GeoLog

Energy, Resources and the Environment

MinCup: Elevating humble minerals to new heights

MinCup: Elevating humble minerals to new heights

Throughout October and November, the world of (Earth science) Twitter was taken by storm: Day after day, Eddie Dempsey (a lecturer at the University of Hull, and @Tectonictweets for those of you more familair with his Twitter handle) pitted minerals against each other, in a knock out style popular contest. The aim? To see which mineral would eventually be crowned the best of 2017.

Who knew fiery (but good natured) rows could explode among colleagues who felt, strongly, that magnetite is far superior to quartz or plagioclase? The Mineral Cup hashtag (#MinCup) was trending, it was in everyone’s mouth. Who would you vote for today?

What started as a little fun, became a true example of great science communication and how to bring a community of researchers, scattered across the globe, together.

And then Hazel Gibson (former EGU Press Assistant, @iamhazelgibson) came along. She was an active participant in the competition, but also contributed beautiful sketches of every mineral featured, and shared them for all to see by tagging them with the #MinCup hashtag. We all know that a picture is worth more than a thousand words, so when Hazel’s hand drawn sketches where paired with an already rocking contest, it’s impact and reach was truly cemented.

Between them, Eddie and Hazel had managed to elevate the humble mineral to new heights.

Why do minerals matter?

Minerals are hugely underrated. They are often upstaged by the heavy-weights of the geosciences: volcanoes, earthquakes, hurricanes, fossils and melting glaciers (to name but a few).

But they shouldn’t be.

Minerals are the building blocks of all rocks, which in turn, are the foundation of all geology.

Whether you study the processes which govern how rivers form, or ancient magnetic fields, or fossils, chances are your work will, at some stage, involve looking at, studying, or at the very least understanding (some) minerals. Mineralogy 101 (or whatever it’s precise name was at your university) is a rite of passage for any aspiring Earth scientist. I still remember hours spent painstakingly looking down a microscope, drawing and annotating sketches trying to decipher the secrets of the Earth’s ancient past, locked in minerals.

And that’s just the beginning.

Minerals are of huge economic and, therefore societal importance, too. Many minerals are vital ingredients in house-hold products and contribute to the manufacturing processes of many others. Yet, they fail to make headlines and their true significance, often, goes unnoticed.

So, in hopes to further highlight the relevance and importance of minerals, I’ve picked a few of the #MinCup minerals and explained why they (should) matter (to you).

Gypsum

Gypsum will form in lagoons, where ocean waters are high in calcium and sulfate content, and where the water evaporates slowly overtime. In rocks, it is associated with sedimentary beds which can be mined to extract the mineral, but it can also be produced by evaporating water with the right chemical composition.

Gypsum has been used in construction and decoration (in the form of alabaster) since 9000 B.C.  Today, it has a wide variety of common uses. Did you know that many fruit juice companies use gypsum to aid the extraction of the liquid? It is also used in bread and dough mixes as a raising agent. And it’s uses aren’t limited to just the food and drink industry. It is also commonly used as a modelling material for tooth restorations and helps keeps us safe when added to plastic products where it acts as a fire retardant.

Magnetite

Geologically speaking, magnetite holds the clues to understand the Earth’s ancient magnetic field. Credit: Hazel Gibson

Typically, greyish black or black, magnetite is an important iron ore mineral. It occurs in many igneous and volcanic rocks and is the most magnetic of all minerals. For it to form, magma has to cool, slowly, so that the minerals can form and settle out of the magma.

Due to its magnetic nature, it has fascinated human-kind for centuries: it paved the way for the invention of the modern compass.  The iron content in magnetite is higher than its more common cousin haematite, making it very sought after. Iron ore is the source of steel, which is used universally throughout modern infrastructure.

Geologically speaking, magnetite holds the clues to understand the Earth’s ancient magnetic field. As magnetite-bearing rocks form, the magnetite within them aligns with the Earth’s magnetic field. Since this rock magnetism does not change after the rock forms, it provides a record of what the Earth’s magnetic field was like at the time the rock formed.

Diamond

Arguably, one of the most well-known of the minerals, diamond is unique, not only for its beauty and the high prices it reaches, but also for its properties. Not only is it the hardest known mineral, it is also a great conductor of heat and has the highest refractive index of any mineral.

Though mostly sought after by the jewellery industry, only 20% of all diamonds are suitable for use as a gem. Due to it’s hardness, diamond is mined for use in industrial processes, to be used as an abrasive and in diamond tipped saws and drills. Its optical properties mean it is used in electronics and optics; while it’s conductive properties mean it is often used as an insulator too.

