Monday 30 April 2012

GfGD at EGU 2012 (2)

Following a very successful week at the EGU in Vienna, Austria - why not head over to their blog to read an interview I gave to one of their press team (and one of our very own GfGD Ambassadors, Tim Middleton).

The week was a fantastic opportunity to promote the work of GfGD to a wider-than British audience. It also gave me a chance to engage with some very interesting debate and discussion about the role of geoscience in disaster risk reduction (see this Wednesday's post to read more about this!).

Friday 27 April 2012

Friday Photo (30) - Mt. Teide

Mt. Teide is the world's third highest volcano, and one of the 'decade volcanoes' - a group of 16 volcanoes identified as being particular worthy of study due to their destructive eruptions and close proximity to populated areas. (c) Geology for Global Development 2012

Wednesday 25 April 2012

Alex Stubbings: Climate Change Adaptation

Alex Stubbings, the GfGD Blog's Climate Change Correspondent, has been writing a series of posts introducing our readers to some of the key issues within the important field of climate change and its relationship to development. He has posted about 'Earth's Changing Climate', 'What is Driving Climatic Change Today?' and 'Climate Change in Developing Countries.' In the final part of this introductory series, Alex outlines the subject of 'climate change adaptation.'

Climate Change (4) - Climate Change Adaptation

In addressing actions to mitigate the effects of climate change the global community has opted for two solutions: (i) MITIGATION, popular during the 1990s and early 2000s; and (ii) ADAPTATION, which has been gaining increased attention and focus over the past decade. Now it is apparent that no one solution will decrease the risks associated with climate change; we need both mitigation and adaptation.

Adaptation is a concept that all geologists will be familiar with: small changes to an organism or species over (geologic) time, that, eventually, lead to a new character being developed and a new species. These changes, or evolutions, take time to become noticeable. So in the social world, our world, adaptation is best understood from an ecological perspective,

“[An] adjustment in natural or human systems in response to actual or expected climatic stimuli or their effects, which moderates harm or exploits beneficial opportunities.”
Therefore as adaptation has become more important over the last decade it has also emerged that adaptation is needs and context specific. In other words everyone, even rich countries needs to adapt. The manner of that adaptation, however, is dependent upon the context and situation. Thus adaptation interventions, i.e. projects that are implemented within countries, regions, communities and households will vary accordingly due to the requirements of each actor.

It is becoming increasingly apparent that successful societies and actors adapt continually. Think of successful companies like Microsoft and Apple, they continually renew themselves and innovate, that is essentially what “successful” adaptation is. However, as with all things in the social world it becomes slightly more complicated than that. The important point to identify is that successful adaptation is continual and that you anticipate risks ex-ante, as opposed to acting afterwards: ex-post, and here.

Geologists can assist in adaptation projects in a number of ways. We can influence technical discussions within university departments, government inquiries, act as consulting experts, and so forth. And this could be simply as, extra, technical capacity. Or we can be involved in, so-called, “hard-engineering” projects (actually mitigation measures aimed at reducing the level of pCO2), which aim to address climate change on a planetary scale such as geo-engineering, carbon capture and storage, and at the local level assist in “climate-proofing” development projects, see here and here. In the latter case this is best demonstrated by geotechnical experts assisting a developing country in building a new road or tunnel (see image, right). They can provide the expertise that might be lacking within that country, and also advise their clients on the likely impacts of, for instance, increased rainfall or drought periods on the newly built infrastructure.

All-in-all climate change and climate change adaptation, often abbreviated to CCA, is a highly dynamic and complex field. It requires a new type of geoscientist to apply their knowledge to the challenges of conventional development, and at the same time, think holistically about the impacts of climate change on their project and community. It is no surprise then that geoscientists that are embracing a holistic education and experiences, will like those countries and communities that adapt successfully, will be able to exploit new opportunities and be at the forefront of an issue that, as we become technologically more complex, will manifest itself more and more over the coming decades.

