Wednesday 29 February 2012

Dan Sharpe: Oil in Society - Exploring for Sustainability

Dan Sharpe, a second year geology student at the University of Leeds, is our new columnist. A couple of weeks ago he wrote about the contrast between earthquakes in Haiti and New Zealand, and this week he shares some thoughts on one of the things most associated with geoscience - oil. 

In an increasingly populated world the quest for natural resources is reaching unprecedented levels. New technologies and increasing prices have lead to a more efficient extraction of oil and the United States alone consumed nearly 20 million barrels of oil every day in 2009.

As a result of this frenzied exploration, companies have to be more acutely aware of the damage that may occur to the human population of an exploration area. With oil being actively extracted from developing countries such as China, Venezuela and the majority of the middle-east it is obligatory that the major companies ‘give back’ to the areas they are working in. Many only view the bad side of the extractive industries, but with stricter regulations and an increase in moral concern for oil producing countries, much better news is now coming out of this industry.

By no means am I saying there are no downsides however. Headlines were battered with stories from the Gulf of Mexico when BP’s offshore rig leaked in 2010 on an immense scale with up to 5 million barrels estimated to have escaped the pipe. Historical incidents include the 1989 disaster involving the tanker Exxon Valdez or the 2002 Prestige catastrophe involving a Greek ship, but in developing countries spills have been known to slip under the news coverage slightly more smoothly. In 2009, Amnesty International released a statement requesting that the CEO of Shell sort out spills in the Niger Delta claiming that the people in the area are forced to drink contaminated water, catch fish that smell of crude oil and breathe air rich in oil and gas fumes. The full press release can be found here.

It is clear that extraction companies such as Shell, British Petroleum and ExxonMobil have an obligation in modern society to ensure they leave areas the same as they were when they arrived, if not better. Today, most major oil companies have projects in place to do exactly this, and the good that these schemes do is very rarely publicised. Shell have their foundation for example, which is focussed on poverty and environmental issues. Hess has their PRODEGE scheme which aims to develop the education schemes in areas of Equatorial Guinea, Africa. This $40 million program aims to improve schools in the country and, working with the local government, Hess has managed to establish 40 model schools of which 39 are now fully operating. As a side project, the partnership has built latrines and drilled water wells to ensure that students now have safe, drinkable water and proper sanitation.

As we all progress into a ‘greener’ world it is important for oil companies to follow. Contrary to this Shell cut all funding for wind, solar and hydro-electric developments in 2009, explaining that the money would be invested into biofuels instead, an energy source that drives up food prices and increases deforestation say environmental groups.

In a statement released in 2010 however, Chevron announced that over $2 billion would be invested in developing renewable technologies over the next three years, showing that some major companies do still value renewable solutions as a true alternative to fossil fuels. Whether this is true is yet to be seen, but the use of solar panels in remote locations, hydro-electric plants for local sustainability and wind farms both off and onshore could well be viable alternatives for those unable to afford fossil fuel powered luxuries such as cars. With profits of over $6 billion per year these major companies are not short on cash and perhaps, with a little investment, the developing renewable solutions could make be viable alternatives for small, remote, and often underdeveloped communities.

These are clear examples of how an oil company can, and should treat local communities, especially in developing nations. The extractive industries are littered with tortured tales of an old-fashioned past and as we move into another decade of poverty, drought and a lack of literacy or numeracy, it is now the chance for companies to prove that the industry has escaped the wasteful techniques of years ago.

Monday 27 February 2012

Guest Blog: The Social Geologist

the social geologist...
thinking about people and not just rocks”
Last week I introduced the blog of PhD student Jonathan Stone, undertaking research into volcanic systems at the University of East Anglia. Jonathan has written an entertaining and informative piece for the GfGD blog about the social geologist...

As a young undergraduate, I used to love going out into the field - swinging my hammer at any outcrop foolish enough to show itself to me. Whilst I wasn’t as hammer happy as some of my peers (“Jackhammer” Jake in particular), there seemed to be so much rock out there, and too many samples to collect. I can distinctly remember though, standing on a desolate beach in Somerset on a windy afternoon, being told we were not allowed to hammer at rocks here, as the site was a SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest). This was probably my first introduction to geologists having an obligation to preserve things, even at small scales such as this.

As geologists we have a responsibility to do things sustainably, to preserve and in some cases protect, whilst making the most of the world that we live in and its resources. This obligation, or responsibility, doesn’t stop with the natural environment and its feelings or preservation, but also to the people that live in it. Can the people be more important than the resources or the scientific research? Of course they can and indeed they are - a fact that can often be overlooked.

