Geology for Global Development
Heather Britton

Heather Britton

Heather Britton graduated from Cambridge University in 2017 with a Master’s in Natural Sciences, specialising in Earth Sciences. Since then she has spent time working with a UK energy company and am now employed by the Civil Service on their science and engineering fast stream graduate scheme. My primary interests lie in the energy industry, the environment and sustainability, but you can expect my articles to cover a wide range of topics exploring the role of geology in international development issues. I first became involved with GfGD in September 2017 and continue to enjoy writing posts on a monthly basis for the charity’s blog.

The link between development and resource use

The link between development and resource use

This month the GfGD blog revolved around the theme of Resources. Blog author Heather Britton explores the link between the use of natural resources and development. How feasible are the various options available to us, to reach a use of resources aligned with sustainable development? From the ideology of a circular economy, a switch to renewable resources and increasing efficiency, what might help us get out of an unsustainable pattern? [Editor’s note: This post reflects Heather’s personal opinions. These opinions may not reflect official policy positions of Geology for Global Development.]

Resources play a huge part in determining the character, history and trading power of a country. Many of these resources – such as metal ores, precious stones and fossil fuels – link directly to the geology of a region, which has inspired the theme of ‘resources’ for this month’s selection of blog posts.

This week, I want to look at how in the past, and indeed to this day, the quantity and quality of resources available to a country has acted as a predictor of how developed that country is, and how this will need to change in the future if we are to succeed in meeting the UN sustainability goals.

The most striking example of development spurred on by the availability of resources is the industrial revolution. The UK is thought to have led the way in becoming an industrialised nation due to a combination of the amount of underlying carboniferous coal, and a strong agricultural economy.

Although Britain is thought to have experienced an industrial revolution of its own between the mid-18th century and 1830, the more widely recognized industrial revolution occurred between the mid-19th to the 20th century and was experienced by other countries, including France, Germany and North America to name a few.

Without the use of coal as a resource, development might have come to the UK much later.

It is predicted that by 2050, 140 billion tons of minerals, ores, fossil fuels and biomass will be used per year – three times the current average.

The environmental effects of burning coal and other fossil fuels were not fully appreciated at this time.

In the UK, as light has been shone on the negative impact of fossil fuel use, carbon emissions have been cut to a fraction of what they were during the industrial revolution. That being said, the UK is in the privileged position of having gone through industrial development prior to the threat of global warming being appreciated.

Many countries, particularly in parts of the world with low GDP, are only now beginning to use the natural resources available to them to undergo similar development to that which the UK experienced a century ago (this website gives an indication of world income by region over time).

This poses a problem for the climate, however, and brings us to the cusp of the problem – development needs to be decoupled from resource use, so that countries are able to reap the rewards of development in a sustainable way which does not exacerbate the negative impact that people have had on our planet up until now.

But how can this be achieved?

going from our entrenched linear method of dealing with waste to a circular economy would require huge changes to the way in which property, possessions and businesses f­unction

It is predicted that by 2050, 140 billion tons of minerals, ores, fossil fuels and biomass will be used per year – three times the current average.

Citizens of developed countries consume an average of 16 tons of these same materials per capita (ranging up to 40 or more tons per person in some developed countries). By comparison, the average person in India consumes only 4 tons per year. This stark contrast demonstrates how much resources are taken for granted in the economically developed world, and how this needs to change.

One method of severing the link between development and resource availability is to shift towards a circular economy. This is an ideology whereby there is little to no waste, and instead of items being thrown away once used, the worn-out components are continually replaced.

This idea is similar to how natural ecosystems function (there is no waste in nature). Adopting this kind of lifestyle would separate our reliance on resources from the ability of a nation to develop, but going from our entrenched linear method of dealing with waste to a circular economy would require huge changes to the way in which property, possessions and businesses f­unction.

Although it may be the ideal solution, transitioning to a circular economy would require a huge change in global attitude which will take a great deal of time to develop.

A far more feasible way of working to separate unsustainable resource use from development is … to minimise the use of non-renewable resources

A far more feasible way of working to separate unsustainable resource use from development is simply to minimise the use of non-renewable resources so that it is no longer essential to use them to reach a developed state.

