up to more risks and vulnerabilities. Flares and storms may also affect satellites, as they can be knocked out of their orbit, or their electronics may be damaged.
So the development of understanding of solar activity is vital for helping us to predict when they will happen so that we can be prepared. The most at risk areas are in the north, as that is where solar storms are likely to be most severe. The chances of an event this severe are very low, but it would leave over 100 million people cut off from electrical power.Resilience needs to be built, so that communities can cope with the disaster. Scientists, engineers and government officials are discussing the space weather threat and actions are being taken, but we still don't know when the next strike will occur. But don't worry, us geologists will save the day and figure it all out!

Thursday, 5 December 2013

When Life Gives You Lemons...

A mass extinction event that occurred 252 million years, otherwise known as the Permian-Triassic extinction event, ago may have been, in part, caused by rain that was as acidic as lemon juice. This rain would have killed off plants and organisms around the world, as was caused by sulphur emission from massive volcano eruptions in the Siberian Traps. The rain may have reached a pH of 2, which is as acidic as lemon juice, and would have been sufficient enough to disfigure plants and stop them growing, leading to their extinction. This would in turn led to the extinction of mammals, as the food supply would be dwindling. After the eruptions ended, rain pH levels would have become less acidic within one year.
The BBC and the Natural History Museum have discussed the Permian-Triassic extinction event in more detail. An estimated 93-97% of all species were wiped out in this event, during the three pulses of extinction. There a several other causes of this extinction. The earlier phase was probably due to environmental change caused by the formation of the supercontinent Pangaea. This landmass caused hot and dry conditions to occur worldwide.

Map of Pangaea (courtesy of Geogrify)
The later phase may have been due to a catastrophic impact event, increased volcanism, explosions from the Siberian Traps, release of methane from the sea floor, sea level change, anoxia (lack of oxygen), increasing aridity and a shift in ocean circulation due to climate change. This caused my favourite fossil group to eventually die out - Trilobites!
Trilobites (digressing slightly here, but never mind!) first appeared 521 million years ago, and had over 17,000 species! They lived in the sea, with some burrowing in the mud, some crawling on the seafloor and some swimming in open waters and reefs. Some trilobites were blind, but many had well developed eyes, with some being on stalks so that the ones who buried themselves in mud could just stick their eyes out like periscopes.

Trilobites (courtesy of BBC)

Saturday, 30 November 2013

Lyme Regis

Yesterday I went to Lyme Regis Museum to collect some more samples of the rocks from around the Scelidosaurus dinosaur bones. Here are some of the bones and rocks that I looked at:

Scelidosaurus vertebra

Various Scelidosaurus bones
The museum man knocked off some of the rock from the pieces in the above photo for me to take for analysis, and then he showed me some of his other fossils:

Lots of ammonites!

He then, very kindly, let me chose an Ichthyosaur vertebrae to take home with me! The start of my dinosaur collection!

Vertebrae - with my hand for scale!


Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Top Trumps!

Today a few of us were helping out at the Plate Tectonics and GeoHazards Conference for A-Level students. First we had to put up some geological posters, and then we were mingling with the students and giving them free-bee bags. We then mingled again at lunch time and again when they were leaving. Didn't really end up doing much geological stuff, but it was good fun anyway! Everybody really seemed to enjoy it, and they got to learn about plate tectonics, earthquakes and volcanoes. The main advantage of the day for us was that we all got a free packet of volcano top trumps, which I plan on playing when my work load dies down! Even better was that Iain Stewart signed them for us, after we managed to tear him away from all of his adoring fans that were getting signatures! Here's what two of us ended up with!

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Land Ahoy!

You may have seen a few months ago that an earthquake created a new island off the coast of Pakistan. This island is around 200m long, 100m wide and 20m high, and formed as two plates pushed together, pushing the seabed up.
A second island, which is also around 200m long, has now been seen off the coast of Japan, a few thousand km's south of Tokyo. It formed after an underwater volcanic eruption occurred, but it currently isn't known if the island will stay, or if it will go.
The National Geographic has gone through other ways in which islands can form. Continental islands were originally connected to a larger landmass, but they broke off as the shifting continents moved apart. They can also form when there is an increase in sea level, covering low lying areas and creating smaller islands.
Tidal islands form when parts of a continent are eroded. The erosion is not complete, but when high tide occurs, it allows an island to form.
Barrier islands lie parallel to coastlines and are made of sediment or coral. Sometimes they form as currents pile up sand on sandbars near coastlines, allowing them to rise above the water. Another way they can form is after a glacier has retreated, leaving behind piles of rock. Floods cause these piles to be separated from the surrounding continent, allowing them to form islands.
Ocean/volcanic islands, such as the one off the coast of Japan, form during eruptions of volcanoes on the sea floor. As the volcanoes erupt, layers of lava are built up, allowing them to eventually reach above the water level.
Coral islands, as the name suggests, are made of colonies of corals that build up to form huge reefs, which can sometimes reach the sea level surface.
Finally, artificial islands are formed by people. They are created from material that is brought in from elsewhere and added to the seafloor, to eventually build up into an island.
I hope you've enjoyed this brief overview of how islands are formed!

