The Winter Programme & Synopses of from 2019 - 20

Wednesday 2nd October

Wind turbines and woolly mammoths: the past, present, and future, of Dogger Bank

Kieran Blacker University of Leicester

In the vast Venn diagram of applied geoscience, there is the sub-discipline of offshore site-investigation and foundation design. Whether the task at hand is siting a drilling rig or platform, or placing large permanent structures such as the foundations for wind turbines, the first step is an adequate site investigation. In the first half of this talk, we will find out how to pick the right location to site a wind turbine, using data from the Dogger Bank located in the Central North Sea. What are the geological conditions at the seabed and in the sediments below? Are there any shallow hazards, such as gas pockets or a risk of slope failure? There may even be an archaeological discovery, unexploded ordinance, or woolly mammoth remains!
The second half of the talk will demonstrate how geoscientists can use this dataset to uncover the vast buried landscape of Doggerland. We will learn how the physical properties of the seabed and subsurface tell a fascinating story of a dynamic, constantly evolving landscape carved and shaped by multiple large-scale glaciations. Some of your ancestors may have even lived, hunted and died on Doggerland, a place which has been referred to as the Mesolithic’s “prime European real-estate” (National Geographic, 2012). From 100,000 years ago to the present, we’ll journey from frozen tundra to the drowning of this prehistoric landscape.

Wednesday 16th October

Fissures along faults: formation, fill, and importance

Dr Nigel Woodcock University of Cambridge

A persistent popular fear in seismically-active areas is that fissures will open up along earthquake faults and will swallow people. This fear is not irrational, because surface fissures certainly form along the right sorts of faults. But how wide and deep are these fissures and do they also develop at depth along faults? If so, can they be recognised, either on active faults, or in the geological record?
This talk will examine some UK evidence for ancient open fault fissures. These examples are all hosted in Carboniferous limestone, but from three different areas: the Gower and Pembroke peninsulas in South Wales, and along the Dent Fault in Cumbria. We will look at how open fissures – essentially fault-controlled caves – form and fill up through time with breccia, finer sediment, or vein growth. We will also find that fault fissures are more than just a local curiosity but are potentially important in controlling fluid flow through the upper crust

Wednesday 30th October

Skinning the pterosaur

Dr Dave Unwin University of Leicester

Pterosaurs were the most diverse, widespread and ecologically important group of vertebrate fliers throughout the Mesozoic. Despite more than two centuries of research many key aspects of their biology remain uncertain. We can, however, be confident that the pterosaur integument played critical roles in flight, physiology (e.g. control of temperature, water loss) and protection from the external environment (physical injury, diseases). It is also likely that it was involved in display and cryptic colouration. Consequently, a detailed understanding the structure and function of the skin could provide fresh insights into pterosaur biology. This talk will present, for the first time, a new model for the pterosaur integument, founded on a suite of fossils from South America, Europe, Middle Asia and China in which remains of the skin are exceptionally well preserved. Pterosaurs did not have hair (or feathers) as currently supposed and took advantage of a unique and highly versatile structural system based on collagen fibre bundles that supported a range of integumentary structures including wing membranes, cranial crests, tail flaps and foot webs.

Wednesday 13th November

Low permeability rocks, and their use as barriers to flow in the subsurface

Dr Katherine Daniels British Geological Survey, Keyworth

The Climate Change Act (2008) put the UK on a path towards a significant and ambitious reduction in carbon emissions by 2050, a target that the country has been working towards for the last decade. Earlier this year, the UK then pushed the climate agenda further by becoming the first major economy to pass a net-zero emissions law. These commitments to emissions reductions will require a dramatic shift in the way the country generates and uses energy. Renewable energies such as wind and solar, are capable of providing much of the energy to meet our needs, but these technologies suffer from intermittent generation patterns, often resulting in a mismatch between supply and demand. Geological energy storage is a viable and large scale method of retaining this green energy produced when supply outstrips demand, and this energy can then be tapped when demand is high. In this talk I will present the geological options for energy storage and discuss some of the challenges that need to be overcome in order for us to see a widespread deployment of this vital technology.

