Communicating Contested Geoscience

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We all know that volcanoes and earthquakes are geological phenomena, and many of us know of plate tectonics as the force behind many such natural hazards. But in a geologically quiet place such as the UK, most of us know little about, say, the faulting or water flows in the rock beneath our feet.

And yet geology is inherent to some of the most pressing questions that communities across the UK face as they seek to meet resource needs, understand technical risks and their social impacts, and ensure that the regulation and governance of technology protect public and environmental health and wellbeing. On issues such as shale gas, geothermal power and the storage of carbon and radioactive waste, real public engagement in informed debate and decision-making is essential from both a practical and an ethical point of view.

In the search for suitable sites for the disposal of radioactive waste, for instance, the government now recognises that communication of the relevant geology is essential. It must be part of the toolkit for effective public engagement, to support site selection and community partnership in the development of a repository.


Professor Iain Stewart from the University of Plymouth opens the meeting.

Professional geoscientists working in such areas, then, must understand the public’s knowledge and concerns, and must develop strategies to communicate what they know and do. A Geological Society conference in June brought together geoscientists from academia, industry and government, as well as science communication practitioners and social scientists, to explore these challenges, focusing on three areas related to the UK’s energy supply: radioactive waste disposal, shale gas and fracking, and carbon capture and storage.

Some of the fundamental ideas that geologists bring to these issues are disconcertingly alien. To most people, 100,000 years seems a very long time to rely on the geosphere to contain radioactive waste. In geological terms it is the blink of an eye, and geologists may see their appreciation of deep time as giving them a privileged understanding of our planet and the processes that have shaped it. But unless geologists work hard to understand public perspectives and concerns, these different world views may undermine public confidence in the judgment of the people providing advice about radioactive
waste disposal.

Similarly, geologists are comfortable dealing with uncertainty and incomplete data, and may view their ability to work in this way as a core element of their job. Communicating openly and effectively about how they work with incomplete data, seek to constrain uncertainty and make probabilistic assessments – for example of hydrocarbon resources or risk from natural hazards – is essential if these are to be recognised as attributes with value, rather than expressions of ignorance.

As discourse about the communication of climate science shows, perceptions of ignorance and uncertainty may undermine public confidence in knowledge and expert judgments. They may also create the conditions for those arguing for a particular point of view on a contested matter such as fracking to play fast and loose with the evidence. If it appears that nothing is certain, unsubstantiated claims are more likely to get traction, and evidence to get cherry-picked. Professional scientists are not above such guerrilla tactics.

Researchers and institutions that advocate looking more holistically and dispassionately at a range of relevant evidence, and recognising uncertainties, can appear guarded and conditional by contrast. In this asymmetric warfare of science communication, simple but false certainties can have an appeal that more complex and nuanced explanations and assessments lack.


Kirsty Anderson, Public Engagement Manager, Global CCS Institute discusses some of the complex language around contested geoscience.

Speakers at our conference highlighted some practical ways to improve geoscience communication: producing images that show clearly what is going on under the ground (paying attention to vital details such as scale), finding the right words and narratives, using social media and making data open and discoverable. But it is equally important for geologists to work in an interdisciplinary way with other natural scientists, engineers, social scientists and professional practitioners with expertise in communication and public engagement.

Behind these issues is a major problem in how researchers are trained. Secondary school gives pupils the impression that science is made up of three branches – physics, chemistry and biology – that have little to do with each other. Instead, we should highlight the overlaps and interfaces between specialisms, raise awareness of other disciplines, and stimulate genuine interdisciplinary thinking and working.

Careers information and guidance, reflecting the diversity of what different kinds of scientist actually do, should also be at the heart of science teaching. Reforming how we teach science in schools is vital to training the next generation of scientists and ensuring they have the skills they need, and to enabling the wider public to be discerning in their approach to scientific claims about politically contested matters.