Methods of doing so include adopting new, greener technologies to replace the heavy industries that have been large-scale users of fossil fuels in the past (for example adopting electric arc furnace improvements in the iron and steel industry) and ensuring that fewer high carbon fuels need to be burned to heat homes by improving home insulation, particularly in cooler parts of the world.

By improving the materials, insulation and orientation of buildings (orientations which make the most use of solar gains) energy use in buildings can be cut by 80%.

On top of these examples, using more renewable energy in agriculture and continuing to innovate to create alternatives to unrenewable resources use are further options.

Picture by Joyce Schmatz, distributed via imaggeo (CC BY 3.0). By making agriculture more renewable we can take a step towards decoupling development from resource-use.

It is doubtless that as a country develops, its resource use will increase. However, with awareness of the environmental challenges facing the planet as it is growing, developing countries will be able to tap into the growing renewables industry rather than turning to substantially increased fossil fuel use.

At the end of the day, countries will develop however they are able and it is not up to anyone to dictate how they do this. However, in the interests of meeting UN sustainable development goal 13 – climate action – encouraging sustainable development may be the best way to ensure that as development spreads to more countries, our planet is not significantly affected as a result.

**This article expresses the personal opinions of the author (Heather Britton). These opinions may not reflect an official policy position of Geology for Global Development. **

‘Pompeii’ by Robert Harris – A book review

The restored version of John Martin's Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum

The GfGD blog theme this month is science communication, and so regular blog contributor Heather Britton reviews a book which she believes contains some useful geological and human experience, in the form of a gripping novel.

The Geology for Global Development blog is not a site renowned for book reviews, but when a fiction book embraces geoscience as much as Robert Harris’s ‘Pompeii’ there are few reasons not to write about it on this platform. The book was recommended to me by my petrology professor at university, because, as she put it at the time, it is the only book she had ever read which quotes a geology textbook at the beginning of every chapter. Needing no further encouragement, I began reading, and I’m very glad that I did.

The book is set across the events leading up to, during and after the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD. Through the eyes of four starkly different members of Roman society – a hydraulic engineer, a scientist, a rich landowner and his daughter – the eruption is recorded in immense detail. As a reader it is clear that Robert Harris has done extensive research on the eruption, but inevitably some aspects, particularly the reactions and experiences of the characters individually, are filled in with more than a little artistic license. Nevertheless, the snippets from textbooks on Vesuvius at the beginning of each chapter match-up with the geological events of the story, reminding the reader that although the book is very much a work of fiction, the experiences had by the characters are representative of those of real people.

The protagonist of the book is Attilius, a hydraulic engineer sent from Rome to southern Italy to replace his predecessor, Exomnius, who has mysteriously gone missing. In the aftermath of an earthquake (an ominous warning sign of the tragedy to follow) the main aquaduct supplying water to the region is damaged, and Attilius is sent out to repair it. It is whilst taking on this endeavour that unusual events begin to occur, both social and geological, with the climax of the action coinciding with the eruption that has made Pompeii famous today. Despite every reader being aware of what the various events described in the book are leading up to, there is more than enough fiction in the story to make the tale far from predictable, with the case of the missing Exomnius taking centre stage and the eruption acting as a dramatic backdrop –and catalyst – of these events.

A further aspect of the books that I enjoyed was the authentic feel of the region around Vesuvius, including the cities of Pompeii, Herculaneum and Misenum. At school I dropped history as soon as I was given the opportunity, but even with only the most basic historical knowledge I found the book very accessible. Robert Harris does well not to overwhelm the reader with incomprehensible Roman terminology and instead the difference between today’s society and that of this era are drip-fed. I found myself learning about the culture of the Romans without realising I was doing so, and appreciate the insight into this ancient civilisation.

And why have I forced a book review upon GfGD blog readers? This month’s blog topic is science communication, and Robert Harris provides an excellent example of how science can be appreciated through works of fiction. ‘Pompeii’ picks out the links between various geological events, such as volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, and combines them with a gripping fictional tale showing the impact that these events have on individuals. I am certain that this text wouldn’t be out of place on the bookshelf of any avid reader of the GfGD blog.

Anthropocene: Are we in the recent age of man?