Monday 23 April 2012

Newswatch: April 2012

There have been a few relevant and interesting stories in the news recently, that many of our readers may be interested in:

The British Geological Survey (BGS) have been working on a range of quantitative groundwater maps for the African continent. These suggest that many countries described as being 'water scarce' actually have sme good groundwater resources. Whilst the researchers are not advocating large scale extraction of this water, there is suggestion that the resources can be used in small, low-yield boreholes in rural areas. 

A major volcano in Mexico has begun spewing ash, steam and burning rock, prompting Mexico to raise their alert level. In the past eruptions from the volcano, Popocatapetl, have resulted in many local communities being evacuated.

This crisis hitting many nations in West Africa is impacting many people, and yet has a relatively low profile across the UK. Read more about the drought in the Sahel and the impacts on Oxfam's website.

This week the BBC Panorama show focused on the problem of acid pollution into a local river in the Democratic Republic of Congo. You can find a brief highlight here and the full documentary here

Friday 20 April 2012

Friday Photo (29) - Environmental Problems from Mining

Acidic waste-water can cause major environmental problems in mining, as demonstrated in this picture from Ontario, Canada by Black Tusk (Source: Wikipedia)

Thursday 19 April 2012

GfGD at EGU 2012

Next week the European Geoscience Union (EGU) will be hosting their General Assembly in Vienna, Austria. This annual gathering draws over 10,000 people from across the world with presentations and posters on a broad range of geoscience subjects.

Alongside a presentation on my PhD research into ‘Multi-Hazard Risk Analysis’ I will be giving a short presentation about the work of GfGD in training and equipping young geoscientists to communicate and do effective disaster risk reduction in the developing world. The talk will outline two gaps that I believe hinder the engagement of young geologists with this important area of work: (i) the lack of teaching and discussion opportunities on undergraduate and postgraduate geoscience courses regarding vulnerability and disaster risk reduction, and (ii) the lack of opportunities for students/recent graduates to gain experience in this sector.

GfGD is working to address these barriers through (i) the development of ‘soft skills’ – in particular communication skills and learning to share information to a wide range of groups, (ii) opportunities to engage with issues such as community vulnerability and education – through university seminars, and (iii) opportunities to gain experience in the sector. It is hoped that the opportunity to give this presentation will generate some interesting discussion amongst academics about their teaching schedules and course content, as well as raise the profile of GfGD to a wider audience.

For an excellent paper outlining the challenges and suggested solutions of science communication within disaster risk reduction, see D. Liverman (2010) Communicating Geological Hazards: Educating, Training, and Assisting Geoscientists in Communication Skills in T. Beer (ed.) Geophysical Hazards, International Year of Planet Earth.

Tuesday 17 April 2012

GfGD Blog Writing Team

As many of you will have noticed, we have been gradually adding to the regular GfGD writing team over the past few months, and are taking this opportunity to introduce them to you. As well as a number of excellent guest blogs over the past year - we currently have a team of three regular writers :  

Joel Gill is the Director of GfGD and established the blog in 2011 as part of his work to raise the profile of international development within the geoscience community. A trained engineering geologist with experience of working on water projects in East Africa, he is currently a PhD student at King's College London - undertaking researching into natural hazards and disaster risk reduction.  

Dan Sharpe is a geology student at the University of Leeds, and has been contributing to the blog since February 2012. Dan is a regular columnist - writing articles on a broad range of topics from geohazards to mining. He regular brings interesting and relevant stories in the news to the attention of our readers in an engaging and helpful way. Dan is also a GfGD ambassador, establishing a GfGD group at the University of Leeds.

Alex Stubbings is a recent graduate of the Universities of Birmingham and East Anglia. Having specialised in climate science, he spent time working in Bangladesh before returning to the UK. Alex is our regular climate change correspondent - writing posts primarily on this important area of research, policy and practice, but also writing some posts on other topics of interest. Since March 2012, Alex has been writing a mini series of posts introducing the theme of climate science and the impact a changing climate will have on the developing world.  

We are still keen to find other regular contributors - so if you're keen to develop your science communication skills, share your thoughts on geoscience and development, and support this important tool of GfGD get in touch. There are options to write as a columnist (on varied topics of your choice - with editorial input - either every fortnight or every month) or as a specialist correspondent (writing on topics primarily related to one main theme, such as water, geohazards, agriculture, mining etc). Posts are normally around one side of A4.

