New horizons for integrated research

Sediment trapWhite Ribbon ship Ryan Pereira at sea Test tubes for samples

The new Lyell Centre sets the foundation to further step up the breadth of research and global impact, leveraging existing capacities and creating synergies between HWU and the BGS. Supported by new research teams in applied geosciences and ecosystem science and new, cutting-edge analytical facilities, The Lyell Centre is centrally positioned to catalyse and lead integrated and innovative research directions. Since the initial opening of The Lyell Centre in spring 2016, with the official opening in autumn 2016, a powerful team of nine internationally leading senior and junior experts in biogeochemistry, geoscience and marine ecology have joined HWU, strengthening the established group of HWU environmental scientists and providing the foundation to expand current projects between HWU and the BGS into new strategic territories. Further recruitment into other strategic areas is ongoing.

The following key examples highlight where past and current research activities and future strategic directions perfectly combine the BGS's and HWU's capacities, unlocking unprecedented opportunities to generate innovation and impact and train new generations of multidisciplinary scientists.

Inland waters

Inland waters are living laboratories that are important systems to understand if we are to meet the societal grand challenge of living sustainably. River systems are temporally and spatially dynamic and require a nested approach to capture their diversity, combining long-term monitoring with tailored, process-based studies to inform management and policy decisions. The 2016 Land Use Strategy for Scotland clearly identifies river catchments as multi-user systems with a variety of key ecosystem services, well-aligned with national and international strategies.

The Lyell Centre tackles this grand challenge by providing cutting-edge geochemical, microbiological and hydrological expertise and facilities to enhance the BGS's long-term responsibility as part of the key national infrastructure, which also includes:

The new Lyell Centre initiative has developed a series of new projects within Scotland, the UK and globally (e.g. in Vietnam and Amazonia) linking with key research themes identified by the BGS. The aim of this new research is to provide a scientific, evidence-based platform to challenge existing paradigms and develop strategies for sustainable and secure ecosystem management.

City living

3D Geological model of the Coal Field Geology under Glasgow

People are increasingly living in cities, challenging cities' sustainability as they continually grow and threatening the resources they depend on. Yet the ground on which they stand, crucial to their wellbeing, is often largely overlooked. The BGS has been addressing this global challenge, notably through its Glasgow-based multidisciplinary research project CUSP, transforming the way a city's subsurface can be understood, digitally viewed, planned, managed and safeguarded. A BGS/NERC Knowledge Exchange Fellowship is now pioneering the translation of this knowledge, including conurbation-scale 3D/4D models, for use by decision makers who plan, build and manage the city.

This approach is spreading to other cities in the UK, Europe (through a BGS-led European Cooperation in Science and Technology Action (Sub-Urban) involving 30 countries), and, in an exciting new development involving The Lyell Centre, to the needs of mega-cities in Official Development Assistance countries, e.g. in south-east Asia, with the prospect of transforming the way they use the ground on which they are built.

The role of Asia's cities as a driving force of economic growth and global influence is well understood. The BGS has a long-standing, high-profile engagement in south-east Asia. Building on UK and European projects and ongoing projects in China and Singapore, we will develop practical approaches and interdisciplinary solutions to the multi-scale pressures emerging from mega-cities on society, economy and the environment, especially on coastal areas. Initially this work will be concentrated in Malaysia, Vietnam and India, with Myanmar as another potential focal point of interest.

This new, regional focus is enhanced by planned Lyell Centre research into providing solutions to coastal ecosystem resilience in Vietnam. Specifically, the effects of oil, aquaculture and eutrophication activities on highly sensitive and ecologically important mangrove ecosystems are not well constrained but are known to be severe, with largely unknown consequences and feedbacks for wider tropical Asian coastal regions. The combination of this coastal environmental ecosystem focus with mega-cities inland offers wide opportunities to make optimal use of the capacities and resources HWU and the BGS can offer.

Sub-Saharan Africa

Persistent poverty in sub-Saharan Africa is exacerbated by climate extremes and political and societal instability. The BGS has a long-standing record in placing this region into the global context of subtropical climate evolution and land–ocean coupling as part of the International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP). Research by the newly recruited Lyell Centre teams includes assessing the distant effects from dust export on open-ocean productivity and carbon burial, and critical steps in the evolution of early humans some 2–3 million years ago in the region. At that time, African landscapes transformed irreversibly in response to long-term trends in climate, forcing adaptation and migration of human communities, further impacting on the environment.