This piece was first published in Research Fortnight on 3 September 2014, under the title ‘Rocky relationship with the public’.

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British Science Festival 2014: Operation Stonehenge

Part of the LBI ArchPro survey team at Stonehenge (from left: Nico Neubauer, Thomas Zitz, Wolfgang Neubauer, Klaus Löcker, Erich Nau, Immo Trinks).© LBI ArchPro, Geert Verhoeven

Part of the LBI ArchPro survey team at Stonehenge (from left: Nico Neubauer, Thomas Zitz, Wolfgang Neubauer, Klaus Löcker, Erich Nau, Immo Trinks).© LBI ArchPro, Geert Verhoeven

One of our nominated 100geosites took centre stage yesterday at the British Science Festival, as Professor Vincent Gaffney and colleagues unveiled the latest from the Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes Project, led by the University of Birmingham in conjunction with the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Archaeological Prospection and Virtual Archaeology.

Precise positioning using a GPS system during the Stonehenge survey.© LBI ArchPro, Geert Verhoeven

Precise positioning using a GPS system during the Stonehenge survey.© LBI ArchPro, Geert Verhoeven

The digital mapping project, which has been using remote sensing and geophysical surveys to map the hidden landscape of the site, has revealed hundreds of new features, including seventeen previously unknown ritual monuments, dozens of burial mounds, and more information about the world’s largest ‘super henge’, Durrington Walls.

‘This project has revealed that the area around Stonehenge is teeming with previously unseen archaeology’ said Professor Gaffney, ‘and that the appreciation of new technology can transform how archaeologists and the wider public understand one of the best-studied landscapes on Earth.’

All of the new information forms part of the most detailed archaeological digital map of the Stonehenge landscape ever produced.

One of the unexpected results of the survey is new information about Durrington Walls – a so called ‘super henge’ a short distance from Stonehenge, which has a circumference of more than 1.5 km. The survey reveals that, in its early phase, the monument was flanked with massive posts or stones, which could have been up to three metres high, and may still survive beneath the surface.

3D-reconstruction and visualization of the long barrow southwest of Durrington Walls (view towards the entrance from the northeast) just before the wooden mortuary building was completely covered by material excavated from ditches dug along the long sides of the construction.© LBI ArchPro, Joachim Brandtner

3D-reconstruction and visualization of the long barrow southwest of Durrington Walls (view towards the entrance from the northeast) just before the wooden mortuary building was completely covered by material excavated from ditches dug along the long sides of the construction.© LBI ArchPro, Joachim Brandtner

The project has also revealed a massive timber building which was probably used for ritual preparation of the dead, which was later covered by an earthen mound.

More recent activity has also been uncovered – including practise trenches dug around Stonehenge to prepare troops for battle on the western front during the First World War.

Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes Project – Stonehenge Smiley face (yes folks that really is a prehistoric ring ditch with internal or earlier features)© LBI ArchPro

Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes Project – Stonehenge Smiley face (yes folks that really is a prehistoric ring ditch with internal or earlier features)© LBI ArchPro

‘Despite stonehenge being the most iconic of all prehistoric monuments and occupying one of the richest archaeological landscapes in the world, much of this landscape in effect remains terra incognita‘ says Professor Gaffney. ‘This project has revealed that the area around Stonehenge is teeming with previously unseen archaeology and that the application of new technology can transform how archaeologists and the wider public understand one of the best-studied landscapes on Earth.’

  • Stonehenge forms part of the nominations for our ‘100 Great Geosites’ project, included in ‘human habitation’ category. Voting for the final list is open until 22 September – visit to find out more about the project and cast your vote!
  • Operation Stonehenge: What Lies Beneath is due to be broadcast on BBC Two at 8pm BST on Thursday 11 September.
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British Science Festival 2014: ‘We are all catastrophists now’

Sanjeev Gupta introducing his talk at the British Science Festival, 'Megafloods: Myth and Reality'

Sanjeev Gupta introducing his talk at the British Science Festival, ‘Megafloods: Myth and Reality’

The theory that the dramatic landscapes of the Columbia River Plateau were caused by massive flooding in the distant past might not sound too controversial. But, as Sanjeev Gupta told us in our British Science Festival event yesterday, the theory, first proposed in 1923 by American geologist J Harlen Bretz, was so controversial it sparked a debate that lasted more than three decades.