But why, as geologists, should we be bothered about people? Isn’t that what geographers or social scientists do? I remember having some disdain for “Jackhammer” Jake, famed for his rock smashing prowess, when he switched courses from geology to environmental geoscience. It was almost as if the word ‘environmental’ made us ‘pure’ geologists shudder. Jackhammer however, was just ahead of the curve and spotted a trend that we should all take note of. It is impossible to divorce the world of science from the public’s impression of it, and so we really do need to keep people in mind when we plan our next research, exploration or extraction. I’m not calling for everyone to become social scientists, not every geologist needs to go out and interview people (please don’t just go out and do a questionnaire to tick this box), but all of us need to at the very least, engage with those that do try to listen to or understand people (social scientists) and we need to keep an open mind.

Half way into my MSc, I worked at the Montserrat Volcano Observatory in the role of scientific communication and outreach. I had gone out there to work at a volcano observatory, hoping to do some quantitative volcanic risk assessment work if the volcano started to erupt, but ended up learning profound lessons about the intersection of people and science. Heightened activity in December 2009 meant that we were no longer able to give sufficient warning to some people in a particular community there, and so the authorities took the decision to evacuate them. Residents there were quite unhappy with the decision to evacuate and in some cases angry. The decision was based on sound scientific evidence, so why didn’t people understand? I was perplexed, but just tried to continue acting professionally. Only later, having acquired some social science research training and returning to Montserrat, did I manage to talk to some of the residents and understand from their point of view why they were so unhappy with the evacuation. What may have seemed black and white to scientists did not seem that way to the residents. You see, we are all people with emotions, feelings and opinions, but we sometimes forget this when we are being professional scientists. We then manage to divorce emotion from our thinking and in some cases decision making, instead relying on pure logic. Clearly from a practical point of view it is sometimes necessary to act with cold logic, but we should be aware of the other dimension, so that we can at least understand, even if it sometimes does not change the decisions we make.

Eruption of Soufriere Hills, Montserrat, November 2009 - (Courtesy of Jonathan Stone)

People, us scientists included, have opinions and feelings, based on a vast many things. Some opinions may seem ‘wrong’ scientifically, but are they any less valid? The ‘social geologist’ doesn’t need a social science degree... they need to stop and consider the opinions of others before they smash the rock with their hammer, sink a new well or evacuate a village. They are aware of the importance that people and their voices should have in decision making, and strive to be inclusive. If you read the news or articles in scientific journals, our world is facing an uncertain future, in terms of climate, competition for resources or increasing vulnerability to natural disasters. Scientists can’t answer and fix these issues on their own, so we need to include and listen to the public. We can no longer hide inside a lab or behind a computer screen but rather we should make concerted effort to engage with and communicate to people whose lives we affect with our decisions.

Friday 24 February 2012

Friday Photo (21) - Shallow Well Maintenance

District water engineers work with the local community to repair a broken shallow well in Tanzania
(c) Geology for Global Development 2012

Wednesday 22 February 2012

GfGD Blog Competition 2012

Tomorrow is our first birthday on the ‘Geology for Global Development’ blog – the forerunner to the GfGD organisation. Over the past 12 months we have published around 150 posts on topics ranging from water and sanitation, mining, geohazards and disaster risk reduction, the importance of soft skills and much more. We have had a range of guest blogs from students, academics and professionals, and recently have welcomed Dan Sharpe onto the writing team as a regular GfGD columnist. There have been a staggering 25,000+ pageviews over the past 12 months, from nations around the world – and we currently have over 4000 hits a month.

To celebrate one year of the GfGD blog, we’d like to invite you to join our ‘GfGD Blog Competition 2012’ with the chance to win a range of geological-themed prizes (to be announced soon). We are asking people to submit a blog post of no more than 600 words, and a maximum of 3 graphics, on one of the following broad topics:

(1) Success Stories – How has geoscience been used within development to bring about positive and sustainable change?

(2) Missing Skills – The importance of ‘soft-skills’ for geoscientists in the development sector.

(3) Communicating Geoscience – How can we improve the communication of geoscience to policymakers?

The article will require some research and background reading. It can be written in the style of your choice, be creative but make sure it is readable, accurate and informative. It can be entertaining or serious, challenging or provocative – the judges welcome a range of different writing styles. Applications should be sent by midday on 30th April 2012 to, with the author’s name, e-mail address, contact number and university (or date of graduation).

