Thursday 24 February 2011

REEaly a concern?

So, Rare Earth Elements are becoming a little bit short;

and threatening our non elemental lifestyle of ipods and (hopefully soon!) battery powered cars. This ‘shortage’ is in my opinion more of a political problem and a resource problem, with 95% of the supply of these elements originating in China and the government there looking to lower exports, presumably to prop up its high tec manufacturing industries at the cost of western jobs.
But this isn’t a blog into politics, however interesting it may be, this is about communication geosciences. So where does this fit into that framework?

Well we could use the increase in prices of electrical items to get people interested in minerals, after all these REE’s seem to reside as a accessory phase within a variety of different rocks and minerals. Or bounce off the REE’s shortfall to discuss the environmental effects of minerals important to the ‘green revolution’:

Searches for Copper (Google Trends)

 Firstly, though it would be good to check if there is a market; see if people really care about where minerals come from? Well Google track a certain number of searches for statistical analysis, and within Google trends, users can see how much interest is generated.
Looking towards copper (since most REE’s don’t generate enough interest) we can see that searches for ‘copper’ as a term have fallen over the last six years, despite the news coverage regarding its shortage increasing and the price in the last 3 years ballooning.

Searches for 'Copper Ore' (Google Trends)

Now if we also take into consideration that ‘copper’ is far from a geological concept, instead we need to use a term that interested parties may search in order to gain greater insight into copper generation. Copper ore, which would be the logical thing to type if you wanted to know what it was and how you get it. This too doesn’t seem to be bourgeoning with popularity, despite prices peaking in the past few years, the search queries have remained stable in the last 5 years.
Does this mean that people are looking less into the generation of ores? Of course, it doesn’t, this is one term, further research into this could well generate more interesting patterns. Also it doesn’t take into account

Searches for 'Geology' Google Trends)

Although searching around there is a more interesting pattern, over the last 7 years there has been a steady decrease in the number of searches for ‘geology’ Despite the news volume increasing (coinciding perfectly with the Boxing Day Tsunami) which highlights something else, unless there is a background interest, events need to occur in order for interest to be generated.  Is recent price increases to REE’s and the media coverage that has explored the trigger? I guess we'll just have to wait and see.

Tuesday 22 February 2011

No Lasting Shock.

As in geology, the present is the key to the past, so with the media quake over
Christchurch’s recent devastating earthquake  ongoing it seems prudent to see how
interested people were in geology last time this happened. A similar, although less devastating event occoured in September 2010. Which resulted in There is a massive peak in searches for ‘christchurch earthquake’ (blue) in September of last year, presumably due to this: The red line demonstrates searches for ‘earthquake causes’  which gives no change at the September 
Search volume for Christchurch Earthquake (Blue)
Earthquake causes (Red)

Comparing these results to other terms, such as ‘seismic’ or ‘plate tectonics’ there is a
similar story (see diagram below);  In fact looking at a variety of terms related to the quake (Canterbury Plains, ring of fire, pacific plate) do not have any alteration in their search patterns at the time of the event.

Search Volume for:
Blue: Christchurch Earthquake
Red: Plate Tectonics
Orange: Seismic
Even today, where the 10th most searched term in the English speaking world is ‘Christchurch
Earthquake’ (Aelxa) it is beaten by Justin Biebers new hair cut and the ever popular Rihanna. There has, to present been no change in search traffic for geologic concepts.  If someone does search for the terms highlighted above there is plenty of really good information, from a variety of sources – even if people don’t look for it after an earthquake

What are we to learn from this? Well simply, people want to know the story, but do not want to know how it works. As previously discussed in this blog, people are interested in the stories of people. Not rocks.

Finally, my thoughts go out to the People of Christchurch. I wish you all the best during this time. 

Sunday 20 February 2011

Looking Closely

The importance of practical geosciences to the public tends to focus in on petroleum or engineering. Base metals and REE (Rare Earth Elements) tend not to get a look in, until their shortage threatens society. Price hikes combined with increased demand have raised the media profile of a variety of minerals, from the important copper to the ever growing in importance REE in the electrical industry.  