J Harlen Bretz in 1949

J Harlen Bretz in 1949

By the time his ideas were finally accepted, Bretz was in his eighties. The story goes that he received a telegraph from researchers in the 1963 which ended with, ‘we are all now catastrophists.’

Back in 1923, making reference to ‘megafloods’ was loaded with controversy. Geology, by then, had left the days of biblical flood theories behind. Uniformitarianism – Lyell’s famous ‘the present is the key to the past’ – was the unifying theory, first proposed as an antidote to catastrophism.

Catastrophism, popularised in the early nineteenth century, argued that the Earth has been shaped by sudden, violent events in its past. Not only floods, but volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and rapid mountain building have all left their mark, in ways we can’t imagine by looking at today’s world.

Lyell’s arguments for more slow, incremental changes over geological time prevailed, and by the time Bretz suggested in 1923 that the unusual erosion features in the Columbia River Plateau could be explained by a cataclysmic flooding event, such a theory suggested a regression to the catastrophist theories of old. The geological establishment was resistant, and Bretz continued his research for another thirty years before he was vindicated.

Imaging of the landscape beneath the English Channel

Imaging of the landscape beneath the English Channel

Now, geologists recognise evidence for past ‘megafloods’ all over the world. Sanjeev showed us some amazing images of the landscape beneath the English channel, produced by high resolution sonar waves, showing deep scour marks and valleys.

The landscape is thought to have been produced by torrents of water, released when a lake, fed by the Rhine and the Thames, bounded to the north by glaciers and the south by the Weild Artois chalk ridge, overspilled. The resultant flooding, taking place between 200,000 and 450,000 years ago, would have displaced an estimated one million cubic metres of water per second, lasting potentially several months.

We also saw evidence that megafloods might have happened on other planets, too – with a flythrough of a Martian landscape which showed deep, meandering valleys carved by water flowing billions of years ago.

The topography of Mars

The topography of Mars

On Mars, the situation is more complicated – water frozen deep beneath the surface is thought to have burst, volcano like, through fissures and ruptures, producing flooding events many times the size of those we have seen on Earth. Though initially this was thought to be the main cause of Martian flooding, high elevation flood channels suggest surface water was shaping the landscape too, in the same way, though on a bigger scale, to Earth’s megaflooding.

All of which, for Sanjeev, suggests we have to be careful with Lyell’s uniformitarianism. Yes, present processes can tell us a lot about what happened in the past. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that events also occurred in our geological past that we’d find unimaginable today.


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100 Great Geosites – voting is OPEN!





A big thank you to everyone who took the time to nominate their favourite geosite on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, email, snail mail or in person! We’ve done our very best to collect every one of the nominations – over 400 – and now we need your help to whittle the list down to just 100 in time for Earth Science Week, where we’ll be celebrating the amazing, diverse geoheritage of the UK and Ireland.

Banner picture

We’ve divided all the nominations into categories for you to vote on. Of course, many of the sites could fall into more than one, and we had a few debates along the way (* cough* Snowdon * cough*), but we’ve tried to pick the most relevant category for each site.

Each category will contain a ‘people’s choice’ – a geosite entirely decided on by the public vote. You get one vote per category, so use it wisely!

All the nominated sites, divided into their categories, can be viewed on our flickr pages, with further information and images. Once you’ve had a look and made your choices, head to our website to cast your vote.