After the submission deadline, a shortlist of the best articles will be compiled. All shortlisted articles will be published on our blog, and also in a special GfGD publication to be made available for download on our website. The overall winner and other special prize winners will be decided by our panel of guest judges, and winners will be contacted in June 2012.

Prizes, to be announced in the near future, will be awarded to the following categories:
(i) Overall Winner
(ii) Runners Up (x2)
(iii) Best original graphic (illustration, photo, other graphic).

You can read more, and download a PDF with the full details and rules from our website, and we strongly recommend all candidates do this. Please note this competition is open to current students or those who graduated not more than three years ago.

Monday 20 February 2012

External Blog: Volcanic Risk

"Volcanic eruptions are incredible and the thrill of seeing one is often indescribable. However, if you live near one and the eruption might cause you to be evacuated, or put your life in danger, then they may evoke a different set of emotions..."

Read more of the fascinating first-hand experience of Jonathan Stone, a PhD student at the University of East Anglia and working closely with the British Geological Survey, on his blog 'Volcanic Risk'. Jonathan has experience working in Central America and at the Montserrat Volcano Observatory.

Friday 17 February 2012

Friday Photo (20) - Ol Doinyo Lengai

TANZANIA: Ol Doinyo Lengai From the EGU Open Access Image Repository, the Ol Doinyo Lengai volcano in Tanzania is special and unique due it being the only active volcano to produce natrocarbonatite lava, rather than the common silicate lavas.
Source: Julie Albaric , Domaines Oceaniques/CNRS - France

Wednesday 15 February 2012

Introducing GfGD's Advisory Group

You can now find details of GfGD's Advisory Group on our website. This group of experienced and professional geoscientists and engineers have worked in academia, government institutions and NGOs, and across many developing countries. In their support of GfGD, they bring a wealth of knowledge and experience that has already been fundamental to the founding of the organisation.  

I am delighted to have the ongoing support of each member of the group, and am very grateful for their insights and ideas. Their contribution will play an important role as we expand and develop in the future.

Monday 13 February 2012

Dan Sharpe: Contrasting Earthquakes in Christchurch and Haiti

Dan Sharpe, aged 19, is a second year geology student at the University of Leeds. With an avid interest in travelling, he has recently spent three and a half months in the wilderness of Northwest Canada and has also climbed the highest active volcano in the world. Currently fundraising for his participation in the Milan City Marathon in April, Dan spends most of his time out of lectures running or in the pool, or the pub of course.

Dan has a keen interest in development and will be joining the GfGD Blog writing team as a columnist - covering topics of interest to him - and hopefully many of you, enjoy!

Source: Flickr
2011 was a year of unparalleled numbers of disasters and the first six months saw over $265 billion in losses (study by Munich Re; a company that specialises in disaster insurance). On the 10th January floodwaters rushed through Queensland Australia, waters that killed 17 people and caused millions of dollars of damage; an event that carried on affecting lives through to February. This month also saw a devastating earthquake hit Christchurch New Zealand, and this 6.3 magnitude hazard was the largest of six earthquakes to strike the city on the 22nd February. 182 people lost their lives as a result of this event which, for such a large and repetitive series of earthquakes, is considerably lower than it may have been. In comparison to another hazard event in 2010, this low death toll is nothing short of remarkable. The earthquake that shook the capital of Haiti in January 2010 recorded 7.0 on the Richter Scale, but the death toll came in at over 300,000. Both earthquakes occurred at a relatively shallow depth increasing their severity, and both had an epicentre less than 25km from the cities so why was one so much more deadly?

Marco Dormino/UNDP
The slums surrounding Port-au-Prince, Haiti, are some of the worst in the world. Corrugated iron and wooden shacks are built on foundations of unconsolidated mud and rock. Liquefaction of these poor foundations means these temporary living spaces easily collapse, entombing the residents inside. All of the main buildings had inadequate building quality and no earthquake protection technologies, so many collapsed partially if not entirely including the three medical centres. In contrast, the buildings of Christchurch are soundly constructed and much more resistant to earthquakes. The hospital, although partially damaged, remained open throughout the event to treat the injured and although nearly a quarter of the residential buildings in the city centre are expected to be demolished, few collapsed in the event itself ensuring the survival of most residents.

In developing regions, response mechanisms need great improvement. NGOs and foreign governments can only do so much to repair the damage done by a natural disaster, so greater internal support and infrastructure is needed to respond rapidly to a hazardous event. For three days after the Haiti earthquake the only medical facility was the Argentine Military Field Hospital and survivors were left to search for victims buried in the rubble, alive or dead.