We also very much welcome guest blogs from students, recent graduates and professionals. If you have a topic you'd like to write about, then please do get in touch to discuss it with GfGD Blog Editor, Joel Gill. 

Monday 16 April 2012

Indian Ocean Earthquake: An Opportunity to Assess Disaster Risk Reduction Progress

Shake Map - USGS
Last week many of us will have been glued to our televisions and laptops, waiting to see what would follow the significant M8.6 earthquake off the coast of Indonesia. It was a relief to finally hear the reports that the earthquake was caused by horizontal plate movement (strike-slip) rather than vertical movement. Whilst there was still a small chance of a tsunami, including from submarine landslides, the ground rupture itself was much less likely to have triggered a tsunami. A significant aftershock followed, and many smaller ones. More aftershocks will occur over the coming weeks and months - with a possibility of ones up to an approximate magnitude of 7.6-7.8.

There are minimal reports of damage, but some consensus that there were five fatalities - some as a result of shock and heart attacks. There was clearly panic and fear across the region as the prospect of another devastating tsunami was comprehended. Most people's worse fears were not realised, although for the families of the five killed and others injured this is not necessarily the case.

It is hard to assess how well systems put into place after past earthquakes and tsunamis worked. There have been fewer reports than I imagined there would be on what this massive earthquake and the reponse by government and communities shows about the effectiveness of lessons learnt. Thankfully, the authorities in Indonesia and surrounding countries, rather than having a massive reconstruction to deal with, now have an opportunity to undertake a widespread assessment of what went well and what didn't go well. Authorities have had a large scale event they can now analyse and use to see how well the authorities communicated warnings (particularly to the most vulnerable people), and how well people responded to these warnings. They can then learn more important lessons and refine emergency procedures for the next time a huge quake hits the region. They can also constrain the most pressing needs within disaster risk reduction.

The event last week in the Indian Ocean was a tragedy for all those that lost family and friends. But from this tragedy is an important opportunity for the authorities to learn valuable and crucial lessons that could save many many lives in the future.

Further Reading

Friday 13 April 2012

Friday Photo (28) - Retreating Glaciers

Athabasca Glacier in Columbia Ice field in Alberta, Canada. This picture was taken approximately from the place where the edge of Glacier was 100 years ago. (Image and Information Courtesy of Andres Marandi -

Wednesday 11 April 2012

Dan Sharpe: Rare Earth Elements in China - An Under-Publicised Resource

Source: USDA
Dan Sharpe, our regular columnist and GfGD University Ambassador in Leeds, writes about the importance of Rare Earth Metals and challenges surrounding them. You can read Dan's full archive of posts here.

The rare earth element (REE) is a name given to a set of seventeen elements in the centre of the periodic table. Although REEs are relatively abundant in the rocks on Earth their geochemical properties means that they are rarely concentrated to such an extent that they are economical to produce. In recent studies it has been exposed that China could hold as much as fifty percent of the world’s REE reserves, ensuring they dominate the world market in this sector.

Rare-earths are used in just about every electronic device you own. They are found in computer memory, DVDs, rechargeable batteries and mobile phones amongst other things, and are often overlooked with regards to their importance in our technology rich lifestyle. With the news emerging that China is so rich in these metals, can it not be suggested that other developing nations could hold under-explored areas that are rich in REEs such as Scandium, Cerium and Neodymium. The problem however, is that countries such as China are developing rapidly and therefore need sources of income and natural resources themselves, and have strictly regulated the export of REEs. This recently culminated in a complaint filed by the United States, Japan and the European Union against China (who currently control ninety-five percent of the global production of REEs) to the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

The complaint outlines that as well as modern technologies, REEs are crucial to generating new, greener energy sources. The U.S. Department of Energy says that the release of new clean energy sources could be dramatically slowed by the supply challenges facing the REE industry. Photovoltaic films, regenerative braking in hybrid cars, larger scale wind turbines and highly efficient fluorescent lighting all require a constant and increasing supply of these materials and a new trade action aims to loosen China’s regulations with regards to rare-earth metal exports which other nations claim has kept the unit cost of these materials relatively high outside the country itself.