Flickr albums

In the meantime, we’d still love to hear from you if you’d like to write a blog post in support of your favourite site! We can’t accept new nominations, but if you see a site on the list you’d like to write about, do get in touch by commenting or email us at

A variety of geowalks are taking place during Earth Science Week, many of which are to nominated sites – get in touch if you’d like to organise one in your area.

Spread the word, vote, and most importantly, visit the sites! The huge range of nominations just goes to show how much amazing geology we have on our doorsteps – if you do visit any, remember to send us back some pictures….

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100 Great Geosites nomination: Widemouth Bay, North Cornwall

A 100 Great Geosites nomination from Linda Fowler…

Widemouth Bay, North Cornwall – a brilliant field skills teaching location

Widemouth Bay, N CornwallI visited this first as an Open University student in the 1980s: it is a wonderful, and safe, beach for teaching tectonic structures, sedimentary structures and basic field skills with plenty of steeply dipping and folded exposure of the shales and sandstones of the Bude Formation.

I’ve been running field days here for the last 20 years or so: the joy of it is that the rocks are well exposed and the exposures are clean, easily accessed, and plentiful: no problem spreading 20 or 30 students out along a section. Then there’s a bonus: not only can they seen the plan view of these beautiful plunging folds on the shore platform, but if they turn around, there they are in section in the cliffs! A second bonus is that a walk along the cliff path gives a great bird’s-eye view of the rocks on the foreshore… all great stuff for helping with that perpetual nightmare, 3D visualisation of structures.

Then, when the students have measured the dips, strikes, plunges, azimuths etc until they can do it in their sleep, they can go on to describe the rocks, put together graphic logs, and get masses of practice at field sketching on all scales from the beautiful little, cm-scale, folds and faults in the contorted beds up to folds as high as the cliff.

And this is all done from a sandy beach, within 10-minutes’ walk of the car park and cafe. It has to be my favourite UK geosite for teaching of all time.


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A new version of Sopwith’s Buckland portrait?

Ted Nield writes: While visiting the private museum of Dorset fossil collector, preparator and author Wolfgang Grulke recently for a future article in Geoscientist, I saw a familiar image in a rather unfamiliar form.

Buckland by Thomas Sopwith

Buckland by Thomas Sopwith

Most of us have at one time or another seen Thomas Sopwith’s famous pen and ink drawing of William Buckland (1784-1856) in his remarkable field gear.  In addition to the cape and top hat, we also see the trademark goggly eyes that evidently impressed every portraitist who had met the man personally.  But what are we to make of this watercolour, clearly based on the Sopwith original?

The broad features of the Professor’s garb have been copied freehand; but the face is a poor likeness – as though copied by an inexpert draughtsman with no particular idea of the subject’s true appearance.  Also, the famous ‘blue bag’ is not coloured blue but a standard beige – which also suggests that the painter was not personally familiar with his – or her – subject.

And who is ‘APF’ of the signature?  Any ideas/opinions most welcome!

Buckalnd in Field Gear by 'AFP'

Dr Buckland, Geologist by ‘APF’

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Underground or overground?

Geological disposal of radioactive waste


Nuclear waste capsules.

A couple of weeks ago, the UK government published a White Paper, setting out a revised process for disposing of our radioactive waste. You can read our response to it here.

Of all the weird and wonderful things geologists get up to, disposing of radioactive waste may not seem the most glamorous – but it’s one of the most important. Since the UK began producing nuclear power in the 1950s, we’ve generated hundreds of thousands of cubic metres of radioactive waste, the majority of which is currently being stored at the surface.

As well as being a health threat, the waste could be used to create nuclear weapons and, if it stays at the surface, will need to be constantly managed, imposing a burden on many generations to come.

A number of solutions have been considered, from disposing of the waste in space, to placing it in subduction zones – both of which have been discounted. Geological disposal has long been the proposed solution to the problem – bury the waste in a purpose built repository deep enough and safe enough that further management won’t be needed.

So, we’re going to bury it somewhere it will be secure enough that future generations won’t have to worry about it. But where?