Geoscience Education (c) GfGD

The role of the geologist is to identify and to teach. With a better understanding of earthquakes in developing regions comes the opportunity to reduce risk through reducing vulnerability. Working with regional and governmental geologists to map areas of poor foundations and poorly consolidated ground can also inform risk reduction. The earthquake on the 10th January 2010 was different because of the geology itself. The shallow depth of the earthquake meant more energy reached Port-au-Prince and the geology and relief of the surrounding area ‘funnelled’ the waves down towards the city. With stakeholders having a better understanding of the regional geology, more preparation could have saved countless lives two years ago. A lack of geological analysis of this developing nation, however, left it blind to the problems it then faced. Installing a basic knowledge of geosciences in schools and government departments could help reduce risk before hazards even happen, surely a crucial way of building resilience and reducing vulnerability, thus bringing Haiti’s death toll closer to that experienced in Christchurch.

Friday 10 February 2012

Friday Photo (19) - Mount Yasur, Vanuatu

From the EGU Open Access Image Repository, this image shows volcanic activity at Mt. Yasur, Tanna Island, Vanuatu. 
Source: Derya Gürer, Physics of Geological Processes (PGP) , Oslo - Norway

Thursday 9 February 2012

Engineers Without Borders Placements

Engineers without Borders (EWB) have announced their latest batch of placement opportunities - with projects ranging from three to twelve months. Whilst these placements are particularly suited to those with an engineering background - there are some water projects which a geoscientist could make a positive contribution to. Find out more about these placements on the EWB website, or by downloading their information leaflet. They are also running a couple of summer schools (India and Tanzania) that may be of interest.

Wednesday 8 February 2012

PhD Opportunities

There are a number of interesting opportunities listed below for people thinking about doing a PhD after they graduate from BSc, MSc or MSci courses. Also don't forget you can find some information on MSc courses on our website, and the deadline for the DFID Graduate Scheme is the 20th March 2012.

PhD Opportunities:
The University of Liverpool are advertising possible funded PhD positions related to seismology, flooding, drought and environmental change. The University of Portsmouth also have possible funded PhD topics, with one very interesting one looking at hazard assessment, slope instability and palaeoseismology in Central Asia. There is also an interesting PhD Opportunity in Germany, at the GFZ Helmholtz Centre, Potsdam - looking at slope instability in seismotectonically active mountain regions  - also in Central Asia. Don't forget you can use sites such as to help you in hunting down good opportunities.

Monday 6 February 2012

GfGD University Groups - Introducing GfGD Leicester

As mentioned in previous posts, we are working to establish GfGD groups across UK universities, to raise the profile of development within the geoscience community. GfGD university groups are ‘mutual interest groups’ gathering people with a shared interest and commitment in using their geoscience knowledge and skills to fight poverty and improve the lives of some of the world’s poorest people.

These groups, led by one or two GfGD Ambassadors, will be at the centre of GfGD’s work, vision and objectives. Through seminars, discussion groups, assisting in producing resources and other activities these university communities will inspire, inform and engage many geologists with the importance of their work to sustainable international development.
Recently we have launched a University Group at the University of Leicester, which will be coordinated by Laura Wilson. Laura will be working through the well established PCSB Society to represent GfGD and get others involved. I'm looking forward to joining with them later this month (27th February) to talk more about the work of GfGD. Do come along if you're based at Leicester and interested in finding out more!

If you are based in a UK university and interested in establishing a GfGD group then please do get in touch with our Director, using the form on our website. Don't forget you can also download and print a GfGD poster for your university department notice board.

Friday 3 February 2012

Friday Photo (18) - Forest Fires in Ecuador

From the EGU Open Access Image Repository, firefighters fight forest fires in Ecuador.
Fires can increase the probability of landslides following heavy rain.
Source: Sandro Makowski , Philipps Universität Marburg , Marburg - Germany  

Wednesday 1 February 2012

The Geological Society's Shell London Lecture Series

Let me draw your attention to the Shell London Lecture Series - "Geology in the Age of Man" organised by The Geological Society. The series of free lectures over the coming year aim to introduce geoscience and its relevance to society to a diverse public audience. The talks look at various topics ranging from climate change, ground engineering, groundwater sustainability, volcanoes, pollutants and human health, renewable energy and much more. Talks are held at The Geological Society, Burlington House, London - and most are given twice at 3pm and 6pm on the same day. You can find full details on the website of The Geological Society. You can also find recordings of previous talks from previous years on their website.