The only real aspect of mining people see is either the end product, the huge holes in the earth dug to extract the material, or the people who extract the ore (and then get stuck). Economic geology, the field that deals with the economic potential of areas of rock tends not to get a great deal of press coverage - fewer than 1000 articles on Google-News discuss economic geology, with only 4000 articles tied to ‘mineral exploration’, compared with ‘oil exploration’ that generates over 11,000 articles. Even though, metal prices are at all time highs. ‘Mainstream’ press appears to completely ignore mineral exploration;
The Daily Mail, although only utilised by myself as something to get annoyed with has only a handful (10!) stories on mineral exploration, while oil exploration generates 450 odd, looking to a more educated paper, the Independent, mineral exploration yields just over 100 results, while petroleum exploration strikes around 1500 articles (oil exploration; 340). The UK’s most read paper, the Sun finds 45 articles under the search ‘oil exploration’ (although most seem to be on BP or the Falklands) while looking for minerals  provides 2 results – one of which is on Mars.

So, why the public dis-interest in  the mineral industry when it is the backbone of virtually everything we use everyday; from the laptop I type on, to the knife I butter my toast with? Well, the UK doesn’t really have much of a mineral exploration industry because of cheap imports and exhaustion few people see the effects of mining; with the majority of mines operation in countries far beyond our borders.

When an oil spill occurs, be it Deepwater horizon, Exxon Valdeez or the Esso Portsmouth off Milford Haven it’s all over the news, black gold coating seabrids, stones and beaches, the idea of striking oil in a romantic vision of derricks and desert. While few people (bar myself) get excited by the prospect of discovering copper. On the surface oil is a lot more visible as a commodity, cars are ubiquitous, we all require petrol/diesel for our daily lives, whether it gets us to work, delivers our food to the supermarket or provides us with a livelihood. While the usage of minerals isn’t immediately obvious – we are all in constant contact with something derived from the earth (be it the dye in our clothes or jewellery).

So how can the economic area of the geosciences and the importance to society are broadcast? There is the usual manner of showing people a bit of ore and the pointing to something nice and shiny. But there is so much more to an ore than that; from my limited (at present) experience of ores I feel that simply showing a hand specimen isn’t all that; remembering the first time I looked at a thin section, I was captivated (seriously, not kidding!) by the beautify of the slide, learning more about them what can be seen from a sliver of rock is amazing;  why not bring this subtle beauty to the public? A rock is a rock, but people love to look at close up images of hair, dust and plants – a close up image of an ore shows so much more, a story almost!

The public rarely see this, I have been fortunate enough to volunteer at events where the public have had an opportunity to observe what every geology student either loves or hates. Generally they are interested – the chance to make granite more than that grey rock or to see every grain in a sandstone seems to interest people. Yet most of the public never have the chance to be captivated.

Can one blend the subtleties of economic geology, the need for minerals in our society and a new way for people to look at rocks? Well, I’ve already discussed how myth’s and stories brought the geosciences to peoples before modern science and today are still used in popular science books – why not use the same approach to bringing the components of today’s society to the public? Illustrate how an ore forms, from (depending on the type) a gentle crystallization, with hydrothermal alteration via miscropacy.

Now, wait, I know miscropacy needs some skill to interpret, but as does a hand specimen; and an image of a rock is a novelty, anytime someone can pick up a rock, but few can slice it into a slither and see what it really looks like.  

What other ways are there to get the public interacting with the minerals that make their society? Short of visiting a mine there are few; the story of how an ore forms is just that a story; one that should be told – and looking closely is, in my mind the best way to do it. 

Saturday 19 February 2011

Missing out on Maps

Geological maps are hypnotic and beautiful creations, which happen to be practical – particularly in communicating geosciences. a while ago I joined a couple of fellow students in a windy tent in a muddy field as part of my university’s ‘outreach’ programme, the table was coated in rocks from the local region, but what got the most attention? The piece of paper – a map. People seemed to love seeing what their house was built on, see why their granddads house had sandy soil while theirs was clay... it was practical and interesting.  It related directly to their life, not a convoluted way of how a fossil lived.

