Geology for Global Development

Heather Britton

‘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.


Heather Britton: China’s Water Diversion Project

Heather Britton: China’s Water Diversion Project

China has enjoyed economic growth over the past decades, bringing undoubted prosperity to the country. But exponential industrialisation and rapid growth comes at a significant environmental cost. The nation is heavily dependent on coal-fired power, making it one of the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases and it’s thirst for development is a drain on vital resources, including water. In today’s post, Heather explores how China’s geography accentuates an anthropogenic problem. 

When travelling from the North to the South of China there are number of trends that can be observed – dialects change, the dominance of noodles is replaced with a preference for rice and, crucially, the climate becomes more humid. The South typically receives excessive rainfall, often leading to devastating flooding, whilst the North dries due to the thirst of industry and a booming population. China’s water diversion project aims to solve both problems with one monumental feat of engineering – by diverting 44.8 billion cubic metres of water annually from South to North via a network of canals and tunnels. I’ll explore the impact that this is having on China and its people, and whether it is a sustainable solution to the disparity in water supply across the country.

Water shortage is a constant concern in the North, with the groundwater stores that support the region dwindling to a fraction of what is required to allow the cities and industries centred here to thrive. In addition, more than half of China’s 50,000 rivers have disappeared in the last 20 years. Having experienced unprecedented economic growth over the past few decades, Beijing is on the brink of a water crisis. In the South, flooding is the primary hydrological issue, exacerbated by the drainage of lakes and the damming of rivers for construction. It was commented in the 1950s by Chairman Mao that ‘The south has plenty of water, but the north is dry. If we could borrow some, that would be good’. This statement is heralded as the idea that has grown to become what is now ‘The world’s most ambitious water-transfer program’.

The project is not merely a fantasy – construction on a number of the pathways is already complete or nearing completion, and already over 70% of Beijing’s water is transferred from the South as a result of this project. Costing $62 billion, there is a clear driving force for the project – the thirsty North is running out of water fast, and although an extreme move, it is true that this project will provide some vestige of relief – but for how long, and at what cost?

Millions have benefitted from the water transfer and it certainly is a solution to the disparity in water supply between the North and the South of the country, but it is also arguably one of the worst. China’s demand for water is growing so quickly that even before the project’s completion in 2050 further solutions are likely to be required, and industrialisation along diversion routes poses a serious pollution threat. Salinization  of some waters heading North seems inevitable. An even larger concern is that the South may no longer have enough water to spare – the Han river, an important tributary to the Yangtze, is planned to have 40% of its water diverted to the North, but the towns and cities situated along its course are already experiencing water shortages. Furthermore, 345,000 villagers have been displaced from their homes to make way for the new water courses, often to lands and property far inferior to what they were promised and what they left behind. It is clear that the project is far from sustainable.

It would be wrong, however, to say that the Chinese government is doing nothing to reduce the impact of the scheme. Addressing environmental concerns in the Danjiangkou reservoir, a $3 billion ecological remediation package has been put together, and the water diversion project has allowed the groundwater reservoirs in Beijing to rebound by at least 0.52m. The environmental threat persists, however, and it seems unlikely that retrospective measures will be able to dissipate all of the environmental risk. By considering more sustainable solutions, the impact on the land and the people of China could have been drastically reduced. The Chinese vice minister of Housing and Urban-rural development has called the project unsustainable, acknowledging that, in the case of many cities, recycled water could replace diverted water. If efforts were focussed on water desalination technology and the collection of more rainwater, rather than the creation of multiple colossal aqueducts with unsavoury environmental consequences, then water resource management could be tackled in a far more sustainable manner.

Effective water conservation is something that is becoming a larger and larger problem for the Global South, particularly in the drier parts of the world. The water diversion project acts as an interesting case study, and shows the repercussions of dramatic engineering solutions to water resource problems. Although possible from an engineering perspective, forcing a change in the hydrological system of a country is rarely without its complications (and substantial expense). Lessons can be learned from the water diversion project, and future Global South nations should think twice before entering into any project of such scale without considering the full implications or other, more sustainable options. Doing this would help towards the achievement of UN Sustainable Development Goals 11 (sustainable cities and communities) and 6 (clean water and sanitation).