Diamond: perhaps the most sought after mineral of them all? Credit: Hazel Gibson

Olivine

Last, but absolutely not least, let’s talk about Olivine – the winner of #MinCup 2017.

Olivine is a pretty, commonly green mineral. Because it forms at very high temperatures, it is one of the first minerals to take shape as magma cools, and given enough time, can form specimens which are easily seen with the naked eye. Changes in the behaviour of seismic waves as they traverse the Earth indicate that Olivine is an important component of the Earth’s inner layer – the Mantle.

It’s a relatively hard mineral, but overall hasn’t got highly sought-after properties and, as result, has been used rather sparingly in industrial processes. In the past it has been used in blast furnaces to remove impurities from steel and to form a slag, as well as a refractory material, but both those uses are in decline as cheaper materials come to the market.

Perhaps better known is its gemstone counterpart: peridot, a magnesium rich form of Olivine. It has been coveted for centuries, with some arguing that Cleopatra’s famous ‘emeralds’, where in fact peridote. Until the mid-90s the US was the major exporter of the gem stones, but deposits in Pakistan and China now challenge the claim.

So, do you think Olivine was the rightful winner of #MinCup 2017? With a new edition of the popular contest set to return in 2018, perhaps it’s time to shout about the properties and uses of your favourite mineral from the roof tops? Not only might it ensure it is crowned winner next year, but you’ll also be contributing to making the value of minerals known to the wider public. Heck! If you’d like to tell us all about the mineral you think should be the next champion, why not submit a guest post to GeoLog?

In the meantime, if you haven’t already got your hands on one, Hazel tells me there are a few of her charity #MinCup 2017 calendars up for grabs, so make sure to secure your copy – and contribute to a good cause at the same time.

By Laura Roberts Artal, EGU Communications Officer

The role of exploration geologists in fostering healthy community-industry relationships

The role of exploration geologists in fostering healthy community-industry relationships

In November 2015, the failure of the Fundão tailings dam in Brazil devastated the surrounding landscape and local villages, killing 19 people and leaving the media filled with images of landslides, fallen infrastructure and ruined livelihoods. The limited communication and lack of relationship between joint operators BHP Billiton and Brazilian company Vale with the surrounding communities exacerbated the event, resulting in close to $50 billion still due for compensation.  But how can these relationships and hence the social impacts of such projects improve?

As a geologist now working in environmental consultancy, Alexandra Mitchell, will use a case study from a mining project in Australia to illustrate the importance of community-industry relationships, how geologists can use their scientific background to explain technical aspects of the project, and the resultant positive impacts.

Why are community-industry relationships important?

In 2015, there were close to 2,000 active mine sites around the globe. Many newer mines, as a result of dwindling ore reserves, are increasingly located in remote areas. At the same time, the viability of industrial operations is increasingly reviewed according to environmental and social impacts, meaning mines can no longer solely focus on economic gain but, instead, must incorporate sustainability into their planning.

These changes are driven by a push towards responsible investment by the finance community and a growing interest for projects to develop and maintain a Social Licence to Operate, or SLO. Defined as the ongoing approval and acceptance by a community, the SLO can make or break a company or project. Conversely, the lack of an SLO can have hugely negative economic implications: a poor reputation leads to lower investment and, ultimately, a reduced or cancelled project.

In some cases, local communities have shown such severe angst against a development that billion-dollar operations have been halted. In Chile, for example, the $2.5 billion Dominga copper and iron ore mine and, temporarily, the $4 billion Goldcorp-owned El Morro mine were stopped primarily due to a failure to consult with surrounding communities.

These incidents show that a productive, understanding, transparent, trust-based relationship between company and community is vital. In this context, why do companies continue to fall short in their community relations?

Geologists to the rescue

Community-company relations may be strained by complications relating to the particularly remote location of some projects. For example, increased pressure on potable water supplies, combined with a lack of mining history in newer operational areas, requires effective technical communication with the community.

Exploration geologists have an invaluable opportunity here, as they are often the first people on site and hold a wealth of scientific knowledge that they can share with local people to help them understand issues and voice community concerns.

Another important social challenge faced by mining operators is stakeholder relations; in other words, how the company communicates with not only local communities, but also government officials, NGOs and other relevant organisations.