The BGS provide a variety of mapping data to the public for free, at pretty decent resolution – fairly similar to that of published maps, via a service called ‘Open-Geoscience’ - which, as part of the BGS as whole is according to Alexa the 17,674th most visited site in the UK –  not overly impressive as a whole.

This is what is under people’s houses – so why isn’t this data used and looked more in daily life? How awesome would it be to have geological maps displayed in empty shop windows? Wouldn’t this inspire interest in the geosciences? There are few other countries that make such data available so easily – why aren’t the public embracing it?

Well, the first entry on a Google Search for ‘geological map’ is for the BGS, just not the brilliant resource above. It’s for a rather less useful mapping tool, a broad brush approach almost:

Which is nice, but gives rocks by ages, and at a countrywide scale, rather than what’s under someone’s lawn.  Instead, the 6th result, a BBC story on the accessible maps is the only way off Google to get to Open Geoscience – it is linked via the ‘make a map’ service . Alexa stats show the site has a bounce rate of 60% (i.e. 60% of people visit the site then move on) people aren’t interested in exploring the maze of the BGS; so they are missing out on a beautiful little gem sitting on the BGS site. Please BGS, help the public and get this great resource out there, easy to find onto Search Engines!

Tuesday 15 February 2011

Battle of the Giants

Last time I moaned a little about how the GeolSoc didn’t serve an aspect of educating the public quite as well as they could; this time I’ve decided to be a little nicer.

So what do people look at online? records various online statistics, but its most useful function is to record the number of visitors to a website, under keywords related to that search; the most popular site with the keyword ‘Geology’ is USGS (2,714th most visited site on earth), while is second, (24,528th most visited site on earth).  What Alexa also provides is a minor demographic of who visits it, USGS has visitors who are predominantly older that the general internet population, with some college education (but no grad school) and look at home. While has an older audience, predominantly female with some college education. The two sites have similar, although subtly different audiences, what are their surface differences in communicating geosciences?

Given that USGS is a publically funded entity, it has to reflect various governmental projects and reports, but also provides various educational resources through links. While appears to be funded via advertisements and the site’s shop, the lack of government interaction allows for the site to be flexible in its coverage of the geosciences. In terms of interesting and educating people the frontpage is more exciting than the USGS one, with a variety of up to date geological stories, maps and interactive tools to help people enjoy the geosciences and answer potential questions they may have.  The articles are on topics, which people can relate to, from Tsunamis, formation of the Hawaiian Islands; they pose questions to entice people to look further.  

Beyond the front page; looking into Volcanoes – since it’s something everyone has at some point an interest into and it is fairly likely that that area of the geosciecnes will attract more ‘non geologist’ attention. The USGS’s front page on Volcanoes is hardly an exciting prospect, it introduces you with a quote, which is nice, but a bit dull. There are no pictures, considering the USGS’s enviable volcano monitoring service there is no live feed; although this feature does exist, but it’s in the menu. The information is there, but it’s not easy to get at. however has bountiful pictures and diagrams, although the whole site does not have as much information as the USGS – but what it does have is introduced in a better, in a more attractive way.  Looking into more statistics that Alexa records is the amount of pages viewed per a visitor, receives an average of 1.7 pageviews per a person, while USGS achieves 3.1 unique page views per a person.   What can we see from this? Well, either the information on is easier to get at, or people who use that site, look around a bit, then give up. While on the USGS, people either can’t find what they want immediately (maybe?) or they are after the detailed information on seismics which the USGS wants – in truth using these statistics gives such a ‘broad brush’ approach to such a massive and detailed site.

Continuity is an important consideration; we all like things to look the same from the same place, the USGS at sometimes seems to have an individual continuity for each article, since information on the  site is stitched together from various USGS publications, which results in varying continuity. From the front page of the volcano section, the 10 different articles linked from there have 4 different themes; all of which are different from the front page. It’s not a major problem, but it just reassures the reader and makes for a more pleasurable read. does not suffer as much, yes there are differences between pages, but due to the clean, simple and efficient design of the site, (basically white) continently is maintained.