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Out of Earth Experience

Geology isn't just about the rocks, fossils and volcanoes down here on Earth. A lot of interesting and cool stuff happens up in space that can be just as relevant as what we see here. There are two news stories recently that caught my eye relating to this.
The first story is about how the Sun's magnetic field is about to reverse its polarity. This happens around every 11 years on the Sun, and will potentially cause a few satellite problems, but that's about it. Auroras, such as the Northern Lights, are going to be more visible and frequent after the event too. These magnetic reversals aren't limited to the Sun. The Earth itself has also experienced many magnetic reversals in its life. These reversals are very random and do not tend to have a particular cyclicity, as you can see in the picture below.

Magnetic reversals during the last 160 million years (Picture source: JOCMS)
Currently the Earth's magnetic field is 'normal', and the last reversal occurred around 780,000 years ago. A representation of this can be seen in the diagram below.

Normal and reversed magnetic fields (Picture source: Allochthonous)
The Earth is technically overdue a reversal based on the last few events that occurred, and geoscientists believe that that the next one will occur within the next few hundred thousand years. These changes are driven by the changing currents in the Earth's molten core, and the magnetic poles are drifting all the time - currently magnetic north is drifting by around 10 miles per year. When the next reversal occurs, the magnetic field will first begin to fade, leaving us more susceptible to the Sun's rays, and then when it flips, animals who use the magnetic field may become slightly confused, and there may be some impact on our technology, but it won't be the end of the world!
As I mentioned before, the Sun's reversal won't have as much of an impact on us, but it does show that geology doesn't just happen here on Earth.
The second story in the news relates to the research into how Mars lost its carbon dioxide rich atmosphere. Around 4,000 million years ago, Mars saw a decrease in the amount of carbon dioxide in its atmosphere, causing the planet to cool. As I'm sure you are all aware, carbon dioxide is a cause of global warming on Earth, so scientists have been working to see if what happened on Mars would be of any use to here. Rocks from Mars have been found to be siderite rich. Siderite is a mineral that forms during carbonation, where water and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere react with rocks containing the mineral olivine. This obviously takes the carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, which is why scientists are looking into it further. This process already occurs on Earth, but research is being done to discover if there is any way of using this to lock up carbon dioxide from power stations to hopefully reduce global warming.
Like the previous story, this one also shows how there is a clear link between the geology on Earth to the geology elsewhere, and that understanding the processes that have occurred on other planets may have some advantage to improving our knowledge of the geology here.

Saturday, 16 November 2013


Be prepared for lots of photos! Yesterday I went to Charmouth as part of my MGeol project, which is looking into the theory that terrestrial dinosaurs found in marine rocks were victims of ancient tsunamis. For this project, I am looking into a specific dinosaur called Scelidosaurus, which has been found in Charmouth.

Scelidosaurus bones and reconstruction
I met up with the finder of some of the Scelidosaurus bones, and he showed me some of his samples and took me out to Charmouth so I could collect some of my own. Here are some photos of some of his samples:

An assortment of Scelidosaurus bones

Scelidosaurus leg bone


Large ammonite
Here are some photos of a sample of rock that he let me take from outside the dinosaur bone:

The bone in the rock

A small bit has been chopped off

My sample
Here is a photo from Charmouth:

Some of the areas where we sampled
Here are some of the photos of the samples that I took from Charmouth:




Rocks where Scelidosaurus has been found

Rocks where Scelidosaurus has been found


Oyster shells and wood

All of my samples!
A side note that some of you may find funny - at one point I got stuck in the mud! It came up to my knees and went in my wellies! I had to be dug out with a spade, and I had wet feet for the rest of the day! Other than that, it was a very fun day, and I got to see some amazing samples. I'm looking forward to working with the ones that I collected, and I shall hopefully keep you updated!