International Chronostratigraphic Chart

Regular GfGD Blog contributor Heather Britton pen’s this weeks post, where she discusses the heated topic of whether we are, or not, living in the Anthropocene. [Editor’s note: This post reflects Heather’s personal opinion. This opinions may not reflect official policy positions of Geology for Global Development.]

Naming a geological epoch the Anthropocene, literally meaning ‘the recent age of man’, is an idea that has been seriously discussed in many scientific circles and has become a scientific buzzword in recent years. Environmentalists, generally, are great proponents for the idea, stating that it summarises the huge changes that human presence has had on the planet and draws attention to the need for us to change our ways and prevent the damage from extending into the future. Geologists are typically less enthused by the idea. Naming an interval of geological time involves formally recognising that the Earth has been permanently changed at the onset of this era, and although in many ways humans have permanently changed the planet, making this a formal geological epoch requires the identification of a single point in the rock record when this took place. I wish to explain why I believe the Anthropocene, although suggested for admirable reasons, should not become formally recognised.

The term was first popularised almost 20 years ago in the year 2000 (by environmental scientist Paul Crutzen) and in 2016 the Working Group on the Anthropocene (WGA) voted to formally designate the epoch Anthropocene and present the recommendation to the international geological congress. The International Commission on Stratigraphy and the International Union of Geological Sciences have not approved this subdivision of geological time, but it may be that a decision is on the horizon [Ed: In July 2018 the International Union of Geological Sciences ratified a decision by the International Commission on Stratigraphy which announced Earth was living in the Meghalayan Age].

Finding the signal that marks this period exactly is difficult, but not for a lack of options. The prime candidate is the appearance of radioactive nuclides from nuclear bomb tests, which have registered a signal worldwide. Plastic pollution, high level of nitrogen and phosphate in soils from fertilisers and a massive increase in the number of fossilised chicken bones are other strong contenders which appear to define the rise of the human population and civilisation. There is certainly strong evidence to suggest humanity’s effect on the planet is permanent, but are we really in a position to state that the planet has undergone a permanent change when humanity itself is still a blip in geological time? To put it another way, if something were to wipe out the human race tomorrow, there certainly would be a distinctive signal of our presence in the rock record, but due to the tiny fraction of Earth history that we occupy, how can we guarantee that it will endure for long enough to be significant in geological terms?

Plastic in the rock record could used as a marker for the base of the Anthropocene. Credit: Guilhem Amin Douillet (distributed via

There are many geologists who would claim that the creation of the International Chronostratigraphic Chart is one of the greatest achievements of mankind. Each Eon, Era and Epoch has been painstakingly identified using signals within the strata that must conform to a set of very strict rules. This ensures that rocks all over the world can be correlated to the same record of geological time, allowing communication and understanding between scientists from different countries where otherwise the use of local nomenclature would cause endless mistakes and confusion. The most common way of marking the base of a stratigraphic unit is the appearance or disappearance of a particular fossil.

This method clearly has its limitations – fossil organisms will have only lived in certain habitats, and it is assumed that the time taken for a new fossil organism to spread from where it evolved to locations across the globe is negligible in comparison to geological time, something we can’t be certain is true for all species. Dating is simpler when volcanic rocks are present, as radioactive dating is able to step in and provide, for the most part, accurate rock ages, but such methods cannot be used with any great certainty in the sedimentary world. As discussed above, fossil evidence for the beginning of the Anthropocene is present, but it seems more likely that a different kind of signal is used to mark this new epoch. This would not be the first time, as was demonstrated when the Holocene was formally designated in 2008.

In conclusion, making the Anthropocene a formal geological epoch would send out a message which may fast track the public and global governments to take notice of the impact we are having on the planet and, as a result, take action. I question, however, whether this is a sound enough reason to add to the international stratigraphic column. The Holocene, the time period we are currently considered to be occupying, began approximately 12,000 years ago as Earth slipped out of ice ages into what is currently an extended interglacial period showing no sign of slipping back into its glacial state. The time since the start of the Holocene is already only a geological blink of an eye and cutting it short now to make way for the Anthropocene seems both unnecessary and indicative of a lack of appreciation of the enormity of geological time. The now is not always an appropriate time to mark a significant event, as it is only afterward that its significance can really be properly understood. Regardless of this, it does not excuse how over the miniscule time period that we have spent inhabiting this planet we have had such a detrimental effect on what is a shared home and not ours to ruin. This certainly needs to be put to rights, but I am not certain that announcing the Anthropocene is the best way of doing so.