For example, in rural South Australia, a small zinc mine caused consternation in the community of Strathalbyn, a small town located only 2 km away. The problems began at the project’s inception. At this early stage, the local community knew very little about the industry, and what was known was learnt from media coverage of negative environmental impacts at other mining locations. Although the local people perceived that acid rock drainage, severe noise pollution and other emissions from the mine were a threat to their community, studies confirmed that these concerns were mainly unfounded. Nevertheless, fears and questions remained, and without proper management they could continue to hamper operations at the site.

Today, the main mine operator runs quarterly community meetings with technical experts brought in to answer questions, and hence successfully addresses community concerns. This role is ideal for geologists and mining engineers, especially at the earlier stages of a project, when mitigation measures can be most effective.

Action points

Methods for addressing negative social and environmental impacts in mining will increasingly draw upon interdisciplinary knowledge. Practitioners, such as geologists and mining engineers, have an opportunity to apply their technical knowledge as they engage with local communities, whilst at the same time learning from those they interact with. This evidence-based approach fosters a relationship built upon understanding, lessening the effect of perceived negative environmental and social impacts within communities, which are understood to be as important as real impacts.

In this context, and complemented by best practice guidance, such the Stakeholder Engagement Toolkit provided by the International Council of Metals and Mining (ICMM), geologists and other technical experts could contribute in the following way:

  • Instigate early, informal but productive ‘chats’ with local people to gain an understanding of what they know about the industry and what their concerns are.
  • Engage in respectful conversations, exercised with patience, to build relationships based upon trust.
  • Organise community meetings, with geologists explaining why they are mining there and the significance of the area, as well as addressing commonly perceived negative impacts and how these are planned to be addressed.
  • Share a timeline of events and technical aspects with the community, in a transparent manner.
  • Develop a grievance mechanism for community members to ask questions or relay their concerns with technical persons to answer or explain, where necessary.

Although communities naturally have concerns, there remains a consensus that mining operations can and do bring economic benefits. When practitioners exercise true community development, rather than only showing some simple cultural awareness, a mine will have a higher chance of success. In other words, staff members must invest time in understanding communities and then acting upon the needs of the community. This will ultimately lead to economic gain, whilst bettering the lives of the surrounding people, but geologists must utilise their wealth of knowledge to talk to important stakeholders.

By Alexandra Mitchell, Graduate Environmental and Social Specialist, Wardell Armstrong LLP

GeoPolicy: COP23 – key updates and outcomes

GeoPolicy: COP23 – key updates and outcomes

What is COP23?

Anthropogenic climate change is threatening life on this planet as we know it. It’s a global issue… and not one that is easily solved. The Conference of the Parties (COP) provides world leaders, policy workers, scientists and industry leaders with the space to share ideas and decide on how to tackle climate change and generate global transformative change. COP23 will predominantly focus on increasing involvement from non-state actors (such as cities and businesses), how to minimise the climate impacts on vulnerable countries and the steps that are needed to implement the Paris Climate Change Agreement.

Hold on – what’s the Paris Climate Change Agreement…?

You’ve probably heard about the Paris Climate Change Agreement (often shortened to just Paris Agreement) before, but what exactly does it refer to?

During the COP21, held in Paris during 2015, 175 parties (174 countries and the European Union) reached a historic agreement in response to the current climate crisis. This Paris Agreement builds on previous UN frameworks and agreements. It acknowledges climate change as a global threat and that preventing the Earth’s temperature from rising more than 2°C should be a global priority. The only nations not to sign the agreement were Syria, due to their involvement in a civil war and their inability to send a delegation, and Nicaragua, who stated that the agreement was insufficiently ambitious. Both of these countries have since signed the agreement while the US has unfortunately made headlines by leaving it.

The Paris Agreement states that there should be a thorough action plan that details how the Paris Agreement should be implemented by COP24 in 2018. There is still a long way to go before this action plan is finalised but COP23 was able to make a strong headway.

You can learn more about the UN climate frameworks and Paris Climate Change Agreement here or read more about COP21 here.

What did the COP23 achieve?

Today is the last official day of the COP23 and while it is often difficult to determine whether large scale political events are successful until after the dust has settled, there are some positive signs.

1. Making progress on the Paris Agreement action plan

The COP23 has been described as an implementation and ‘roll-up-your-sleeves’ kind of COP. While the COP21 resulted in a milestone agreement, the COP23 was about determining what staying below 2°C actually entails – what needs to be done and when. Some of the measures discussed to keep us under 2°C included: halving global CO2 emissions from energy and industry each decade, scrapping the $500 billion per year in global fossil fuel subsidies and scaling up carbon capture and storage technology. Simple, right?