Earlier this year, Rebecca Lunn, who is currently a member of the Government’s Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM), gave a talk at the Society on the ins and outs of how site selection has worked so far, and why we are still looking for a suitable site for disposal. She also featured in our podcast series – you can listen to the interview here.

We also heard from Neil Chapman about the risks that need to be taken into account when disposing of the waste, from tsunamis to rock shearing, and what they mean for the future of the UK’s nuclear industry – listen to his podcast here, or watch the full lecture below.

So, what’s the solution? We’d love to hear your thoughts on what, if anything, we should do with our radioactive waste….

  • For all the ins and outs of radioactive waste disposal, and the role of geologists, visit our website, where you can find Geoscientist articles, meeting reports, position statements and other relevant information.
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The Great Schools Geobakeoff!

Buoyed by the phenomenon that was the 2014 Great Geobakeoff, we thought it was about time the schools got a look-in. And what better day to launch, than the day the Great British Bakeoff returns to our screens?

Cake is a handy, versatile way to explain a lot of geological concepts, from stratigraphy and faulting to Earth’s layers – we’ve done it before on this very blog. So it’s no surprise schools have been geobaking for far longer than we have. Since the geobakeoff began, geography and geology classes have been sending over examples of their handiwork in an impressive range of styles…




Wells Cathedral School

Wells Cathedral School

Inspired by your efforts, as part of Earth Science Week 2014, we’re holding a special Schools Geobakeoff, open to all schools from Primary to Sixth Form!


Students can enter as a class, or individually.

To enter, all you need to do is send us a picture of your creation, a paragraph (100-500 words) explaining what it represents, and the name of your school.

Entries can take any form, from globe cakes to unconformities – the only rule is that they are geologically themed. Look no further than the geobakeoff hashtag on twitter, or our summary of entries, if you’re in search of inspiration!

Send us your creations any time, from now until the end of Earth Science Week (13-19 October), and we’ll pick five winners from amongst the bunch.

prizesYou can send us your pictures via twitter, to @geolsoc using #geobakeoff, or email them to us. Please email your text to, with the subject heading ‘Schools Geobakeoff.’


Winning students/classes will all receive the traditional geobakeoff prize package of a one off, limited edition #geobakeoff wooden spoon, our much coveted rock hammer USB sticks, and a certificate confirming your geobaking prowess.

Need some inspiration?

Look no further than the Great Geobakeoff Flickr album, containing all the weird and wonderful entries from the last Great Geobakeoff! Or why not have a go at recreating Catherine Kenny’s Silurian Death Assemblage Cupcakes? Keep an eye on the blog, we’ll be posting more recipes and ideas in the build up to Earth Science Week…

Good luck!

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GSL teams up with GeoScienceWorld eBooks!

publishing house booksA guest post from Dr Maxine Smith, Online Development Editor at the Geological Society Publishing House

Production staff at the Geological Society Publishing House were busy for the first half of 2014 helping GeoScienceWorld (GSW) launch their eBook Collections. The GeoScienceWorld eBook Collections, which went live on 22 July 2014, is dedicated to the study of the Earth sciences and contains books from 10 leading society publishers. There are 713 book titles available now with a total of 1050 expected by the end of summer 2014. The Geological Society of London has contributed approximately 250 books to the collection.

Currently, the Geological Society of London’s Lyell Collection includes the following book content:

  • Engineering Geology Special Publications
  • Memoirs
  • Petroleum Geology Conference series
  • Special Publications

What’s new about the GSW eBook Collections is that 14 books not currently online are included:

  • The IAVCEI series (co-published with The International Association of Volcanology and Chemistry of the Earth’s Interior)
  • The TMS series (co-published with The Micropalaeontological Society)
  • The ‘Geology of’ series

And there are plans to include other GSL books that are not currently online in future releases.

Engineering geology subject area search: GSL publications alongside other geological society publications.