**This article expresses the personal opinions of the author (Heather Britton). These opinions may not reflect an official policy position of Geology for Global Development. **


Is geological mapping becoming obsolete?

Is Geological Mapping Becoming Obsolete?

Geology students typically experience some form of mapping education as part of their course and attitudes towards this baptism into the geosciences vary from adoration to utter hatred. Whatever the opinions of the students, however, it is widely recognised that performing mapping exercises is an excellent way to learn the basics of structural geology which underpins aspects of both further geological education and the use of geology in industry. Unfortunately, the number of graduates using the mapping skills practiced in their undergraduate years is dwindling. There is an increase in the use of seismic and borehole data alone to generate cross-sections through the earth, where field-collected strike and dip data, used alone or in tandem with other methods, can often provide a far better insight into what really occurs under the ground. As the number of graduates practicing field mapping in their careers continues to decrease, we may be reaching a time when mapping skills are lost to all but a few specialists, and even these may eventually disappear.


Is geological mapping obsolete?

Drone technology is now used in numerous mapping expeditions. Credit: Chris Sherwood, Woods Hole Coastal and Marine Science Center (distributed via USGS).

Technology and mapping have coevolved over the years, from mapping via horse and cart to the use of drones to pick up larger-scale landscape features that may not be visible at ground level. The question is, as technology develops to simplify many of the physical aspects of mapping will it remove the need for traditional geological mapping altogether? In many ways mapping involves risks that are not encountered in many other professions – trekking off the marked paths abroad can mean coming face-to-face with venomous snakes, bears or wild boar (all of which occurred during my year’s undergraduate mapping projects) and often a quick look at a satellite image of the area can answer questions that days squinting at an outcrop cannot.

Despite these drawbacks, it must be appreciated that there is certain information that can only be obtained by looking at a rock first hand, such as the identities of different minerals and the deformation history of a high grade metamorphic rock. It is for this reason that exploration geologists are becoming increasingly alarmed at the apparent lack of next-generation geoscientists well practiced in the art of mapping.

The potential reasons for this negative trend are numerous – the lower numbers of professional structural geologists teaching next-generation geoscientists, a lack of companies offering mapping placements over the university holidays and fewer students taking up the subject, with the number of schools and colleges offering geology as an A level having dropped substantially over the past few years. At the same time, there has been a noticeable shift towards less fieldwork-focussed university curricula due to the high cost of fieldwork and the liability this presents to institutions,  and a trend toward exploration in regions with more cover, where outcrops can be scarce.Nonetheless, it is very difficult to overestimate the value of mapping – after all, no geological discipline is complete without a map and preventing the decline should become a priority.

Increasing the number of geologists capable of mapping depends on replenishing skills regularly to ensure that techniques developed whilst at university can be maintained until the opportunity becomes available in an industrial setting. Further funding from companies toward the initial university mapping training may also be beneficial, as would the continued emphasis of structural geology in courses that are broadening due to advances in other rapidly growing geoscience fields, e.g. geochemistry. It is also important to appreciate that although mapping may seem old-fashioned it is by no means outdated – maps themselves are today constructed using cutting edge GIS technology, which plays a far greater part in the final product than might be initially assumed from glancing at a student’s notebook.

Is geological mappping obsolete ?

Highly deformed marble and pelite layers. Structures such as this are only visible at hand-specimen scale and it is therefore important that geologists enter the field in order to make these observations. Credit: David Tanner (distributed via

Although geological mapping skills are decreasing, they are far from being lost altogether. As industries appreciate the value of experienced field mapping talent we can hope that the funding will follow, to ensure that this age-old art continues to be practiced for the benefit of not just geological disciplines, but other areas of society too. Geological cartographers may help find mineral veins for mining, or potential aquifers enabling them to provide water to parched communities, helping to achieve SDG 6 (clean water and sanitation). A technique with so much potential should not be allowed to be lost from the world.