The ease of reading on both sites was fairly consistent, terms are introduced and explained (See ‘Minor Faulting’ post), moving to further articles is easy on – while the USGS seems to be composed, as mentioned earlier of individual articles, resulting in a lack of hyperlinks between articles – which as Wikipedia has demonstrated makes exploring topics a much easier task.

This leaves the questions what site is better for geosciences communication? This results in another question; who is being educated? If it is the general public, or those who are just inquisitive then is considerably better, while the USGS although has buckets of information, doesn’t get it across in a clean and interesting way – leaving causal visitors (my non geologist housemates) uninterested and looking elsewhere. For, say geology students and people with a basic level of geosciences education the USGS is better, particularly in the scope of the information it has, every earthquake is recorded and plenty of technical information is present. – Clearly the two sites are catering to two different audiences, and both take different approaches. also benefits from the USGS; since it can use data from that site (amongst others) to gather the best of the web. This aspect, seems to have resulted in being the more attractive, easier to find information 

Friday 11 February 2011

Minor Faulting

The Geological Society of London, has an ‘ask a geologist'; page, which allows members of the public to ask a geologist (As the name suggests) any geological question they like, and will receive an answer – it’s a brilliant idea, 
but it sort of falls in practice:

So, one of the questions asked was:

Q: Why do most peninsulas on the globe point south?  From the southern continents to Scandinavia, Italy, Iberia, all seem to point in a southerly direction.  Is there a geological explanation of this striking fact?

Nice Simple question, one which I can imagine myself being asked, so a nice simple answer? Errr.. not quite.
The answer is straightforward(ish), Godwanaland is introduced with no real introduction and then Gondwana is used instead, while ‘intersecting courses’ was used.... without any real meaning, surely ‘pre-existing fractures’ would be a better term to use, courses could mean water, education or anything else... the article then decides to, with scientific logic break down the writers ideas, which is only going to alienate him, the best teachers are those who engage, not break away.

A further question on the growth of ice on Antarctica:

Yields more curious terms, foraminifera, Pliocene/Quaternary, oscillations in sea level... to a non geologist these don’t mean a lot. So why use them? maybe ‘tiny microscopic sea creatures’ or around 1.8 million years ago....

Or a question on seismicity in London:

Which indicates that earthquakes in the UK are derived from ‘reactivation of ancient structures in response to the current stress regime’; what’s reactivation? And ancient structures? And the current stress regime? Non geologists don’t know these terms (as a quick call to my girlfriend and father confirmed).  Also don’t introduce structures without some more discussion, I know what the North Artois Shear Zone is, because I have an interest in SE English Geology, but even amongst geologist’s its hardly the San-Andreas!

How many times have you been confused by insanely confusing instructions? With terms, you do not understand. Or watched a film from half way through and been confused where these characters keep coming from and why everyone else seems to know what’s going on? That is what this is doing!

Both articles give over the information, but, and it pains me to say this in case of insulting the people who wrote in, but maybe a little simpler manner of writing, use a definition of a word instead of that word, use something people can relate to, not just names geologists know.

Now I must just stop myself, and say – lots of these articles are great and I have cherry-picked  things to moan about, so thank you Geological Society of London (and authors) and please don’t revoke my membership!

Social Revolution

Social Media, the biggest revolution in communication since the invention of the internet has managed to cement itself into the lives of people worldwide; a variety of organisations and people have utilised the services to either bring people together or spread news and information across the world in a click.
Most organisations have a Facebook or Twitter page/feed, but how useful are they in geoscience communication?

Well, firstly let’s look at numbers;
The British Geological Survey has 2,325 ‘likes’ whereby ‘likers’ receive various stories from the BGS, that is only 2300 people on earth with an interest in the work of the UK’s Geological Survey; and how many of those people are geologists simply having a look, and how many the general public investigating the geosciences?

It’s difficult to say, but from the few people I stalked/examined who are ‘likers’ they mostly have their profiles set to private (so digging continued) with about 2/5 of followers geologists, and 3/5 of people aren’t. Which roughly means that 1400 members of the public (or 1 out of every 26,000 people in the UK) can receive various newsworthy events from the BGS..., which are less about communicating geosciences, more about showing the new stuff from the organisation.