Engineering geology subject area search: GSL publications alongside other geological society publications.

The highlight of the GSW eBook Collections is that it is cross-searchable with GSW’s Journals Collections, which hosts 45 journals from 28 publishers. Readers can search using:

  • Subject areas
  • Publishers
  • Books

An additional feature of the GSW eBook Collections is that all books are available in whole-book PDF format rather than in the chapter-based PDF format, which makes it easier to navigate around the book and jump from chapter to chapter. Readers can also download chapters, the index, covers and table of contents from each book as a PDF.


A book’s ‘main book’ page: the table of contents and other book information occupies the left and centre of the screen while recommended reading, social sharing and download function to citation managers is on the right of the screen.

A book’s ‘main book’ page: the table of contents and other book information occupies the left and centre of the screen while recommended reading, social sharing and download function to citation managers is on the right of the screen.

When accessing a book’s ‘main book’ page readers can view the book abstract, the table of contents, and GeoRef records from AGI’s GeoRef database, along with recommended reading, downloading to a variety of citation managers and social sharing.

Title collections are available now for institutional subscription, and soon, chapters will be available for online purchasing and downloading by individual users. Non-customers may conduct searches and find detailed book information, abstracts, and tables of contents for each title. Full text content is available by institutional subscription and/or via Athens affiliation. Free trials are available to prospective institutional customers. To request a trial contact:

New books will be added on an ongoing basis so production staff at the Geological Society Publishing House will be busy again in the Autumn…


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100 Great Geosites nomination: Eglwyseg Escarpment

A 100 Great Geosites nomination from Raymond Roberts, Senior Geologist at Natural Resources Wales

I could easily have chosen a dozen or so sites for my favourite geosites. In the end I chose my local one – The Eglwyseg Escarpment.

Eglwyseg Escarpment

Eglwyseg Escarpment from Dinas Bran

It doesn’t matter if you see it from the A5, the Horseshoe Pass or look across the Dee Valley from the Berwyn Mountains, every glimpse of the Eglwyseg Escarpment looks fantastic. Stretching for nearly 10 kilometres and rising high above the valley floor, it has to be one of the most dramatic landscapes in Wales. And to make it even more special it is a fantastic place for geology.

Eglwyseg Escarpment 2

Cliffs and screes dominate the landscape

The Eglwyseg has something for all. I come for walks with my family, pappose and all, some come for the view or the climbing, others for geology or geography fieldtrips, and many just pass through as they follow Offa’s Dyke. Whatever the reason, it is the geology that has brought them.

Geology students, walkers and climbers enjoy the geology

Geology students, walkers and climbers enjoy the geology

The main escarpment rises in a series of steps over 450m, and includes one of the finest exposures of late Dinantian limestones in Wales. Such a thick sequence shows the different styles of Dinantian cyclicity, whilst the 10km or so length of escarpment provides an opportunity to study the lateral variation in sedimentation.

A bonus feature of Eglwyseg are the screes – millions of limestone fragments which have collected at the foot of the cliffs since the end of the last Ice Age. One of the wonders of Wales, the Eglwyseg screes are probably the best in the UK.

eglwyseg limestone cliffs

Dramatic limestone cliffs and screes

eglwyseg oolitic limestone

Cross-bedded oolitic limestone



The geology and geomorphology of the Eglwyseg allows research at the highest level. But easily accessible exposures, both dip & strike sections, and fossils makes Eglwyseg an outdoor classroom for any age. My passion for geology started as a child when I started finding fossil plants in some of the old coal tips of South Wales, and I’m sure a visit to the Eglwyseg has fired the imagination of many children, and adults!

  • Nominations for the 100 Great Geosites project are closing on Friday 18th July – but we would still love to receive blog posts! If you would like to write a blog about your favourite geosite, write to us at  Visit our Flickr page to see the nominations so far! And stay tuned for information about how to vote for your favourites from the list of nominations…


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