So this situation looks like it is under control, and a dramatically larger amount of rare-earths will soon become available if this trade action is effective. Is it enough though? Studies are showing that we may soon be experiencing a shortage of this valuable resource due to supply and demand issues. Admittedly this is largely down to China’s restrictions on export, but this is not the only problem facing the industry. In 2011, an Australian mining company was suggested to be finishing a US$230 million plant refining slightly radioactive Lanthanide in Malaysia however the authorities confirmed in October 2011 that no license was given to finish the development. It was claimed that the plant, based in Kuantan, would meet the demand for one third of REE production, excluding China.

NASA: Acid Mine Drainage (Rio Tinto River, Spain)

REE production can have serious environmental effects if not properly managed, and in the end this fear was what proved to be the downfall of the Kuantan plant. The tailings produced are often slightly radioactive and toxic acids are required during the refinement process. Even the major mine in China, reported to supply much of the world’s rare-earths, is thought to have cause significant damage to the environment with fears that the toxic waste may even have been released into the waters of the area.

Rare-earth metal production can be a controversial, yet drastically important industry. With China holding the vast majority of resources close to their chest, it is important to branch out and explore new areas to meet an exponentially growing demand. This industry is severely challenged by environmental concern, and quite rightly, but with proper management the world needs to focus on the exploration of these elements in order to look towards a more efficient, sustainable planet. You can forget oil exploration for now, the new controversial extraction industry has arrived, and it will certainly be sticking around for a while to come.

Further Reading

Monday 9 April 2012

Alex Stubbings: Climate Change in Developing Countries

Alex Stubbings, the GfGD Blog's Climate Change Correspondent, has been writing a series of posts introducing our readers to some of the key issues within the important field of climate change and its relationship to development. He has posted about Earth's changing climate, and what is driving climatic change today - his next post looks at climate change in developing countries...


Climate Change (3) - Climate Change in Developing Countries

Human modification of the global climate system will, unfortunately, adversely and most severely impact those people in developing countries. Why is this so? Simply put developing countries are exposed to a number of human and natural risks; climate change just happens to be one of these risks. Therefore we can define, and speak of climate change as a risk amplifier.

The most significant aspect of climate change for developing countries is that it has the potential to impact upon development investments, projects and hinder the development process. As such climate change will negatively impact the aspirations and long-term objectives of developing countries, namely to grow, develop and more importantly, lift their people by themselves out of long-term abstract poverty. In fact, poverty, and those who occupy “absolute” and “hardcore” poverty levels in developing countries, whether middle-income or Least Developed Countries, are likely to be hit the hardest by changes, even slight changes, in the mean of climate.

In an effort to combat any foreseeable climate change the governments of the world came together in 1992 at the Rio Earth Summit, an outcome of which was the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or: UNFCCC, FCCC and the Convention. The Convention is an important institution for members of the United Nations. Countries who signed up to it acknowledge its core principle, and overriding reason for existence,

“...To prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system and to limit any future temperature rise to 2 degrees celcius above pre-industrial.”

Extract from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Article 2.A brief summary can be found here. (Pre-industrial being taken as before 1750 when pCO2 emissions were in-line with previous inter-stadial limits of 280ppm)

This one single paragraph is important for all of our species, but in particular for those developing countries that comprise the Least Developed Countries (LDCs). This group is the most at risk, or vulnerable, to the effects of an enhanced greenhouse effect, which is being forced by the economic activities of humans.

Climate change is a significant issue for LDCs as they are characterised by lacking in various capacities including financially. Issues that are exacerbated by climate change include all of the thematic topics on GfGD’s web site, and especially: water and sanitation, health, education, gender issues, agriculture and geo-hazards. Climate change could amplify these, and other natural hazards, altering the effects of their impacts, recurrence times and severity.