Looking across the pond to the USGS, this has 3,185 followers, for a geologic survey in a country with a population of 300 million. Even if all those where interested members of the public from the US – thats still only one ‘like’ per a 100,000 of population – assuming only American’s join the group (which they don’t).  Also, updates from both surveys don’t always appear in a users feed – even if they are interested, so in reality the numbers of people who actually see the links put up there could be very very limited. Therefore as a method of communicating geosciences using Facebook for social networking isn’t all that social.

Twitter is another incredible popular (and slightly addicting) service, which restricts messages to 140 characters, but allows links and internal search terms. On there, the USGS has an impressive following of 72,407 followers; and fairly regularly passes over information – the balance of information is fairly spread: much of it is unlikely to be of public interest (minor earthquake notification, job postings) while there are a good few links to pages on the USGS website which explain problems and solutions in pleasant ways, even answering fellow twitterers questions.  The followers of the USGS appear to be mixed between geoscientists and ‘the public’ – this is successful social media. A following of 70,000 people, with questions asked and answered and a huge sector or people open to the messages from a worldwide esteemed organisation- for a very low price.

So, is social media worthwile? It costs nothing to join, update and use. It has a reach of (theoretically) millions of interested people, it’s just whether the people are wanting to be reached. 

Thursday 10 February 2011

Edited In

I’ve already discussed how geology is communicated via organised, professionally sourced organisations so I feel it’s time to have a quick overview of a method of communication I have a great deal of respect for, and although I would never use it as a source in anything I’d write, it’s handy for reference; Wikipedia.

From its founding in 2001, the lampooned yet invaluable site has grown to encompass 17 million articles in 270 odd languages, 3.5 million in English – yes, these are from Wikipedia. I have previously used it to show that people do not care about global warming.

I have written a couple of articles, and edited a fair few more. My current flagship is the ‘Geology of East Sussex’ article, written mainly to show up Kent and West Sussex’s attempts.  The geology of the area is fairly complex, situated in a huge anticline resting on reactivated Variscan faults; with a series of famous  sedimentary lithologies present too, also the first identified dinosaur, which is rather nice.

So, what did/do people need to know? I have (attempted) to write it with couple of main objectives
Ø  > What’s important near them
Ø  > Why there are some nice hills
Ø  > How old the rocks are
Ø  > If there is anything economical in the county.

For a simple, quick reference, people do not need to know about the ammonite flora of the Sussex Downs, if they have an interest that information can be found from other sources, topics, which relate are hyperlinked to the relative article; allowing for a growth of knowledge.  This leads to the question; Are articles like this useful though? It has been written to stimulate interest in geology in the local area, and is Wikipedia a suitable mechanism for communicating ‘solid’ geosciences (that is ideas that are widely accepted and not likely to receive undue attention and editing)?

Yes. In short. As long as these articles are written properly, from personal experience I know that plenty of knowledgeable people trawl through Wikipedia, removing and editing things that need it – yes there is some utter rubbish. But how many times have you wondered what a mineral, fossil or pretty much anything is, typed it into Google and Wikipedia has the answer?  For  free in a format that is quick and easy to comprehend (usually) resource it’s brilliant. Just don’t reference it. 

Wednesday 9 February 2011

Warming to the idea?

Recently, (Thrusday Feb 3rd 2011) the Western Morning News, a local paper to East Cornwall and West Devon ran a story on the how increasing temperature could affect the region.

The story ran with ‘West to become ‘the new Med’ by 2080’on the title page, a story that went on to document the increasing opportunities that will open up to what is traditionally a popular tourist destination, drier, warmer and longer summers and the opportunities to grow new crops (such as olives). The story did also run with the negative effects; but mainly as a sideline (floods – which have severely affected the region in the past and a decline in fish stocks are just two).