BGS research tackles current challenges to societies, showing the potential for groundwater development to lift local communities out of poverty and increase their resilience to shocks — both natural and artificial. Ongoing BGS work on soil geochemistry, crossing over to environmental work conducted in The Lyell Centre, is revealing significant links with health and agricultural productivity in southern Africa. Building on a wide portfolio of African research projects on water, soil and minerals and a network of excellent partners, the BGS will further investigate links between the use of natural resources for poverty reduction and economic development, and also the physical and biogeochemical processes leading to pollution and environmental change.

We strongly believe that combining the geo-context of where we humans come from with what drove behavioural change under the primitive but harsh natural conditions a few million years ago is a fascinating subject that provides a baseline to better understand and validate present-day conditions, and may well lead to a fundamental change in the underlying relationship between changing environments and ecosystem/society response.

Integrated Ocean Drilling Program

Central Arctic paleoceanography 2004

Another case example illustrating the outstanding potential for leadership of the new Lyell Centre is the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP, known as the International Ocean Discovery Program since 2013). Since 2003, the BGS has implemented scientific drilling projects worldwide for the European Consortium for Ocean Research Drilling (ECORD) under the auspices of IODP. The BGS achieves this as part of a consortium of institutes known as the ECORD Science Operator (ESO). To date, ESO has implemented seven drilling projects including:

  • the Central Arctic Ocean
  • the coral reefs of offshore Tahiti and the Great Barrier Reef
  • the shallow shelf of the eastern offshore United States
  • the offshore Baltic Sea of Denmark and Sweden
  • the Chicxulub impact crater of offshore Mexico

Internationally this places the BGS in Edinburgh at the highest possible level.

Consistent with all IODP projects, ESO drilling combines multiple scientific objectives, including the recovery of records of climate and sea-level change, and the recovery of previously unknown, buried, microbiological communities. Researchers at The Lyell Centre and the Institute of Petroleum Engineering (IPE) are centrally involved and leading experts in IODP research. The range of activities is wide, including co-chief HWU scientists on board the drillship Joides Resolution, leading and hosting IODP workshops both in the UK and internationally and leadership in writing central components of new scientific-drilling proposals, for example for south-east Asia and the south and equatorial Atlantic.

Joining the forces of HWU and the BGS via The Lyell Centre has the potential to produce even stronger international leadership, as for example currently developed for the Sunda Shelf program off Vietnam and Indonesia.

Linked to the IODP is another area of competence and integration. As scientific ocean monitoring and drilling evolves, so do the methods used to collect samples and cores from the sea bed and below. Both the BGS and HWU are at the forefront of this new development. For example, the BGS is helping ECORD drive an initiative to use alternative coring technologies in addition to traditional wireline coring, and HWU is currently developing state-of-the-art, deep-ocean lander systems for undertaking experiments at the sea floor to assess how anthropogenic stressors (e.g. deep-sea mining, climate change) alter marine ecosystems, with a view to developing Scotland's premier deep-sea technology facility. This facility will also feature BGS Rockdrill 2 (RD2), which is one highly successful output developed and operated by the BGS that can drill into sea-floor rock at water depths of four kilometres.

Deep-sea mining

Finally, another area where the BGS and HWU are combining their strengths is in the field of deep-sea mining, which has been identified as one of the potential new 'blue growth' sectors, driven by the increasing demand for raw materials as a result of increasing consumer demand in emerging economies, and the development of new technologies requiring specific metals such as copper, nickel and cobalt. The BGS is part of the Blue Mining consortium, an international European consortium of 19 large industry and research organisations developing solutions that will bring sustainable deep sea mining a big step closer.

Deep-sea mining involves the exploitation of materials such as polymetallic sulphides on tectonically active plate margins (e.g. mid-ocean ridges), polymetallic manganese nodules in the central Pacific and Indian oceans, cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts on seamounts and methane hydrates along the continental margins of Europe. Because of the sensitive nature of the marine ecosystems found here, researchers at the BGS and HWU will be joining forces and focusing on quantifying the effects of mining and mining waste (e.g. tailings) on the surrounding environment. This will allow the researchers at The Lyell Centre to identify if deep-sea mining can be achieved sustainably and if so, how best to do it.

Currently, researchers at The Lyell Centre are studying the effects of mine tailings disposal in Papua New Guinea and Norway, as well as being heavily involved in EC and international projects assessing the effects of mining at hydrothermal vents on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, and manganese nodule extraction activities in the central Pacific Ocean, including the UK nodule claim areas.

Combined surface water and groundwater flooding in the Tweed valley New Jersey shallow shelf IODP expedition Sediment in a tube Edinburgh cityscape