Furthermore, we know from archaeological studies and Holocene environmental change that societies that are highly dependent, like most of the LDCs, upon natural resources, for example: fish, forestry, agriculture and so forth, are more likely to be adversely affected, see here and here. Compare natural resource economies to post-industrial economies like: service sectors, creative industries and knowledge economies. These, it can be said, are more resilient, to a degree, than those based solely around natural resource sectors.

However, developing countries, and drawing on my own experience from Bangladesh, are on the front lines of climate change. These places will be impacted first, such as Bangladesh and the Small Island Developing States (SIDS). These countries are trying to take-charge of their own future by challenging leading paradigms from being victims to agents of change, see here. Interestingly, climate change manifests itself in developing countries first, least responsible for the problem, yet they will have to adapt first as well. So as geoscientists if we want to know what the cutting-edge in climate change adaptation, or for that matter the early signs of climate change impacts, we have to look to what is being designed, implemented and experienced within LDCs and other developing countries.

Small States - Including many developing nations vulnerable to changes in the Earth's climate

Friday 6 April 2012

Friday Photo (27) - Roadside Exposure in Argentina

This beautiful exposure of rock in Argentina highlights the complex folded nature of the Andean mountain belt. Image Courtesy of Derya Gurer (

Wednesday 4 April 2012

Guest Blog: A Hydrogeologist’s Role in Redevelopment

Olivia Osicki is a fourth year MSci student at the University of Cambridge, and recently went to a seminar organised by the GfGD University Group there. The seminar, given by Elizabeth Sharpe of Mott Macdonald, examined the role of a hydrogeologist in the redevelopment of a nation after a major natural disaster. It looked at many of the challenges and difficulties that can be encountered in this nature of work. 

"With the dominance of oil and mining companies on our career horizons, it can often be challenging to think of a valid alternative for a job that uses geology. Elizabeth Sharpe, however, who came to speak to the Cambridge GfGD group, has found a way to incorporate geology and global development, in a mainstream career with the engineering consultancy Mott MacDonald.
Affected Region (Source: Wiki)

Elizabeth completed her Master’s in hydrogeology at Birmingham, joining Mott MacDonald upon graduation. For eleven months in 2007-2008 she worked in Aceh, (Sumatra, Indonesia), working with the American Red Cross as a consultant to rebuild water supplies for 46 communities in the area. The region was in the redevelopment stage following the disastrous impact of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, caused by a magnitude 9.1 earthquake. The earthquake produced a 20m wave, killing 200,000 globally and leaving many families homeless and lacking adequate water supplies. Elizabeth’s role with the American Red Cross was to review available information about local water supplies, combining data from geophysics, boreholes, maps, and water quality analysis to identify available options and present them to local communities.

Global development and aid work is often glamorised in western society, and yet Elizabeth was keen to emphasise the challenges that accompany working in difficult areas with fragmented communities from a different cultural background. Furthermore, the number of aid agencies in the Aceh region, all with different agendas, meant that often there was a severe lack of communication between the organisations which resulted in wasted time and resources. Working in a region which had just emerged from conflict meant that communities often mistrusted one another, and the number of aid agencies they had to work with meant that they had little faith that anything useful would be achieved. A further problem was that local Acehnese people were aware of the large quantities of aid money available and so any work or legislation that was required was prone to overcharging and corruption. The effects of the tsunami three years before meant that the knowledge most relied on by aid agencies, that of local people, was lost or not relevant because so many villages had to be relocated.

There were technical challenges too, including contamination, inappropriate technology, and lack of basic infrastructure. Elizabeth’s biggest disappointment was that after locating an appropriate water source for a relocated village, a road was built by another aid agency through the spring and the water supply was lost.

It is all too easy to think of development work as glamorous and thrilling, but the day-to-day realities and challenges that can be encountered should not be underestimated."

Monday 2 April 2012

GfGD Blog Competition 2012

Don't forget our GfGD Blog Competition - asking you to write a short piece on one of the following questions:

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?
If you've already submitted a piece, we're advising people to resend it, as our e-mail system has been having some problems. Send your completed entries to We're lining up some fun geological-themed prizes, and all shortlisted entries will be included in a special GfGD publication available on our website.