Wednesday 27th November

Carrara marble - the world's finest decorative stone

Dr Mark Barron British Geological Survey, Keyworth

Marble is an exceptional material, and I talk about its formation, distribution, abundance and varieties including British marble, its extraordinary properties and its diverse usage. Carrara marble is pre-eminent, and its story has enduring fascination - commencing in a now-vanished ocean occluded by continental collision and orogenesis, moving on to over 2000 years of history including extraordinary human endeavour, fascinating engineering, megalomaniac popes, heaps of money, and culminating in nudity, albeit as some of the world's greatest art made from its finest natural material.

Wednesday 15th January

Hothouse climates: What can mud from the bottom of the ocean tell us about past high-CO2 worlds?

Dr Kirsty Edgar University of Birmingham

Projected partial pressures of atmospheric carbon dioxide (pCO2) for the coming century have not been seen on Earth since the Eocene, more than 34 million years ago (Ma). In the Eocene, the Earth was much warmer than today with heat-loving organisms such as turtles, crocodiles and palm trees in the Arctic, and host to small or no ice sheets. Thus, the study of past warm intervals in the geological record can provide us with critical insights into how the Earth system looks and works in a high pCO2 state. Questions that we can address include – How quickly can ice sheets grow and decay? How do marine organisms respond to rapid changes in ocean temperature and pH? How good are our current predictive climate models? Arguably, the most important climate archives that we have to help answer these questions is the deep-sea sediment recovered by the International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP) and its predecessors, which span the past 200 million years of Earth history.

Monday 27th January

Fire and fury in Iceland: tracking molten rock from deep within the Earth to eruption at the surface

Professor Robert White FRS (Bullard Laboratories, University of Cambridge)

Volcanic eruptions in Iceland have fascinated writers for centuries. In 1775 Benjamin Franklin correctly identified the cause of the terrible weather that summer in Europe as caused by an eruption in Iceland, which turned out to be the biggest known historic eruption. In 1864 Jules Verne based his 'Journey to the Centre of the Earth' on a presumed volcanic conduit beneath the Icelandic volcano Hekla. In 2014 we were fortunate to capture the largest eruption in Iceland since 1775, this time with modern instrumentation. We were able to track the molten rock as it travelled sideways underground for 50 km before erupting in central Iceland, using the 50,000 tiny earthquakes it generated as it cracked its way forwards. I will describe our work in one of the remotest areas on earth tracking the molten rock, with videos of the eruption and advancing lava flows taken from within touching distance of the molten rock.