These actions are all feeding into the detailed “rulebook” on how the Paris Agreement should be implemented which will be finalised at COP24.

2. Cities have stepped up to the plate

Mayors from 25 cities around the world have pledged to produce net zero emissions by 2050 through ambitious climate action plans which will be developed with the help of the C40 Cities network. Having tangible examples of what net zero emissions looks like and how it can be achieved will hopefully encourage other cities to follow suit. For this reason “think global, act local” initiatives are also picking up steam.

A new global standard for reporting cities’ greenhouse gas emissions has also been announced by the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy. The system will allow cities to track their contributions and impacts using a quantifiable method. This will not only allow the UNFCCC to track the progress of cities more effectively but it may also result in a friendly competition with cities around the globe. It is also expected that all cities will have a decarbonisation strategy in place by 2020.

3. Phasing out coal by 2030?

19 Countries (ranging from Angola to the UK) have committed to phasing out unabated coal generation by 2030. Unabated coal-powered energy generation refers to the generation of electricity from a coal plant without the use of treatment or carbon capture storage technology (which generally reduces emissions from between 85-90%). With 40% of the world’s electricity currently being generated from coal, this commitment is clearly a huge step in the right direction that will hopefully put pressure on other nations and steer energy investment towards lower-emission sources.

4. There is the will to change… and the funding is there too!

One of the key features of the Paris Agreement was the amount of financial aid committed, 100 billion USD annually by 2020, from developed countries to support developing states mitigate their emissions. While this level of funding is still far from being reached, the aim to jointly mobilise 100 billion USD annually by 2020 was reiterated.

The French President, Emmanuel Macron, also announced that Europe will fill the funding gap in the IPCC budget that was left by the US’ withdrawal from the Paris Agreement.

 

The Green Climate Fund booth at the COP23 exhibition area. Credit: Jonathan Bamber

 

Other outcomes

Not only do COPs generally result in solid outcomes and agreements being made but they also go a long way to strengthen global unity and the belief that we are able to tackle climate change despite it being a huge and often daunting problem. This was also highlighted by Jonathan Bamber, the EGU President, who attended the event, “It was so impressive to see politicians, policy makers and scientists all striving hard to ensure that the world’s economies achieve the goals laid out in COP21 in Paris. There was a lot of energy for change and action and much less cynicism than I have witnessed at previous COP events. I really hope it helps steer us towards a more sustainable future“.

While these are just a few of the immediately obvious results from the COP23, I am sure that there will be more agreements and outcomes announced within the next few days. Keep tuned to the GeoPolicy Blog for more updates!

Further reading

 

GeoSciences Column: The dirty business of shipping goods by sea

“Above the foggy strip, this white arch was shining, covering one third of the visible sky in the direction of the ship's bow,” he explains. “It was a so-called white, or fog rainbow, which appears on the fog droplets, which are much smaller then rain droplets and cause different optic effects, which is a reason of its white colour.”

Shipping goods across the oceans is cost-effective and super-efficient; that’s why over 80% of world trade is carried by sea (according to the International Maritime Organisation). But the shipping industry also contributes significant amounts of air pollutants to marine and coastal environments.

A new study, published in the EGU’s open access journal Earth System Dynamics, reports on concentrations of sulphur, nitrogen, and particulate matter (PM), from 2011 to 2013, in the Baltic and North Seas – one of the busiest shipping routes in the world. The study aims to provide policy-makers with better knowledge about how shipping impacts local environments. The end-goal being better industry regulations and technology to make shipping more sustainable in the long-term.

The reality of shipping goods by sea

In the past two decades reduction pledges, like the Paris Climate Accord, and strict regulation have driven down air pollutants from land-based emissions across Europe, but greenhouse-gas emissions from the shipping industry are not subject to as strict international protocols.

And that’s a problem.

It is estimated that there are about half a million ships in operation at present, which together produce almost one billion tonnes of carbon dioxide each year (that’s more than Germany emits in the same period!). Over the past 20 years, emissions of pollutants from shipping in the Baltic Sea and North Sea have increased.

Worryingly, economic growth in the region means shipping is only set to increase in the future. In fact, the European Commission predicts that shipping emissions will increase between 50% and 250% by 2050.

Why should you care?