Interestingly, the paper also ran a story (on page 3, no less) about the risks to West Country rail links in a changing climate and the need to spend insane amounts of money to keep the route open; I’ll explain: for some reason Brunel decided to build his new railway to the west country along the sea, which provides a really nice introduction to the beautiful part of the world if travelling by train from pretty much anywhere in the UK.  However, as a result of rail cuts in the 1960 the 2 track route, which runs by the sea for about 13 miles and is open to storms takes all the rail passenger and freight traffic from West Devon and Cornwall – increasingly with more storms there are more cancellations.

Now, this seems a little odd to me; why separate the tourist / growing nice stuff article from the railway line costing lots to maintain article? Surely integrate it as part of the ‘bad things’ section? Is this indicative of the two minds people have with climate change; on one hand there are going to be benefits (warmer summers, olives in the back garden) but on the other, and more weighty in my opinion side there will be massive problems (large scale flooding, food price increases, increased desertification..... the list goes on). But these negatives effect’s won’t really effect the South West too greatly, when Boscatle suffered it’s disastrous flood, lasting 1 day 100 buildings were damaged, cars were swept away, but no-one died and two years later the village was functioning fairly well (I visited). The same thing can’t be said the potential floods in Bangladesh or Cyclones in the Far East. People, in order to care need to know  how it will affect them, and in our unfair world those that pollute (the West) are unlikely to be those who suffer the ramifications. 

Monday 7 February 2011

Myths in Geoscience

As the oldest, and in some eyes the best way of telling a story Myths were powerful methods of communicating  science, to an audience without education (or limited science education) in time when science was considerably less well understood, in essences a myth is the first form of (geo) science communication. So let’s look at some examples and how they portray geological reality into stories and traditions of people.
The GSL recently (well, in 2007) published some papers on geology and mythology, which specific examples presented below are derived from.

Within Greek mythology Poseidon acted as both the earth shaker  and the king of floods, from a geological point of view the link between a shaking earth and raging water is a clear one; today known as a Tsunami. The form of Poseidon was a personification to fill-in an unseen force.  When geological events are intertwined with important historical evidence, such as the parting of the red sea, which has been attributed to wind, tide (Voltzinger &Androsov 2003) and seismic activity (there are a series of normal faults running down the valley). A group of wandering ancient peoples with limited understanding of earth’s processes are going to attribute an event that goes in their favour towards a God like figure – the same as the Greeks and Poisedian’s involvement in Tsunamis.

Changes in the biota, such as the growth of Plankton in rivers and lakes altering the colour of the water were taken to be blood; ancient peoples would have no idea about the growth of planktonic animals so attributing the bloodening of watercourses to a God’s displeasure.  A change from the normal was taken to herald bad events forthcoming, which was quickly taken to be the God’s displeasure... not unlike the position of Churches through the ages. Given that God was in those un-secular times viewed as the source and end point for everything on earth (and previously and presently in polytheistic religions numerous deities) it seems sensible that activities in the natural world would be applied to a supernatural being. 

Mythology and tradition are not things to be lampooned however; after the disastrous eruption of Lake Nyos, Cameroon, in 1986 resulted in 1700 locals dead as deadly carbon dioxide suffocated people and livestock as they slept. Traditional mythology and stories told by the elders ethnic groups of surrounding villages stated that houses should be built on stilts, advice that proved to save many a life.

So, what does this mean towards communicating geoscience?  It's no coincidence that TV programs and books popularizing geoscience (Fortey's brilliant Earth and Neil's great Super-continent) tell geology in terms of a story, beginning with the Earth's formation and ending up, after many an extinction, orogeny and a dinosaur with man. TV programs are fairly similar, following scientists discoveries (Men of Rock; BBC) or the manner in which the geological puzzle was unraveled (Earth Story, BBC and How the Earth was Made, History Channel); both are provided in a manner that relates it to people; exactly like a myth. 

How then, are we to communicate the big pressing Climatic Issue? via stories of people? - this assumes that we are going to let millions loose land and livelihood in flooding, and hurricanes tear up cities in order to provide those stories. Simply humanizing predictions does not have the same affect as stories of past devastation nor does presenting people with dry facts is neither inspiring or interesting - there needs to be body, life and excitement in a story, aspects which aren't always present in climate science