Wednesday 29th January

Geophysics, Leicester, and I

Professor Aftab Khan HBM University of Leicester

The 1950s is often referred to as the decade of geophysics, with good reason. Within that time, I experienced the transformation of the science of geology, from an observational one, concerned with studying minerals, fossils, rocks, structures, and making geological maps, to a physical quantitative one, describing earths' structure and evolution, based on a variety of global geophysical observations on land and sea.
I had a career in oil exploration in mind, but there were no taught degree courses in geophysics, or professors of geophysics, in the UK, so I read geology with physics and mathematics at Birmingham. There were no undergraduate lectures on Continental Drift (CD), which geologists proposed early in the 20th century, but which physicists proclaimed was physically impossible. The debate continued at many meetings and conferences, and ended in stalemate at the start of WW2. It was resumed, with vigour, after the war, largely by physicists. Instruments, able to measure the weak magnetisation of rocks, emerging from Blackett’s famous negative experiment, became available, and showed that the polar-wander paths were different for each continent. The highlight of the decade was the International Geophysical Year (1957–1958), mankinds' most comprehensive international scientific undertaking. The Soviet Union launched the first two space satellites, Sputniks I and II, in the latter part of 1957. East-West relationships were not good. The United States (1952), the Soviet Union (1953), and Great Britain (1957), detonated their first hydrogen fusion bombs (H-bombs) during the decade. They had to be stopped. Nuclear test-ban talks started at Geneva, Switzerland, during 1958. Monitoring systems for these treaty talks were vital, so Great Britain and the United States launched a “new seismology”, heavily based on the use of receiver arrays and digital computers. Much later, in 1989, the British Seismic Verification Research Project (BSVRP), funded by charities, was run from Leicester, and demonstrated that it is possible to verify a test ban treaty, with suitable distribution of seismic stations.
By the time I came to start geophysics at Leicester in 1963, the physicists had explained the different polar-wandering paths of the continents in terms of CD, although the mechanism was still not clear. It was about this time that new kinds of data were emerging from world-wide exploration of the ocean floor, and below, from ships. There was already a wealth of data from magnetometers, which were developed to detect submarines during the war. The Sea Floor Spreading hypothesis was proposed to explain the topography of the ocean floor, and the world-wide system of mid-oceanic ridges. This was convincingly supported by the Vine-Matthews hypothesis, proposed in 1963, to explain the symmetrical linear magnetic signal across the ocean ridges, in terms of reversals. The rock magnetic data, and those from seismology, on the distribution of earthquakes, and the structure of the ocean basins, led to the Plate Tectonic hypothesis on how the earth works. Universities were expanding in scope. In 1963, LU was about 800 students, largely arts based. The university had a plan to double in size, mainly by increasing its science numbers. It seemed a formidable undertaking. The first Bennett Professor, Peter Colley Sylvester-Bradley, a micropalaeontologist, was also a polymath, who saw the emergence of geophysics as a major new subject in its own right. He decided to appoint a geophysicist. New imaginative courses were needed. I proposed a new geophysics degree, and after a year of local, and national, argument it was accepted – the first in a geology department in the UK. I had a plan to continue in palaeomagnetism, but Peter talked me out of it, and urged me to think bigger – about Africa, where a new departmental volcanic programme had just started. I had read about Sir Edward Bullard’s gravity work in Africa, with pendulums, in the1930’s, and his conclusion that the rift was formed by compression which was fashionable at the time. With his help, I started my lifetime of gravity and seismic work on the Kenya Rift, culminating in the Kenya Rift International Seismic Project (KRISP 85-95). The rift, which had baffled geologists since it was first described by Gregory, had acquired a new significance in the global plate tectonic model, and the discovery of rifts on other planets. We were lucky to be able to recruit the excellent Peter Maguire, who did his PhD on Africa, without having been there, and Ian Hill, a former student with interests in near surface geophysics. We have participated in other major projects in Europe and, especially, in Cyprus.
Over the years we have had excellent undergraduate and PhD students, who had distinguished careers of their own. The success of the geology-computing cricket team in winning the University championship 5 years running, was hugely beneficial academically. The highlight was in 1989 when the first national review of a major science was carried out as an experiment. Geology was chosen, and three departments were graded as being outstanding, Cambridge, Leeds, and Leicester.

Wednesday 26th February

Using corals to understand climate change

Professor Jens Zinke University of Leicester

Shallow-water tropical corals are a key archive to constrain past climate variability (on the time scales most relevant to human societies). It provides data of environmental climates from before the start of systematic reef-monitoring programmes, and instrumental observations. Jens' research on coral-core derived, multi-element, and multi-isotope, geochemical records is utilised retrospectively to monitor a whole suite of environmental factors, such as nutrient loading; turbidity; and sedimentation, that interact with thermal stress during coral-bleaching events, those global warming events that characterise the Anthropocene. This talk will give an overview of how corals can be used to understand past, and present, climate changes.

Wednesday 11th March

Fertile ground for mobile phones

Dr Eva Marquis University of Leicester

The mobile phone has become a pervasive feature of modern living. Gone are the ‘bricks’ of the 1980s', replaced by ever more complex versions, containing more and more elements in their fabrication. High-strength magnets, employed in phone speakers, contain neodymium; one of the 15 lanthanides, REEs, or ‘rare earth elements’. These magnets are further utilised in turbine generators; for renewable energy technologies; and in hybrid, and electric, vehicles. As such, the REEs play an important role, not only in our everyday lives but also in our pursuit of a low-carbon future.
The REEs are not, as their moniker suggests, all that rare - being more abundant in the Earths' crust than many other precious metals. However, sourcing these elements in recent decades has cause economic, environmental, and social strife. A major outstanding question for REE deposits, and other critical metals, is how do we extract these elements in a responsible and sustainable manner? This talk will give an overview of REE deposits, focusing on ion-adsorption deposits, a key source of heavy REE (Gd-Lu), and discuss some of the challenges for sourcing the critical metals that are needed in current, and future technologies.