While cruising the high seas, ships emit a dangerous cocktail of pollutants. When burnt, their fuels emit sulphur dioxide and as ship engines operate under high pressure and temperature, they also release nitrogen oxides. Combined, they are also the source of particulate matter of varying sizes, made up of a mixture of sulphate (SO4), soot, metals and other compounds.

The authors of the Earth System Dynamics paper, led by Björn Clareman of the Department of Earth Sciences at Uppsala University, found that international shipping in the Baltic Sea and the North Sea was responsible for up to 80% of near-surface concentrations of nitric oxide, nitrogen dioxide and sulphur dioxide in 2013.

Total emissions of SOx and deposition of OXS (oxidized sulphur) from international shipping in the Baltic Sea and North Sea in 2011. From B.Claremar et al., 2017.

In addition, the team’s simulations show that PM from shipping was distributed over large areas at sea and over land, where many people will be exposed to their harmful effects. The highest concentrations are found along busy shipping lanes and big ports. In total, shipping was responsible for 20% of small sized PM (known as PM2.5) and 13% of larger particles (PM10) during the studied period.

These pollutants have harmful effects on human health: It is thought that living close to the main shipping lanes in the Baltic Sea can shorten life expectancy by 0.1 to 0.2 years. Sulphur oxides in particular, cause irritation of the respiratory system, lungs and eyes; while a 2007 study estimated that PM emissions related to the shipping industry cause 60,000 deaths annually across the globe.

Environmentally, the effects of shipping pollution are concerning too. Deposition of nitrate and sulphate causes the acidification of soils and waters. The brackish waters of the Baltic Sea make them highly susceptible to acidification, threatening diverse and precious marine ecosystems.

The current problem

Legislating (and then monitoring and enforcing) to limit the negative impact of shipping emissions is tricky given the cross-border nature of the industry. For instance, currently, there is no international regulation for the emission of PM. However, the International Maritime Organisation’s (as well as others; see Claremar, B., et al., 2017 for details of all regulations) does impose limits on sulphur and nitrogen emissions from ships (in some parts of the world).

Low-sulphur fuels and switching to natural gas are an effective way to control emissions. However, operators can also choose to fit their vessels with an exhaust gas treatment plant, or scrubber, which uses sea water to remove sulphur oxides – the by-products of high-sulphur fuels. So called open-loop scrubbers release the dirty exhaust water back into the ocean once the tank is cleaned. The practice is known to increase ocean acidification globally, but particularly along shipping lanes.

As of 2021, the transport of goods via the North and Baltic Seas will be subject to the control of nitrogen and sulphur emissions, which could decrease nitrogen oxide emissions by up to 80%. However, the study highlights that the continued use of scrubber technology will significantly offset the benefits of the new legislation. If cleaner alternatives are not implemented, total deposition of these harmful particles may reach similar levels to those measured during the 1970s to 1990s, when shipping emissions were largely unregulated.

By Laura Roberts Artal, EGU Communications Officer

 

Those who have an interest in this subject might want to contribute an EU Public consultation on the revision of the policy on monitoring, reporting and verification of CO2 emissions from maritime transport. The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) adopted the legal framework for the global data collection system (IMO DCS) in July 2017. This Consultation is now reviewing the situation and would like input on things such as the monitoring of ships’ fuel consumption, transparency of emission data and the administrative burden of the new system. While the Consultation is not specifically aimed toward scientists, it may interest EGU researchers who are working in the marine, climate and atmospheric sciences sectors.

 

Refences and resources

Claremar, B., Haglund, K., and Rutgersson, A.: Ship emissions and the use of current air cleaning technology: contributions to air pollution and acidification in the Baltic Sea, Earth Syst. Dynam., 8, 901-919, https://doi.org/10.5194/esd-8-901-2017, 2017.

Lower emissions on the high seas. Nature, 551, 5–6, https://doi:10.1038/551005b, 2017

Corbett, J. J., Winebrake, J. J., Green, E. H., Kasibhatla, P.,Eyring, V., and Lauer, A.: Mortality from ship emissions: a global assessment, Environ. Sci. Technol., 41, 8512–8518, 2007.

Dashuan, T., and Shuli, N.: A global analysis of soil acidification caused by nitrogen addition, Environ. Res. Lett., 10, 024019, https://doi:10.1088/1748-9326/10/2/024019, 2015

What is Ocean Acidification? Ocean Facts by NOAA

Reducing emissions from the shipping sector, Climate Action by the European Commission